Political Influence on Education in India


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Prior to the colonial rule, there existed an indigenous system of education which included Madrasas, Muktabs, Gurukuls, Pathshalas along with widespread network of village schools. Most of these were accessible only to the privileged. With the introduction of modern education by the British, many Indian leaders aimed to achieve an egalitarian society through education while several others opposed. The study of Parimala V. Rao’s paper on “Compulsory Education and the Political Leadership in Colonial India, 1840-1947”, helps in further understanding the roles played by the political leaders of the country in introducing free and compulsory education along with the British.

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Attempts to introduce compulsory education

The British made several attempts to make modern education compulsory in the country mainly to help the rural population in preventing peasantry. Unlike the education system of England where their main aim was to prevent children from the tyrannical system of child labor, they intended to establish an education system which would help adults in their business through writing of letters, maintaining accounts and understanding the terms of mortgage and employment better. Since children were not sent out to work for wage until at least the age of 11, William Adam proposed that these unsupervised children be sent to modern schools to attain better understanding of social and moral obligation.

There were internal contradictions among the natives on the inclusion of the entire population. While Indian reformers like Mahadev Govind Ranade, Jotirao Phule, Kashinath Trimbak Telang, Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar supported the cause, several other political leaders such as Rajendra Lal Mitra, Balgangadhar Tikal, Syed Ahmed Khan revolted the cause. The local masses were also divided on their opinions. The natives with lower or middle economic class aimed achieving at white collar jobs through education. On the other hand, the landlords and others in service of the government such as secretaries and other officials opposed with the fear of security of their jobs and the feudal order being questioned.

The first attempt at introducing modern education for rural masses was made around 1815 which was followed by British officials like Thomas Munro, William Fraser, Robert Shortrede starting schools in various presidencies between 1815 and 1840s. However, even with the support of Governor-General Bentinck, the purpose was not widely accepted, both by the British and the Indians, which led to schools being attacked. As many as 81 schools were shut down which also included a school started by Munro despite the opposition of 70,000 people, while under Auckland, Ellenborough and Hardinge between 1836 and 1848. Auckland believed that educating children of the peasants would only lead to them being discontent with their lives and hence must stick to educating ‘respectable natives’.

Under the influence of Elementary Education Act of England, another attempt was made to introduce free and compulsory education during the 1870s. The education was meant to be free for children of peasants whereas the other students were expected to pay nominal fee. Political leaders such as Rajendra Lal Mitra headed public meetings which were backed by other powerful members to oppose this. They believed that education must only be provided to those who intend to serve the country either through the military or by being a member of learned profession. Peary Mohan Mukerjee stated that the government must train masses to remain at the lower economic level rather than aiming at development.

In response to the opposition, Governor-General Ripon did not introduce free and compulsory education but appointed the Education Commission in 1881. Headed by W.W. Hunter, it was supported by Indian reformers such as Naoroji, Phule and Bhandarkar who believed that free and compulsory education must be provided to all children, regardless of their caste or class. On the contrary, Rajendra Lal Mitra suggested that schools be handed over to the village councils which was regulated by the local elites and landed communities. This would make it convenient for them to restrict students from lower background, further perpetuating the difference. Syed Ahmed Khan and Balgangadhar Tilak strongly opposed fee exemption for these students. Several excuses were made to validate their opposition. They stated that since the tax and contribution towards the educational funds were being made by the rich, they held a stronger claim in deciding how the money was to be spent and spending on the education of children of peasants was an absolute waste. Both Hindus and Muslims were in unison with the claim that it was against their religious beliefs to get themselves or their children involved with students from lower castes. Tilak pointed out that this was against the Queen’s Proclamation to ‘abstain from all interference with religious beliefs’.

Due to a lot of conflict between these powerful leaders, the Hunters Commission decided to remain neutral and took an ambiguous stand. With an intention to please all of them, the commission stated that education department was in favor of inclusion of all students and that all institutions be open for students regardless of their backgrounds and that the upper-caste who provided the funds might withhold their contribution if found unsuitable. They also insisted that the teachers and government officials need not go out of their way to bring about awareness among the lower castes.

The formation of Indian National Congress in 1885 further aided the cause of those, in support of free and compulsory education, who were known as the ‘moderates’. The ‘moderates’ were humanists and universalists who aimed for a society free of caste and religious prejudices and wanted to achieve social and economic reconstruction. Those opposing, known as ‘extremists’, considered themselves ‘Nationalists’ in the actual sense of the word with ‘my country, right or wrong, my religion, right or wrong’ being their dictum.

The ‘Nationalists’ opposed both compulsory and common education. They were not entirely against English education but they promoted the concept of two-tier system of education where the content of teaching was dependent on the children’s background. The Hindu Union Club of Bombay Presidency also wanted the two-tier system where children from agricultural background would be given vocational training in suitable subjects whereas, children belonging to the upper class families were taught English. Prominent leaders from Muslim communities such as Syed Ameer Ali also believed that English education must be reserved for the elites and the lower classes must be taught at Madrasas and Muktabs.

Although this appeal was rejected by the government, the responsibility of primary schools was given to the elected municipalities. Since this contained a large number of Nationalists, they were successful in achieving their cause widely. Children from the lower caste were not allowed into the classrooms with the excuse of small classrooms. Through this, they brought the children to school but further enhanced the differences, which continued for the next two to three decades. Viceroy’s Executive Council members such as Peary Mohan Mukerjee and Syed Ameer Ali were successful in preventing bills to introduce compulsory education due to their position in the council.

The Nationalists were divided amongst themselves in opinion of what they called ‘National education’. Few leaders like Tilak, Syed Husain Bilgrami, Bishan Narian Dhar were against secular education and said that it disconnected people with their traditional roots which basically was religion. Tilak insisted inclusion of religious texts like the Bhagavadgita. Whereas, other leaders like Aurobindo Ghosh, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai suggested syllabi which were a combination of secular subjects and religious education.

The reasons for opposition were plenty. Few of them include:

Child labor: Those opposing compulsory education also were in favor of child labor. They criticized the various acts and legislations the supporters fought to implement. Tilak believed that women and children working in the factory for long hours was not exploitation. M.B. Dadabhai was against the collection of tax for the education of the poor. Nawab Abdul Majid opposed compulsory education stating that it would lead to lack of laborers if all children went to school. The state along with the nationalists and Muslim league unanimously aimed at defeating the Elementary Education Bill.

Although not termed as ‘child labor’, Gandhi also supported the idea of children working, but to be able to fund their own education and run self-supporting schools. Through this, he said children must learn the dignity of labor.

Feudal interests: The nationalists considered the master and servant relationship as the ‘natural order of the society’. Peary Mohan Mukerjee even argued that lower castes must be trained to become ‘servants, shepherds, apprentices and not scholars’ since that would be helpful for the society. Syed Ahmad Khan and Syed Ameer Ali believed that educating men from lower castes was futile since men from well-known families would not trust them with their lives and property anyway. The nationalists opposed the Bengal Rent Bill and the Deccan Agriculturists Relief Act, both of which were implemented to protect the peasants.

Patriarchal concerns: The nationalists also held strong patriarchal views and the Age of Consent Act was condemned by Tilak, Mitra and Motilal Ghosh. They opposed the education of women. Syed Ahmed Khan believed that muslim women did not need education as their main duty was to tend to children and family and achieve domestic happiness. Tilak believed that English education had a ‘dewomanizing impact on women’ and even attacked the school established by Ranade in Poona. Brahmo Samaj leader, Umesh Chandra Dutt even used the media to publish articles on training women to become better housewives.

Although the Elementary Education Bill was introduced by Gokhale in 1910, it faced a lot of heat from the nationalists and some of the British officials. Since Gokhale suggested the imposition of tax on local bodies to meet the fund requirements, the British officials feared that it would trigger the people and lead to further agitation and danger. The lack of schools and well trained teachers was also another cause for opposition. With considerable opposition from the Indian leaders, local elites, landlords and some of the British officials, the Elementary Education Bill failed to fulfill its cause.

Even an influential leader like Gandhi opposed the system of modern education stating that children need to be taught in mother tongue using the resources locally available. He held similar views as Tilak when it came to content of education. Gandhi believed that a teacher was the true textbook for a pupil and that a rigid textbook centric curriculum was absolutely unnecessary. They both believed that teaching foreign languages and technical subjects to the largely agrarian population would lead to discontentment. But Gandhi aimed for an egalitarian society whereas Tilak, did not.


As seen throughout the essay, the stakeholders in introducing compulsory and free education were plenty, which was largely political. The failure to introduce compulsory education was not merely due to poverty, but it involved the role of landlords, elites, upper-caste communities, Indian leaders (nationalists), British officials and the government which instead of making firm decisions took ambiguous stands which encouraged the Indian leaders further.

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