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The Idea of a University and the Invention of Culture in Colonial/Post-colonial India

By Mosarrap Hossain Khan


In the essay, “The University Without Culture?”, published a year before his book, The University in Ruins (1996), Bill Readings persuasively argues about the demise of the university’s original social and cultural mission. He contends that the university has been reinvented as an institution of excellence in the fast globalizing, ‘Americanizing,’ market-driven modern world. Readings conceptualizes the role and status of the university in the current scenario in three ways:

Either we seek to defend and restore the social mission of the university by simply reaffirming a national cultural identity that has manifestly lost its purchase – the conservative position, or we attempt to reinvent cultural identity so as to adapt it to the changing circumstances – the multicultural position. A third position is to abandon the notion that the social mission of the university is ineluctably linked to the project of realizing a national cultural identity, which is tantamount to ceasing to think the social articulation of research and teaching in terms of a mission (my italics).[i] (466)

It is worth noting that Readings’ formulation is informed exclusively by Western discourses of university education. His Eurocentrism allows him either to ‘reaffirm’, or ‘reinvent’ or outright ‘abandon’ the notion of a national cultural identity. In India, by contrast, the reconfiguration of the idea of a university with national culture is more complex and problematic. Readings’ cogitations on the ruin of the modern university, delinked from its original cultural mission, is a useful frame nevertheless for understanding the role and status of universities in India. Although the university appears to have exhausted its socio-cultural mission in the West, as the use of the prefix, ‘re-’, before ‘affirm’ and ‘invent’ seems to suggest, the project of fashioning a national culture seems to have just begun in India. For Readings, one of the ways the university in the West could reinvent its cultural identity is by adapting to a multicultural position; such a position, however, is not readily available in India as it is yet to invent a national culture.

This essay is a brief attempt at understanding the ways in which the idea of the university has evolved in India and the role of the university in inventing an Indian national culture since colonial times. Owing to colonial subjugation, the transplanted modern European university evolved very differently and served a very different function in India than in the West, where the modern university emerged in the eighteenth century in the wake of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment worldview gestated the modern state and the university was deployed with the practical task of consolidating national cultures (Bill Readings, 1996; M. J. Hofstatter, 2003). Readings argues that since the 1960s, the university in the West has gone through a transition from being the institution of national culture to the purveyor of global excellence (or ‘citizenship’ in today’s parlance). I will argue that the university in India has been employed to facilitate a reverse process of forging and disseminating a distinct national culture. The resurgent Hindu nationalism in the 1990s tried to deploy the university as a space for the invention of a national culture in the face of economic liberalization and globalization. In the process of enunciating the present national-cultural role of the university in India, this paper will also try to chart the trajectory of the Indian university since the colonial and into the post-colonial times.

Producing clerks and administrators: The utilitarian idea of the university

The Charter Act of 1813 renewed the East India Company’s privilege in India for twenty more years and the Company was urged to disseminate education to Indians. A Clause to this effect was introduced in the Parliament by a former Advocate General in Calcutta, which was passed with a slight modification. Clause 43 empowered the Governor-General of India to contribute “not less than one lac of rupees” from the territorial revenue of the company for encouraging learning among the natives and for the promotion of knowledge of sciences. The proposed revival, it appears, may have been the outcome of the Orientalist Governor-General of Bengal, Lord Minto’s minute, which endorsed the views of the Orientalists, favoring the promotion of native learning. The Court of Directors of the Company in England sent specific instructions to the Governor-General in India in accordance with the Act of 1813. Despite considering the establishment of public colleges, the Court of Directors’ dispatch rejected the idea as incompatible with the native mentality. Instead, the dispatch asked the Governor-General to look into ways to strengthen and modernize indigenous learning.

The rise of the Utilitarians in England coincided with Lord William Bentinck’s appointment as the Governor-General in 1828. His determination to introduce Western Education in India through the medium of English was ably supported by another professed liberal member, Lord Thomas Macaulay, who came to India in 1834 as the Law Member in the Council of the Governor-General of India. In his famous Minute on Indian Education (1835), Macaulay advocated the cause of English education in India: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Dohra Ahmad, 2007: 470). Macaulay’s minute defined the purpose of English education in India in utilitarian terms as the production of English educated elites, who would help perpetuating British rule in India as clerks and petty administrators. This attempt to reimagine native education in purely utilitarian terms was further bolstered by James Mill’s previous dispatch in 1824 from the headquarters of the East India Company in London to the Governor-General. He wrote: “We apprehended that the plan of the institutions to the improvement of which our attention was now directed was originally and fundamentally erroneous. The great end should not have been to teach Hindu learning, but useful learning… (my italics)” (Cited in Suresh Chandra Ghosh, 2000:  28). And the only scientific criterion “for judging the content and medium of instruction was that of utility” (Eric Stokes, 1959: 57).  From the very beginning, Western education in India was, thus, supposed to serve a useful practical purpose.

Charles Wood’s dispatch of 1854 enabled the founding of Indian universities in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras in 1857. Wood, like Macaulay, reinforced the view that Western education must be imparted in the Indian universities. For him, the university in India must serve two purposes: “to provide a test of eligibility for government employment and to transmit an alien culture” (Eric Ashby, 1966: 63). In his letter to F. J. Halliday, Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, in 1854, he further discouraged native aspiration for higher education: “I do not see the advantage of rearing up a number of highly educated gentlemen at the expense of the State, whom you cannot employ, and who will naturally become the depositories of discontent” (Cited in Eric Ashby, 1966: 59). From its very inception, the British government delinked the idea of a university from the individual’s moral and intellectual development. The university in India was not conceived as an institution with a national-cultural mission as was the case in England. In his treatise, On the Constitution of the Church and the State (1829), Coleridge writes that the orientation of National Education ought to be Christian in spirit which “educing, the latent man in all the natives of the soil, trains them up to be citizens of the country, the free subjects of the realm” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1829: 176). The university system in India, however, treaded cautiously in order not to antagonize the Hindu and Muslim communities by either promoting the culture of a particular community or Christian values. Wood acknowledged “the value of Indian classical literature for historical and antiquarian purposes and the study of Hindu and Muhammadan law…[b]ut he declined to bring it within the orbit of university studies” (Eric Ashby, 1966: 60). The university in India, thus, could never function as the purveyor of a national culture. Rather, it promoted an alien, Western culture for the sake of producing clerks and petty administrators in the service of the Empire.

Producing citizens: Early nationalist ideas of a university in India

Militant nationalism during the first Partition of Bengal (1905) was colonial India’s first attempt at conceiving a national education and espousing the cause of that education through the idea of a national university. As a sharp reaction to Lord Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal to weaken emergent militant nationalism, the nationalists mooted the idea of an independent national education for producing enlightened Indian citizens. The nationalists favoured the promotion of indigenous education and research in the Indian universities through the medium of a mother-tongue. Satish Chandra Mukherjee, the editor of Dawn (1897-1913), observed in 1898 how the prevalent system of university education had failed: “From the point of view of savants, it is regarded as a failure, since as an examining and not a teaching University, the Indian University has hardly succeeded in drawing to itself a body of learned men who devoted their time and energies wholly to the cause of original research in every department of learning or knowledge” (cited in Haridas Mukherjee & Uma Mukherjee, 1957: 6). Mukherjee’s lament foregrounded the avowed instrumental nature of university education, since the Indian universities were committed to producing potential recruits for the British government. Consequently, the university in India became a mere degree-granting authority.

Satish Chandra saw the fruition of his dream in the Bengal National College (1906), which was founded by the nationalists to impart a distinct national education. The Bengal National College had Aurobindo Ghose as its first Principal and Satish Chandra as the Superintendent. Defining the scope of a national university, Aurobindo wrote that the national education system “will be impregnated with the spirit of self-reliance so as to build up men and not machines – national men, able men, men fit to carve out a career for themselves by their own brain power and resource, fit to meet the shocks of life and breast the waves of adventure. So shall the Indian people cease to sleep and become once more a people of heroes, patriots, originators, so shall it become a nation and no longer a disorganized mass of men” (Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, et al., 2003: 11). Bal Gangadhar Tilak, another prominent nationalist and champion of national education, wrote that a national education should give primacy to religious education because secular education was not enough to ‘build characters’. Further, he wrote, “If there be any religion in the world which advocates toleration of other religious beliefs and instructs one to stick to one’s own religion, it is the religion of the Hindus alone. Hinduism to the Hindu, Islamism to the Musalmans will be taught in these schools” (Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, et al., 2003: 13). Tilak conceptualized national education as the originator of a national culture which would integrate elements of both Hindu and Muslim cultures. Tilak’s assertion of Hinduism’s integrative framework, however, gives his vision of national culture a Hindu core and it sows the seeds of disagreement between the Hindu and Muslim communities. While the early proponents of a nationalist idea of university had rightly diagnosed the shortcomings of the colonial Indian universities, they failed to concretely discern the kind of national culture to be propagated through the Indian national universities.

The university and the reinvention of culture in post-colonial India

Reflecting on the importance of universities in India’s national life, S. R. Dongerkery writes in 1950:

The universities have a very important mission to fulfill in India’s national life. That is the mission of cultural unity. Sentiment has been the bane of our country. Appeals to narrow loyalties are harmful, especially at the present time when unity is essential for the progress of our country. Disruptive tendencies which, before the declaration of Independence, were kept in check in the desire to present a united front to foreign rule, are now becoming a source of danger. The ‘two-nation’ theory was responsible for the division of India less than three years ago, and we have not yet got over the effects of partition. While we are trying to eradicate the evils of communalism in all possible ways, new forces of disintegration, more dangerous because they wear the semblance of unity, based on linguistic or regional loyalties, are weakening the bond of national unity. One would, perhaps, meet with as little success in resisting the advancing tide of sentiment based on such loyalties…The only safety lies in clinging fast to the unflattering ideal of India’s cultural unity, and what better custodians can there be to take charge of this ideal than the Indian Universities? (Universities and National Life, 36-7)

Dongerkery’s anxiety about the possible disintegration of a newly independent nation and his hope in a national cultural unity was to become symptomatic of the Nehruvian vision of India. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India, envisioned an industrially strong, progressive, and rational India built on the foundation of secularism, which envisaged a cultural unity based on pluralism. Speaking at the Allahabad University in 1947, Nehru had said: “A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duty adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people. But if the temple of learning itself becomes a home of narrow bigotry and petty objectives, how then will the nation prosper or a people grow in stature?” (Indian Opinion, No. 14 Vol. XLVIII, April 7, 1950)  The Nehruvian secular project of nation-building, however, failed to articulate the idea of a national culture in a country divided along religious affiliations.

In a resurgent Hindu nation since the 1990s, the idea of the university is being further reconfigured with the purpose of inventing a majoritarian national culture. A good example of this urge is the cover of the Country Paper (1998), titled “Higher Education in India: Vision and Action”, which was prepared by the then Indian Minister for Human Resource Development and Science & Technology, Dr. Murali Manohar Joshi, for presentation at the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century, held in Paris, 5-9 October 1998. The cover of the Country Paper bears the following words:

Juxtaposing the ancient and modern, past and the present, the cover conveys the appreciation that India’s ancient civilization had for education at its highest level.

The visual at the top left corner represents our discovery of the “Shunya” — the zero. The lotus at the bottom right corner stands for knowledge and wisdom. The visual at the top right corner is of Nalanda University, a renowned institution of learning, visited by the famous Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang. The Banaras Hindu University, shown in the bottom left, is a premier educational institution today.

The graphic in the centre, represents the endeavours of modern India to embrace modern knowledge so that India can contribute to synthesis of science and spirituality which is bound to be the theme of the coming days (my italics). (Country Paper, 1998)

The cover page envisages a Hindu spiritual and cultural identity for every Indian irrespective of his/her ethnic, religious, and linguistic identity. This emphasis on an exclusive Hindu past is, to an extent, the result of a sense of dislocation because the university system in India was imported from England.

The visual of Nalanda University, founded in modern Bihar in India in the fourth century AD, signals to the world that the university system as such is not an alien idea to India; rather, India is the progenitor of one of the oldest universities in the world. In this context, it is interesting to remember that the oldest university in the Indian sub-continent was founded in Takshashila in the sixth century BC. The antiquity of Takshashila is overlooked because of its location in modern Pakistan. For a resurgent Hindutva government in India, the university system becomes a site to proclaim a distinct national cultural identity. This proclamation is starker in the visual of the Banaras Hindu University, which was founded at the height of the Indian freedom movement to impart a distinct Hindu education to the Indians. The former HRD Minister’s deliberate choice of the Hindu university on the cover page was an explicit statement of the future a Hindutva regime would like to bequeath to the nation. This revisionist perspective of the Indian nation differs from that of the Congress party’s seemingly secular position, which espouses a pluralistic and vague cultural identity for India. This position again is mired in controversy as the Congress Party’s secular posturing has at its core an implicit Hindu notion of culture. The final paragraph on the cover page envisages a moral leadership for India because of its supposed ability to synthesize science and spirituality. The Indian university is tasked with presiding over the ruin of the university system in the world, which is headed for apocalypse owing to over-techno-bureaucratization of Western civilization and an individualistic-materialistic culture.

The Country Paper, prepared by a Hindu fundamentalist ruling-party for the UNESCO Conference, foregrounds the critical role of the university in India in inventing a national culture. The growing concern with the lack of a value system in the wake of technocratic globalization invests the university with the task of promoting this invented national culture, so that the Indian university produces more than mere techno-bureaucrats for an emerging economic power. The previous Hindu government’s vision (which is followed by the present Right-wing government as well) offers a counter-discourse to the theorists of the Western universities, who harp on the demise of the social and cultural project of the university in a globalizing, market-driven, post-national world.


To conclude, Readings’ diagnosis of postmodern corporatized universities in the West, as one given to the propagation of excellence and accounting at the expense of its original cultural mission, might be true in the European and North American context. The Indian scenario is far too complex because the Indian university, still intertwined with the destiny of the nation, is now being deployed for the propagation of an elusive national culture. The national-cultural mission of the Indian university has barely begun.

Acknowledgements: My sincere gratitude to Prof. Alexander Dick (University of British Columbia), who first introduced me to the changing discourses on the idea of the university. I have benefitted immensely from our discussions. I am also grateful to Dr. Samipendra Banerjee (University of Gour Banga), who invited me to present some of these ideas in 2011. The comments from the audience have further enriched the essay.

Photo: catchnews

[i] Bill Readings, “The University Without Culture?” New Literary History, Vol. 26, No.3 (1995): 465-492.

Mosarrap Hossain Khan
is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, New York University. His research engages with fictional depiction of everyday religiosity and secularity in South Asia. He is an editor at Café Dissensus.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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