The Beautiful Tree

Shri. Jean Dreze of the department of economics, Allahabad University has criticised the claim made on behalf of native educational systems in pre-British India, in the BJP’s manifesto.

Referring to Gandhi’s quoted, positive exertions, he says:

In a similar vein, Joshi states that Gandhi was “absolutely right in saying that India was more illiterate in 1931 [than] in 1870”. The fact, however, is that Gandhi was wrong on this. We know that from census data. Perhaps Joshi considers Gandhi as a more authoritative source than the census. But Gandhi, for all his wisdom, was not infallible, and this is not the only occasion when he was carried away.

In his report on the subject, Shri. Dharampal quotes Gandhi twice in the very beginning:

…That does not finish the picture. We have the education of this future state. I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully, that today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the Brit­ish administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his programme. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building, and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British adminis­trator which show that, in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people, and therefore they could not possibly overtake the thing. I defy anybody to fulfill a programme of compulsory primary education of these masses inside of a century. This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education. Our state would revive the old village schoolmaster and dot every village with a school both for boys and girls. CHATHAM HOUSE, LONDON, OCTOBER 20, 1931

…I have not left off the pursuit of the subject of education in the villages during the pre-British period. I am in correspon­dence with several educationists. Those who have replied do sup­port my view but do not produce authority that would be accepted as proof. My prejudice or presentiment still makes me cling to the statement I made at Chatham House. I don’t want to write haltingly in Harijan. You don’t want me merely to say that the proof I had in mind has been challenged by you! GANDHIJI TO SIR PHILIP HARTOG, SEGAON, AUGUST, 1939

These are the documents Shri. Dharampal refers to in his report –

A.    Survey of Indigenous Education in the Madras Presidency 1822-26                                                                                

B.    Fra Paolino Da Bartolomeo on Education of Children in India, 1796                                                                                         

C.    Alexander Walker on Indian Education, Literature, etc., circa, 1820                                                                                      

D.    Extracts from W. Adam’s State of Education in Bengal: 1835-38                                                                                    

E.     Extracts from G.W. Leitner’s History of Education in the Punjab since Annexation and in 1882                                              

F.     Correspondence between Sir Philip Hartog and Mahatma Gandhi on the Question of Indigenous Indian Education in the Early British Period, and other papers                                                                                    

G.    List of Tanjore Temples Receiving Revenue Assignments 

        List of Individuals in Tanjore receiving Revenue Assignments                                                                       

Some excerpts from Shri. Dharampal’s report:


The more interesting and historically more relevant information, however, is provided by the caste-wise division of students. This is true not only as regards boys, but also with respect to the rather small number of girls who, according to the survey, were receiving education in schools. Furthermore, the information becomes all the more curious and pertinent when the data is grouped into the five main language areas—Oriya, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil. These constituted the Presidency of Madras at this period, and throughout the nineteenth century. Table 2 gives the caste-wise number of school-going male students in each district of the five language areas. 

It has generally been assumed that the education of any kind in India, whether in the ancient period, or just at the beginning of British rule was mainly concerned with the higher and middle strata of society; and, in case of the Hindoos (who in the Madras Presidency accounted for over 95% of the whole population), it was more or less limited to the twice-born. However, as will be seen from Table 2, the data of 1822-25 indicate more or less an opposite position.Such an opposite view is the most pronounced in the Tamil-speaking areas where the twice-born ranged between 13% in South Arcot to some 23% in Madras, the Muslims form less than 3% in South Arcot and Chingleput to 10% in Salem, while the Soodras and the other castes ranged from about 70% in Salem and Tinnevelly to over 84% in South Arcot.

To make the foregoing tabulation more easily comprehensible the caste-wise data may be converted into percentages of the whole for each district. Table 3 shows the result of such conversion.

In Malayalam-speaking Malabar, the proportion of the twice-born was still below 20% of the total. Because of a larger Muslim population, however, the number of Muslim school students went up to nearly 27%; while the Soodras, and the other castes accounted for some 54% of the school going students.

In the largely Kannada-speaking Bellary, the proportion of the twice-born (the Brahmins and the Vysees) went up to 33%, while the Soodras, and the other castes still accounted for some 63%.

The position in the Oriya-speaking Ganjam was similar: the twice-born accounting for some 35.6%, and the Soodras and other castes being around 63.5%.

It is only in the Telugu-speaking districts that the twice-born formed the major proportion of the school going students. Here, the proportion of Brahmin boys varied from 24% in Cuddapah to 46% in Vizagapatam; of the Vysees from 10.5% in Vizagapatam to 29% in Cuddapah; of the Muslims from 1% in Vizagapatam to 8% in Nellore; and of the Soodras and other castes from 35% in Guntoor to over 41% in Cuddapah and Vizagapatam.

In order to understand the not insignificant fallacy in Shri. Dreze’s observation; I strongly recommend visitors read this report in full.


Shri Dreze’s ToI article

The Beautiful Tree

– Namaste


Ifthikara says: (I carry this comment even though it may have little relevance to the topic. Perhaps readers may share their thoughts)


Muslim children have been attending state schools for tha last 60 years. They have been suffering from Paki-bashing and bullying. Majority of them have been leaving schools with low grades. They have been leaving schools without learning their cultural and linguistic skiils. The result is that they do not know where they belong. They suffer from Identity crises. Now Muslim youths are victim of terrorism. Thousands of them are being searched in streets and hundreds of them are behind the bar without any trial.

Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools.

Bilingual Muslim children need to learn and be well versed in standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time, they need to learn and be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry.

A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. He/she does not want to become notorioulsy monolingul Brit.
Iftikhar Ahmad
London School of Islamics Trust

Kharaharapriya says: (Since this discussion has been carried over from a non-related article, K’priya calls it ‘off topic’)

Basic off topic question. I remember you saying that the caste system has its positives. Can you make it clear as to what are the positives of it?

Pala S responds:

Good question K’priya.

When I used to think about caste earlier, bitterness always welled up in me. I viewed any reference to caste with scorn. The thing is; my view of caste was in perfect alignment with my view of Hinduism. So, my scorn for caste was matched by my scorn for anything Hindu.

It is easy to see why anti-caste movements have turned anti-Hindu. Those reform movements that have remained Hindu have not been anti-caste.

One may with benefit, compare Narayana Guru and Ambedkar. Maybe Ambedkar is not the exact opposite because I don’t really believe Ambedkar was against caste per se. In reality, he was against unwarranted and unjust discriminative practices that the caste system seemed to engender. Even here one can argue against a wholesale branding of the caste system.

Ambedkar asked a very pertinent question. Can a Hindu remain Hindu without caste? In my view this cannot happen because for Hindu culture to remain alive and meaningful, caste traditions must live. It is in caste traditions that Hinduism lives. From these traditions Hinduism derives its diversity and diverseness. It is also from caste that Hindus can maintain their variety. Without caste, Hindus will be forced to accept one supposedly “reformed” version of Hinduism. Hinduism will surely die and Hindus will become utterly fanatic in their defense of this “reformed” version. Flexibility will be lost forever.

Ambedkar was too furious with the Hindus to recognize or at least display his tolerance for a view that might look at caste in positive terms. But he did say that for Hindus to give up caste, they must give up Hinduism.

I believe caste system was not man made. If hugely diverse peoples were to settle in a defined area and yet maintain and nurture their diversity, they would not be able to do this without a system such as caste. Look around you and all you see is immense diversity. Ask yourself how this diversity has remained through the ages? because these very evidently have remained through the ages. Ask yourself if Hindus really want to give up their caste. Ask if they can do this without giving up Hinduism. Finally, question if the caste system should be reformed to get rid of injustices it has engendered, or if caste should be given up altogether.

When you read Dhananjay Keer’s work on Ambedkar, you will notice that in later stages, he confines his activities and mission to Mahars. It is again overwhelmingly Mahars that converted to Buddhism with Ambedkar.

Caste is the lifeblood of Hindu diversity. Hinduism is not just Brahmanism. It is much more. Brahmins remained for most part the keepers of their tradition. You can see them preserving other traditions too. But they were not the only keepers of tradition. This was shared by other castes or varnas.

In my earlier post on The Beautiful Tree, you will see what the reality was as recently as two hundred years back.

K’priya, my response to you is mixed and perhaps muddled. This subject is too vast for any one person to grasp fully. I have said what I have reflected upon.

I will be pleased if you can interrogate my response. Perhaps through our discussion, we can get at the truth.

If you wish to pursue this discussion, we can use the The Beautiful Tree post for relevance.

Please let me know.

Kharaharapriya replies:


Carrying on the discussion on caste system.

I feel that the caste system practiced a few centuries ago, even though at the outset it might look regressive, it was an example of harmony. I make this point because our kingdoms had great respect for artists, sculptors, farmers, musicians etc who all belong to the present day backward castes.I strongly believe Dignity of labor was followed by the state.

Various bhakti saints happen to be from lower castes and interestingly their message seems to have been preserved well by the upper castes through the generations.
I wont completely deny existence of caste superiority. But was it as strong as it has been depicted?
Every time the caste superiority had set in there had been reformist bhakti movements.

I think once the Britishers set their foot on india and with the advent of industrial revolution there was a clear cut demarcation of jobs into blue and white collar. obviously one was considered menial and other egalitarian. The lower castes(shudras) did fit into the former and the upper castes(brahmins,vaishya and kshatriya) into the latter, on basis of their occupation. Obviously such a bifurcation would demean the lower castes in the eyes of the west. The impact of this western influence on the Indian psyche would further cause a sense of disgust amongst the Indian intelligentsia.

Let me know your thoughts on this?

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