Initially, the East India Company did not evince any particular interest in matters of education. Although the British had captured Bengal in 1757, yet the responsibility of imparting education remained only in Indian hands. The study of ancient texts written in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit still continued. In 1781, Warren Hastings established a Madrasa in Calcutta to encourage the study of Muslim laws along with Arabic and Persian languages.
A decade later in 1791 due to the sincere efforts of the British resident, Jonathan Duncan, a Sanskrit College was established to promote the study of Hindu laws and philosophy in Banaras. Therefore, it must be contended that during the first three decades of the 19th century, the development of education took place only through the traditional institutions.
It is apparent from the government and Church records that the state of oriental learning at the time of the establishment of the Company's rule in Bengal, there were about 80,000 traditional institutions of learning in Bengal alone, which means that there was at least one institution for every four hundred people in that province. Different educational surveys of Madras, Bombay and Punjab also demonstrate similar facts. There was at least one school in every village of India at that time.
The East India Company began to adopt a dual policy in the sphere of education. It discouraged the prevalent system of oriental education and gave importance to western education and English language. The Charter Act of 1813 adopted a provision to spend one lakh rupees per annum for the spread of education in India.
Although there was a prolonged debate pertaining to education during the course of a general discussion on the Act of 1813 in the British Parliament, yet the matter continued to generate debate for the next 20 years. Consequently, not even a single penny out of the allocated funds could be spent on education.
The contemporary British scholars were divided into two groups on the issue of development of education in India. One group, called the Orientalists, advocated the promotion of oriental subjects through Indian languages. The other group, called the Anglicists, argued the cause of western sciences and literature in the medium of English language.
In 1829, after assuming the office of the Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, emphasized on the medium of English language in Indian education. In the beginning of 1835, the 10 members of the General Committee of Public Instruction were clearly divided into two equal groups. Five members including the Chairman of the committee Lord Macaulay were in favour of adopting English as medium of public instruction whereas the other five were in favour of oriental languages.
The stalemate continued till 2 February 1835 when the Chairman of the committee, Lord Macaulay announced his famous Minute advocating the Anglicist point of view. Consequently, despite fierce opposition from all quarters, Bentinck got the resolution passed on 7 March 1835 which declared that henceforth, government funds would be utilized for the promotion of western literature and science through the medium of English language.
In 1854, Sir Charles Wood sent a comprehensive dispatch as a grand plan on education. The establishment of departments of public instructions in five provinces and introduction of the pattern of grants in aid to encourage private participation in the field of education were recommended. Besides, the dispatch also laid emphasis on the establishment of schools for technical education, teacher and women education. Over and above all these, the dispatch recommended the establishment of one University each in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, on the model of the London University. Consequently, within the next few years, the Indian education became rapidly westernized.
In the beginning, the British interest was limited to trade and earning profits from economic exploitation. Therefore, they did not evince any interest in taking the issue of social or religious reforms. They were apprehensive of interfering with the social and religious customs and institutions of the Indians because of the fear that they might lose trade advantage. Thus, they adopted the policy of extreme precaution and indifference towards social issues in India. The one reason why they indulged in criticizing the customs and traditions of India was to generate a feeling of inferiority complex among the Indians.
However, in the mid-19th century the social and religious movements, launched in India, attracted the attention of the Company's administration towards the country's social evils. The propaganda carried out by the Christian missionaries also stirred the minds of the educated Indians. Western thought and education and views expressed in different newspapers and magazines had their own impact. Some of the British administrators like Lord William Bentinck had evinced personal interest in the matter. There were primarily two areas in which laws were enacted, laws pertaining to women emancipation and the caste system.
The condition of women, by the time the British established their rule, was not encouraging. Several evil practices such as the Sati practice of , the Purdah system, child marriage, female infanticide, bride price and polygamy had made their life quite miserable. The place of women had come to be confined to the four walls of her home. The doors of education had been shut for them. From economic point of view also her status was miserable. There was no social and economic equality between a man and woman. A Hindu woman was not entitled to inherit any property. Thus, by and large, she was completely dependent on men.
During the 19th and 20th centuries some laws were enacted with the sincere efforts of social reformers, humanists and some British administrators to improve the condition of women in Indian society. The first effort in this direction was the enactment of law against the practice of Sati during the administration of Lord William Bentinck.
Female infanticide was another inhuman practice afflicting the 19th century Indian society. It was particularly in vogue in Rajputana, Punjab and the North Western Provinces. Colonel Todd, Johnson Duncan, Malcolm and other British administrators have discussed about this evil custom in detail. Factors such as family pride, the fear of not finding a suitable match for the girl child and the hesitation to bend before the prospective in-laws were some of the major reasons responsible for this practice. Therefore, immediately after birth, the female infants were being killed either by feeding them with opium or by strangulating or by purposely neglecting them. Some laws were enacted against this practice in 1795, 1802 and 1804 and then in 1870. However, the practice could not be completely eradicated only through legal measures. Gradually, this evil practice came to be done away through education and public opinion.
There are many historical evidences to suggest that widow remarriage enjoyed social sanction during ancient period in India. In course of time the practice ceased to prevail increasing the number of widows to lakhs during the 19th century. Therefore, it became incumbent on the part of the social reformers to make sincere efforts to popularize widow remarriage by writing in newspapers and contemporary journals.
Prominent among these reformers were Raja Rammohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. They carried out large scale campaigns in this regard mainly through books, pamphlets and petitions with scores of signatures. In July 1856, J.P. Grant, a member of the Governor-General's Council finally tabled a bill in support of the widow remarriage, which was passed on 13 July 1856 and came to be called the Widow Remarriage Act, 1856.
The practice of child marriage was another social stigma for the women. In November 1870, the Indian Reforms Association was started with the efforts of Keshav Chandra Sen. A journal called Mahapap Bal Vivah (Child marriage: The Cardinal Sin) was also launched with the efforts of B.M. Malabari to fight against child marriage. In 1846, the minimum marriageable age for a girl was only 10 years.
In 1891, through the enactment of the Age of Consent Act, this was raised to 12 years. In 1930, through the Sharda Act, the minimum age was raised to 14 years. After independence, the limit was raised to 18 years in 1978.
Similarly, voices were raised against the practice of Purdah during the 19th and 20th century. The condition of women among the peasantry was relatively better in this respect. Purdah was not so much prevalent in Southern India. Through the large scale participation of women in the national freedom movement, the system disappeared without any specific legislative measure taken against it.
Next to the issue of women emancipation, the caste system became the second most important issue of social reforms. In fact, the system of caste had become the bane of Indian society.
The caste system was primarily based on the fourfold division of society viz. Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishyas and Shudras. On account of their degradation in their social status, the Shudras were subjected to all kinds of social discrimination. In the beginning of the 19th century the castes of India had been split into innumerable sub-castes on the basis of birth.
In the meantime, a new social consciousness also dawned among the Indians. Abolition of' untouchability became a major issue of the 19th century social and religious reform movements in the country. Mahatma Gandhi made the removal of untouchability a part of his constructive programme. He brought out a paper, The Harijan, and also organised the Harijan Sevak Sangh.
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar dedicated his entire life for the welfare of the downtrodden. In Bombay, he formed a Bahiskrit Hitkarini Sabha in July 1924 for this purpose. Later, he also organised the Akhil Bharatiya Dalit Varg Sabha to fight against caste oppression. Jyotirao Phule in Western India and Shri Narayana Guru in Kerala respectively established the Satya Sadhak Samaj and the Shri Narayana Dharma Partipalana Yogam to include self-esteem among the downtrodden.
In the Madras Presidency also the beginning of 20th century witnessed the rise of Self-respect Movement of Periyar E.V.R. In order to eradicate this evil practice many other individual and institutional efforts were also made. These movements were directed mainly in removing the disabilities suffered by Harijans in regard to drawing of water from public NARAYANA GURU wells, getting entry into temples and admission into schools.