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Friday, 13 July 2018

The Scottish Heart of Indian Independence

Alexander Duff
As Ezra Pound famously said, "A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him." If seen in these terms, then the vast country of India, with over a billion people, is not entirely free even today.

This is because not only was India magnanimously "granted" independence by a British Empire worn out by struggles elsewhere, but also the very heart of their independence movement was created for them by a man from thousands of miles away, a Scotsman by the name of Alexander Duff (1806-1878).

Duff was a 24-year-old missionary, who arrived in Calcutta - after a voyage that involved two shipwrecks - in May 1830. A few weeks later, on this day exactly 188 years ago, he opened the doors of the educational institute in that same city, that was to become known as the Scottish Church College. 

This was to prove to be the central academic institution of the Indian intelligentsia, who, over the next 117 years, successfully pushed the British government into granting them an ever growing role in the political life of British India, something that made the creation of the state of India in 1947 much more feasible than it otherwise would have been.

During all that time the Scottish Church College was ruled over by a succession of Presbyterian Scots sent out to India. These men did their best to bring the extremely high standards of Scottish education to this foreign land, and in the process created India's intellectual elite. The Scottish Church College also served as the template for similar institutions like the University of Calcutta.

This enormous impact has left its legacy. Even to the present day, the students and alumni of the Scottish Church College pay tribute to the Scottish origins of their academic and intellectual tradition by referring to themselves as "Caledonians," a nickname that was well chosen as a portent of the independence that these efforts would spawn. The college newsletter is called the "The Scottish Herald," and each year in January the college holds a festival of several days duration that is simply known as "Caledonia," and is one of the biggest festivals in the city of Calcutta.

The defining element of Duff's educational institution was the then radical concept of using English as the language of instruction for a wide variety of subjects. Before then it was more customary for missionaries to learn the local language and then use that to bestow the "fruits of Western knowledge and religion" on the benighted natives. 

Duff decided that this would not work, as understanding a European language was essential to understanding European science and philosophy. Another key aspect of Duff's approach was to focus on local elites -- the Brahmin class -- both because they had the mental capacity for his teaching approach, and because of the example this would set for those lower down the social scale. This "downward filter theory" was key he believed to the dissemination of Western knowledge and religion.

In its most fundamental goal, the Scottish Church College failed, as did almost all the big missionary efforts in Asia in the 19th century, as the number of genuine Christians produced was negligible. We see a similar pattern in Japan and China, although recently -- and unconnected to the big missionary push of the 19th century -- the number of Chinese Christians has soared. 

What these efforts represent in terms of realpolitik is an ideological and technological knowledge transfer that allowed nations like India, China, and Japan to rise up and challenge the West much sooner than they otherwise would have been able to.

Accordingly the Scottish Church College became a hotbed of political ferment and "progressive" politics, turning out large numbers of well-educated native Indians who could weaponise the morality of their colonial masters to force their way into the civil service and judiciary of India, while also creating a Western style press that could campaign for their interests and pose a growing threat to the British Raj. 

Riding the wave created by the Church of Scotland.
In many respects the "uppity Indian" was a product of the Scottish Presbyterian Church's commitment to universal education. Without Duff's college and its imitators, little of this would have been possible. Indeed the only option for Indian independence would have been the kind of Mutiny that failed so badly in 1857-8.  

A much more Machiavellian administration than the one that existed, infused as it was with Christian, utilitarian, and freemasonic ideas of human brotherhood and social and self improvement, would have shut down something as pernicious to British power as the Scottish Church College. But, as ever, the Western elites naively believed in the power of assimilation and co-option. 

Over the years the College turned out many of India's most distinguished administrators and jurists, including Sir Gooroodas Banerjee (1844-1918), a judge of the Calcutta High Court and the first Indian Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta (founded 1857). 

But it also produced those less willing to work within the system, such as the notorious Subhas Chandra Bose, the former president of the Indian National Congress, who led the Japanese-backed Indian National Army in WWII, and conveniently died in a plane crash in Taiwan a few days after the war ended.

Alexander Duff Memorial Lecture

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