Indian Education: By Fits and Starts

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In the context of the celebration of the 179th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers, the author sheds some light on how Indian immigrants’ children have started to attend school and how English language was promoted.

The promoter of the English language in India was the famous Thomas Babington Macaulay. According to Macaulay, English was seen as a link language and way of uniting the subcontinent but he also predicted that “the English language held the key to success in a globalised economy”.

In Mauritius, Governor James Macaulay Higginson (1851-1857) introduced in 1854 a Minute in which he referred to the establishment of elementary schools to cater specifically for the education of Indian immigrants’ children. The main vehicular language was to be English.

At the same time, through the dispensation of education to the Indians, Higginson hoped to tackle the island’s social degradation gripping the island. “That was the best prevention of crime and the surest guarantee of social order,” argued the Governor.

The Governor’s Minute was submitted to a “Special Education Committee” of the Legislature for a study of all the details. When this elitist Committee’s report came after a year, the notion of separating schools for Indian and Creole children as was proposed by Sir James did not find favour. The Committee argued that separating Indian and Creole children “tend to foster the exclusive habits of the former and perpetuate divisions between races and prevent the fusion of the immigrant population into the mass of the inhabitants”.

The other key element in the project was the participation of sugar estates, the main recruiters and employers of Indian immigrants, for funding and providing infrastructural facilities.

After a three year debates, Higginson passed in the Council in 1857 an Ordinance making education compulsory for boys between the ages of six and twelve and girls between the ages of six and ten. The school fee for each child was six pence per month.

Higginson’s laudable project seemed to finally see the light of the day when the Catholic Church now objected to a clause in the Ordinance relating to religious teaching. The Catholic Bishop of Port Louis, Allen Collier, with the support of “proprietors” and “planters” addressed a petition to the Secretary of state for the colonies in which it was stated that although they were not against the introduction of compulsory education for Indian children, they could foresee a serious threat ahead to the established influence of the Catholic church.

That threat emanated not from the Indian community but from the Anglican priests who had of late embarked on a gradual proselytism of the Mauritian society. But the dissenting voice came not only from the Catholic Church. The local press, in particular, Le Cernéen, in its issue of 14th September 1857, in an article captioned “Protestations contre la loi sur l’éducation obligatoire” denounced the Governor’s scheme.

With Higginson gone, the Indian Education project was kept in deep freeze until two decades later when another Governor, Sir Arthur Phayre (1874-1878) revived it. Phayre who had a good experience of India found the Indian village model of schooling more appropriate for immigrants’ children. At the very start, he talked about the importance of education for “that most interesting class, the Indian immigrant, the future Lords and Masters of the land of Mauritius”. He stated that “any development must take place in government schools, not in church schools, though clerical opposition will have to be met”.

When Phayre left Mauritius, his bold education plan knew the same fate as Higginson’s. The acting Colonial secretary, Nicolas Beyts, ordered all “Phayre schools” to be closed by the end of 1881. The reason given was that “Indian languages are of little advantage here” and that “it will be better for the Indians themselves that English alone should be taught in Government schools”.

The 1871 census shows that out of 39,112 Indian children between the ages of 5 and 14, only 829 attended normal schools. Furthermore, the annual report of Walter Henry Ashley, the Superintendent of Government schools in 1875 indicates the percentage of Indian children attending schools as 23% against 77% from the General population. Indian education in Mauritius was forced into a bumpy ride not by the British Governors but by the local dominant elite.

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