Excerpts from the Introduction to Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (1989), by Gauri Viswanathan

This text is part of the History of English Studies Page (Rita Raley).

This book is about the institution, practice, and ideology of English studies introduced in India under British colonial rule. It does not seek to be a comprehensive record of the history of English, nor does it even attempt to catalog, in minute historical fashion, the various educational decisions, acts, and resolutions that led to the institutionalization of English. The work draws upon the illuminating insight of Antonio Gramsci, writing on the relations of culture and power, that cultural domination works by consent and can (and often does) precede conquest by force. Power, operating concurrently at two clearly distinguishable levels, produces a situation where, Gramsci writes, "the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as `domination' and as `intellectual and moral leadership'. . . . It seems clear . . . that there can and indeed must be hegemonic activity even before the rise to power, and that one should not count only on the material force which power gives in order to exercise an effective leadership."' 

The importance of moral and intellectual suasion in matters of governance is readily conceded on theoretical grounds as an implicit tactical maneuver in the consolidation of power. There is an almost bland consensus in post-Arnoldian cultural criticism that the age of ideology begins when force gives way to ideas. But the precise mode and process by which cultural domination is ensured is less open to scrutiny. The general approach is to treat "ideology" as a form of masking, and the license given to speculative analyses as a result is sometimes great enough to suspend, at least temporarily, the search for actual intentions. 

Admittedly, detailed records of self-incrimnation are not routinely preserved in state archives. But where such records do exist the evidence is often compelling enough to suggest that the Gramscian notion is not merely a theoretical construct, but an uncannily accurate description of historical process, subject to the vagaries of particular circumstances. A case in point is British India, whose checkered history of cultural confrontation conferred a sense of urgency to voluntary cultural assimilation as the most effective form of political action. The political choices are spelled out in the most chilling terms by J. Farish in a minute issued in the Bombay Presidency: "The Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possibly have." 

This book sets out to demonstrate in part that the discipline of English came into its own in an age of colonialism, as well as to argue that no serious account of its growth and development can afford to ignore the imperial mission of educating and civilizing colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England, a mission that in the long run served to strengthen Western cultural hegemony in enormously complex ways. It is not enough, as D. J. Palmer, Terry Eagleton, Chris Baldick, Peter Widdowson, and Brian Davies, among others, seem to believe, to provide token acknowledgment of the role of empire by linking the Indian Civil Service exanlinations, in which English literature was a major subject, to the promotion of English studies in British schools and universities. Important as these examinations were, they do not indicate the fiill extent of imperialism's involvement with literary culture. The amazingly young history of English literature as a subject of study (it is less than a hundred and fifty years old) is frequently noted, but less appreciated is the irony that English literature appeared as a subject in the curriculum of the colonies long before it was institutionalized in the home country. As early as the 18205, when the classical curriculum still reigned supreme in England despite the strenuous efforts of some concerned critics to loosen its hold, English as the study of culture and not simply the study of language had already found a secure place in the British Indian curriculum. The circumstances of its ascendancy are what this book is immediately concerned with, though it also seeks simultaneously to draw attention to the subsequent institutionalization and ideological content of the discipline in England as it developed in the colonial context. 

I have two general aims in writing this book: the first is to study the adaptation of the content of English literary education to the administrative and political imperatives of British rule; and the other is to examine the ways in which these imperatives in turn charged that content with a radically altered significance, enabling the humanistic ideals of enlightenment to coexist with and indeed even support education for social and political control. As a description of process, this study is specifically directed at elucidating the relationship between the institutionalization of English in India and the exercise of colonial power, between the processes of curricular selection and the impulse to dominate and control. The curriculum is conceived here not in the perennialist sense of an objective, essentialized entity but rather as discourse, activity, process, as one of the mechanisms through which knowledge is socially distributed and culturally validated. 

The history of education in British India shows that certain humanistic functions traditionally associated with literature for example, the shaping of character or the development of the aesthetic sense or the disciplines of ethical thinking-were considered essential to the processes of sociopolitical control by the guardians of the same tradition. Despite occasional murmurs to the contrary, the notion that these functions are unique to English literature still persists in modern curricular pronouncements, with a consequent blurring of the distinction between "English literature" and "English studies"--a blurring that Richard Poirier noted as a by now more general characteristic of contemporary culture. "English studies," he argues in an essay that still remains timely, has been allowed to appropriate literature in ways "not unarguably belonging to it." The distinction proposed in Poirier's title--"What Is English Studies, and If You Know What That Is, What Is English Literature?"--is a useful one to bear in mind in connection with British Indian educational history, insofar as it draws attention to literary education, as opposed to literature, as a major institutional support system of colonial administration. The transformation of literature from its ambivalent "original" state into an instrument of ideology is elsewhere described by another critic, Terry Eagleton, as 

“a vital instrument for the insertion of individuals into the perceptual and symbolic forms of the dominant ideological formation....What is finally at stake is not literary texts but Literature -- the ideological significance of that process whereby certain historical texts are severed from their social formations, defined as "literature," and bound and ranked together to constitute a series of "literary traditions" and interrogated to yield a set of ideological presupposed responses.” [Criticism and Ideology, p. 57] 

Indeed, once such importance is conceded to the educational function, it is easier to see that values assigued to literature--such as the proper development of character or the shaping of critical thought or the formation of aesthetic judgment--are only problematically located there and are more obviously serviceable to the dynamic of power relations between the educator and those who are to be educated. A vital if subtle connection exists between a discourse in which those who are to be educated are represented as morally and intellectually deficient and the attribution of moral and intellectual values to the literary works they are assigned to read. 

[text omitted] 

Among the several broad areas of emphases in this book the first and perhaps most important is that the history of English and that of Indian developments in the same areas are related but at the same time quite separate. I stress the word separate to indicate the gap between ftinctions and uses of literary education in England and in India, despite the comparability of content at various points. I refer specifically to such instances as differing uses of the same curricula, the different status of various literary genres like romantic narrative, lyric poetry, and pastoral -- drama, and different conceptions of mind and character that marginalized the work of such Orientalist scholars as William Jones in the context of Indian educational policy while simultaneously elevating to a new status in British literary and educational culture those same "Oriental" tales denounced for their deleterious effects on Indian morals and character. 

One of the great contradictions in early nineteenth-century developments is uncovered at the level of comparison of the educational histories of England and India. With the educational context, one runs headon into the central paradox of British deliberations on the curriculum as prescribed for both England and India: while Englishmen of all ages could enjoy and appreciate exotic tales, romantic narrative, adventure stories, and mythological literature for their charm and even derive instruction from them, their colonial subjects were believed incapable of doing so because they lacked the prior mental and moral cultivation requlred for literature-especially their own-to have any instructive value for them. A play like Kalidas' Shakuntala, which delighted Europeans for its pastoral beauty and lyric charm and led Horace Wilson, a major nineteenth-century Sanskrit scholar, to call it the jewel of Indian literature, was disapproved of as a text for study in Indian schools and colleges, and the judgment that the more popular forms of [Oriental literature] are marked with the greatest immorality and impurity" held sway. The inability to discriminate between decency and indecency was deemed to be a fixed characteristic of the native mind, a symptom of the "dulness of their comprehension." Clearly such a statement suggests that it is not the morality of literature that is at issue, but the mental capabilities of the reader. Raising Indians to the intellectual level of their Western counterparts constituted a necessary prerequisite to literary instruction, especially in texts from the native culture, and consequently to forestalling the danger of havin g unfortified minds falsely seduced by the "impurities" of the traditional literature of the East. 

But far from resulting in a markedly different curriculum from the English, this view of Indian character produced almost an identical one, though qualified by stipulated prerequisites. The claim that literature can be read meaningfully only when a high degree of morality and understanding is present in the reader implied that certain controlled measures were necessary to bring the reader up to the desired level. But paradoxically, those measures took the form of instruction in that same literature for which preparation was deemed necessary. To raise the reader to a level of morality that would better prepare him to read literature effectively the method that was struck on was instruction in Western aesthetic principles; by giving young Indians a taste for the arts and literature of England, "we might insensibly wean their affections from the Persian muse, teach them to despise the barbarous splendour of their ancient princes, and, totally supplanting the tastes which flourished under the Mogul reign, make them look to this country with that veneration, which the youthful student feels for the classical soil of Greece." At the same time the self-justification of the literature curriculum--its use as both method and object of moral and intellectual study remained the central problematic of British ideology, its authority necessarily requiring external support and validation to be more than merely self-confirming. 

Clearly the relatedness of the two histories is no less real than their separateness, but I do not find it particularly useful to argue in behalf of a common pattern of development if the chief intent is to indicate simultaneity, identity of purpose, and parallelism of design. Suggesting that the educational histories of England and India constitute a common history invariably communicates the erroneous impression that the functions of education remaln constant regardless of context. The view that a humanistic education holds the same meaning and purpose for both colonizer and colonized quickly crumbles under the weight of even the most casual scrutiny. On the other hand, tightening what appears in the above construction to be an arbitrarily conceived relation by alternatively proposing a cause-effect paradigm veers toward quite the other extreme, imputing an overly reductive determinism to the colonialist project and proposing equivalences between the composition of the various groups, including both rulers and ruled, that grossly oversimplify a complex, heterogeneous formation. As tempting as it is to read, say, Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and British Parliamentary Papers on Indian education as parallel cultural texts outlining a common strategy of social and political control, there are great dangers in reading the history of the education of Indians exclusively in terms of the education of the English lower classes. There are obvious differences, the two most important being, first, a well-entrenched learned class in India that was recognized by the British themselves as continuing to exert power and influence over the people, and second, a policy of religious neutrality that paralyzed British officials in administering a religious curriculum to the Indians comparable to the one taught in English parish schools and charity schools. Under the circumstances, the educational model of the West was inadequate to deal with the learned classes of India, possessing as the latter did their own deeply rooted systems of learning and institutions of specialized studies in philology, theology, and ancient science. In what must be described as a wryly ironic commentary on literary history, the inadequacy of the English model resulted in fresh pressure being applied to a seemingly innocuous and not yet ftilly formed discipline, English literature, to perform the functions of those social institutions (such as the church) that, in England, served as the chief disseminators of value, tradition, and authority. The surrogate functions that English literature acquired in India offer a powerful explanation for the more rapid institutionalization of the discipline in the Indian colony than in the country where it originated. 

[text omitted] 

The fact that English literary study had its beginnings as a strategy of containment raises the question, Why literature? If indeed the British were the unchallenged military power of India, why was the exercise of direct force discarded as a means of malntaining social control? What accounts for the British readiness to turn to a disciplinary branch of knowledge to perform the task of administering their colonial subjects? What was the assurance that a disguised form of authority would be more successful in quelling potential rebellion among the natives than a direct show of force? By what reasoning did literary texts come to signify religious faith, empirically verifiable truth, and social duty? Why introduce English in the first place only to work at strategies to balance its secular tendencies with moral and religious ones? 

These questions suggest a vulnerability in the British position that is most sharply felt when the history of British rule is read in light of the construction of ideology. There is little doubt that a great deal of strategic maneuvering went into the creation of a blueprint for social control in the guise of a humanistic program of enlightenment. But merely acknowledging this fact is not enough, for there is yet a further need to distinguish between strategy as unmediated assertion of authority and strategy as mediated response to situational imperatives. That is to say, it is important to determine whether British educational measures were elaborated from an uncontested position of superiority and strength and as such are to be read as unalloyed expressions of ethnocentric sentiment or whether that position itself was a fragile one that it was the role of educational decisions to fortify, given the challenge posed by historical contingency and confrontation. 

The argument of this book leans toward the second proposition, specifically, that the introduction of English represented an embattled response to historical and political pressures: to tensions between the East India Company and the English Parliament, between Parliament and missionaries, between the East India Company and the Indian elite classes. The vulnerability of the British, the sense of beleaguerment and paranoid dread, is reflected in defensive mechanisms of control that were devised in anticipation of what British administrators considered almost certain rebellion by natives agalnst actions and decisions taken by the British themselves. The inordinate attention paid by parliamentary discussions and debates and correspondence between the Court of Directors and the governor-general to anticipated reactions by the native population to, for example, the teaching of the Bible or the termination of funds for the support of Oriental learning is often in excess of accounts of actual response. 


For this reason it is entirely possible to study the ideology of British education quite independently of an account of how Indians actually reacted to, imbibed, manipulated, reinterpreted, or resisted the ideological content of British literary education.... 

This book does not attempt to be a “definitive” study of English studies in India. It leaves aside many questions apart from those concerning the effects of literary instruction on individual Indians and the readings that educated Indians gave to the English texts they were taught....I have taken considerable license with Edward Said'’s formulation of “beginnings” as a moment that “includes everything that develops out of it, no matter how eccentric the development or inconsistent the result,” to write a history of English studies as if it were entirely contained by its political and historical beginnings [Beginnings, p. 12]. 

[text omitted]

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Rita Raley
Department of English
University of California, Santa Barbara