I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Letter from Dr Zareer Masani


Dear Editor,

Niall Gillespie’s review of my Macaulay biography (drb 43, October 21st, 2013) was a travesty of fair comment and full of factual errors. In the spirit of fair-play and open debate, I hope you will allow me to reply fully.

Your self-styled “humble reviewer” pretends to know all there is to know about everything from my own family pedigree to the state of India’s economy. Instead, with scant regard for factual accuracy, he illustrates the maxim that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Here are a few examples:

1)         My father was never a Communist, as alleged. He was a Fabian socialist who was gradually converted to free market liberalism by the horrors of Stalinism and the bankruptcy of Nehru’s bureaucratic socialism in 1950s India.

2)         The opposition Swatantra Party, which my father led in the 1960s, was not committed to “unregulated capitalism”, but to a mixed economy with a balance between public and private sectors.

3)         The Swatantra alternative, far from “sinking into a political irrelevancy”, has become the official ideology of Nehru’s own Congress Party since the 1990s.

4)         Whether or not my own English Received Pronunciation is “noticeably cultivated”, as he says, Gillespie offers no evidence for his glib assumptions that I am “a steadfast disciple of Western imperial intervention – and … an admirer of Thatcher, Cameron, Blair and Obama”. Nor does he say how any of the above ad hominem comments are relevant to reviewing my book.

5)         None of the other books on Macaulay which Gillespie names pretends to be a comprehensive biography of Macaulay. John Clive’s excellent portrait focuses on Macaulay as a historian and ends on his return from India, only halfway through his career. Robert Sullivan’s is a narrow and typically unreadable diatribe from the genre of American post-colonial studies which your “humble reviewer” evidently so admires.

6)         Nowhere in my book do I make the alleged reference to “India’s roaring economy”. But Gillespie’s bizarre assertion that “India has failed to grow significantly (in global terms) in the last three decades” will astonish economists, who will be curious to know “the patently clear quantitative evidence” he claims for this.

7)         Global and Indian businesses will be equally surprised by Gillespie’s assertion that “the majority of India’s commerce is not transacted in English”. The Indian Government’s own Five-year Plan clearly states the importance of English as the passport to any white-collar job in today’s economy.

8)         There is no evidence that Macaulay was “a firm supporter of a large state-funded military that would violently prise open foreign markets”.

9)         There is no evidence that “he advocated the horrific practice of cannonading (the blowing of captured Indian rebels from a large gun)” or that he lamented Cromwell’s failure “to exterminate totally the aboriginal Irish”. On the contrary, he sacrificed his parliamentary seat in Presbyterian Edinburgh to support state funding for the Irish Catholic Church.

10)       Even Macaulay’s worst critics agreed that he was far from being “an average orator”, and his parliamentary performances always drew a packed audience.

11)       The argument over colonial education policy in India was not between vernacular languages and English, but between funding for English versus the classical languages of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, spoken only by a tiny Indian elite.

12)       Peter Hennessy, who praised my book, is falsely branded by Gillespie as “an arch supporter of a hereditary and spiritual House of Lords”. Lord Hennessy, the Attlee Professor of Contemporary History in London, has never expressed any such view and is a cross-bench, life-peer with Labour sympathies.

As for Macaulay’s achievements, your “humble reviewer” is entitled to be as critical as he pleases. But many will dispute his dismissal of Macaulay the historian and his historical methods as being “thoroughly discredited”. Colourful, readable and popular narrative history, of which Macaulay was a master, is very much back in fashion, exemplified by historians like Simon Schama, William Dalrymple and Margaret MacMillan (who also endorsed my book, but escaped Gillespie’s censure!).

Gillespie’s main criticism of my book, rather than its author, is that it “contains nothing new” because it’s based “upon secondary sources and edited primary material that has been in print for decades”. It’s quite true that all of Macaulay’s Complete Works are now in print, including 24 volumes of speeches, essays, letters and journals, all of which I faithfully excavated for new material. Most 21st century historians would find it odd to be told, as Gillespie assumes, that the litmus test of historical originality is to exhume unprinted manuscript sources.

Gillespie lists several questions about Indian reactions to Macaulay’s education policies, which he claims my book fails to address. Three chapters of my book are devoted to precisely those questions, except that Gillespie doesn’t like my answers, because they don’t fit his Anglophobic preconceptions. I have argued at length that English was actively demanded and warmly welcomed by the new rising Indian middle class. Although Muslims were slower to westernise than Hindus, it is preposterous for Gillespie to see that as a cause of Muslim separatism in the 20th century. The founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah was far more anglophile and Anglophone than any of his Hindu contemporaries. As for the Dalits, their leader, B.R. Ambedkar, was an ardent admirer of Macaulay and English education, as are many Dalit activists today.

The main argument of my book, which your reviewer ignores, is that the very idea of India as a state, let alone a democracy, would have been inconceivable without English as its lingua franca and also the pan-Indian civil service, judiciary and rule of law which we owe to Macaulay’s other reforms. It is no coincidence that the nationalist leaders who took India to independence were themselves British-educated lawyers, steeped in Western liberal and egalitarian values; while, not surprisingly, the main opposition to English today comes from the most reactionary, religious revivalist and fascistic extreme of Indian politics. The best reply to Gillespie’s apologia for such linguistic chauvinism is an editorial in today’s Times of India, which says of English:

“It is the only truly pan-Indian language. The fact that its origins lie outside the boundaries of India is irrelevant. The grounds on which English is sought to be banned could also be used to ban cricket, films, the internet, electricity or a whole host of other things that originated outside India and without which life today would be unimaginable. This is just political hypocrisy. Politicians who profess to be “anti-English’ ensure that their sons and daughters get a good English education. The reality is that English is the language of opportunity in India, as in much of the world.”

Your “humble reviewer” ignores mainstream Indian thinking such as this to assert quixotically that “there is more to be learnt in a paragraph of Vandana Shiva or Arundhati Roy on Macaulay than in Masani’s many works”. Both these worthy environmentalists, who campaign in English, would be surprised to hear this; perhaps Gillespie could point us all to the relevant paragraphs.