The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- To dole out largesse in a budget is always perilous

A budget, whether prepared by a housewife for her household finances or by the finance minister of a country, is an economic instrument. It tries to show the relationship between revenue and expenditure. Sometimes it is used by a finance minister ' witness Mr Manmohan Singh in the early Nineties ' to initiate major changes in the economic policies of the government. But when a budget is used as an instrument of patronage-mongering, there is always cause for worry. What is worse is that such an abuse of the budget often lands its author in a mire of contradictions.

In the Union budget for 2006-07, the finance minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, a man known for his rational and clear mind, announced two pieces of largesse. He said that the three universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras would each receive Rs 100 crore on the occasion of their 150th anniversary. He also announced that he was setting aside Rs 10 crore to prepare for the anniversary of what he called the first war of Indian independence. He was referring, of course, to the revolt of 1857.

All students of modern Indian history will wonder at the contradictory directions that the finance minister is being pulled, presumably because he is under pressure to extend governmental patronage.

The three universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were set up in 1857 as institutions of higher learning which would promote Western sciences and Western ideas of liberalism and the Enlightenment. Their establishment was in continuation of a policy of reform announced in the 1830s during the governor-generalship of Lord William Bentinck. The inauguration of the era of reform brought to an end the earlier policy of non-interference in Indian social customs and institutions. In the field of education there was a deliberate thrust towards English education and the Western sciences. Social reforms and Western education were seen as the agencies of change in India, which, in the memorable words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, would herald 'the pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism'. Indian society, steeped in tradition, superstition and obscure and barbaric customs, was to be transformed and shown the light of civilization.

The decision to establish universities in the three Presidency towns was set forth in the Education Dispatch of July 1854, drawn up by Charles Wood, the president of the Board of Control of the English East India Company. Wood insisted that Western learning was superior to any form of Oriental knowledge and pedagogy, and that Western learning should form the basis of the Indian education system. He proposed an education system which would spread from English schools to universities in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The aim of the system would be the dissemination of 'useful and practical knowledge'.

There was a need and a demand for Anglophone education in spreading useful and practical knowledge. British administration in India required Indians educated in English to man its lower rungs. Young men in the three towns ' sons of families who had made fortunes through collaboration with the Company and its servants ' were eager to make use of these new and expanding opportunities of employment. The universities were institutions of the future, the first of the pillars of civil society to be established directly under the aegis of British rule.

In a nice irony of history, in the very year that saw the founding of the universities as bulwarks of a new civil society, British rule was shaken to its foundations by an uprising. What was this rebellion which made British rule in north India collapse, in the words of one British officer, 'like a house made of cards' It was a revolt against British rule and all that it represented. Sepoys, peasants, landholders and princes felt threatened by British policies aimed at changing Indian society and customs, and they took to arms to defend a cherished way of life. In short, the era of reform, of which the three universities were an integral part, was at the root of the rebellion. The rebel leaders in the various proclamations and ishtahars that they issued in 1857 mentioned the introduction of English education as one of their grievances against the rule of the firangi. The rebels treated with contempt anybody who was English-educated: this was one of the reasons why Bengalis in north India were often the targets of rebel wrath.

The anniversary of the foundation of the universities and the anniversary of 1857 represent two opposing trends of 19th century Indian history. One stands for the modern and harks forward to the 20th century and the establishment of a modern state and society; and the other is a throwback to an earlier order represented by the Mughals and their successors. It is impossible to reconcile the two. Yet, this is what the finance minister has attempted to do by trying to patronize both anniversaries through monetary subventions.

Indians have a fondness for anniversaries and for making anniversaries 'national' occasions. Just as the establishment of the universities and the uprising of 1857 cannot be reconciled, the latter cannot be celebrated as a part of, let alone the beginning of, the Indian freedom struggle. The movement that brought independence to India was non-violent. Its leader had nothing but disapproval of attempts to overthrow British rule through violent means. The rebellion of 1857 was an attempt to rid India of British rule, but the values and aspirations that informed the rebellion were completely different from and antithetical to those that informed the national movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. It needs to be added that the phrase, first war of Indian independence, to describe the events of 1857 was first used V.D. Savarkar, the founder of the Hindu Mahasabha, and the inspiration of the man who assassinated Gandhi.

By lacing an economic instrument with the politics of patronage, Mr Chidambaram has landed himself in more than contradiction, and may have even embarrassed himself.

The universities need money and perhaps are deserving of some state support to grow into the future. But an anniversary of 1857 is a matter that should only concern historians. The state should stay well away from it.

Mr Chidambaram has done a disservice to his reputation as a reformist finance minister by trying to behave like Mr Arjun Singh.

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