ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Politics of Colonial Education

Bengal Muslims and Colonial Education, 1854–1947: A Study of Curriculum, Educational Institutions, and Communal Politics
by Nilanjana Paul, Abingdon: Routledge, 2022; pp xii+ 103, `695 (paperback).

In recent years, several new studies have enriched our understanding of the history of education in modern South Asia. These studies have shown how the questions of gender, caste, and community were deeply implicated in the debates on the history of Western education. Though these works have broadened our understanding, the scholarship on how religious minorities engaged with Western education has remained neglected. In this respect, the book under review is a welcome addition to the scholarship on the history of education.

Nilanjana Paul’s book, Bengal Muslims and Colonial Education, 1854–1947: A Study of Curriculum, Educational Institutions, and Communal Politics, is a broad survey of the history of the education of Muslims in colonial Bengal. The key argument of the book is that the history of Western education was shaped by the politics of the Hindu–Muslim divide. For various reasons, in contrast to Hindus, Muslim representation in educational institutions remained poor. For instance, in 1912, the entire province of Bengal had 13,484 students in various colleges, out of which only 1,048 students were Muslims (p 59). By the 1910s, “out of the 800 students admitted in medical colleges, only ten were Muslims” (p 31). As a result, Muslims were also poorly represented in government employment. The British attempts to provide special assistance to Muslims to enable them to attend schools and colleges were perceived as a threat by the Hindu leaders.

Education and Hindu–Muslim Politics

The book has five chapters, of which the first four chapters are chronological in order. They trace the history of Muslim education in Bengal from the 19th century to the 1940s. The last chapter is a broad survey of the history of the education of Muslim women.

In Chapter 1, the author argues that the British introduction of Western education in the post-1835 era benefited only an affluent section of society, and thereby colonial policies created “a small class of highly educated elites and many illiterate peasants” (p 14). By the post-1857 era, there was a general realisation that Muslims were lagging behind Hindus and had a poor socio-economic status. The root cause of the problem was identified as the lack of Western education among Muslims. The loyalist Muslim reformers like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in northern India and Abdul Latif Khan in Bengal believed that with the British help, Muslims can secure better access to education and employment. As a result, since the 1870s, the British introduced several measures to enable Muslims to attend educational institutions. These preferential policies alienated Hindu leaders, who perceived the British policies as anti-Hindu. Paul also mentions that only a handful of affluent Muslims could afford Western education, while the rest were dependent on ulema, who proved religious education.

Chapter 2 studies the politics of education around the partition of Bengal. Though Muslim leaders were divided on the question of the partition, Paul argues that the creation of a separate province of East Bengal helped Muslims gain better access to education, as now they faced less competition from the Hindus from West Bengal. In contrast, the Muslims continued to be poorly represented in educational institutions in the region. However, the partition was undone in 1911, and Paul mentions,

after the annulment of the Partition, Dacca lost its position of prominence in East Bengal and East Bengali Muslims were left at the mercy of educated Bengali Hindus who dominated education and employment. (p 29)

In Chapter 3, Paul narrates that in the wake of the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement (NCM), the Muslim leadership developed an ambivalent attitude towards Western education. The ulema came to regard the educational institutions run by the government as “the greatest enemy of Islam and of Muslims of India” (p 44). At the same time, many leaders like Fazlul Huq opposed the NCM because the boycott of the Western educational institutions was not in the interest of the Muslim community. In the 1920s, the British introduced several policies to help Muslim students gain access to education. These policies were perceived by the Congress and the Hindu leaders as anti-Hindu. For example, when Dacca University was set up, several eminent Hindu Bengali nationalists protested against it.

Chapter 4 studies the politics of Huq in the period 1937–47. According to Paul, during his tenure as the chief minister of Bengal, Huq introduced several special measures to enable Muslims to have better access to education and employment. Paul argues that this led to “communalisation of education,” as it further antagonised Hindu interests. The Congress leaders in Bengal accused him of adopting anti-Hindu policies.

The last chapter, which is different from the rest of the book, deals with how Muslim women gained access to Western education. Her focus is particularly on the activities of the pioneers like Nawab Faizunnesa Choudhurani (1834–1903) and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880–1932). She mentions that Calcutta University remained reluctant to include Muslim women. The setting up of Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta, in July 1939, played a crucial role in enabling Muslim women to attend college. The institute was set up to provide education to Muslim women. She argues that these endeavours were highly successful and created a class of educated Muslim women who played a crucial role in post-independence East Pakistan and later on Bangladesh.

Paul has successfully demonstrated that the introduction of Western education had unfortunate consequences, where access to education became a highly politicised matter. She has drawn on colonial archives and Bengali language sources to build a convincing argument, yet the book suffers from several flaws.


I have identified at least four such flaws worth discussing here. First, throughout the book, the author mentions that the school textbooks and the curriculum of Western education were anti-Muslim. For instance, she mentions “textbooks discriminated against Muslims” (p 32). In another place, she mentions that in the textbooks there were “objectionable materials towards the Muslim community” (p 26). But nowhere the author has discussed what exactly was objectionable in these books. A detailed discussion of this question would have enriched our understanding. Again, throughout the book, she mentions about the complaints that “Hindu teachers discriminated against Muslim students,” but there is no further discussion of this question beyond generalised statements. The author could have provided an in-depth discussion of a case study to substantiate the claims. Moreover, the book abounds with unpalatable generalisations. For example, there is a point made that Western education was in great demand with
colonial subjects, as “it guaranteed better job prospects and distinguished them from Africans or people without any conscience” (p 13). I believe the author needs to retract this egregious statement from the book. Third, most of the primary sources used by the author are in Bengali. I believe a large number of primary sources will also exist in Urdu and other languages, which the study has not used at all. The discussion of the Bengali–Urdu controversy is also superficial, and the reader will not gain much information on this important theme. Fourth, the discussion hardly brings up the issue of curriculum, though the subtitle of the book mentions it. The reader will not get any idea of what was taught in schools and colleges beyond a general list of disciplines.

One expected a more nuanced discussion of Muslim women’s education, but that again is done in a simplistic manner. The readers do not get to know how Muslim women students engaged with modernity (for more on this, see Minault 1998). I am also surprised that the author nowhere discusses the question of pedagogy, a question whose importance has been underlined by recent historians of education (Seth 2007).

In Conclusion

On the whole, the book is a political history of education. It is rich in facts and figures collected from the colonial official reports, but much of the data and arguments are reproduced without any critical scrutiny. It would have been better if the author had gone beyond the narratives introduced by the colonial officials. Despite these flaws, the book is short, well-written, and dense. It will enrich our understanding of the history of education and would be a good resource for teachers and students of the history of modern South Asia.


Minault, Gail (1998): Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Seth, Sanjay (2007): Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Updated On : 22nd May, 2023

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