Tracing the Roots of ‘Right to Education’ in British India

The Right to Education Act, 2009 has roots in the colonial India when the education policies slowly evolved. They evolved primarily for the convenience of the colonial administration that needed cheap local clerks, not for any benevolent desire to develop Indian society. Most experts trace the first policy statement in the Charter Act of 1813 of the East India Company when a sum of not less than one lakh rupees was to be set aside for educational purposes.

Education in Ancient India

Ancient India was highly advanced spiritually and economicallyIndians are inherently knowledge seekers since ancient times and the trait of learning is in their DNA. In the Vedic era, gurukuls imparted Vedic education to children. Appearance of the Buddha 2500 years ago, saw mushrooming of viharas where monks lived to study the Tipitaka and to practice the 8-fold noble path for full enlightenment. Emperor Ashoka spread Buddha’s teaching among masses through State efforts; he even sent enlightened monks to all neighboring countries. Then around 400 AD, the Nalanda University came into being and became a well known global center of learning. Chinese travelers Hiuen Tsang (636-646 AD) and Itsing (675 AD) had lived and studied in Nalanda.  It was destroyed by an Islamic savage known as Bakhtiar Khilji in 1193. The barbarian torched its mammoth library with around 9 million books, which burnt for 3 month.

Advent of Islam in the early 7th century in the Arab desert became a curse for Indian civilization – the amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism had a vast spread, going beyond today’s Afghanistan, to Iran (then a Zoroastrian nation). Although on decline, it was still extraordinarily advanced in knowledge and prosperity, which attracted Mohammadan invaders. In the coming centuries, as they grabbed more and more of Indian lands, the very culture of learning and spirituality was ruined as they repeatedly destroyed temples and educational centers. In their Islamic fanaticism, the Turk, Mongol and Arab invaders also indulged in frequent mass slaughter and slave taking, and forced conversion into Islam.

The long Islamic rule of 800 years, almost completely destroyed the very foundation of learning that made India prosperous. The next savages were the British who came as traders, but turned colonial by exploiting the power vacuum as the Mughal empire decayed.


When the British East India Company arrived in 1608, Mughal Empire under Jahangir had just taken over the reign after Akbar’s death in 1605. Then, Hindus and Muslims had their own systems of education. Being oppressed subjects for centuries, Hindus tried to teach their children either in temples, Pathshalas using Sanskrit language. Muslim children learned similar skills in Maktabs but in Persian and Arabic. Higher learning was given in Madarasas. Girls generally remained uneducated except through personal efforts at home. Zamindars and elite court officials often arranged education of their daughters at home by hiring suitable teachers. Reading, writing and basic arithmetic provided the basic education.

What the British noted was that Indian culture was highly sophisticated and had highly advanced spiritual and cultural heritage. This was testified by Lord Macaulay in the British parliament. He devised his education system in 1835 so as to destroy the very roots of Indigenous culture that made it an economically advanced.

When the British came to India, they were amazed at the sophisticated culture and social fabric.

East India Company (EIC) Rule Started in 1765

From 1608 until the mid 18th century, the Company remained occupied in trading activities. But after the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the Battle of Buxar (1764), they took control of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa through the right to collect revenue. It effectively became ruler and administrator. As it territory expanded in the coming decades, it needed more and more Indians to discharge various administrative duties. For example, it needed Indians well versed in classical languages like Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian as well as local languages. Its Judicial Department needed Indians to assist English judges dealing with Hindu and Muslim laws. It also had to communicate with rulers of different Princely State in different languages; and the clerical staff had to interact with uneducated masses in local languages.

All this means that the company had to pay attention to educating Indians according to its clerical needs. Thus, the Calcutta Madarsa was set up in 1781, Asiatic Society for Oriental learning in 1784 and in 1791 a Sanskrit College was opened at Benaras for law, literature and Hindu religion. In order to take care of training of English civil servants, the Fort William College was set up in 1800-01.

Initially EIC did not Encourage Missionaries’ activities

Learning from its experience in other colonies, the Company did not encourage Christian missionaries fearing that it might offend local population which would jeopardize its trading interests. The first time Company paid attention to educational matters was when the Charter Act of 1698 mandated it to maintain priests and schools in its garrisons. However, these provisions were intended for the children of the Company’s European servants than for the Indians.

During the 1770s and 1780s several Englishmen had argued that the Company should support the missionaries. They argued that conversion of India to Christianity would actually help consolidate their hold, rather than hindering it as argued by Company officials thus far. But their efforts remained futile until Charter Act of 1813.

The Charter Act of 1813

The Charter Act of 1813 was the first step towards making education an objective of the government. It must be seen as an important landmark in the history of modern education in India. Section 43 of the Charter stated that

“a sum of not less than one lakh of rupees in each year shall be set apart and applied to the revival and improvement of literature and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories in India.”

Although the purpose was facilitation of colonial administration, the Charter Act made it obligatory on the part of the East India Company to spread education in its territories in India. Thus, educating Indians also became an added duty of the Company. Many scholars see the Clause 43 of the Charter Act as the first legislative admission of the right of education in India from public funds. The Clause 43 of the Charter Act of 1813 assumed bigger importance when one considers that in those days education was not a State responsibility in England. Except Scotland, no public money was spent on elementary education, which was left mostly to charity schools and private efforts of individuals.

The Act also allowed Britons to go to India for missionary activity.

The Charter Act stirred ‘Oriental’ vs ‘Western’ Education Debate

The Section 43 of the Charter Act 1813 had only defined the objects of the educational policy, viz. ‘the revival and improvement of literature’, ‘the encouragement of learned natives of India’ and ‘the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories in India’; but gave no directions regarding the methods to be employed to achieve these objects.

It intensified the Oriental and Occidental educational debate in India. One group was of the Orientalists who wanted the promotion of Indian education through the medium of Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian whereas the other group was of Anglicists of the Company who were in favor of developing western education in India through the medium of English. Thus, the fund remained unspent until 1823 when a General Committee on Public Instruction (GCPI) was set up for the Bengal Presidency to look after the development of education in India. It was in favor of oriental education.

However, the oriental-vs-English education debate continued until 1834 when Lord T.B. Macaulay came to India and presided over the committee. He was a pro-Anglicist and made a vigorous plea for spreading western education through the medium of English. Clearly, the British wanted to create a class of Indians who would act as bridge between them and their Indian subjects. Macaulay spelt out his intent in the British parliament as shown in the video below:

Macaulay Minutes of 1835

Macaulay system of education was designed to cut Indians from their cultural rootsLord Macaulay gave an important turn to the educational policy in India with far reaching consequences. The hotly contested issue of oriental vs English education was permanently settled, by the famous Minute of Lord Macaulay in February 1835, in favor of imparting education in Western sciences and literature in English medium in India. Macaulay was an ardent Anglicist and harbored morbid contempt for Indian knowledge and languages.

It established the hegemonic influence of English as medium of colonial ‘instruction’ (not education) and used the ploy of limited resources to “form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”  He also wrote, “it would be more suitable to provide higher education to higher classes than to give to elementary education to the mass.”

This decision left a far reaching impact on the evolution of educational system in India. According to Macaulay’s education philosophy

  • The nature of education in India would be determined by the British.
  • English language would be used to impart knowledge of Western arts and sciences because oriental knowledge was utterly ‘inferior’ and ‘unholy’.
  • Only rich and upper class would be educated.
  • In the course of time, ‘knowledge’ would trickle down to the masses – Filtration theory.
  • This system would supply English educated Indian servants cheap but capable at the same time, for British administration.

In 1835, the Elphinstone College in Bombay and Calcutta Medical College were established.

In 1844, Lord Harding proclaimed that in government services preference would be given to those who were educated in English schools. It clearly meant that the colonial education only aimed to produce good clerks for the British administration.

Filtration Theory

Macaulay wrote in 1937, “At present we don’t aim at educating directly the common people. We aim at creating a class of persons who among their countrymen distribute some of the knowledge we gave”.  Declaring it as government policy, Sir Auckland said, “The government should educate the higher class of the people so that the ‘filtered culture’ reaches to the public”.  The Committee of Public Instruction in Bengal had also approved this idea in 1839, “Our efforts should be concentrated first on the education of higher and middle class of people”.

A company dispatch to Madras government stated that the best approach to education is the education of the higher class people. Raising the standard of education for this class will produce more beneficial change than what is obtained by acting directly on the common masses. Thus, the Company focused only on educating people of the higher classes of the society. It also helped in creating a faithful class of people.

Three Private Suggestions for Compulsory Education

Here it would be useful to mention three private suggestions for compulsory education that were rejected by the British Government.

1. William Adam’s Third Report in 1838

The earliest attempt during the British rule for enforcing compulsory primary education (in the masses) was made by William Adam in 1838. Adam was a Christian missionary and of course his prime interest was to convert Indian masses into Christianity. He, however, felt that time was not ripe for introducing compulsory education then due to several reasons. He wrote in his report:

“The next form in which Government influence may be conceived to be employed for the promotion of education is by making it compulsory and enacting that every village should have a school. I hope the time will come when every village shall have a school, but the period has not yet arrived when this obligation can be enforced.”

The General Committee of Public Instruction (GCPI) also found Adam’s scheme impractical and too expensive and against the idea of filtrating education from the upper and middle classes to the masses. Thus, the proposal was rejected.

2.  Captain Wingate, the Revenue Survey Commissioner in Bombay, 1852

When invited by the Government of Bombay to give his view on a proposal to levy a local fund on land revenue, recommended the levy of such cess and suggested that a part of it should be devoted to providing compulsory education to the sons of agriculturalists. The proposal was rejected at least partly because it would have been impossible to finance compulsory primary education only from locally levied cess.

3.  T C Hope, Educational Inspector of Gujarat Division, 1858

Mr T C Hope proposed that a law should be passed empowering the inhabitants of any local area to tax themselves for the establishing schools. Hope opposed the voluntary system of school expansion and pressed for an enactment to authorize the levy of a compulsory educational rate. It was rejected as premature.

Wood’s Educational Despatch, 1854

The British parliament appointed a special parliamentary committee to study the education policies of the Company and suggest suitable educational reforms for India. The committee prepared a Despatch – a policy document. It was favorably considered by the Company’s Board of Control, presided by Charles Wood. This came to be known as “Wood’s Educational Despatch.”

The Despatch asked the government to assume responsibility of educating Indian masses – a suggestion contrary to the Filtration theory. An important suggestion of was to establish universities in India. Thus, the three University Acts of 1857 was passed, establishing universities at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay and creation of an Education Department in each province of British India. However, little could be done because the Company ceased to be a political power after the revolt of 1857 when the Crown took control of the Government of India.

In 1859, an order was passed that the Government of India should own responsibility of primary education. Accordingly, the Government of India instructed to levy local taxes for this task. Consequently in 1864 local taxes were levied in various provinces of India for meeting the expenditure on primary education.

Often dubbed as the ‘Magna Carta of English education in India’, the salient features of the Woods Despatch were

  • Regularizing the education system in India from the primary to the university levels.
  • Indians were to be educated in English as well as in their native languages.
  • Education system was to be set up in every province.
  • Every district should have at least one government school.
  • Affiliated private schools could be granted aids.
  • Stress would be put on education of women.

The Indian Education Commission (Hunter Commission), 1882

Hunter Commission, 1882The educational policies during the period of 1854 and 1902 were formulated by two main documents only – the Despatch of 1854 and the Report of the Indian Education Commission, 1882. The Commission was to review the progress since the Despatch of 1854.  It was the first education commission in British India. It must be seen in the backdrop of two events: first, the British government was badly shaken by the 1857 rebellion and second, in 1870 the Compulsory Education Act was passed by the British parliament; it triggered similar demand for a similar law in India by many Indian leaders including Dadabhai Naoroji who demanded 4 years of compulsory education for all children. This was the most explicit demand for right to education for masses.

The Commission suggested blending of private and public efforts, right from the primary to the university stage. It stressed the need for organizing a proper system of grant-in-aid so that private enterprise might get enough room to expand and to feed upon. Major recommendations of the Commission were

  • The responsibility of primary education should be given to the local bodies such as municipalities and local boards. And more importance to be given to vernacular languages in the primary education.
  • Secondary education should be divided into two categories: 1) Literary education, leading up to the University level and 2) Vocational studies.
  • There should be lesser Governmental control over Universities and they should be given more freedom to develop curriculum.
  • Religious education should be left to private efforts. Government funded schools should focus only on secular education. It disappointed the missionaries who were looking for a dominant role in Indian education arena.
  • Library facilities and furniture were to be provided in the schools.
  • More attention should be given to education of girls.

Most of the recommendations were accepted by the British government. It eliminated the British elements from the elementary education. Setting up of the Punjab University in 1882 reduced the pressure on the Calcutta University.

As a result of implementation of the Commission’s recommendations, between 1882 and 1901, the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools increased significantly.

More Voices for Compulsory Primary Education – Birth of Indian National Congress in 1885

The report of the Indian Education Commission of 1882 also did an unexpected thing. It paved the way for the organized agitation for the introduction of compulsory education.  For quite some time, a number of Indian leaders had been stressing the need of education for all. The establishment of the Indian National Congress in 1885 gave impetus to the demand. In the Calcutta Congress of 1905, it was declared that it is the birthright of the people of India to get proper education. It adopted a Resolution demanding that “Government should take immediate steps for (i) making primary education free and gradually compulsory all over the country”.

This movement was kept initiated up till 1947.

Lord Curzon’s Educational Policy (1904)

Lord Curzon was appointed the Governor General of India in 1899. He organized a conference of select educationists and top education officials in Shimla in 1901 for exhaustive discussions on wide ranging topics related to education. Then in 1902 a Commission headed by Sir Thomas Raleigh was set up to evaluate the progress of education since the Indian Education Commission (1882) and suggest ways and means to further raise the standard of University education. The British Government passed a Resolution on Indian Educational Policy in 1904, popularly known as Lord Curzon’s Educational policy. It made the following observations/recommentations:

Shortcomings in the current system: This resolution also pointed out the typical characteristics of the System of Education in British India: 1) The aim of education was only getting government job; 2) English was encouraged at the cost of vernacular languages; 3) Teaching was exam focused; 4) Technical education was neglected; 5) Method of instruction encouraged memorization and not development of intellect.

Elementary Education: The resolution declared that the primary education had received insufficient attention and that it was the duty of both the central and provincial governments to expand and improve primary education.  It was an important step forward from the Company Charter Act of 1813 that kept aside part of state fund for the purpose of public education and from the Wood’s Despatch that provided the first basis for a state educational program in India.

Languages and medium of instruction:  As a general rule, a child should not be allowed to learn English language until he has made some progress in the primary stage of education and has received a thorough grounding in his mother tongue. It is equally important that when the teaching of English has begun, it should not be prematurely employed as the medium of instruction in other subjects….The transition from the use of vernacular to English as the medium of instruction should, broadly speaking, be at a minimum age of 13.

Improving secondary education: It proposed to strengthen secondary education through proper inspection, control, and systematic grant-in-aid. The need for the training of secondary school teachers was emphasized in order to make school teaching more efficient and non-mechanical.

Affiliation of colleges with universities: Affiliation should be granted only when the colleges had a regular governing body, qualified teachers, adequate building and equipment, staff quarters, sufficient financial resources and a rational fee policy. Affiliation once granted might not be permanent and might be reviewed through a proper inspection.

Technical and vocational education: It proposed ways to improve technical, vocational, and commercial education in order to make it more practical and relevant to the local needs. Agricultural education was to be expanded and more suitable courses were to be added for the industrial sector.

Maharaja of Baroda introduced Free and Compulsory Education

The Maharaja of Baroda actually implemented free and compulsory education in his State. First he introduced it in 10 villages in Amreli Taluka, then in the whole taluka after few years in 1901, and finally in 1906 throughout the State for boys between age of 6 and 12 and for girls 6-10. This inspired others including G K Gokhale who introduced a bill in the Imperial Legislative council. It was rejected but the issue acquired national attention.

Government Resolution on Education Policy, 1913

The Resolution on Educational Policy, 1913, made a significant statement on the free and compulsory education in the following words:

“For financial and administrative reasons of decisive weight the Government of India has refused to recognize the principle of compulsory education; but they desire the widest possible extension of primary education on a voluntary basis, regards free elementary education the time has not yet arrived . . . in provinces elementary education is already free and in the majority of provinces liberal provision is already made for giving free elementary instruction to those boys whose parents cannot afford to pay fees. Local Governments have been requested to extend the application of the principle of free elementary education among the poorer and more backward sections of the population. Further than this it is not possible at present to go.”

Although the British Government refused to recognize the principle of compulsory education for paucity of funds, it promised to extend grants for the widest extension of primary education on a voluntary basis.

The Resolution advocated three cardinal principles of educational policy:

1) The curricula of primary and secondary schools should be made more practical and useful; 2) Facilities of higher education should be provided in India so that Indian students may not have to go abroad; 3) Instead of increasing the number of existing institutions, their standard should be raised.

The Resolution provided for sufficient expansion of lower primary schools with a simultaneous opening of upper primary schools. It proposed to streamline inspection and supervision, appoint trained teachers, subsidize Maktabs and Pathshalas, improve school facilities, and encourage girl’s education. The Resolution also provided for expansion of university education considering the existing 5 universities and 185 colleges as insufficient. The universities were to be relieved of responsibility of granting recognition to high schools, and subjects of industrial importance were to be included in the curriculum.

However, the First World War which broke out the next year, delaying implementation of many recommendations set out in the Resolution.

Bombay Primary Education (District Municipalities) Act of 1918

After the demise of Gokhale in 1915, the campaign for compulsory primary education was taken up by Vithalbhai Patel. In 1917 Patel introduced a Bill in the Bombay Legislative Council for permitting municipalities to introduce compulsion in municipal areas of the Province of Bombay. It was approved by the Governor-General and came to known as the Bombay Primary Education (District Municipalities) Act of 1918 came into effect. People also called it a Patel Act, after its mover. Thus, what Gokhale tried to achieve for the entire country but failed, Vithalbhai Patel achieved it for the Bombay Province.

The Patel Act kindled nationwide interest in the need of compulsory primary education for the whole country.

Calcutta University Commission (1917-19)

Calcutta University Commission was appointed by the Government of India in 1917 to inquire into the condition and prospects of Calcutta University under the chairmanship of Dr. Michael Sadler, the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University. The terms and reference included all aspects of secondary, collegiate and university education.

The major recommendations were:

  • In those days, the Matriculation Examination, which marked the end of school stage and constituted an entrance examination to the universities, was conducted by the universities. After two years, another public examination was held (also by the universities) which was called Intermediate Examination. This was followed by the First Degree examination. The commission concluded that the Intermediate stage was really a part of the school course and that the students at this stage could be more effectively taught by school methods than by college methods. So the Intermediate Classes of the university were to be transferred to Secondary Institutions;
  • The duration of under-graduate courses for the first degree should be increased to three years with a provision of Honours courses;
  • A Board of Secondary and Intermediate Education should be established for the purpose of reorganizing High School and Intermediate education on the lines recommended by it and for holding the Matriculation and Intermediate examinations;
  • The universities should, thus, be left to their proper sphere, namely, the provision of under-graduate and postgraduate education and holding of examination for the first, second and research degrees;
  • The universities should have Departments of Education with provision of teaching “Education” as a subject at B.A. level;
  • An Inter-University Board (IUB) should be established to coordinate the work of different Indian universities.

The recommendations of the Commission introduced a fresh outlook in university education in India and a number of new universities sprang up on the suggested lines. It had a profound influence on the university education for next 3 decades.

Comparing today’s scenario, we see that the 12 years of schooling and three years of degree course were recommended by the Sadler Commission (1917-1919). In this sense the Sadler Commission may be said to be forerunner of the present national educational structure. The introduction of the New Pattern of Education 10+2+3 in 1975 has been hailed as landmark in the reforms of education in India.

The Government of India Act, 1919 – Diarchy (double rule) in Provinces

Through the Government of India Act of 1919, for the first time the British tried to introduce a kind of democratic form of government.  This Act is also known as Montague-Chelmsford Reform.  Acknowledging their contribution to the WW1, Indians were involved in running the administration. Its main feature was the introduction of the principle of diarchy in the provinces. The Provincial Executive was divided into two parts – the British Councilors who took charge of what was known as “reserved subjects” and the Indian Ministers  took responsibility for “Transferred subjects”.  Here ‘subjects’ mean various administrative functions of the government.

Thus, the British councilors got ‘reserved subjects’ like law and order, the police, the land revenue, and irrigation and the Indian ministers were given ‘transferred subjects’  such as local self-government, education, public health, public works, agriculture, forest and fisheries.

Education, a transferred subject, became the direct responsibility of the Indian ministers. But Indian the ministers were unable to effect any major changes in education because finance, a reserved subject, was under the control of the English Councilors who were reluctant to give the required amount of money to Indian Ministers. This prompted the Indian National Congress launched the Civil Disobedience Movement.

An important result of the Montague – Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 was that colonial rulers were relieved of any responsibility for education in India and the Department of Education got transferred to the control of popular Indian ministries in the various provinces. Consequently, the Central special grants for education liberally sanctioned since 1902 was discontinued perhaps due to impact of the WW1. Financial difficulties prevented the provincial governments from taking up ambitious schemes of educational expansion or improvement. During this period expansion of education was mostly made by philanthropic effort.

Under Diarchy System, there was rapid development of mass education with the passing of Compulsory Education Acts in most of the provinces. From 1918 to 1930 every province in British India got Compulsory Education Act on its Statute Book. In fact, the decade 1917 to 1927 is regarded as the ‘bloom period’ for compulsory primary education in the British India.

On the flip side, the transfer of control of education to Provincial Governments not only isolated them from the Central Government but also them from one another. It also deprived the Government of India of the power of guiding and formulating an educational policy for the whole country, and it was no longer possible for it to act as an advisory and coordinating agency on problems of all India importance.

In nutshell, the changes introduced by the 1919 Montague-Chelmsford reforms mark the end of direct colonial responsibility for education.  This diarchy system of governance ended in 1937 with the introduction of Government of India Act (provincial autonomy Act) of 1935 which came into force in 1937.

Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), 1921

Central and Provincial Governments felt the need for a coordinating agency in the matter of education. Consequently, the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) was established at the Centre in 1921. This idea was first put forward by the Calcutta University Commission (1917-19) which felt “that the Government of India can perform an invaluable function by defining the general aims of educational policy, by giving advice and assistance to local governments and to universities” and “by supplying organized information as to the development of educational ideas in the various provinces, and also elsewhere than in India”.

But, in 1923, citing financial stress, the Board was abolished without consulting the provincial Governments. It was an ill conceived step and the CABE was revived in 1935 after the suggestion of the Hartog Committee, 1929. The Bureau of Education was also revived in 1937 on the recommendations of the CABE. It was again reconstituted and strengthened in 1945.

The Hartog Committee, 1929

As mentioned earlier that the Indian Ministers in provinces were unable to receive sufficient funds and failed to do produce expected results on matter related to education.  The continuous pressure for educational improvement resulted in the appointment of Hartog Committee in May 1928. The Committee submitted its report in September, 1929. Its report more or less shaped the educational policy of British Government during the last decades of its existence in India. The main findings of the Hartog Committee were as follows:

On primary education it said, “Primary education is ineffective, unless it at least produces literacy.”  The rapid increase in number of schools and colleges had resulted in the dilution of quality and education had become largely ineffective and wasteful. It emphasized the importance of primary education but warned against hasty expansion or attempt to introduce compulsion in education. It recommended consolidation and improvement by reducing the extent of stagnation and wastage.

On the secondary and university education – both designed to produce competent officials – it pointed out that the large extent of failure at the matriculation examination as mere wastage. It recommended the introduction of varied curricula in middle vernacular schools and retaining a large number of pupils in such schools and diverting more boys to industrial and commercial careers at the end of the middle school stage.

It criticized the policy of indiscriminate admission at university level for lowering of standards and recommended that “all efforts should be concentrated on improving university work, on confining the university to its proper function of giving good advanced education to students who are fit to receive it, and, in fact, to making the university a more fruitful and less disappointing agency in the life of the community.”

The Government of India Act, 1935

This was the last major legislation passed by the British government before the formal partition of India in 1947. It gave far greater measure of autonomy to the provinces and toyed with the idea of establishing a ‘Federation of India’ including all of British provinces and ‘princely States’ if at least 50% join it. It also split Burma from India and separated Sindh from Bombay and Orissa from Bihar. It abolished the diarchy system at the provinces but introduced it in the Central government. It created two Houses at Central government and established the Reserve Bank of India. It also introduced direct elections in India for the first time, giving voting rights to about 10% population.

With the introduction of ‘provincial autonomy, the Indian National Congress formed governments in 7 of the 11 provinces. The education ministers under provincial autonomy commanded far larger resources that under the diarchy system. But most plans remained unimplemented due to start of the WW2.

The Wardha Scheme of Basic Education, 1937-1938

Indian leaders were highly dissatisfied with the nature of the education system in the country. Gandhi harbored the idea that education system should be self supporting and that it should be based on ‘learning through activities’. An All India Educational Conference was held at Wardha to discuss his ideas of basic education and a committee led by Dr Zakir Hussain was appointed to chalk out a tentative scheme and syllabus for implementation. Its Report was published in 1938 under the title ‘Basic National Education’ or Wardha Scheme, offering a plan of free and compulsory education to children 7-14 years of age. It was implemented in the six provinces ruled by the Congress government.

The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) was quick to see the potential of the Wardha Scheme and appointed the Wardha Education Committee of Central Advisory Board of Education in January 1938 under the chairmanship of Shri B. G. Kher to examine its possibilities. The Kher Committee accepted the principle of education through activity and recommended that the age range of compulsion should be 6 to 14 years.

But then things turned unfavorable. As the WW2 broke out in 1939, the colonial rulers came up with a plan to drag India into its war. In protest, Congress ministered resigned. However, the Wardha Scheme reminded the possibility for the enforcement of free compulsory education in the country.

The Sargent Plan of Educational Development (1944)

After the end of Second World War, the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) in India published a comprehensive report on the “Post-War Educational Development in India” in the country.  It is also known as Sargent Plan after John Sargent, the then Educational Advisor to the Government of India. Surprisingly, the report was not known after its chairman (Sir Jogindra Singh), but after one of the Committee members – John Sargent.  Sargent Plan was one of the most comprehensive schemes of education ever proposed by the British Government after the Despatch of 1854.

This was the first systematic and national level attempt to review the problems of education as a whole. It aimed to create in India, in a period of not less than forty years, the same standard of educational attainments as had already been admitted in England.  Critics saw it as the British attempt to counter the efforts of Indian leaders to evolve a National System of Education (such as the Wardha Scheme).

It recommended:

  • Pre-primary education for 3-6 years age group; free, universal and compulsory elementary education for 6-11 years age group; high school education for 11-17 years age group for selected children, and a university course of 3 years after higher secondary; high schools to be of two types (i) academic and (ii) technical and vocational.
  • Adequate technical, commercial and arts education with different curricula.
  • Abolition of intermediate course.
  • Development of adult education and Liquidation of adult illiteracy in 20 years.
  • Stress on teachers’ training, physical education, education for the physically and mentally handicapped.

Although a bold and comprehensive scheme, it proposed no methodology for implementation. It is interesting to note that the Sargent Plan commented that

“a system of universal, compulsory and free education for all boys and girls between the ages of six and fourteen should be introduced as speedily as possible though in view of the practical difficulty of recruiting the requisite supply, of trained teachers it may not be possible to complete it in less than forty years.”

As the freedom movement was at its full swing those days, things stayed standstill.

The Kher Committee, 1948

Soon after the independence, the problem of evolving a national system of education came up for debate. The policies recommended by the Sargent Report appeared sound and acceptable. Thus, a special committee under the Chairmanship of B.G. Kher, the then Chief Minister of Bombay, was set up to further explore the proposals of the Sargent Plan. In its report, the committee accepted the program of universal, compulsory and free basic education as proposed in the Sargent report but reduced the time span from 40 (1944-84) to 16 years (1944-60).

It was this recommendation that formed the basis of Article 45 of the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution enjoining that the “State shall endeavor to provide within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years.” Ever since, efforts were being made to fulfill the provision of free and compulsory education for all Indian children through successive five-year plans and a host of Central and State Governments’ sponsored program. It finally culminated in the passage of the Right to Education Act, 2009.