Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the name of the 'reformer'

As had happened with many other Britons of his era, William Henry Cavendish, the Lord Bentinck, also found his first stint as a government servant in India ending with some degree of mess. Taking charge as Governor of Madras in 1803, he muddled along until 1806, when he brought out a 'dress code' for Indian soldiers. This code, which forbade Hindoos from displaying religious marks on their foreheads and required Mohammedans to shave off their beards led to the Vellore Mutiny of 1806; a single day on July 10 during which over 500 soldiers - 200 British and then, in retaliation, about 400 Indian - were killed. That was enough for Lord Bentinck to be called back home, in 1807.

It took him a couple of decades to return, this time as Governor-General of Bengal. Given the mandate to turn around the losses incurred by the East India Company, he stuck to it closely and was reasonably successful. Taking over as Governor-General of India in 1833, Lord Bentinck put his full weight behind Thomas Macaulay's 1835 Minute on Indian Education. He capped the subsidies being provided to schools which taught in any language other than English. To be fair, he also encouraged new schools promoting western education to come up, speeding up the spread of English as the link language across the sub-continent.

Lord Bentinck is also credited with putting an end to the practice of sati, where a widow is cremated at her husbands pyre. In some ways, this gave him the aura of a social reformer with a special interest in women's rights and he played up this image by advocating that girls should also be educated. With that image fresh in their minds, the founders of this school named it after the Lord Bentinck - and that name has remained unchanged since 1837!


Lowell said...

I have often found during my lifetime that authoritarian figures, not able to command respect, order dress code changes as a way of forcing obedience.

It seldom works.

Shantaram said...

@ Jacob: And we still don't learn there are limits to 'uniform'ity!