The Politics of Persian Language Education in Colonial India

The following is a guest post by Amanda Lanzillo, a PhD candidate in History at Indiana University-Bloomington. She is currently spending a year conducting archival research in Lucknow, Hyderabad, and Delhi through fellowships from the American Institute of Indian Studies and Fulbright-Hays. Her research analyzes professional cultures and forms of patronage in nineteenth-century urban South Asia.

A Persian poem adorning the walls of the Agra Palace (Wikimedia)

In the standard narrative of the decline of Persian in India, as the Mughal Empire and its successor states waned and the British East India Company consolidated power on the subcontinent, Persian was displaced as a literary, intellectual, and administrative language. In this narrative, a loss of patronage, the slowing of migration from Iran and Central Asia, and elite use of “vernacular” Indian languages like Urdu all sped the downfall of Indian Persian. This narrative captures several processes by which Indian Persian declined between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. However, it also obscures the dynamic language politics of colonial India, in which users of Persian negotiated the place of the language with the colonial state. The narrative of a linear displacement of Persian by Indian vernacular languages and English was a colonial ideal concealing a messier reality.

Persian was a major language of literary and intellectual production among North Indian Muslim elites from the twelfth century. By the sixteenth century, through Mughal patronage, it crystallized as the language of empire and the most prominent language of North Indian written discourse. Written Indo-Persian provided a shared idiom for the polyglot empire. Strong knowledge of Persian became a requisite for employment in many professional positions, including those traditionally held by Hindus; both Hindus and Muslims also sought Mughal literary patronage through mastery of Persian. Deccani dynasties likewise patronized Persian, and in both North Indian and Deccani contexts Iranian and Central Asians migrants contributed to the language’s prestige.

The British East India Company initially maintained Persian’s official position, relying on it to communicate with local power-brokers. However, following the administrative switch to English in the 1830s, Persian was increasingly marginalized in Indian society, to the degree that it largely disappeared from the public sphere by Indian independence. While Persian’s decline after the rise of British power in India is often portrayed as inevitable, Persian was marginalized not only by its loss of political position, but through colonial policies that divorced the language from its Indian history.

1909 Map of the British Raj (Wikimedia)

One of the most prominent areas in which Indian users of Persian negotiated language politics with the colonial regime was education. Local commitment to the language compelled the regime to reintroduce Persian to some government-run schools in the late nineteenth century. Despite colonial skepticism about its relevance, for many Indians, Persian continued to offer access to extra-colonial forms of prestige, connecting users to centuries of literary and political heritage and providing limited but real employment opportunities. At the same time, colonial educational projects diminished Persian’s salience in India by separating Persian education from the study of Indo-Persian literature. For colonial administrators, Persian had little claim to “Indianness” because it lacked inherent religious relevance or a vernacular constituency. By the mid-nineteenth century the regime encouraged vernacular education in languages like Urdu. Due to both Indian patronage and colonial encouragement, Urdu– a Persianized register of Hindustani– emerged as both a language for popular Islamic discourse and a shared secular idiom for discussing law, politics, and literature.

Persian’s continued prestige in late nineteenth-century North India and the Deccan thus perplexed and vexed colonial education officers. In the the wake of the anti-British uprising of 1857, new questions about the language of education emerged within the newly constituted British Raj. Earlier debates had pitted “Orientalists,” who promoted the use of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit against “Anglicists,” who argued that Indian civilizational improvement demanded the English education. This debate was briefly settled in favor of English by the 1835 English Education Act, predicated on Thomas Babington MaCaulay’s famous dismissal of classical Indian languages as useless for the creation of compliant colonized people.

By the mid-nineteenth century the debate shifted. Colonial policy-makers were now divided between proponents of English-language education and those advocating teaching “English” knowledge through Indian vernacular languages. Despite the dominance of English at the highest levels of Indian education, vernacular education gained popularity in colonial primary and secondary schools. In most government schools in North India excluding Bengal, primary and secondary education took place in Hindustani, written in Perso-Arabic script (Urdu) or Devanagari (Hindi). This was true even in regions like Punjab, where Hindustani was not the most common vernacular.

In mid nineteenth-century North India, many students were educated not by the colonial government, but in schools organized by neighborhood or religious leaders. Among these, Persian-medium schools were often the most prestigious, because Persian had previously been linked to the prospect of government work. Colonial reports admitted that even after the removal of Persian as a language of administration, Persian schools were attended by students of diverse religious and caste backgrounds “who can afford… this luxury,”because they were seen as imparting economically viable skills.

Persian Language Seal of Archibald Swinton (1731-1804) dated 1174 in the 2nd regnal year of Shah ʻAlam II (1760/61): Archībāld Svīntan Bahādur Rustam Jang. From a copy of the poem Sūz va Gudāz ‘Burning and Melting’ by Nawʻī Khabūshānī (British Library Or.2839, f.1r)

Persian schools typically charged higher fees than Arabic- or Sanskrit- medium schools, which often focused on religious education. Some Muslim pupils learned Persian in religious schools that taught both Arabic and Persian, but many learned Persian in neighborhood schools, studying their religious tradition through separate Arabic schools or tutors. In Persian schools they were joined by the sons of Hindu merchants and service gentry; members of these classes had pursued Persian education for generations for economic benefit and social prestige.

The desire of colonial education officers to draw the sons of prestigious Indians to government schools meant that they were willing to consider some Indian perspectives on what constituted a well-rounded education. In what one colonial administrator termed “a concession to popular opinion,” in the Northwestern Provinces the administration began to reintroduce Persian courses to government-run schools by the mid-1860s. As they did so they developed an educational style markedly different from the Persian education that dominated local schools.

Although the Bahār-i dānish was excluded from colonial curricula, it remained popular in locally-run schools. This edition was printed in Lucknow in 1896.

In locally-run schools Persian was taught through exposure to classical texts. Poetry used in Persian education included ʿAbdul Rahmān Jami’s Yūsuf o Zulaykhā, the Būstān of Saʿadī Shīrāzī, and Qaṣāʼid of Urfī Shīrāzī. Prose texts included the Bahār-i dānish of ʿInāyat Allāh Kambūh or Mīnā Bāzār, an eighteenth-century work by an unknown author.  To learn writing style, Indian students studied epistolary collections known as inshā’. These texts connected Indian Persian learners to a trans-regional literary sphere, while also offering access to localized intellectual heritage. Works like Mīnā Bāzār and Bahār-i dānish and many of the inshā’ texts, were specifically Indo-Persian, referencing local geographies and practices.

Even while acquiescing to demands for Persian-language classes in some government schools, colonial administrators developed forms of Persian education that diminished its regional salience. Much of the specifically Indo-Persian canon was purged from colonial schools. Mīnā Bāzār and Bahār-i dānish were excluded from Raj-era curricula because members of education departments saw them as erotic and morally objectionable. British administrators perceived texts written outside of India as more classically Persian and of higher moral quality. Saʿadī’s Būstān and Gulistān were popular in colonial curricula once students had mastered grammar, but even “acceptable” works were often extracted and compiled in readers.

Although eighteenth-century British East India Company servants had studied Persian in their attempt to develop knowledge of India, late colonial administrative discourse treated the language as useless. Colonial education officers argued that if Indians insisted on learning Persian, it should be taught as a foreign language. They began adapting Persian grammars that had been used to teach Persian to East India Company servants for use in Indian primary schools. They also commissioned Indian education officers to produce grammars and readers. These works presented Persian systematically, but without reference to its position as an Indian language.


The Qavāʿid-e Fārsī was used to teach Persian to East India Company officials. Colonial education departments sponsored its reprinting, with editions aimed at North Indian schoolboys.

Colonial educational administrators introduced Persian to government schools in this limited way to attract elite North Indian families to the government-run educational system. Many of these families had held service gentry positions in earlier regimes, and some had transitioned to British service.Thus, even those who worked within the regime often educated their sons outside of it (educated girls were educated at home, or in missionary or reformist society schools). The colonial attempt to attract these families to government schools in the 1860s and 1870s was initially unsuccessful. The preference for locally-run education points to the continued cultural capital of Indians who wrote Persian reflecting the close study of classical literature. It also suggests that opportunities for elite employment were not limited to the colonial state.

Persian and Urdu-language tazkirahs, or biographical compendia, compiled after 1857 demonstrate the position of Persian within the evolving multilingual landscapes of North India and the Deccan. The poets and intellectuals featured in these texts were educated first in Persian and, if they were Muslim, Arabic. Vernacular and English education followed at the secondary or tertiary levels; by the early twentieth century many regional elites sent their sons to colonial schools at these levels. Multilingualism allowed mobility between patrons, and through the early twentieth century, tazkirahs feature individuals who lost in the British administration but found patronage from major estates or quasi-autonomous states. Many of these large estates and princely states continued to use Persian through the close of the nineteenth century.

Like other tazkirahs of the era, this 1911-12 biographical compendia of poets from Hyderabad features individuals who used multilingualism in Persian, Urdu, Arabic and English to move between Hyderabadi, British, and local forms of employment.

Although the introduction of Persian to government schools was initially unsuccessful in attracting regional elites, the colonial model of Persian education impacted locally-run schools.  From the mid-nineteenth century, colonial education departments offered grants to “indigenous” schools that removed religion classes and sent teachers to training programs. “Grants-in-aid” to locally-run schools brought colonial oversight and spurred the introduction of government-style Persian textbooks beyond government schools.

The importance of Persian education to families living in late-nineteenth century North India is often overlooked, perhaps because colonial rhetoric in the period treated Persian as irrelevant and emphasized the English-vernacular debate in education. Nonetheless, for many Indian elites, Persian remained a vital part of a well-rounded education. Persian literacy offered access to an extra-colonial identity marker and extra-colonial forms of employment and patronage.

The colonial state’s response to interest in Persian education divorced the language from Indian cultural geographies. As such, the spread of the colonial model of language education may have contributed to the decline of Persian. Even as Indian children continued to learn the language, they were taught that it lacked connections to their own context. Indian users of Persian undermined colonial discourse about the irrelevance of the language by insisting on its use in education. In the end, however, the constraints placed on these Persian users by colonial educational models likely spurred the decline of Persian in India.

 

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  1. It’s refreshing to see the problematic narrative of Persian’s drastic decline in post-Mughal India increasingly taken to task by a new generation of critical and historical-minded scholars. Amanda is in good company. In addition to this excellent piece, I recently learnd about from Arthur Dudeny’s informative talk about East India Company’s policy towards teaching Persian:
    https://soundcloud.com/the-british-library/persian-grammar-books

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