People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 26

July 01, 2007

“Delhi Renaissance”, Intellectuals And The 1857 Uprising


College magazines, Delhi College, 1937 and 1939


S Rahman


THE 1857 upsurge is being celebrated and remembered from varied perspectives. The 150th anniversary of the event has generated widespread interest of scholars, leading to fresh investigations and also questioning of established stereotypes about the event. One issue that merits attention is the tumultuous impact of the Great Uprising on the intellectual life of Delhi, especially against the backdrop of the “Delhi Renaissance” (as it was called by C F Andrews) during the 1840s and 50s.


Delhi College or Dilli Kalij as it was generally known during those vibrant decades was the epicentre of this phenomenon called the Delhi Renaissance. Delhi College was one of the first institutions in India to initiate instruction in modern science through the local language. Despite its seminal contribution to the building of modern India, the institution and its teachers were perceived as disloyal by the rebels. Surely the involvement of Europeans with the institution, embracing of Christianity by a few celebrated teachers of the college, and the teaching of modern science—which was seen as part of the imperial baggage—were the three major stigmas that invited the wrath of the rebels. It could be seen in action on Monday, May 11, 1857, when the rebels entered the Kashmiri Gate building of the College and began looting and vandalising the library around 12 o’clock during the day. They chose all the English books on science, mathematics, history and other subjects and tore them apart, forming a thick layer in the garden of the college. Most of the Urdu, Arabic and Persian books were taken away and later sold for peanuts in the streets of Delhi. However, it will be interesting to look at the real character and role of the college and its teachers in the context of the 1857 uprising.




Delhi College was founded as a madrasa in 1792 but was raised to the status of a college in 1825 with a magnanimous grant from Nawab Itmaduddaulah of Lucknow. It developed a high reputation as a centre of learning in the Mughal capital, and as an arena of dialogue between eastern and western curricula, carried out in Urdu. According to Abdul Haq the author of a well-known history of the institution, “Delhi College could do what Fort William College could not do” in Calcutta. Why such a development was possible at a time when English occupied the central place due to the Macaulayan diktat can be explained on two grounds. First, most of the Delhi Renaissance men had a traditional education; they came into contact with western ideas through translations. They were not averse to learning English, but saw it as a subsidiary subject in a revived vernacular curriculum. Secondly, there was the pre-1857 milieu in Delhi. There was an atmosphere of relaxed cooperation and respect for each other’s language and culture. There was a sizable section of the British which was somewhat swept away by the encapsulating ambience of the vibrant Urdu culture that seemed to mesh so effortlessly with the lifestyle of the Indian nobility. Some of these early British officials were well versed in Persian classics as well as in Urdu. But all this flowering of culture and mixing of the Indian elite with the Europeans was an enclaved activity, confined merely to the urban sections. On the other hand, the sepoys and other rebels from the mofussil were subject to imperial arrogance, religious provocations and rapacious policies of loot. Delhi College, it should be emphasised, needs to be viewed in this political and cultural context.


One of the most prominent Europeans associated with the college was Felix Boutros, who was French and principal of the college during the late 1830s and early 40s. He was committed to Urdu as the medium of instruction, which led to the founding of the famous Delhi College Vernacular Translation Society in 1841, which was also known as ‘The Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge’. This society was virtually responsible for instilling a new spirit into the world of knowledge through its useful translations of European scientific works. This difficult process of translation “added to the zest for this modern knowledge and made education itself creative”. The students learnt to think in new ways. Garcin de Tassy, a leading nineteenth century French scholar, spoke about the society in these words:


Vernacular Translation Society is a remarkable association that has done a commendable job in the publication of useful knowledge. Its first secretary was our fellow countryman Mr Felix Boutros.


There were a large number of other Europeans associated with the college but most of them were not really haughty bureaucrats but some liberal and broadminded teachers. There were even cases where a European teacher was reprimanded and also penalised for his racial arrogance. One such case was of Mr French, a Third Master, whose services were terminated by the government on the recommendation of the principal, Mr Boutros, just a few years before the 1857 uprising. While referring the case to the committee, Boutros wrote:


All those Indian teachers for whom he (Mr French) has such contempt are the students of this college. They are all highly respected people with knowledge of science and proficiency in English language. It’s not surprising that they should feel offended at Mr French’s behaviour. If they are not by all means “equal” to Mr French, they are certainly better than him in some ways.




Thus one can say that pre-1857 Delhi comprised of cultured, non-competing and mutually respecting elites and the reason was that all partook of the common diet of Delhi’s Urdu culture. This was not a gift from the ‘White Mughals’, who are being touted as those who brought vibrancy to the compositeness of Indian culture. This shared culture of immense diversity, cutting across religious divide, was an inheritance, which some of these European teachers at Delhi College valued and strived to expand with the help and cooperation of Dilliwalas like Master Ramchandra, Munshi Zakaullah and others.


Master Ramchandra (1821-1880), student and teacher of mathematics, Delhi College, and leading light of the 'Delhi renaissance'


Ramchandra was a student and later one of the most prominent science and mathematics teachers of the college. He was the one who enthusiastically cooperated with his European teachers to pursue translations of science textbooks. He strongly felt that translation of textbooks of modern science into the vernaculars would not only bring modern science to the people in their own idiom but also generate familiarity with and appeal for this new knowledge.


During one of the meetings of the Delhi Society, Ramchandra entered into an argument with a Christian missionary Father Smith, who was dismissive of translation as a meaningful process of acquiring knowledge. Ramchandra came out with an argument that was pregnant with historical consciousness, unusual for the period. He said:


It is not that only Muslims gained through the translation of Greek works but Europe also acquired knowledge through translations only. The Muslims got it from the Greeks, which they later transmitted to the Europeans. This is how knowledge spread in Europe.


This way Ramchandra not only defended translation but also gave his own perception of the past. He could visualise the growth of knowledge in a cross-cultural perspective, countering thereby all those missionaries and colonial administrators who were denigrating the East as barbaric and uncivilised. He felt that the growth of modern scientific knowledge had been a cumulative process where all cultures had an equally important role to play. No one civilisation could lay exclusive claims over it. Ramchandra was convinced that vernacular was best suited for the transmission of science as it was more instinctive and natural and for this reason he wanted most of the European knowledge to be translated into Urdu. He edited three fortnightly papers in Urdu and one of them Fawaid-ul-Nazrin, launched on March 23, 1845, was totally devoted to science.


Munshi Zakaullah was one of Ramchandra’s favourite students. His intellectual skills and commanding presence added vibrancy to the already charged milieu. He defined science as “a knowledge which has truth, an absolute truth and nothing but the truth” and was passionately involved in the project of translation all his life. These translations and other original writings on science widened the range of Urdu and added to its vitality as a language. We could now find in it the flavour of European ideas and philosophies, and it flowered as a language for the transmission of science. It was a significant transformation for a language associated till then with the Mughal court culture, known merely for poetic and rhetorical expression. In all this Delhi College served as “an institution that mediated between eastern and western cultures and mentalities, and did so in the vernacular, contributing to the emergence of an Urdu-speaking and reading elite in North India, composed of individuals of all religious persuasions”.


Maulvi Zakaullah, alumnus of Delhi College, mathematician and social historian


Thus Delhi College really caught the imagination of the people for the windows it opened. The students in the college “were allowed to try astonishing experiments with unknown chemical gases”. Munshi Zakaullah himself told C F Andrews about the situation, and associated this early efflorescence to the newness of the subjects that were taught as part of the English learning. The students felt themselves to be pioneers in their own country, and therefore dreamt dreams and saw visions. Ramchandra used to publish notices of English science in his fortnightly magazines where the dogmas of ancient philosophy and Hindu superstitions were subjected to scientific criticism. The Delhi College, no doubt, led to a remarkable and sudden outburst of brilliant intellectual life. Nazir Ahmad, the noted alumnus of the college commented thus about his own experience, “If I had not studied in Delhi College, I would have been a maulvi, narrow and bigoted”. However, the college had its detractors in the city that did not relish the new learning and saw these innovations as a serious threat to their much-loved theories of ancient Greek philosophy. This fear or antagonism was not entirely misplaced, as the events leading up to 1857 will testify.


The year 1852 was an important year in the life of Master Ramchandra as well as his alma mater Delhi College. Ramchandra converted to Christianity that year and was baptised in the famous St James Church at Kashmiri Gate, not far from his college. The event led to consternation in the city and confirmed people’s apprehensions about English education and Western learning. Besides Ramchandra, two other notable figures followed suit. One was Dr Chiman Lal, who was one of the first allopathic doctors in the city and who also attended upon the Emperor, and the second was Maulavi Imaduddin, who came to be known as Padri Imaduddin and was later a most active Christian polemicist. Some of the scholars believe that the two other alumni of Delhi College, Nazir Ahmad, a well-known novelist and educationist and Zakaullah, the famous historian and mathematician, came close to converting to Christianity, the religion chosen by their dear teacher Master Ramchandra. The direct aftermath of these conversions was that the student count in the college went down heavily, and Ramchandra’s fortnightly journals also suffered in terms of subscribers, leading to their closing down soon after.


When the sepoys entered the city, the Delhi College was an obvious target of their wrath. Its principal Mr Taylor was killed within the premises of the college; Dr Chiman Lal also could not escape the people’s anger due to his supposed ‘betrayal of faith’, while Ramchandra was lucky to elude the angry sepoys. After hiding for a few days in Matola village near Delhi, he reached Roorki and joined the British camp. He could come back to the ruined city after British control was restored, but was saddened to see the havoc caused, not only by the Indian rebels, but also by those who flaunted their faith for justice and fair play. Citing his own experience with the British bureaucracy soon after 1857, Ramchandra, who was a Christian by choice, found their conduct not only uncivil but un-Christian as well. The college surely suffered after 1857 but the “Renaissance” it had initiated did not end with it, it garnered more strength with time and expanded beyond the confines of Delhi into North India.