“The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge” by Joshua Ehrlich


Knowledge is power. This is a statement often made to reinforce the relentless pursuit of data, information and know-how to get ahead in business and technology. Scholarship or studiousness is seen as a virtue that can give one an edge over the others in the face of tough competition. With such a celebration of knowledge, it appears that anything can be legitimized if it is connected with knowledge creation or dissemination. In The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge, Joshua Ehrlich examines a much stronger, to the point of being literal, historical connection between knowledge and power. 

The subject of his study is the late 18th- to mid-19th-century regime of the East India Company. The Company was questioned by Indian sovereigns as well as the British Parliament for its pretense to run Indian territory it captured as if it were a sovereign power. After all, they objected, it was absurd for a commercial entity to have any credentials for governance. In response to such attacks, Governor General Lord Hastings (1772-85) framed the nature of the Company as that of a benevolent patron who encouraged learning among Indian and European scholars. “Conciliation” was his policy:


This idea, derived from both European and Mughal sources, denoted a commercial style of politics based on accommodation and negotiation. In the context of scholarly patronage, it tapped into widespread positive associations between commerce and knowledge. Hastings maintained that patronizing European scholar-officials and Indian learned elites would conciliate opinion toward the Company state. If this hybrid entity was to last, he suggested, it must traffic not only in material goods but also in intellectual ones.


Such cultivation of literature and science “raised the mercantile character to the highest degree of exaltation.” Richard Wellesley, the Governor-General between 1798 and 1805, continued the same policy of promoting production of knowledge to another end: he did it to establish himself as a sovereign, a power larger than the Company. After defeating Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, he not only preserved the Sultan’s library but also published a lot of titles for wider dissemination. His excessive patronage to scholars did not go down well with the Company directors who did not appreciate the pomposity associated with it. Their hostility towards him turned into a systemic dislike and suspicion for projects cultivated in the name of education.


The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge, Joshua Ehrlich (Cambridge University Press, July 2024)
The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge, Joshua Ehrlich (Cambridge University Press, July 2024)

Ehrlich’s history of knowledge in this period does not end there though. The next turn in the knowledge-power relation witnessed that interest in information and knowledge was kept alive by scholar-officials rather than people of the stature of the Governor-General. The scholar-officials justified their work related to compiling dictionaries, writing anthropological accounts and producing surveys of various kinds (geographical being one) by arguing that it would help to “extend and secure the control of the state.” However, their work was seen as dispensable and even expensive. Budgets previously dedicated for literary and scientific projects were cut and whatever was left was allotted to “works of real utility”, for example:


It was too much to expect, that young gentlemen would descend from the rostrum, – where they had been displaying their acquirements in … high branches of human knowledge – to count bales and to measure muslins … Surely, if they [the directors] wished to form a good and active merchant, they would not commence by making him a Doctor of Laws or an expounder of philosophy … Instead of sending out writers qualified for the purposes of commerce, they prepared to pervade India with an army of young Grotiuses and Puffendorfs – whose qualifications were too high for the situations they were intended to fill – whose minds could not descend to the drudgery of the counting-house.


On the receiving side of such scorn, the scholar-officials complained that they and their work were not seen as deserving of Company’s support, arguing that the Company “excels every other Government in its hatred of knowledge”. Thus, what started out as conciliation was no longer seen as relevant. “By the 1820s,” Ehrlich writes, “they [the Company directors] had reached the conclusion that they had little to gain politically from scholarly patronage”.


The question of education in India is generally seen as starting with Lord Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Education in which he made a case for mass education in India by dismissing Indian knowledge as inferior to that of Europe. Without the policy of conciliation and the budget debates that preceded it, the 1835 minute seems to be a random entry point into education in India. Ehrlich reminds that Macaulay’s minute was shaped by the need to identify public education as a cause worthy of investment and also a means to respond to the older question of justifying the Company rule in India. Ehrlich circles back to the moment when the first questions about Company’s pretense to ruling as sovereign were raised and were again addressed with knowledge but at a mass level:


Pressure on the Company in Britain and India now came largely from “public opinion” as voiced in meetings, petitions, and the press. For all of these reasons, the debates on education were variegated and diffuse. Even so, they coalesced around the premise that the Company’s legitimacy was at stake and the question of how much it could hope to shape Indian society. The idea of conciliation regained prominence in these debates but also changed in meaning in several important ways. First, it no longer entailed patronizing scholar-officials, except as translators for education purposes. Second, it did entail patronizing Indian learned elites but increasingly to gain access to the wider populace. Thus, even many officials who advocated conciliation now described it as merely a temporary expedient. Mass education was held to be more in keeping with the character of a powerful state.


As a contribution to the history of knowledge, The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge is a must-read for anyone looking for a scholarly but concise account of the colonial origins of education policy in India. It will also immensely help those researching the historical relationship between state and agencies bestowed with knowledge production by the state.

But some might also note that EIC knowledge activities have apparent echoes in statements made and activities undertaken by such “big tech” multinationals as Google. The author draws this analogy explicitly, perhaps in an effort to establish direct contemporary relevance. But the differences between Big Tech and the EIC are such that the analogy may be only skin-deep;  echoes aside, the EIC is worth studying on its own account. The account Ehrlich has provided is likely to remind one not of the likes of Google—if anything, Big Tech is definitely interested in research and development—but of conversations happening in the academic institutions that have to decide which  programs and departments ought to survive on campuses and which ones ought not.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.