Swarajbir, Punjabi’s foremost playwrights today, a poet of sterling quality and someone whose editorial quill has shaken the world of Punjabi journalism out of its slumber, has written in the newspaper’s May 16, 2019 edition about the sad and hugely disturbing episode in Calcutta wherein the bust of polymath Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was smashed by hooligans as part of a political project whose short term objective is to impact votes and long term aim is to effect a cultural change.
We bring to the readers of Punjab Today the English translation of Swarajbir’s piece. This English translation is at the Punjab Today’s own initiative and the author is not responsible for any unintended deviation from the original. Feedback is welcome. — Editor, Punjab Today.
Whose statue did they vandalise; who was he?
THIS IS THE Bengal of the 19th century. Not today's West Bengal, but Bengal. The larger common Bengal, that today's Bangladesh is also a part of.
A storm of new ideas is brewing up in that Bengal. Bengalis, inspired by the modernity coming from the West, are getting ready for a battle against orthodoxy and conservative thinking.
A battle of ideas is in the air. At times it seems these young people will forever uproot the old thinking that time and modernity has rendered obsolete.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy
The caravan is led by Ram Mohan Rai.
Conversant with Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English, French and a few more languages, he is raising his voice to advocate a new kind of education. The polymath is raising awareness about women's rights and slamming the practice of sati and polygamy. He is preaching about One Supreme God and lays the foundation of Brahmo Samaj.
Henry Vivian Derozio
There is also Henry Vivian Derozio whose revolutionary poetry is adding to the fervour of the times.
There is also Debendranath Tagore, the father of Rabindranath Tagore, laying the foundation of the Tattwabodhini Sabha. Also active in those times is Keshub Chandra Sen.
But then there is also another huge looming persona of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the principal of the Sanskrit College whose intellectual ability and sterling character are only too well known all around. He is an unflinching man with guts.
He lives what he preaches.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar
A major scholar, he has found new path-breaking ways of teaching Sanskrit, has rationalized and simplified the Bengali alphabet and typography, given a new direction to Bangla prose, wrote a new book to help learn Bangla (Borno Porichoy, 1854) and opened the doors of the Sanskrit College to non-Brahmans.
He doesn’t merely advocate the need to impart education to women; he has actually opened 35 schools for girl students, funding them from his own pocket. He opposes child marriage and polygamy. He is putting in massive efforts in the fight for widows' right to remarry.
This is how historian Bipin Chandra records the words of a primary witness (Pandit Shivanath Shastri) who had witnessed the marriage of a widow in Calcutta on December 7, 1956, the first such in India to take place legally:
Excerpt from G L Chandavarkar's book Builders of Modern India - Dondo Keshav Karve p.136 containing the description of the first widow remarriage of 1956.
"I shall never forget the day. When Pandit Vidyasagra came with his friend, the bridegroom, at the head of a large procession. The crowd of spectators was so great that there was not an inch of moving space, and many fell into the big drains which were to be seen by the sides of Calcutta streets in those days. After the ceremony, it became the subject of discussion everywhere, in the bazaars and in the shops, in the streets, in the public squares, in students' lodging houses, in gentleman's drawing rooms, in offices and in distant village homes where even women earnestly discussed it among themselves. The weavers of Santipore issued a peculiar kind of women's sari which contained, woven along its borders, the first line of a newly composed song which went on to say, 'May Vidyasagar Live Long.'”
Thanks to Vidyasagar's efforts, 25 widows remarried between 1855 and 1860. In 1856, Hindu widows won the legal right to remarry in the form of the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act, 1856. Vidyasagar and his friends played a huge role in seeing this legislation through.
To quote historian Bipan Chander, Vidyasagar, by raising his voice for the widows' right to remarry, fell foul of the orthodox Hindus and repeatedly received death threats. Somehow, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar survived those dangerous times, but on May 14, 2019, his bust in Kolkata was not so fortunate.
Bharti Janata Party president Amit Shah's roadshow in Kolkata was scheduled for May 14. Activists of the BJP and the Trinamool Congress clashed at various places and the brawl spilled over to the Vidyasagar College located on the College Street. Reports said the BJP supporters entered the college and smashed the bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
Mamata with smashed bust
All this fracas happened just an hour before the arrival of Amit Shah. West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC leader Mamata Bannerjee turned this into a highly emotive issue, gathered the shards from the vandalised bust in her lap and made a highly emotionally surcharged statement.
It has been alleged that some among the vandals were raising slogans - 'Vidyasagar finished, how'z the Josh?' (The reference is to a dialogue from the movie Uri, often quoted by the prime minister.)
From The Telegraph, May 15, 2019
A Kolkata-based newspaper has termed the episode as a clash between two cultures. As per this newspaper, there is enough room in the Bengali culture for different ideas, traditions and sects but the BJP supporters only believe in thrusting their own ideology down everyone's throat.
(The unforeseen intervention pits two images against each other: one that projects Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his lieutenants as "chowkidars” and the other standing up to protect the legacy of Vidyasagar who had played a pioneering role in reforming Hinduism. - The Telegraph, May 15, 2019; "Clash of cultures: Shocked Bengal witnesses vandalism of Vidyasagar bust" by Meghdeep Bhattacharyya. This quote is not in the original piece by Swarajbir. — Ed.)
The BJP has refuted these reports, claiming that the bust was smashed instead by the workers of the TMC. The question is not about who really did smash the bust, the BJP's workers or the TMC's. The question is whether those who were doing so really knew what they were doing, whose bust were they smashing?
We can see in what intolerant times we have landed. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's name is taken with much pride and respect in the context of 19th century Bengal Renaissance. His work in the field of women's emancipation was revolutionary at its core.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was not just an armchair intellectual whose contribution are normally limited to writing essays and books; he was someone who actually ventured into the rough and tumble of society and tried to fight to turn his ideas into reality. He faced sharp and toxic opposition, the lot of anyone who takes a plunge to grapple with the reality of the times.
Instead of becoming a preacher sermonising from his perch in the drawing room, he preferred to take the risk and get his hands dirty in the streets and bazaars of his land.
He spent his last days living among the Santhal tribe. He was someone whom Antonio Gramsci describes as an Organic Intellectual. If we do not respect our elders such as this man, then it could only mean that we have now become people oozing with deeply held hatred. We are powerless before this hatred. Hate and intolerance have no more left us humane. We perhaps do not know which direction we are headed for.
Why is this hatred being spread? Is the time to settle differences through goshthi, through the great Indian argumentative tradition, over in our country? Why is an effort afoot to claim and capture our mindspace by turning hate into a weapon?
Hatred for minorities, hatred for neighbouring countries, constantly flinging accusations against opponents, character assassination — all these are becoming the hallmarks of our thought process. We need to pause and think: why is this happening?
(References: Bipin Chandra's Modern India and Partha Chatterjee's Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World.)
The author is Editor, Punjabi Tribune.
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