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News Analysis: Why Vidyasagar is important to the hoi polloi of Bengal

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee holding the broken bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar at Vidyasagar College in Kolkata on Tuesday.

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee holding the broken bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar at Vidyasagar College in Kolkata on Tuesday.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

Bengalis mostly remember him for his pioneering work, Barna Parichay, a book to introduce Bengali to beginners.

On May 14, Tuesday, a few men clad in saffron shirts broke away from a mega rally of BJP president Amit Shah and entered a nondescript building in central Kolkata. They attacked the building, smashing the bust of 19th century educationist and reformer Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyay, who was conferred with the title Vidyasagar – the ocean of education.

As the BJP denied that its cadre indulged in the vandalism, the civil society was furious and the entire social media space was flooded with responses. The reason lies in Vidyasagar’s – as he is usually referred to – contribution to the making of the modern Bengali society. He was not just a formidable intellectual but reformed a community in 19th century, much like Periyar Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy or Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

Bengalis mostly remember him for his pioneering work, Barna Parichay, a book to introduce Bengali to beginners. But the range of his work is vast -- from developing the language, especially its modern prose form, to sustained campaigns against various social menaces.

Burnt motorcycle near the Vidyasagar College in Kolkata on May 14, 2019.

Burnt motorcycle near the Vidyasagar College in Kolkata on May 14, 2019.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

 

One of his key achievements was to push the British Legislative Council on widow remarriage, opposed by the bhadralok ruling class and religious bodies. He advocated education for all – especially women– and raising of the marriageable age of the girl child, which too was challenged by the ruling class. He also campaigned against polygamy. Modern Indian laws, pertaining to the subjects, are shaped partly on discourses first underscored in public space by Vidyasagar for which he was isolated.

Tormented by bhadralok

Being severely tormented by the English-speaking bhadrolok of the 19th century, he left Kolkata in his declining years. In an interview, published in a book, Puratan Prasanga [past subjects], Vidyasagar concluded that he would never “teach English to children” in perhaps next life.

“The attack on Vidyasagar indicates two things. One, that women’s emancipation lost its meaning in today’s Bengal and two that the bell has tolled for the Bengali language, which evolved with him, indicating its death,” said Shibaji Bandopadhyay, an eminent Kolkata-based scholar.

Throughout the day, the issue of bust demolition dominated the social media. On ground, political parties and the civil society staged demonstrations and rallies and BJP leaders sounded apologetic, off record.

But it may not affect BJP in all the nine seats that go to the polls on May 19, as the event is not commanded by its leadership. While the party can be critically examined for staging an unimaginably big rally on a not so wide lane, the police can also be questioned for not managing to keep the students and the TMC’s black flag waving supporters inside, triggering the incident.

The TMC, however, argued that they “have the right to protest democratically” while the BJP said “TMC triggered the violence.”

The results in three Kolkata seats would indicate who gained and who did not, once the results are out on May 23.

“The question, however, is whether Bengal will forgive the perpetrators. Bengal never forgave the Naxals for similar action,” said Partha Sengupta, a former Communist Party of India activist.

Mr. Sengupta organised the civil society to place Vidyasagar’s head on the pedestal after it was chopped off by ultra-left activists in 1970, albeit to underscore a completely different political thought.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 3:22:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/news-analysis-why-vidyasagar-is-important-to-the-hoi-polloi-of-bengal/article27137578.ece

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