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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 39, New Delhi, September 12, 2020

De-iconisation of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar | Pabitra Kumar Sarkar

Friday 11 September 2020


[Sept 26, 1890, is 200th birth anniversary of Iswarchandra Vidyasagar]

by Pabitra Kumar Sarkar

On March 2001, a group of Talibani terrorists blasted the majestic Buddhist statue at Bamian valley in Afganistan by charging powerful dynamite. It was one of the tallest such statues in the world. The historic statue which was 1500 hundred years old, was a unique artifice. Bamian is a heritage site of the UNESCO.

The statue was chiselled out on the hill surface. But this sort of sculptural art is of no value to the senseless Islamic fundamentalists. The whole world was taken aback at this act of vandalism. Fifty-four Islamic countries including Pakistan condemned this gruesome act. At present the Govt. of Switzerland has taken the initiative of rebuilding the statue. The icon may be rebuilt but not the tradition.

Fundamentalists of all hues, religious or political, are of same nature. In 1969-70 a group of Ultra-left Naxalites in the name of so-called people’s democratic revolution ruthlessly attacked the democratic values earned through reforms or the freedom movement. Mainly the youth and students of Kolkata and other cities of West Bengal became the bulwark of this ’revolution’.

They were against the tradition and cultural heritage of the country. They called Raja Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Rabindranath and such others as ’Reactionary Bourgeosie’ and defaced their statues. Charu Majumder, Kanu Sanyal, Saroj Dutta and others were the leaders of this short-lived ’revolution’. This kind of ultra-left tendency was termed as ’narodnism’ by Lenin.

During the spell of Left adventurism perhaps Pandit Iswarchandra Vidyasagar was their prime target. On October 20, 1970, a group of Naxalites beheaded the statue of this great man at College Square in Central Kolkata. Incidentally, that was his 150th birth anniversary. Along with Iswarchandra, the great scientist Prafulla Chandra Roy had to face the same ordeal, his statue was also beheaded on the same day. What was the cause of the wrath against Vidyasagar? During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Iswarchandra was the Principal of the Sanskrit College. The Naxalites alleged that he had hobnobbed with the British authorities to use the college as a military barrack. The military camped in the college and was later sent to suppress the Mutiny. Those who suffer from infantile Leftism are fond of such an easy equation. Vidyasagar worked under the British Govt. and he had no other option but follow the government dictum. It was quite unthinkable that he would revolt against foreign rulers all of a sudden and resign from his post. Even today in India several thousand Left and radical-minded persons are compelled to work for their livelihood under bourgeois Government which they oppose every now and then. Do they resign? They need not and for this compulsion, they can not be called reactionary. Fo the same reason, Vidyasagar was not a ’comprador’ of foreign rulers. If one wants to ignore the class limitation of a person and also the limitation of time it is nothing but mechanical determinism according to Marx. A small section of ultra-Left holds the opinion that in feudal India only those who supported and stood for the agricultural uprisings and revolt can be called real progressives. This is just a onesided mechanical view.

In the dark age of feudalism, those who fought for social and religious reforms, women’s emancipation and spread of education and stood for human rights and rationality helped in the positive historical development of the society. The cumulative effect of all these struggles had brought forth democratic values. During the period of ’Bengal Renaissance’ of the 19th century this type of development took place. Based on these criteria we should evaluate the role of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. He, undoubtedly, heralded modernity in Bengal.

Almost five decades after the incident in 1970, the Vidyasagar statue had was again beheaded on May 14, 2019, at the premises of Vidyasagar College, which was founded by the great man himself. The BJP elements were allegedly behind this act, though as a party they strongly denied it. But Vidyasagar’s rationalist and liberal ideas were contrary to Hindu orthodoxy. Though he was born in a Hindu Brahman family, he fought Brahmanical Kulinism tooth and nail. While he was active in the reform movement by which he ushered in a formidable social change, the Hindu fundamentalists opposed him violently. Even the great novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, who reared socialist ideas, in the early part of his life was very much against Iswarchandra Vidyasagar. He remarked in the first edition of his famous novel Bishabriksha (poison tree), ’If Iswar Chandra is pedant, who else is a fool’!

According to Bankimchandra, Vidysagar’s campaign for the remarriage of Hindu widows, against child marriage and polygamy etc. would touch a very small section of the society. He even did not consider that Iswarchandra, a great writer. He ranked him as a ’primer writer’. Due to the frontal attack of Hindu nationalists, Vidyasagar’s social reform activity lost its grit in 1880 onwards and he became a frustrated man. We find this great man has been the centre of attack of the Rightists and the ultra-left all along. At least the left ultras try to theorize their action, but the Hindu fundamentalists remain conspicuously silent on this issue — and so does the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his govt. The PM has not said a single word as yet about observing the birth bicentenary of Vidyasagar which will close on Sept 26, 2020. I like to remind that in Gujarat the name of Vidyasagar figured prominently through translations of his books by Ramanlal Soni Medasa. The biography of Vidyasagar was written by Kalarthi Mukul in 1876; that means while Vidyasagar was alive. Not only in Gujarat but also in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Assam, Vidyasagar influenced the social reform movement.

It is true that Vidyasagar was able to carry on his social and literary activities with the support of the British rulers. His distinctive personality, his self-respect, his upright character and courage, determination, rational behaviour attracted the ruling class. The colonial rulers of Bengal from their own class position wanted to fight obscurantist ideas and customs and that was the common cause with Vidyasagar. There was not a single instance in which he unjustly compromised with the Britishers. He had, however, exposed the cruel and corrupt character of the colonial masters through his writings. This point is so far undiscussed in research articles.

In his Banglar Itihas (History of Bengal), he wrote, Nabab Shiraj-ud-Dulla was the not least responsible for historical ’Blackhole Tragedy’ perpetrated on June 20, 1756. He was not even aware of the tragic incident. Manikchand who was given the charge of seized Fort was responsible for the death of 123 English soldiers due to suffocation. Vidyasagar pointed out how the-then Governor-General of Bengal Warren Hastings in connivance with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Eliajha Impey institutionalised a cut money raj in Bengal. A high ranking person of that time, Nand Kumar was hanged publicly just because he was opposed to the corruption of Hastings. In his other book Akhyan Manjari (buds of stories), he narrated at least four or five episodes exposing how cruel the colonial aggressors were. If these stories were read properly in time that could provide materials exposing the real character of colonialists. The Central Government led by Modi is over-active in erecting the Ram Mandir in Ajodhya. But we can analyse the real character of Ramchandra from Vidyasagar’s Sitar Banabas (forest exile of Sita) story. We find the magnanimous king Ramchandra was not hesitant to send his most beloved wife Sita, who was expecting, to a forest exile in order to avoid his subjects casting aspersion on his wife.

Vidyasagar was a secular humanist in all respects. He did not go to any temple or a place of worship; not even did bow down before a God or Goddess. In his primers written for the children, he had not mentioned any Godly matter. Once he met the great religious reformer Shri Ramakrishna. Though they exchanged views on different matters, he did not make any commitment about his spiritual belief. Despite this Shri Ramakrishna was highly impressed by Vidyasagar and remarked with a tinge of humour "I have reached an ocean."

Vidyasagar was in favour of modern education based on philosophy, science and rationality. His secular view was expressed in his planning of education. In a letter, dated 7th Sept, 1853, he remarked to Dr Mouat, the-then Secretary of the Council of Education, "That Vedanta and Sankhya are a false system of philosophy is no more a matter of dispute...whilst teaching these in the Sanskrit College we should oppose them by sound philosophy in the English course to counter their influence"

In those days, to term Sankhya and Vedanta as false systems required courage which Iswarchandra had. When he was the Principal of the Sanskrit College caste distinction in admission was abolished. It was a significant social reform. During these years he wrote primers for the students of which Barna Parichay (introducing letters) was most important. Even today it is a largely circulated book, first published in 1855.

Iswarchandra was engaged in multiple activities—an energetic journalist, a homoeopathy doctor, an environmentalist. In latter part of his life he spent atleast 18 years among the aborigines at Karmator, now in Jharkhand.

Iswarchandra was born in a very poor family in a remote village Birsingha now in West Midnapore. He changed the course of his life by perseverance and determination. Rabindranath evaluated him: "A study of Vidyasagar’s life repeatedly reminds us that he is not to be assessed as eminent Bengali or an impeccable Hindu for he was far greater than all that — he was a man in the real sense of the term. The greatest glory of his life was the extraordinary abundance of this humanity."

Vidyasagar passed away on July 29, 1891 at the age of seventy one. In 1905 Gandhiji wrote in his Indian Opinion paper "There have been few in this world like him. It is said that, had Iswarchandra been born among a European people, an imposing column .......would have been erected as a memorial to him." But unfortunately, in India Iswarchandra had to bear the disgrace of de-iconisation and now cold disrespect by the highest echelons. But he still retains deep respect in the minds of the countrymen.

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