I returned home at the end of another normal day. As normal as it could be amidst political campaigns before one of the most sensitive General elections in India. The last phase of the election is scheduled on May 19 in and around Kolkata in West Bengal, hence the city witnessed last minutes hurricane tours of high-profile leaders across parties, fierce speeches, big promises, sharp criticisms and lot more. Back home, routinely I switched on TV to listen to latest city news. There were apprehensions about law and order situations surrounding huge rallies of BJP leader Amit Shah on May 15th in the city. I was expecting to watch routine speeches, instead what I watched on screen broke me from inside, as a Bengali and as a woman I felt shattered. Rowdy crowd, ransacking an iconic college at heart of the city, chanting ‘Jai Shree Ram’ hurling stones and other objects.
It looked like a battle ground, only difference was attack seems to be one sided as shown on screen. We saw vehicles torched, violent crowd chanting slogans and attacking all who tried to stop them. This was ghastly but not totally unexpected as many BJP rallies in past ended up in such violence. However, we did not realize it was only the trailer. With utter disbelief I and my mother watched the wreck of bust of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, lying on pavement; while rampage was continuing. The breaking news spread like fire and friends and relatives started calling us, all verifying the ‘fact’ with each other, Is it true that Vidyasagar bust has been vandalized? unfortunately, it was. It was such a fact that no Bengali would even consider happening in their wildest dream, let alone face it.
Soon Social Media started buzzing, allegations, counter allegations, fierce speeches, fake news, propaganda. I put my mobile phones on silent mode. It was, for me almost a personal moment of grief. There was an overwhelming sense of disbelief, which was replaced by a deep sense of sadness. ‘Forgive them; for they know not what they do’ was the first reaction which came to my lip.
Our democracy is going through a crisis period, we all know that, but knowing it and experiencing it in front of our own door are two different things. Who could have ever imagined, in Kolkata, the city which is known as the ‘Cultural Capital of India’, someday we would live this saffron hooliganism, attacking our glorious past? Vandalising bust of Vidyasagar was no normal hooliganism either, it is a strategic attack on Bengali culture. It is an attack on all progressive reforms that Bengal renaissance produced and thereby enriched our society.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is an iconic figure of Bengal renaissance. His contribution for women empowerment and social reform could never be forgotten by any Bengali. He was a reformer of orthodox Hindu religion. He invoked the Parasara Samhita to prove widow remarriage as an old Hindu practice and played a vital role in legalising it during British period. He was the pioneer in establishing of schools and colleges to educate women (and men) and he was always a righteous person, who refused to bend before Britishers. His immense contribution in shaping modern day Bengali language is well known to all. Majority Bengali children still start their education with his book ‘Barna Parichoy’ – an introduction to Bengali alphabets (followed by easy Bengali writing).
It will not be exaggerated to say, he gave us the means to express our thoughts in words, he emancipated us from perpetual slavery of foreign languages. He was a person, with whom we could relate easily. He came from a very humble background, excelled in education and used that education to illuminate the minds of millions of Bengali people with liberal thoughts. Till date we Bengali women salute him as he paved way for our education and emancipation. Today in 21st century, few weeks away from his bicentenary celebration, goons rampaging a college founded by him and vandalising his statue in Kolkata. What have we become?
It was a sleepless night for many of us. We talked with our friends, we shared our common grief, and helpless furry. By that time social media was flooded with angry posts from all corners. Condemnation, disbelief, shock but overwhelmingly a deep sense of hurt. Next morning, when I went to office, I observed public furry was palpable. Nobody was seeking any explanation regarding who did it, how, why? The fact it was done was enough to deeply hurt all of us. As I went to market for shopping, overheard grocery owners condemning the act, as I crossed a busy road in city centre, I recorded young students condemning this barbarism “No, it is not about Didi vs Modi anymore. It is now Bengali culture vs Invaders, who have no knowledge and respect for our glorious past” shouted a girl. Her colleagues joined her in protest.
Now one may wonder, why are we so upset today? Is this the first-time statue of Vidyasagar vandalised? Is this the first onslaught on Bengali tradition and culture? Didn’t Tagore, Nazrul, Michael Madhusudan all faced attacks from radical Hindutva groups? True this is not the first time at all that Bengali pride is challenged. In 70s Radical leftists also vandalised statue of Vidyasagar and till today that scar is not healed in Bengali minds.
However, in recent past political ecosystem has undergone sea changes. The Bengal I experience today is not the Bengal where I grew up. Not that there was no communal tension political rivalry or hooliganism in the past. Defenders of May 15 incidents are posting past news in SM to justify this hooliganism, talking about provocation but the fact remains, there was no attack on pride of Bengal for a long time and no, provocation can’t be an excuse.
Bengali people as a race takes immense pride on its past, Golden era in Bengal, ‘What Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow’ Bengal renaissance etc. History has not always been kind to us. Bengal is a partition affected state, we suffered scars of division, we faced challenges of refugee influx. We faced worst famines in the world. But like phoenix we emerged from ashes each time and re-established us world-wide in social, economic, political spheres, in science and technology prominently. A race with comparatively little financial resources, we have drawn our strength from our rich traditional heritage. We have drawn inspiration from stories of Vidyasagar, how a penniless boy became a renowned scholar through hard work and determination, how he founded heritage colleges and primary schools to strengthen all round education, how he supported anyone in distress, despite his own financial limitation, thus earning the title Dayar-sagar. He was as much rural as urban. He was not just a Hindu reformist or educationist; he was the icon of humanity, the brightest star of Bengal renaissance.
Today when alien Hindutva attacking Bengali Hindu culture, challenging our way of life and trying to take us thousand years back, defining women’s roles as mothers and care givers only, when violence against women dominate the day, when communal polarisation dictates political discourses; we Bengali as a race take refuge in philosophy and teachings of our legendary icons. Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was no doubt one of the most prominent personalities among them. Thus, vandalizing the bust of Vidyasagar has disturbed us from within it makes Bengali people feel insecure, across all religions in the state. Attack on Vidyasagar is a clear message to all Bengali people that Hindutva will redefine everything, including our past glory. The tall promise of PM in his last rally to erect another statue of Vidyasagar (this time made of Panch dhatu) is an added insult to injury, another attempt to communalise Vidyasagar, who in his entire life always fought against fundamentalism, communalism and hatred.
Next day when I returned home, after taking part in some protest rallies organised by civil society groups, I found my mother in the study. She is in her 70s, a retired senior Librarian. Normally she doesn’t take much interest in politics. I found her reading something. I asked her -what are you reading Ma? ‘The first book that I bought for you, when you went to school’ she replied. She had a Barna Parichay in her hand. She narrated some fond memories about how my grandmother taught her Bengali from the same book and so on. She did not ask me any news linked with Vandalism or protest. She leafed through the book and muttered in low voice– we must touch the base; we must revisit our roots. Without him (Vidyasagar) My Ma, you and I would probably have to wait many more years to receive formal education and to compete in the outer world for equal space. Then she immersed in silence. The silence that speaks volumes.
The same silence, which I have noticed among commons today. As per Bengali saying nature becomes still before a big cyclone. Is mass silence an indication of a big change in near future? If yes, in which direction? Will we be able to uphold the teachings of Vidyasagar, Rabindranath, Vivekananda, will we be able to defend our language and culture? Only time will tell us. As people say time is also a great healer, but history of Bengal is the witness some wounds leave permanent scars. Vandalising the bust of Vidyasagar, legendary icon of Bengal renaissance, for me and for many others is such a scar which would stay alive long in our memory and will remind us of this black day in Bengal. But it will also inspire us to fight against fundamentalism and defend democracy, as much as we can.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not of eNewsroom. This is an open forum and we try to give space to every school of thought.