The vandalism of Vidyasagar’s bust is way beyond political point-scoring, it is a demolition of the idea of India
Had revival of the true Hindu consciousness been the real intention and the mind had indeed perceived its sacredness, then nobody would have smashed the statue of Bengal’s Renaissance man, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, in a seat of learning and knowledge. Perhaps the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad students, who represent the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had not been schooled in what he stood for as they rampaged the Vidyasagar College in Kolkata during inter-party campaign clashes. For far from being a polymath, he was a Hindu first whose mastery of Sanskrit texts and Oriental philosophy is probably still unsurpassed. It was because of his deep-rooted understanding that he could respond to the need of adapting tradition to evolving times and ensure its continuity, one where religion could be lived seamlessly rather than seeming like an imposition, particularly in the colonial era when Western thought and scientific temperament were making inroads. His liberalism was home-grown, applicable and relevant to society. He gave Bengalis a reason for being, simplifying the language and preparing a primer that is still followed in all homes, revamped the education system, avidly coopted girls and the most backward into the school system and was the foremost champion of women’s empowerment by advocating widow remarriage. A reformist, who remained till the end a crusader of Indic civilisational values and died working among Santhal tribals, he was the man among men as Rabindranath Tagore put it. Vidyasagar College, which he founded in 1872, was India’s first private college run by Indians, taught by Indians and financed by Indians. If the idea of India is what we need to be reminded about, then no claimant to that legacy would destroy his statue or attack a centre of learning professing his values.
That said, there’s no excuse for vandalising any public property for something as routine as electioneering. On this count, both the BJP and the Trinamool Congress, which has grown out of a deeply entrenched confrontational politics in Bengal, are guilty of crossing the line. In a democracy, all kinds of voices have a right to present their argument without going to extremes of posturing. BJP president Amit Shah, whose roadshow was allegedly spoilt and violence provoked by sloganeering Trinamool Congress activists, must realise that dissenters are always there in a public rally and a sentiment cannot be manufactured. Haven’t we heard shouts of “Modi, Modi” at many rallies addressed by Congress and Opposition leaders without descending into chaos? Why single out Bengal then? And to assign the blame to the ruling Trinamool itself, saying it hired goons, is preposterous to say the least. Even the Trinamool’s arch rival, the Left, didn’t buy into this argument and lambasted the BJP. Finally, College Street is not just a shrine to education, it is the efflorescence of a cultural movement. College Square has provided a platform for every school of thought ever since it developed as a hallowed centre of learning with a cluster of Bengal’s most prestigious colleges and universities. It took off with the Young Bengal movement under Henry Derozio, a free-thinking radicalism that laid the template of the Bengal Renaissance. Many of India’s icons, whose legacies all parties love to appropriate — Swami Vivekananda and Subhas Chandra Bose in particular — were shaped here. It was the unacknowledged forum for dissent and anti-establishment thought from which the Left movement took off. Of course, the Left did try to damage the spirit of College Square by unionising and indoctrinating the entire body of students at these institutions. The Trinamool inherited this heavily politicised legacy and tried to poach on the autonomy of thought, too, but never went overboard. It did stop rallies at College Square, saying it hurt students’ schedule, while critics saw it as a way of muzzling dissent. Still, it allowed a silent protest movement against this declaration and reeled in its adventurism. But the ignorant will always be blissfully unaware and consider an educated mind its biggest enemy.