Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was no stranger to thugs in his lifetime. He dared the conservatives frequently, as he set out, armed with formidable scholarship of the sruti and smriti, to question oppressive social traditions of dubious ancestry. It is said that, fearing physical attacks by the custodians of tradition, his father got him a bodyguard. However, he pursued reforms like other great liberals of his time — writing pamphlets and books, building public opinon through rational debate and logical thinking, petitioning the government. He succeeded in some, one such being the legal sanction for widow remarriage. Vidyasagar’s relentless campaign was instrumental in the passing of the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act in 1856.
It is ironical that the spotlight is on his life and legacy as the raging political battle in West Bengal also debates the form and content of Hindu belief systems in the state. The mob that vandalised Vidyasagar’s bust in a Kolkata college, perhaps, didn’t know who he was. Meanwhile, politicians have turned the incident into a spectacle. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hit the street, the vandalised bust in hand for all to see, and accused the BJP cadres of dishonouring Bengal’s cultural inheritance. The BJP leaders accused the Trinamool of stage-managing the incident and sat on a dharna. Addressing a rally in UP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Our government, dedicated to the vision of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, will set up a grand statue of panchdhatu (five metals) at the same spot.” An unimpressed Banerjee dismissed the offer: Kolkata, she said, doesn’t need Delhi’s money.
The barbs can continue, but this ought to be an occasion to reflect on the renaissance legacy of Vidyasagar. He was a Sanskritist, but interpreted custom and tradition in the language of logic and rationality. Blind extolling of the past was not for him. He upheld the rights of the individual over collective identities. Culture, faith and language were not static entities for him, but transient categories. Surely, Vidyasagar is a man for these times.