Tuesday, May 15, was my mother’s birthday. She was born 94 years ago in Uttar Pradesh, in a town called Shahjahanpur. At home, like thousands of other pravashi Bengalis, she, too, learnt Bengali, the script, from the universal text: Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Barna Parichay or Introduction to the Alphabets.
In Etawah, my father, learnt to read and write Bengali at home from exactly the same text. Before him, his father in Meerut had learnt to read and write Bengali from the same text. The same with my grandmother, who was married at the age of 9.
My cousin, born in 1947 and his brother, were taught, even if they managed to learn very little, from the same text by their grandmother in Delhi somewhere on Pusa Road. Efforts to teach me the Bengali script began in Jamshedpur in the late 1950s.
A friend, born in Bangalore, learnt to read and write Bengali from Barna Parichay. Some learnt sitting in the kitchen with their mothers; others on a verandah. But, learn we all did; or, the effort to teach us was exactly the same and from the same source.
Vidyasagar, from undivided Midnapore was an educationist, indefatigable crusader for women’s rights, an orthodox Brahmin with a vast tolerance and a generous benefactor whose humility is so profound that he is not paraded as one of the greatest Bengalis that ever lived – is embedded in all our lives.
He is part of our identity as Bengalis – even though my family has been detached from Bengal for at least 150 years, if not more.
Vandals destroying his bust with sticks and rods on Tuesday shook us to the very core, because that is where this erudite educationist and staunch Hindu is located. But he is a Hindu, not a votary of Hindutva. Therefore, what happened in Kolkata on May 14 as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s gaudy road show trundled down College Street was a confrontation of the Hindu way of thought and life by lumpens who preach Hindutva, a manufactured political ideology that exploits the word, but has no faith in the idea.
It was a clash to beat down a civilisation and a culture that produced Vidyasagar and made him a part of our being.
What else is Vidyasagar to us? He is the man who would swim across a swollen Hooghly to reach his mother. He was the man who sat under a gas lamp on the street to study and slake his thirst for knowledge. He is the man who was so humble that he carried the luggage of a foreigner who had travelled to meet him and who mistook him for a “coolie.” He promoted women’s education. He is the man who practiced what he preached – widow remarriage; he married his son to a child widow. He is the man who defended the right of the Bramho Samaj to pursue their own interpretations of oldest Sanskrit texts even though he was a practicing ‘Sanatan’ Hindu.
When one of Bengal’s greatest poets and social radical was reduced to penury, it was Vidyasagar who rescued him from destitution. The poet was Michael Madhusudan Dutt; convert to Christianity, a beef eater and consumer of alcohol, a poet who began writing sonnets in English and then wrote the extraordinary Meghnad Badh Kavya, reinterpreting the Ramayana from the perspective of Ravana’s son, Meghnad, who was a great warrior doomed to destruction.
That the spirit of Vidyasagar and his place in secular, modern India is as secure as it was precarious when he lived in an age of confrontation between conforming to Sanatan Hindu ways and reinterpreting them to move into the present, is evident across West Bengal, as rallies, processions, protests and statements against the vandalisation reveal the anguish and the anger.
The Trinamool Congress, the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left all organised major rallies. CPI(M)’s rally included General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and his predecessor Prakash Karat, who walked through the streets of the city to protest what occurred. The outpouring of people on the streets was a reaffirmation that vandalising Vidyasagar’s statue serves to consolidate the opposition against the BJP.
That the BJP has not comprehended the deep anguish that vandalising Vidyasagar’s statue has inflicted on the Bengali psyche is obvious. On Twitter, BJPwallahs are using abusive and horrifyingly offensive language about Vidyasagar.
Organising a silent black arm/headband protest in New Delhi to “Save Democracy” from being destroyed by the Trinamool Congress is by far the best measure of how little the BJP understands West Bengal and its people.
By doing so, BJP has demonstrated that it is a party that has no roots in West Bengal.
The investment by the BJP in terms of money, time and other resources to conquer West Bengal politically has perhaps been wiped out by the vandalism on College Street. After the incident occurred, there was a brief window of opportunity for the BJP to salvage some political capital. But it could not respond fast enough to issue a statement, express sorrow, shame and shock, because the leadership, including Amit Shah, failed to gauge the position of Vidyasagar in the Bengali psyche.
The degree of unfamiliarity, which is also an index of its alienation, that is reflected in its response to the vandalism marks the BJP irretrievably as the party of the Hindi speaking and representative of “cow belt” politics. In contrast, Mamata Banerjee, fully aware of the consequences of the vandalism rushed to Vidyasagar College and swore vengeance against the perpetrators. The CPI(M) organised a morning rally, where Biman Bose pointed in the direction of “out of state” actors as responsible for the vandalism.
Kolkata is buzzing with stories of who the vandals were. There are demands for an independent enquiry, a police investigation and whatever else is on offer to uncover the identity of the vandals. The speculation is that the vandals were BJP’s cadres from across the border or from Uttar Pradesh.
The timing of the incident will cost the BJP politically. Its expectations of making a bid to capture North Kolkata, Jadavpur, South Kolkata will probably not work out.
Depending on how clumsy the BJP is in handling the fall out of the vandalism, it may want to lie low in Bengal for a while, because perceptions about it as an outsider will jeopardise its chances of emerging as a real challenger to the Trinamool Congress.
Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.