Within a few months’ time, the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of social reformer, educationist, polymath, translator, printer & publisher Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar would have begun. By a strange twist of fate, the bicentennial has begun early. Since Tuesday, Vidyasagar — scandalously little known outside Bengal — is everywhere. There is a measure of irony in the fact that Tuesday’s assault on the memory of Vidyasagar in Kolkata —when in the clash between Trinamool Congress and BJP workers during BJP president Amit Shah’s roadshow a bust of the man was broken in the college bearing his name — came from the Hindu Right.
All his life, Vidyasagar had fought, virtually alone, against the might of Hindu obscurantism in the 19th century. Given the intensity and virulence of the opposition he faced, one suspects he would have swatted Tuesday evening’s vandals like mosquitoes.
Why and how should we remember Vidyasagar? Of all his efforts, the institution of widow remarriage through an Act of 1856 still seems hard to wrap our heads around — how did one person manage to prevail against the combined might of the traditional Hindu samaj?
In order to seek religious sanction for widow remarriage, Vidyasagar had to dig deep into scriptures, engage anti-reformist pundits in debate, and write two Bengali pamphlets that instantly became bestsellers. The first, ‘Should widow remarriage be instituted’ came out in January 1855, and according to Vidyasagar’s elder brother Sambhuchandra, sold 2,000 copies in a week!
The second pamphlet came out in October that year, and in between, there was a slew of counter-pamphlets by a galaxy of pundits of the day. The question of widow remarriage did not remain confined to Bengal. When the widow remarriage Bill was placed at the legislative council in November 1855, there were petitions from all over India both for and against the Bill. Support for the Bill came from Brahmins from Secunderabad and 46 inhabitants of Pune, while the pundits in the southern peninsula were sharply divided on the question.
In January 1856, a petition opposing the Bill bearing nearly 37,000 signatures was submitted to the government.
Nevertheless, Vidyasagar prevailed, and the Widow Remarriage Act was passed on July 26, 1856. The first such marriage took place in Calcutta on December 7 that year, followed by another in Panihati village the following day. During this time, there were fears of attacks on Vidyasagar, and his father sent a skilled lathiyal — adept in using the lathi as a weapon — from Birsingha village in today’s West Midnapur district to act as his bodyguard.
On at least one occasion, an imminent attack was foiled owing to the presence of this Srimanta Sardar. The other social reform Vidyasagar attempted was the abolition of polygamy among kulin Brahmins. In this, he was part of a larger movement and though the movement did not result in legislation, its social impact was considerable.
If social reform marked the latter half of Vidyasagar’s life, his early career was marked by his reforms in education, and modernisation of Bengali printing. It is impossible to summarise his innovations in the field of education, but modern-day educators in Bengal may be thrilled to know that the class routine and weekly off day were introduced by Vidyasagar. He taught variously at Sanskrit College, Fort William College, and founded the Metropolitan Institution in 1872 almost entirely on his own steam, an incredible feat of persistence and stubbornness in the teeth of ridicule and indifference. This college, later known as Vidyasagar College, was vandalised on Tuesday evening. All the while Vidyasagar wrote a number of textbooks that are used to this day.
His Bengali primer, the two-part Barnaparichay (Introducing the Alphabet) is legion. But he also wrote student-friendly Sanskrit grammars, translated the Betal Pachisee, tales of King Vikramaditya and the Betal, from Sanskrit into Bengali, simplified the Sanskrit epics for pedagogy, translated histories and biographies, and also found time to adapt William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors into Bengali as Bhranti Bilas (The Illusion of Illusion).
His prodigious output necessitated that he turn publisher as well, and in this avatar, he became the first person to standardise the hitherto erratic Bengali orthography and typography. Book historians have only recently begun to measure his role in modernising Bengali printhouse practice. In popular memory, Vidyasagar has unfortunately been reduced to a number of tall tales that are mostly apocryphal.
But there is one story that has a certain resonance. While he was principal of Sanskrit College between 1851and 1858, his students would often fight with students of Hindu College across the street, throwing missiles at one other. Sometimes, the fights would become so bloody that the police had to be called. Vidyasagar would reportedly watch the fight from the balcony, often taking a keen interest in which side won before finally intervening.
If there is a silver lining to Tuesday evening’s events, it is in reminding us about Vidyasagar’s extraordinary modernising efforts, and his radical interventions on behalf of women. If we choose to remember him well, then Tuesday night’s events, however shameful, will have served a purpose.