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Greatest of 19th century liberals to whom a Brahmin, a Sudra, a Muslim were all alike

By Rit Nanda*

“The reason for the special distinction that we find in Bengal is that many great men were born there during the last century. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was the greatest among them all. He was not an ocean of learning alone; he was an ocean of compassion, of generosity, as well as of many other virtues. He was a Hindu and a Brahmin too. But to him a Brahmin, a Sudra Hindu and a Muslim were all alike”. – Mahatma Gandhi in ‘Indian Opinion’, 1905
On September 26, 1820, this visionary was born in Birsingha village of present-day West Medinipur district in West Bengal. Two hundred years later, his legacy lives on, not just in his name, but in the things we take for granted today. His liberal, reformist and progressive ideology brought about in the face of conservative opposition and his struggles teach us to never quit in the fight for progress.
Many of the challenges he faced then are similar to the challenges we face today. He saw the need for a renaissance in our society, not to bow to conservative impulses of preserving status quo, and instead move forward in reform to make our country better and combat injustices.

Education, reform, rationalism

Vidyasagar was responsible for codification of the Bengali language with ‘Bornoporichoy’. It is read even today as the first book a person picks up to learn the Bengali script and language. Without him, much of the literature of Bengali, from Rabindranath Tagore to Satyajit Ray, to name just two, would have been impossible. But his contribution to education was not limited to just the Bengali language.
He moved away from religious education towards evidence based learning. He was the primary proponent who pushed for introduction of science, mathematics and social sciences in the school curriculum. He did not limit himself to just schooling for the children either and introduced adult learning centres, so that the entire citizenry could become enlightened.
He was also instrumental in bringing modern journalism and press to this country. He started his own press for printing books. He realised that to reach the masses, the press would be his weapon: it would disseminate information through the print media as well as act as his source of income which he needed for other social endeavours.
In journalism, he observed that Bengali news media was more interested in obscenities and foul language than actual objective political coverage, and to many present readers that might present a sense of déjà vu. Therefore, he conceptualised a weekly newspaper, which was published every Monday, aptly named ‘Somprakash’ which took clear and courageous political stances and criticised British colonial policy, the exploitation by indigo planters, landowners and industrialists to name a few.

Women’s empowerment

There are few people in India’s history, if any, who have done more for women empowerment than Vidyasagar. His most famous achievement in that regard was the legalisation of widow remarriage. He campaigned for it using extracts from ‘Parasara Samhita’ to show how it had been corrupted to stop widow remarriage and published his arguments in pamphlets in 1855.
His advocacy, against an opposition led by Radhakanta Deb (whose petition garnered 30,000 signatures – nearly quadruple that of Vidyasagar’s), led to passage of the act in 1856. His own son married an adolescent widow as the way of an example.
He, however, was less successful, in that moment, in passing an Act against ‘Kulin Pratha’ that allowed polygamy for Kulin Brahmins, with young women below the age of puberty often married off to dying husbands. But his advocacy then sparked the gradual wane of this tradition, which was formally codified later in law after Indian independence.He stood vehemently against child marriage as well.
He also advocated relentlessly for girls’ education and went great lengths to convince families to send their girls to school. He initiated the ‘Nari Siksha Bhandar’; a fund to enrol girls in schools. He designed curriculum for girls, including vocational training so that they could become self-reliant. On 7 May 1849,Vidyasagar, with support from Anglo-Indian lawyer John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune, established the first permanent girls’ school in India — Bethune School.

Uplifting deprived sections

A discussion about Vidyasagar as a social reformer cannot be complete without talking about his efforts to uplift the deprived sections of the society. He vehemently opposed preferential treatment based on caste and quit Sanskrit College, his alma-mater, as it refused to admit to people of castes other than Brahmins. He re-joined it later and fought against the hierarchy that still was not in-sync with his idea that men and women, irrespective of caste should have access to education.
He spent last 18 years of his life in a hamlet of Karmatar, a tribal area where he established a girls’ school and a night school for adults at his house, named ‘Nandan Kanan’. He advocated against child marriage and for widow remarriage amongst the tribal Santal people there and made uplifting them the ultimate mission of his life.
There are few in history who have done more for empowering women than Vidyasagar. His most famous achievement was legalising of widow remarriage
He was reported to have declared his preference for the company of ‘my uncivilised Santals to your sort of respectfully dressed men of Aryan descent’; and shortly before his death he spoke of the Santals dying around in hunger while he himself was being so well fed.
He also opened a community kitchen in his home village of Birsingha during the famine of 1867 and paid for it using his own income as he did for the Hindu Family Annuity Fund to help widows who could not remarry. He financed many such widow re-marriage weddings, often getting into debts himself.

In the face of conservatism

His entire life was a struggle to reform the society and advocate for those left behind: whether it be women, or deprived castes, or tribal folk or the general scourge of illiteracy on Indian society. He saw his main tool as education and wielded it against ignorance. Many people stood against him and were often the majority, such as the aforementioned Radhakanta Deb and the Dharmo Sabha, and even sought to blame him for the First Independence War of 1857.
The challenges today are also similar, even though the times may be different. Liberals are still in minority and are accused of hurting sentiments of religion and tradition in the name of progress. Those standing against liberalism are still in majority as they always have been and as they were during Vidyasagar’s time, but that did not make the liberalism of Vidyasagar wrong. Today, even conservatives will not accept ‘Kulin Pratha’ and accept the girls need to be educated and that widows need not be ostracised.
He did not succeed in his own time in convincing the majority, but he never failed; rather the society failed him. And that is what the liberals of today can learn from him too: it is not important to be in the majority, it is important to be right and rest assured that posterity will reward them and condemn those who stood athwart.
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*MSc energy, trade & finance, City University, London; procurement, logistics and human resource supervisor and consultant

Comments

Prajna Paramita said…
Excellent tribute.
Unknown said…
Here is the truth about Vidyasagr:
Vidyasagar and Mass education : A critique on his Bi-centennial Birth Anniversary
https://countercurrents.org/2020/09/vidyasagar-and-mass-education-a-critique-on-his-bi-centennial-birth-anniversary/

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