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Iswarchandra Vidyasagar was a 'frustrated' reformer who turned into a conservative

By Bhaskar Sur

"If someone says the Manusamhita was written by all wise Manu and the principal scripture of the land and if he asks me to throw it away, I'll say it is nothing short of atrocious audacity." -- Iswarchandra Vidyasagar
Iswarchandra Vidyasagar's 200th birthday is being observed by Hindu progressives in Bengal in the usual spirit of uncritical idol worship. Vidyasagar does not belong to the Bengali pantheon but lately there is an attempt to induct him with much fanfare. Vidyasagar (1820-91) was, by any account, an extraordinary man -- a classical scholar in the humanist tradition, a reformer, an educationist, an author and, above all a personality larger than life.
In many respects he reminds one of Dr Samuel Johnson with a streak of Quaker reformer. He was born in a Brahmin family of the highest rank (kulin) which would tell us a lot about the course of his life ,the opportunities he availed of and the the reforms he initiated. 
He could never, despite all his protestations, rise above his caste. Another thing mattered -- the fact of Calcutta being the capital of the British Indian Empire. This brave new world had much to offer -- new institutions, knowledge jobs and some space for activism.
Contrary to the legend, he was not born poor. His father Thakurdas was earning a 'princely' Rs 10 a month. Takurdas got the job with the help of Bhagabatcharan Sinha, a Sudra who had earlier provided him free food and shelter.Young Iswarchandra also enjoyed this favour, not as a human being but as a Brahmin.
Wealthy Shudras considered such acts would win them merits for the afterlife. Iswar was admitted to the Sanskrit College founded in 1824 for the preservation of the oriental learning much to the annoyance of Rammohun Roy. This college was exclusively meant for two highest castes -- Brahmin and Vaidya -- and reluctant students were bribed with scholarships.
It was a white elephant which ate up a sizeable portion of the East India Company's meagre educational allocations. The college's curriculum included English, some science and even a anatomy, besides Sanskrit literature, grammar, Hindu philosophy and law.
Iswar was a bright student who developed here a passion for scholarship. He passed the final examination in 1841 and his academic attainments won him the title 'Vidyasagar ' to the Sea of Learning in the true oriental manner. The capital of the Indian Empire offered many opportunities to such ambitious young men.
He became a teacher of Bengali at Fort William College founded to teach British civilians Indian languages and traditional jurisprudence that they might carry out their administrative responsibilities better. For the next years we see him writing textbooks and editing Sanskrit texts along the lines of western scholarship. His primarily Varnaparichaya bore the imprint of new scholarship.
He left out many obsolete letters and rationalized orthography. His closeness to British officials of the Department of Public Instruction ensured that they became the set text books for all government schools. Vidyasagar seized upon this opportunity to set up his own printing house and get the texts printed there ,making even a greater profit .Nobody, I suppose, will smell any nepotism in this nexus.
Vidyasagar was one of the makers of the Bengali prose. His syntax was that of English and the vocabulary was preponderingly Sanskrit. It was a sinuous prose capable of nuances but distant from the Bengali of everyday use .In other words, it was a hieratic prose bearing close resemblance with that of Dr Johnson, better known as Johnsonese.
Actually, Vidyasagar was consciously or unconsciously following a Brahminical agenda of ridding Bengali of all the words and expression of Persian and Arabic origin which enjoyed the blessings of Fort William College authorities. This was also a part of a wider theoretical construct involving interpretation of the Indian history that Company historians like James Mill advanced.
According to Mill, the British rule was the beginning of a new age of prosperity, peace and progress after centuries of Muslim despotism, exploitation and slavery. Vidyasagar presented this interpretation in a summaried and lucid form in his “Banglar Itihas” (1848) which chiefly drew upon Mill's work.Vidyasagar therefore was working as an interpreter of the imperialist ideology, othering the Muslim.
It is therefore not surprising that in his textbooks there is hardly any Muslim name, not to speak of any glimpse of Muslim life, even though Muslims constituted the majority of the Bengali speaking people. In this he contrasts sharply with Rammohun Roy who was an Islamic scholar and a warm admirer of Muslim culture.
As a educationist Vidyasagar worked in twin capacities -- as a textbook writer which fetched him money and as an inspector founding schools, so often going beyond his official responsibilities. Contrary to the popular belief he was not very enthusiastic about taking education to the Shudra masses which British policy makers like Wood insisted.
In a letter written in September 1859 Vidyasagar expressed his deep resentment and fears that it would bring down the quality of education. He still clung to Lord Macaulay's ' filtration theory ' which the British authorities had found unworkable and rejected. The poet Nabin Chandra Sen in his autobiography writes about Vidyasagar's regret for having founded schools which were encouraging the boys of peasants and artisans to leave their traditional calling.
Brahminism wants Shudras to stay at their respective traditional professions to maintain the social harmony .That was also the tenor of Tilak and Gandhi and, curiously enough, some environmentalists of our day. As an inspector he founded a number of schools to carry out the government policy. By contrast a reformist movement among Chandals, led by Harichand Thakur, founded no less than 3,800 educational institutions on their own without much government support and against much upper caste opposition.
Contrary to popular belief Vidyasagar was not very enthusiastic about taking education to Shudras which British policy makers insisted
Vidyasagar wanted to take education mainly to upper caste Hindus who were still left out. However, it must be admitted that he was a proponent of secular, liberal education when the space was being contested between missionaries and Hindu revivalists.
Vidyasagar's fame as a social reformer rests on the movement leading to the enactment of Widow Remarriage Bill in 1856 in the last days of the Company rule. The widows of Hindu upper castes had a miserable existence .Not only could the child widows remarry but they were subjected to a painful austere life with severe dietary and sartorial restrictions.
They were also vulnerable to sexual exploitation often by the members of the family .To avoid scandals they were sometimes murdered and worse still ,sold to the brothels. A survey conducted in 1851 showed that out of nearly 20000 prostitutes in Calcutta ,almost half came from the three upper castes, particularly Brahmins .This must have shocked many Brahmin intellectuals including Vidyasagar. In prostitution, laws of market work, not that of caste. A Brahmin woman's body can be hired by a Muslim or a Dalit if he can pay for it.
At the bottom of Vidyasagar's moral indignation there was an exaggerated caste feeling. He worked tirelessly writing tracts with pungent irony and quoting from forgotten scriptures such as Parasara Samhita. This, naturally, led to much acrimony and hostility. One ballad writer of the time (kabial) even accused Vidyasagar of having f**ed the great Parasara, the ancient law giver, to suit his end.
There was another problem: The scripture enjoined that only virgins could be remarried and strange as it may sound, Vidyasagar was fighting for the remarriage of virgins. One of his opponents remarked with mischievous wit” "We find the Honourable Company would have to appoint an Inspector of the Vagina to decide the matter."
The law could be enacted not because of Vidyasagar's forceful tracts as his opponents led by Radhakanta Deb enjoyed far larger support, but because of Whig liberalism and enlightened paternalism of the Company that ultimately led to the what Britishers call Great Mutiny. Any law without social consent is useless as was this one.
In his whole lifetime Vidyasagar could arrange only three such marriages but not before bribing the bridegroom with hefty amount from his own pocket. This huge failure embittered him and he became a Bengali hater, retreating like a wounded animal to the remote Karmatar, inhabited mostly by tribals.One disturbing incident was that when Dayamoyi, a Chandal woman, remarried and fought spiritedly and successfully a prolonged legal battle for share in the property of first husband in 1876 in his own district, Vidyasagar remained indifferent. After all, she was a lowly born Chandal, not worth bothering about!
Vidyasagar's ignominious moral defeat came during the debate preceding Age of Consent Bill was passed overcoming all the vehement conservative outcry on March 19,1891 raising the age of consumption to 14. Phulmani Das, a married girl of 11, died when her 35 years old husband brutally forced himself on her. Such incidents were common in those days though the husband, enjoying the protection of the sastras, always got away with the heinous crime.
Hindu reformers, Brahmos, Liberals in the major cities demanded legislation to stop such abuse. Side by side ,it was a focal point for the mobilization of Hindu conservatives and fundamentalists. Tilak in his his influential journals “Keshri” and “Mahratta” stood strongly against any legislation raising the age of marriage.To put it differently, he supported marital rape and murder.
What was the position of Vidyasagar whose heart was going out for the victims of Hindu patriarchy? This time, grown wise with years, he could not give his consent to the bill on the plausible ground that girls reach puberty at different ages in different regions. The same crooked Nayaik logic he masted in his student day with so much diligence! So how could this Brahmin be the icon of the whole Bengali speaking people?
He had no concern for the poor and mostly illiterate Bengali Mulims ,nor the Shudras who were 96%of the Hindu population, not even the ordinary Hindu women suffering from marital rape. Neverthess he was a wonderful human being very kind,generous,warm with an astonishingly wide intellectual range.
Dr Johnson, whom he resembled on so many counts, was extremely humane to his black servant but not against slavery .So was Vidyasagar: He never uttered a single word against caste slavery which was more widespread and vicious than Trans-Atlantic slavery. He was after all a Brahmin Pandit with his heart apparently in the right place but his head stil in the thrall of old Brahminical habits.
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Source: Bhaskar Sur's Facebook timeline

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