Vidyasagar, the Social Reformer Who Challenged Conservative Hindus

Even on the afternoon of 14 May 2019, if you asked people on the streets of Kolkata whether Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar has any connection to the Lok Sabha election just days away, they would have probably politely enquired if you were alright. But in a matter of hours on Tuesday, one of Bengal’s most iconic social reformers was suddenly catapulted into the midst of what has been a gruelling, and often violent, election season in West Bengal.

Move past Rajiv Gandhi from the 1980s and Jawaharlal Nehru from the 50s being election issues in 2019, the late cameo by the Bengali reformer from the 1800s arguably makes him the “oldest” poll issue around.

With a statue of Vidyasagar vandalised in his eponymous college, allegedly by BJP workers, there isn’t a doubt in anyone’s minds here that he will be integral to campaigning in the three seats of Kolkata and six other constituencies in the state going to vote on 19 May in the seventh and final phase of this general election.

So who was the man everyone is fighting over now? Here’s a look at the life and times of the person who led the social movement to legalise widow remarriage and was so erudite that he received the epithet ‘Ocean of Learning’, ‘Vidyasagar’ in Bengali.

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Why Bengal Remembers Vidyasagar

The following year will mark Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s 200th birth anniversary. Born on 26 September 1820 in Bengal’s Midnapore, he is remembered as much for his contribution to the education system in the state as he is for helming some of the most important social movements of his time.

Till date, almost every Bengali kid learns the alphabet and the basics of the Bengali language from a book written by Vidyasagar, titled ‘Borno Porichoy’. That his contributions to schoolchildren have endured the test of time speaks volumes about the impact of Vidyasagar’s work.

The front cover of an edition of Vidyasagar’s ‘<i>Borno Porichoy’.</i>” data-reactid=”309″><figcaption class=The front cover of an edition of Vidyasagar’s ‘Borno Porichoy’.
(Photo: Borno Porichoy)

But more than for any of the books he wrote, Vidyasagar has gone down in the annals of Indian history for successfully leading the social movement that demanded the legalisation of widow remarriage.

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Vidyasagar also undertook efforts to promote the education of the girl child, and severely opposed child marriage and polygamy. Not surprisingly, his ideas and work to reform regressive social traditions such as sati and permanent widowhood, had met with opposition from orthodox, conservative Hindus at the time.

Despite their opposition though, Vidyasagar’s tireless efforts ensured that the British were forced to implement the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act in July 1856, which legalised the remarriage of Hindu widows in all jurisdictions of India under the East India Company’s rule.

The ‘Ocean of Learning’

Ishwar Chandra, considered the father of Bengali prose, was a student par excellence at Kolkata’s Sanskrit College, where he received the title Vidyasagar, or ‘Ocean of Learning’.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vidyasagar was appointed head pandit of Fort William College in Calcutta in 1850. A year later, he became the principal at his alma mater Sanskrit College. His work as an educator was marked both by his contribution to Bengali and by the way he promoted the study of English. As principal, he would encourage and admit students of lower castes in his college, once again going against the grain of a traditionally caste-discriminatory society.

Vidyasagar was also a prolific author. Among his most famous works are ‘Shakuntala’, based on a famous play by the Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa, and ‘Sitar Vanavas’ (The Exile of Sita).

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Vidyasagar died on 29 July 1891, but 128 years later, he is suddenly at the centre of politics in West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is doing its best to try and portray the act of vandalism as an attack on Bengal’s culture by an “outsider-driven BJP”. On the other hand, BJP president Amit Shah has attempted to shift the blame for the vandalism on the TMC instead.

With fault lines of Bengali vs non-Bengali being drawn as well, in social media posts and forwards following the Vidyasagar vandalism, it’s almost ironic that the reformer after whom one of Kolkata’s iconic bridges is named, has become an issue that divides voters this election.

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