One of the casualties of the violence that broke out around the Bharatiya Janata Party rally in Kolkata last night was Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. Or at least, a bust of the 19th century educationist and reformer, allegedly vandalised by BJP supporters at the Vidyasagar College (the BJP denies the charges).

Balding pate, intent frown, a shawl draped around his shoulders – Vidyasagar is a familiar figure across schools, colleges and traffic islands in West Bengal. Apart from the college, the state has a Vidyasagar Setu, a Vidyasagar Mancha and several Vidyasagar Schools.

Most school students learned to recite the Bengali alphabet according to the sequence set down by him in Borno Porichoy [Introduction to the Alphabet]. They also had to read at least one chapter on the life of the great man, the struggles he faced growing up, how he studied under street lamps, hungry for knowledge, how he eventually earned the epithet “Vidyasagar”, which literally translates to ocean of learning.

Textbooks, teachers and parents are clear: Vidyasagar was the model student you are to aspire to be. These strictures might not have always endeared him to students swotting away during “load sheddings”, Bengali for power cuts. But even if you grumbled about him, you did not mess with him.

Born in 1820, he would drive cultural and social changes that flowed into the Bengal Renaissance, now remembered as a golden age which has shaped Bengali ideals for close to two centuries.

The educator

At the age of nine, Vidyasagar would travel from rural Bengal to the bustling metropolis of Calcutta, as it then was, to acquire an education, blazing his way through several scholarships and accolades.

Studying at the Government Sanskrit College, established by the British in 1824, he would become a formidable Sanskrit scholar. He also encouraged vernacular education, reconstructing the Bengali alphabet and simplifying the typography to the form it is known in today.

By 1851, he had become the first Indian principal of the Government Sanskrit College. By 1856, he had established the Barisha High School. Vidyasagar College was set up in 1872, “aided by the zeal, aspiration and sacrifice Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar”.

In the tradition of Raja Rammohan Roy, the aristocratic Bengali reformer who preceded him, Vidyasagar linked education to social change and empowerment.

On self esteem

Many of the stories told about Vidyasagar revolve around how he reclaimed Bengali self-esteem under a discriminatory colonial administration. Denied entry to a museum for wearing sandals, he shot off a complaint which dwelt on the “mystery” of footwear among the British.

When the British principal of the Hindu College greeted him with his feet up on a desk, Vidyasagar greeted his colleague at the Sanskrit College the same way. He had learnt his “refined manners”, he said, “from that gentleman himself”.

Some of his reformist ideals might have been influenced by the arrival of Western education in Bengal. But the Vidyasagar College website proudly proclaims that, with its establishment, “the myth of the European monopoly of Higher Education was shattered and replaced by the academic system devised by an Oriental Pundit, completely Indic in nature, characteristics and purposes”.

An age of reform

Perhaps his most radical reform was to push the British to pass the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856. Sati, or the practice of burning widows in their husband’s funeral pyres, had already been banned in 1829, vocally supported by Rammohun Roy and other members of a reformist Hindu elite. But Hindu widows still led hellish lives of ostracism and deprivation.

Vidyasagar now agitated for the abolition of child marriage and polygamy among the higher castes, along with the legalisation of widow remarriage. A tract published in 1855 combined moving personal anecdotes about widows with a masterful of interpretation of Hindu scriptures. It is widely credited as the tipping point for the new legislation.

But with the rebellion of 1857, the British retreated from reformist policies and a section of the Hindu elite now campaigned for the protection of age-old customs. The heyday of reform had passed, notes author Brian A Hatcher, and Vidyasagar’s campaign against polygamy went unheeded. The last years of his life were spent providing homeopathic treatment to the tribal population in Karmatar. He is said to have died disillusioned in 1891.

A renaissance

In the early 20th century, however, Vidyasagar had his own renaissance in Bengal. Poets like Rabindranath Tagore wrote paeans to him. In the middle class Bengali imagination, he symbolised many of the qualities that the new Indian nation was to have – self made, self reliant, progressive, reformist, compassionate. These ideals would be held up in Bengali public life post Independence, however imperfectly they were followed.

But above all, of course, he was a “first class first” student, getting full marks all the time. Demolishing his statue is to lead thousands of young minds astray.

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