The recent demolition of a bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in the lobby of the Vidyasagar College building on Bidhan Sarani, Kolkata, provides a sad reminder of long-standing cultural ambivalence around Vidyasagar’s legacy in Bengal, and India too.

As I argued in my monograph, Vidyasagar: The Life and After-life of an Eminent Indian, Vidyasagar is both pratahsmaraniya and vitarkita – worthy of remembrance and endlessly debated.

When his bust was destroyed on May 14 amid a sad and violent political fracas, the collective response only highlighted the ongoing challenge of knowing who it is that had been honored by that bust. As I argue in my book, Vidyasagar continues to be missed in the life of contemporary Bengal.

In saying this, I play with two senses of the term “missed”. On the one hand, to miss something is to fail to recognise it, as when we say, “Oh, I guess I missed that.” On the other hand, we also use the word to express our longing for something, as when we say, “Boy, do I miss those days.”

As I read media reports about the pointless demolition of Vidyasagar’s bust at the Vidyasagar College and the frenzied attempts to defend the man, I couldn’t help feeling Vidyasagar was once again being missed.

Who is Vidyasagar?

Having studied the life and legacy of Vidyasagar for decades, I have always been struck by how much he remains an object of veneration, if not a kind of profound nostalgia. He is an icon of an era when a handful of eminent Bengalis had the courage to confront all kinds of obstacles: religious obscurantism, gender inequity, colonial subjugation, and manifest disparities in terms of access to education, social benefits, and economic security.

Needless to say, India continues to struggle with all these problems. It is hard not to look back in admiration at a figure who was both resolute and outspoken, and yet who is also said to have had the “heart of a Bengali mother”, as his protégée Michael Madhusudan Dutt once remarked.

All this notwithstanding, Vidyasagar also remains an object of confusion when he is not the subject of critical debate. He is missed today not only as someone who has been forgotten or rendered irrelevant but also as someone who is remembered in curious and conflicting ways.

Part of this is understandable. After all, what are contemporary Indians to make of a Brahmin pundit who refused to give up his dhoti and chaddar, who looked to the shastras for solutions to social problems, and who never journeyed beyond the subcontinent?

There may be universities and bridges that bear his name, but how many who cross over the second Hooghly bridge pause to consider the tribute it pays to a poor boy’s journey from Rarh to Calcutta? And even though one routinely encounters Vidyasagar’s stern visage in print, sculpture, and digital media, does his disciplinarian demeanor and reputation for grammatical correctness have anything to say in the age of Twitter and Instagram?

Two truths out there

Ours is an age when politics seems obsessed with image more than substance and venality rules the day. Our leaders bend truth in whatever direction suits them, whereas Vidyasagar famously countered the colonial double-speak of his superiors by stating simply that truth is one; it cannot be fudged.

It has therefore been somewhat humorous to watch as politicians on all sides have raced to splash Vidyasagar’s image across their own social media pages. And let us leave aside the question of who was actually responsible for the vandalism. Here too, if you listen to the politicians, it seems Vidyasagar was wrong: there are at least two truths circulating out there, each yoked to the needs of electoral success.

It all seems a world apart from the posture of the man Amales Tripathi dubbed the “Lonely Prometheus”. Of course there is a very good chance that those who destroyed Vidyasagar’s image had no idea who or what they were attacking. In contemporary parlance the bust was merely “collateral damage”. Or we could say, he was simply missed – even he was right in the thick of the skirmish!

Vidyasagar continues to be missed

When I was researching my book, I made a point to visit Karmatar, the remote village where Vidyasagar had retired when he grew tired of the bickering and backbiting of Calcutta public life.

There I saw and photographed a fine memorial to the man. Just imagine my bemusement when a recent piece in reproduced a Twitter post of that same photo.

Readers of my book would know I used that image to reflect on how Vidyasagar continues to be missed – because what struck me was that in Karmatar his bust had inadvertently been obscured by a row of ornamental shrubbery. The shrubs had been planted out of respect and devotion, but they made it hard to see the man they honored.

The irony speaks directly to the problem of Vidyasagar’s legacy. Yet I doubt whether the person who posted the image on Twitter was even aware of my interpretation. It is just one more reminder of the power of free-floating images in our age of rampant social media. We honor and we trivialise with every click. And in this case, Vidyasagar continues to be missed.

One thing should be clear. We are now in the run-up to Vidyasagar’s 200th birth anniversary. We can debate whether new statues are needed, but we can certainly take the time to learn more about an influential – if complicated – figure who deserves better than brickbats and hollow praise.

Brian A Hatcher is Professor and Packard Chair of Theology in the Department of Religion at Tufts University, USA. He has published widely on Vidyasagar and translated Vidyasagar’s Hindu Widow Marriage.