The political dust may have settled on the destruction of a bust of iconic 19th century educator Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in Kolkata. Not so the common person’s outrage—the act of vandalism, after all, took place in College Square, an education hub in a city of intellectuals.
All along the area the anger is palpable. While West Bengal is no stranger to student and political violence, the physical attack on the state’s cultural legacy has left the people smarting.
Both the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is hoping to make inroads into the state in this election, have sought to ride the emotional tsunami that has dovetailed the smashing of the bust in a bid to squeeze some political mileage. Predictably, each has blamed the other.
The poll narrative, however, is something Bengalis are taking with a pinch of salt.
“We have a lot to boast about—Vidyasagar, Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutta and so on. This is not the first time we are seeing culture being used for political gain. But this is definitely the first time we are seeing sacrosanct representations of that culture being destroyed selfishly," said Abhijeet Nashkar, a bookseller near Vidyasagar College, founded in 1872 as India’s first private college run, taught and financed by Indians.
As the poll campaign came to a forced closure on Thursday night, a last-minute war of words between the two parties broke out, with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee declaring the state would neither “forgive nor forget" the act of vandalism.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking in Uttar Pradesh, did not mince his words either, blaming TMC for the destruction. At the same time, in a bid at damage control, Modi promised to restore Vidyasagar’s legacy by installing a panchadhatu statue (made of five metals and considered a superior medium by traditional Hindus).
The people, however, are not pleased with either party, which has used Vidyasagar—social reformer, grammarian, polymath and Sanskrit scholar—to reach out to the masses.
Surendro Pal, who runs a shop near the Medical College and Hospital on College Street, said Vidyasagar was “dug up from the dead to further the political narratives of two parties, who are vying for first place in the state".
“Vidyasagar is long gone and our parties have nothing new to pick on, so now they have decided to attack what is sacred to Bengalis and keep that going to further their own political interests," said Khokon Manna, a bookseller on College Street, famed for its large number of bookshops.
Meanwhile, the historic Vidyasagar College is temporarily emptied of its students, now ringed by police barricades, its facade lined with angry posters.
“After the incident, the building has been sealed and the students have stopped coming. The premises have been now taken over by the Election Commission and we don’t know when it will be released… maybe once the election results have been declared and things are calmer," said a Kolkata Police official, requesting anonymity.