Bengal is a grumpy land, wedded to the persona of a people who’ve been hard done by
Bengal is a benighted land of extremes. On the one hand, its cup of iconic heroes spills over, long loved and admired by other regions well beyond India’s shores. On the other, Bengalis have allowed this rich intellectual and cultural legacy to be squandered, like the spoilt third generation of an aristocracy that talks up genealogy but thinks it needn’t work hard to make a success of anything.
The fissure that runs through Bengal—sharpened by the separation of its Muslim east from the Hindu west—marked the nadir of the angry general election that has just concluded in India, crowning the process with violence. Much of this violence in thought (and action as it turned out) revolves around Bengali icons, an interesting trend in recent Indian cultural history whose origins deserve teasing out by cultural historians.
Bengal is a grumpy land, wedded to the persona of a people who’ve been hard done by. Bitterness runs deep in Bengali consciousness, going back to the British decision to move the capital of its India empire from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911. The Brits had very good reason to do so—Bengalis had successfully opposed the 1905 religious partition of Bengal, dealing the biggest blow to Britain’s divide and rule policy in India. Bengal’s response was to try and unite Hindus and Muslims, even as anti-British sentiment grew across the province, marked by militancy and political assassinations.
A boycott of British goods, including textiles, and British-run institutions followed, galvanizing the Indian freedom struggle and lending it both a secular and economic content, prompting the president of the Indian National Congress, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, to declare, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow." Around this time, ‘Vande Mataram’, from a poem written by Bengali poet Bankimchandra Chatterjee, became the war cry of the freedom movement.
The British were stung but hit upon the perfect solution. In 1911, during the first and last visit by any reigning British monarch to pre-independence India, King George V, presiding over a coronation durbar in Delhi, broke the good news and the bad (to Bengalis that is). The good news was that he had decided that the partition of Bengal was a mistake and that the province would be re-united after all. The bad news: he had also decided to move the capital of India to Delhi.
That was just the start, as they say. So when unidentified hoodlums vandalized the bust of a Bengali icon, the educator, grammarian, Sanskrit pundit and social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91), after a rally in Kolkata by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah, long-held Bengali grievance spilt over. ‘How dare you’ was the recurring refrain, Vidyasagar being the man who pretty much single-handedly forced the British to introduce legislation allowing widows to remarry. Suddenly, the rest of India, which had long forgotten the details, faces or the legacy of Bengali icons, was waking up to Twitter feeds about Vidyasagar (Who He).
As if this wasn’t enough, suddenly a television actor who describes herself as a “disciple of Lord Ram" lashed out at Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833). He is another social reformer Bengalis worship with equal ardour for persuading the British to ban sati, the practice that had Hindu widows self-immolate upon the death of their husbands. Inexplicably, she called Roy a British stooge.
Trying to make sense of the sudden clash of ideas is hard to do in the maelstrom of Indian politics. However, of the several strands running through all of this, one is the various campaigns demanding justice for girls and women in 19th century Bengal. Mostly led by educated Brahmin men influenced by liberal thought, these campaigns sought social reform through education and legislation with one overarching aim: to modernize Hinduism. Indeed, “it cannot be fortuitous", writes historian Amiya P. Sen, that Rammohun Roy was the first Indian to use the term ‘Hinduism’. Vidyasagar, for instance, having tasted success with his campaign seeking legislative backing for widows to remarry, lobbied ferociously with the British to ban polygamy—another rampant practice. He also argued against child marriage with equal force. As he saw it, it was the combination of child marriage and polygamy that was at the root of child widowhood in Bengal.
He encouraged his only son Narayan to marry a widow: “Narayan has married the girl of his own choice," he wrote. The campaign went door-to-door and, according to one account, the weavers of Krishnagar wove lyrics of folk songs on widow remarriage into the saris they made. Vidyasagar and Roy were both scholarly Hindus, and were able to prove, by citing sacred texts, that Hinduism neither banned widow remarriage nor sanctioned the practice of sati.
Roy condemned sati, the practice of compulsory celibacy for widows and polygamy. So-called Kulin Brahmins in particular were responsible for the spread of polygamy, often extorting money from men who wanted to give their daughters to them. It was a practice that encouraged rampant sexual exploitation of vulnerable girls in Bengal. But the British were lukewarm to the campaign, unwilling to upset orthodox Hindus after the 1857 mutiny that had been set off in part by rumours about the use of cow fat to make cartridges.
Could social justice for women have been—and still be—a roundabout route to addressing the caste problem? Both polygamy and sati had strong caste and obvious gender dimensions. According to historian Sen, there was a disproportionately high number sati cases among the higher castes in Bengal. By one account, upper castes accounted for 55% of all cases reported while representing only 11% of the population. In 1823, about 41% of all the cases reported in Bengal were from Brahmin families. Did the legislation to ban sati and allow widow remarriage, in other words, inadvertently have the effect of moderating some of the more extreme manifestations of upper caste patriarchy in Bengal?
The history of how social reformers in Bengal helped modernize Hinduism may have some modern echoes. Attempts by the ruling BJP to legislate a ban on the practice allowing Muslim men to divorce their wives by uttering the word ‘talaq’ three times may be seen in some quarters as a move to help modernize Islam in India. The trouble of course is that the movers of such reform are not seen as unbiased actors.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1.
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