Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was an iconoclast. So, the spectre of breaking statues would have amused him more than disturb. That he has run up the dubious record for having his statues disfigured whenever there are talks of a change might not have surprised him, either.
He also had a wonderful sense of humour. At a gathering at the house of Bengal’s Lieutenant Governor, when he was asked why Bengali pundits did not wear a turban, he remarked they were lightening the load on their motherland, whom they had been unable to defend.
Thanks to his unorthodox beliefs, Vidyasagar has been less popular than other Bengali Renaissance men like Rammohun Roy and Ramakrishna Paramahansa among a rich nineteenth-century line up of stalwarts. He was candid, and extremely true to his words — he paid off to the state government a loan that even the state had no record of — and generous at a humungous scale. As Tagore pointed out in an essay on him, Vidyasagar died as a pessimist, having finally given up on expectations of change among Indians.
The latest damage to his statue at the eponymously named college on Tuesday in the BJP-TMC clash has attracted attention. So did the episode involving Naxalities in the 1970s, when they knocked off the head of his statues in Kolkata and Durgapur. It is not very widely known, but Vidyasagar statues have been defaced numerous times in between, too.
Among the reasons is that his bust or full statues adorn colleges too often. There have been others after him who have made a mark in the education sector — the first Indian vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, Ashutosh Mukherjee, for instance. But the statues of others are mostly limited to their places of work. Vidyasagar’s reach has been pan-Bengal, even as, surprisingly, he has been rather obscure on the national scene. He is, therefore, a visible target when fracas erupts between groups struggling to make their point.
Also, while all reformers espoused some religious thought, Vidyasagar left behind no religious dogmas. Instead, he supported reason and rationality at the cost of Hindu dogmas, which he knew better than anyone alive back then. Yet, he was possibly the first Bengali to make deep inroads among the tribals — there is a delightful story of how a Santhal asked him for a piece of cloth to give his wife. Vidyasagar had none to offer but promptly offered the key of his trunk to let the Santhal inspect its content and satisfy himself. It is a tale from a time that predates sharp political divisions.
The Bharatiya Janata Party itself would have been uncomfortable adopting his position at other times. It is a measure of the man that Vidyasagar is now on the way to becoming one of their mascot!