Mamata Banerjee to begin Vidyasagar’s bicentenary celebrations at his village
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is supposed to begin week-long celebrations of the 200th birth anniversary of social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who single-handedly battled the reluctant social elite to start women’s education in mid-19th century.
The significance of Mamata Banerjee’s visit to Birsingha, the native village of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the educator, social reformer and one of the tallest figures of the Bengal Renaissance, can hardly be overstated at a time conducive for identity politics.
The Bengal chief minister is supposed to begin week-long celebrations of the 200th birth anniversary of the social reformer, who single-handedly battled the reluctant social elite to start women’s education in mid-19th century.
On Tuesday, the chief minister is supposed to reach the village, about 124 km from Kolkata, at about 3 pm.
She will head for the house where Vidyasagar was born and garland his statue before taking a round of the museum on him. Later, Banerjee will visit Birsingha Bhagabati High School. The entire programme is expected to last for about 45 to 50 minutes.
The chief minister is expected to address the people in the village, where she might make a pitch as a protector of the Bengali identity.
“The Bengali identity is a continuum running from liberal ‘Bengaliness’ that Vidyasagar stood for to a narrower, parochial definition that leans towards Bengal for Bengalis. No matter on which part Mamata Banerjee positions herself, Vidyasagar is a face she cannot afford to ignore,” said Rajat Roy, political commentator associated with the Calcutta Research Group.
The importance of Vidyasagar in the Bengali psyche is perhaps best exemplified by the last phase of the Lok Sabha elections in Bengal. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates failed to win a single of the nine constituencies that went to polls on May19, just four days after Sangh Parivar supporters desecrated a bust in a college named after him.
All the 18 seats – up from two in the 2014 LS polls – in the state that the BJP won this year, were won in the 33 constituencies, elections to which were held in six phases between April 11 and May 12. BJP leaders admitted in private that the incident stood between them and victory in at least three constituencies.
The bicentenary celebrations of Vidyasagar come against this backdrop.
Quoting Tagore and Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Antara Bhattacharya, the president of the BJP’s Ghatal organizational district, said that these two poets had said that Vidyasagar used to embody all the qualities that were expected of a Bengali. “Now, if someone thinks that she can show bigger respect to Vidyasagar, I have nothing to say,” remarked Bhattacharya.
“Anyone can visit Vidyasagar’s village to pay respect, but it is not prudent to play politics with this great man or Bengalis as a race,” added Bhattacharya.
“When did we say that we are indulging in politics over Vidyasagar? BJP leaders began politics over this reformer. They vandalized his statue in Kolkata, and then instead of apologizing, they began to blame us,” Ajit Maity, the West Midnapore district president of the Trinamool Congress said.
“The chief minister has great respect for Vidyasagar and repeats it regularly. It’s not a one off incident,” added Maity. The TMC leader also pointed out that the current government repaired and renovated the Vidyasagar museum and the house where he was born. Both were in a poor state and needed urgent repair. We did not campaign about it or highlight it,” said Maity.