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Vidyasagar statue vandalism in Bengal isn’t just about ideology. It’s a TMC-BJP power war

The vandalism was a random act, almost an accident, which has now taken on more significance than was its intention.

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When a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was smashed, a motorbike set on fire, and a college vandalised in north Kolkata Tuesday, a regional news channel covering the clash asked its viewers to turn off their television sets if there were children watching, lest they develop wrong ideas about politics by what they saw on screen.

What resulted after was a blame game between the BJP and the TMC.

Value of a statue

What does it mean to the residents of this city when a statue of Vidyasagar is vandalised?

In the 1970s, members of Naxalite groups broke the head of a statue of Vidyasagar claiming that he was not a “man of the people”. Leaders removed from the masses deserved no statues was their reasoning.

A few kilometres outside of Budapest, in Hungary, is a place called Memento Park, which features nowhere on the tourist brochures.

It houses statues from the Soviet era. The entrance is flanked on the one side by Marx and Engels, and by Lenin on the other. Memento Park is a graveyard for statues, visited by only those who want to remember something everyone else is possibly trying to forget.

What happened last evening in Kolkata seems to be devoid of reason altogether. It was the result of violence, not played out on grounds of ideology, but on the grounds of control and power. It is a random act, almost an accident, which has now taken on more significance than was its intention.

Also read: Vidyasagar, the path-breaking reformer & educationist who is Bengal’s intellectual pride

Lessons from history

In March 2015, the CPI(M) claimed that a statue of Lenin in Jadavpur was vandalised by TMC workers. In the wake of the results of the Tripura elections and the bulldozing of the Lenin statue there, members of a radical Left-wing students’ organisation allegedly sprayed black paint on a bust of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951. In response, some members of the BJP allegedly threatened to vandalise the new Lenin statue that had been installed in Jadavpur after the 2015 incident.

These allegations and counter-allegations, actions and reactions quickly escalated (or, to be honest, degenerated) into a discourse of the very idea of India itself, and how Lenin, and by extension Communism, was an alien ideology in this land.

With Vidyasagar, no such arguments could be made. A blame game, therefore, was much more convenient. Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister, and other members of the Trinamool Congress have changed their profile pictures on social media. Now, Vidyasagar looks back at us from their Twitter handles. The chief minister has advanced her own version of the ‘outsiders did it’ argument, claiming that the people present at the rally and those who had, to borrow her phrase, “laid their hands on the heritage of Bengal” were “outsiders” to the state. Much of Mamata Banerjee’s campaign against the BJP has relied on invoking a parochial sentiment in the voters.

In Birbhum, at a meeting in support of TMC MP Shatabdi Ray, there was a banner in the backdrop that asked why it was taking so long to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh? In a manner of someone who does not want to be defeated in any competition, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress now holds Ram Navami processions in the state ever since the BJP began doing the same.

Also read: In ugly BJP vs Trinamool fight, it’s Bengal’s intellectual pride that is getting hurt

Black Tuesday

If anything, what unfolded in Kolkata Tuesday evening, and the subsequent blame game, is the perfect definition of ‘wrong idea of politics’.

When BJP president Amit Shah’s rally, the characteristics of which are new to Bengal (with participants dressed as deities from Hindu mythology) reached College Street, members of the students’ wing of the Trinamool Congress allegedly showed black flags as a form of protest and held up boards with the words “Go Back Amit Shah”. This is what supposedly triggered the clashes.

Situated at a stone’s throw distance from Lalbazar, the area where the clashes broke out is under CCTV surveillance. Police were present from the very beginning at the roadshow and their role in the clash is still under the scanner.

Amit Shah and TMC’s Derek O’Brien pointed fingers at each other all day Wednesday. With only a few days left for the last phase of the Lok Sabha elections (scheduled for 19 May), it remains to be seen what effect the ‘wrong idea of politics’ has on the electorate.

Also read: CRPF helped me escape Trinamool goons while Kolkata police stood mute, says Amit Shah

Lasting impressions

Komal Rekhab, a 13-year-old student of a school in the city, said that the incident upset her because Vidyasagar made it possible for girls to gain access to education.

Suparna Bhattacharya, a retired professor of Vidyasagar College, spoke about her senior colleague, Mrs Chuni Chaudhuri, who wasn’t allowed to continue her education after she got married, but borrowed books from her friends and studied in secret. On the day of her retirement, she touched the feet of the statue of Vidyasagar (now smashed) as a mark of respect, and turned to her colleague and said, “It is because of him that I was able to achieve what I did.”

Now, we have to hide our next generation from the deeds of the leaders of our time.

The author is a research scholar from Kolkata.

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  1. The ECI has stopped campaigning in the state from 10 pm tomorrow, which is neither here nor there. After yesterday’s shameful incidents, it should have pulled the plug from this morning. It has inflicted an unnecessarily long campaign on the country, all of seven phases in Bengal and UP, which goes beyond what logistics justified. It might wish to review this aspect after the votes are counted, plan a more taut schedule for the next general election. The traditional wisdom that more, longer, more lavishly funded campaigning translates into more seats may not be validated.

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