Dear comrades, friends and well-wishers,
On 26th September this year, the second centenary of the birth of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was completed. Vidyasagar is known as one of the foremost leaders of social reform movements in colonial Bengal in the 19th century. While, however, he is mostly remembered as the one who legalised widow remarriage in Hindu society, less attention is paid to his contribution to the education of women which points to a much more holistic perception of the subjection of women in a traditional society disintegrating under the impact of colonialism.
But the most important characteristic which Vidyasagar shared with other social reformers like Rammohan Roy, Jyotirao Phule, or Ramasamy Peryar in the next generation was his modernity. This indigenous modernity engaged freely with Western thought, but was by no means part of a derivative discourse. On the other hand, it fiercely opposed mindless submission to traditional as well as colonial hegemony and freely adopted for its purpose multiple legacies of debate and critical thought. This spirit of free enquiry and courageous questioning of established authority has been found to be the very basis of struggles for equality and justice—whether it is for women, for dalits, for black lives or for deprived people —everywhere in the world.
Vidyasagar did not live to see subsequent generations of Indians rising to challenge colonial rule; the alternative of independence which alone enables such indigenous modernity to fructify in the life of a nation remained beyond his ken. But now at a time when the secular democratic state which arose out of many struggles for equality and justice is in the process of being dismantled brick by brick by ruling powers using fascistic tactics, the spirit of free enquiry championed by reformers like Vidyasagar is also being crushed underfoot. The question ‘why’ is seen as the most dangerous weapon against the authority of fear and fraud and must be suppressed. We, the women of India, who have made advances only through such struggles for the emancipation of the mind, have to take the pledge today to go ahead with it against all odds.
Malini Bhattacharya, President, All India Democratic Association for Women