ASOK SEN (1927-2015) studied Economics at Presidency College and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute and Burdwan University. He was later Professor of Economics at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. His research included history and culture and he was founder and editor of the influential Bengali magazine Baromas.
Vidyasagar equated his life with reason. The influence upon him of Western knowledge and humanism was remarkably free of self-interest. Yet his ideals secured little social fulfilment; his career was full of the experience of failure and deception.
In this influential book, revived in a new edition, Asok Sen places and interprets Vidyasagar in the context of Bengal under British rule. An 'economic crisis had overtaken the middle class and influenced the social, political, and ideological developments of the period' and it was within this historical context that Vidyasagar strove to unite education with cultural life, knowledge with social conscience.
Dipesh Chakrabarty's Foreword says that this book deserves to be better known because much of Asok Sen's influence 'spread through Socratic means: informal conversations and the dying Bengali institution of adda ... the thoughts and writings of Asok Sen played a guiding role for many Marxist intellectuals of my generation in the Calcutta of the 1970s and later.'
Iswar channdra bandyopadhyay (vidyasagar), the famous nineteenth –century Bengali social reformer and the eponymous hero of this book , needs no introduction to the student of modern Indian history , but perhaps this book odes . Party due his own modesty and reticence as well as his aversion to travel and publicity , Asok Sen , its author , was not - as partha Chatterjee noted in a tribute to him in the Economic and Political Weekly a familiar name outside the intellectual and theatre circles of Calcutta. Besides much of his influence spread through Socratic means : conversation and the dying Bengali institution of adda . but if Ranjit guha ‘s Elementary Aspects of peasant Insurgency in colonial India (1983) could be seen as a key text influencing many radial historians of south Asia in the 1980s. the thought s and writings of Asok Sen Played a similar guiding role for many Marxist intellectual of may generations in the Calcutta of the 1970s and later . I can perhaps safely count some distinguished academics among those deeply influenced by sen: Partha Chtterjee , Sudipta Kaviraj, Sobhanlal Datta Gupta the late kalian Sanyal, an Rudra ngshu Mukherjee, to name but a few. Among reputed older scholars on whom Sen’s thoughts had a visible formative influence were the historians Barunn de (1932-2013), founder – director of the Centre for studies in social Sciences , Calcutta ; and sumit sarkar , whose the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903- 1908 (1973)remains a landmark publication in modern Indian historiography . We were brought up on Iswar Chandra vidyasagar and his Elusive Milestones , and we all lost a lifelong mentor when Asok Sen passed away in his sleep in Calcutta on 10 December 2015. He was old, about eighty –nine , but still very much the engaged Marxist intellectual he had away been , open to and curious about the many changes in the world that his generation had not foreseen, and yet ever ready to distil our of these challenges new questions with which to reinvigorate Marxist analysis.
It Is not accidental that the scholar I name here happen to be either historians or practical scientists and economics whose works have a strong historical orientation. Through trained and employed as an economist - first at the Indian statistical Institute , then at the University of Burdwan , and finally at the Centre for studies in social Sciences Calcutta - Den’s intellectual energies were focused on Marxist debate son transition to capitalism ‘ that had produced some very significant writings in the West , both by academics and by politician philosopher like Lenin and Gramsci . throughout his life , sen’s primary endeavour was to see how those debates could be drawn upon to generate history . He was, of course, not alone in pursuing this particular path of inquiry . His interests were shared across a wide spectrum of Marxist intellectual of his generation in India ,. Readers will remember , for example , the famous essays ‘potentialities for Capitalist Development in the Economy of Mughal India’ that the noted historian Irfan Abib published in 1969, or the landmark debate on the nature of Habib published in 1969, or the landmark debate on the nature of the colonial Indian economy in the nineteenth century that the newly founded journal the Indian Economic and social history Review stated only a year earlier, in 1968. These were some of the foundational texts with which the academic career of a subject called ‘modern Indian history ‘ began in post- Independence India.
These debates of the late 1960s had roots reaching back to essay that Marx himself had written on the ‘future results of British rule in India’ in the early 1850s, the arguments f which were later rehearsed by the British communist R.P. dutt in hi s book India Today , first published around 1940 and authoritative a work of references for at least a couple of generation of Marxist in India since. But the assessment o Indian scholars who wrote in the 1960s was much bleaker than that of Marx on the regenerative capacity of the economy that the British created in India . Colonial rule came to be seen as a structure that impeded Indian economic growth . within that boar agreement. however , the debate on the colonial transition in India was rich with distinct and diverse voices . While the like of Habib examined the nature of the economy in Mughal India, an Bipan Chandra and his colleagues in Delhi – drawing on the ‘dependency ‘theorists of Latin America in the early 1970s developed their own ideas on why modern colonial rule necessarily stunted economic growth, Sen’s Ideas took a distinctly different turn in Calcutta . His interlocutors here included not only Marxist colleagues in various parts of the country but also the fire -breathing Maoist intellectuals and students of Bengal - the so-called Naxalites –who had , following the analytical strictures of Mao , initiated a strident debate about the nature of Idea’s capitalist an its representatives , branding them all ‘compradors’ or unashamed collaborators of the imperial British in India. A particular target these Maoist debates – published in the various journals of the Moist party, the communist party of India several of the stalwarts of nineteenth- century Bengal , the creators of the so –called Bengal Renaissance, otherwise a much celebrated theme in traditional Bengali history.
The citizens of Calcutta were stunned and shocked to encounter a student movement in 1970 that took outrageous from of heading public statues o f many of their cultural heroes, including the person at the centre of this book , Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. a marble statue of Vidyasagar, carved in 1899 and installed in a park called college Square situated just behind a historic institution, the Sanskrit college, was found decapitated in june 1970, much to the consternation of the city. Vidyasagar crime, as explained in Naxalite publication - and I say this form my personal memory of those days - was that he had allegedly allowed the British to use the premises of the college to billet soldiers brought in to put down the heroic rebels of 1857! Vidyasagar , and the so called ‘ renaissance’ he and other s created , were therefore no longer to be celebrated in Bengali history ; memorial s rot such individuals, I the judgement of our Maoists , were now legitimate object of insult and decoration. The Naxalites thus initiated a shrill and polarizing debate about a them dear to the of middle class Bengalis – their cultural efflorescence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries . Their shocking gestures, as Ranjit Guha was to observe later , won the rebels no friends .’ and yet , wrote Guha, ‘the very wildness of such gestures drove the point home, albeit scandalously , that tradition would not pass unchallenged.
Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar‘s Immense strength of struggle and humanity is of legendry significance in our modern history for the most part vidyasagar equated his life with reason. This gave him an untiring will for positive social action . In his case , the rational influence of western knowledge and humanism was free of any attraction for alien styles of living vidyasagar’s ideals secured little fulfilment in society ; his experience was full of failures and deceptions.
I have attempted to interpret this experiences within the context of nineteenth century Bengal under British colonial rule. the narrow limits of effective social practice were inherent in the economic directions of imperialism. A stagnant agricultural economy emerged , with its ever – increasing scale of sub-infeudation and divorce between landownership and actual cultivation. The country ‘s older industries were destroyed in consequences of unrestricted imports of cheaper British manufactures . British capital monopolized the limited growth of factory industries ; neither their profits their markets integrated to India‘s home economy.
All his strength of will and conscience notwithstanding , vidyasagar could not free himself from the ambiguity of his social situation arising out of the whole complex of England’s work in India . The line of demarcation between comprador and national bourgeoisie is perhaps of little avail for explaining vidyasagar’s experience . In countries under direct foreign capitalist rule of the British type , a was the case with India, the dialectics of loyalty and opposition world no t admit of clear division among the native bourgeoisie or the entire middle class into two exclusive categories of collaborators and opponents of imperialism. Indeed , Indian bourgeois opposition to imperialism suffered a perpetual fragility of its own history. Capitalism in India has always lacked the ability to act as an adequate agency for socio – economic transformation.
Vidyasagar‘s experience occurred before the Indian bourgeoisie had matured even physically toits national dimension. His own class was mainly contained in tertiary occupation like legal service , learned profession , government jobs , and other allied activities open to those who had opportunities for English education. Under British policy the middle class was granted proprietary privileges over the toiling peasantry . It could acquire lands for cultivation by tenants who were often left without any real protection against rent – enhancement and eviction. This middle class was bound down to an inevitable mediocrity; its English learning and vocal aspiration s wee caught up in its extreme dependence on unproductive means of livelihood economic crisis had overtaken the middle class itself ad influenced the social , political, and ideological developments of the period.
It was in this historical context that Vidyasagar strived to promote creative correspondence between education and social life, between knowledge and social conscience. Vidyasagar’s civil-social effort s and bold perspectives on education presented an practice grew out of his own individual response to the positive core of Western knowledge. Despite his brave and noble efforts , vidyasagar could not achieve the goals which he had set forth in the sphere of education and social reforms. the causes were connected with colonial constraints on Bengal’s economy and society , with the historical complex of imperialism which vidyasagar could not really clarify for his society .
It is not for us to sit in Judgement over Vidyasagar. Such historical hindsight would reduce itself to the vulgarity of evading presents task by snide denigrations of a great man an is life‘s struggle. The story points to border effect of imperialism than are usually considered in settling profit and loss account s of our so called modernity , in his the power of colonial darkness did not cease with the country ‘s political independence . time and again , the cause reason enlightenment , and even socialism has met with reverses because of its inability to reach deep into the roots of our society and people. this is where vidyasagar’s experience has contemporary meaning.
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