'The almighty has always remained a mute spectator to the pains and anguish of the women of Bengali.'
These words to be found in the first autobiography of a woman in Bengal, remain valid even today. Even today as the writer informs us, it is possible to come across the likes of Shivnath Shastri's grandmother who had burst into tears when his eldest daughter was born.
The writer's analysis of men is also straightforward. On the one hand man is seen as leading women form darkness to light and on the other hand is found prepared to douse her in petrol and then setting her fire. It is the agony of this contradiction that has made her traverse though history in her bid to look back at the lot of the Bengali Women. Her travels took her from Dhaka to Dinajpur, from Burdwan to Hooghly, the sufferings of women occupying the bulk of her factual account. Her journey of course does not end at any mountain of liberation, the broadening of which is the aim of an on going struggle.
About The Author
Born in Comilla district, now in Bangladesh, in 1941, left for India along with her family in the year 1950. Even amidst the turmoil of setting up a new home, her family ensured that her education did not suffer. History had always been her favourite subject and she look her masters degree from Jadavpur University in 1962, doing her Ph.D from Rabindra Bharati University. A teacher at the Sarojini Naidu College at Dum Dum all along. She retried in 2001 as Reader and Head of the Department of history. She has been a regular contributor to various Journals and participant in seminars, Bengali Women being her Principal Concern.
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'The almighty has always remained a mute spectator to the pains and anguish of the women of Bengali'
These words, to be found in the first autobiography of a Bengali Women, remain valid even today. The writer, however, also shows the narrow path of liberation, the broadening of which is the aim of an on going struggle.
Bengal's renaissance in the 19th century is a much discussed topic but such discussion has rarely been marred by repetition. Sociologists themselves have often changed their views, as did Benoy Ghosh who had come to the conclusion, thirty years after he first wrote on the subject, that undue importance had been attached to the issue of renaissance. The fruits of re-birth had never reached all sections of society, only a small section had benefited from it. Such a radical change of opinion of course also denotes a constant and healthy attempt at reappraisal in the light of new facts that keep on emerging.
When discussing is issue we generally have in mind a scenario in which attempts at social reform are met with stiff resistance. The question, however, is did renaissance in Bengal mean mass awakening. The answer in one word is, no. It was the urban middle classes who had raised questions about the validity of existing social norms and practices, the vast majority of the people never had the benefit of sharing the light of their knowledge. Movement against sati, for widow remarriage, against polygamy, for women's education, were no doubt earth-shaking but the impact was at best felt only slightly beyond Calcutta. And because of this, orthodoxy often had little problems regaining the ground which appeared to have been swept away by the storm of reforms. Ploygamy for instance could not be stooped even though a law had enacted in1872.
The reform movements mentioned above had one thing in common, they were all concerted with the plight of women. At the some time they depended on the same scriptures quoted by orthodoxy and looked more to the government for success rather than on pressures of any new awakening among the masses. Here the Christian missionaries also played an important role as did Oriental scholars like William Jones and Henry Colebrooke. They had sought to re-discover Indian and along their path had walked Rammohun Roy and others.
The year 1814 is seen as the beginning of reforms movements for it was in that year that Rammohun had come to live permanently in Calcutta. The movement, however, got a real fillip in the thirties and forties of 19th century, thanks to Derozio and his students at the Hindu College. They had clear ideas on every issue, be it removal of the caste system or women's education. Even if their methods of expression were at times too disturbing for society as it existed then, it was the new consciousness they created that led to Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar opening the doors of Sanskrit College to all castes. This was no mean achievement considering that he himself had come form a conservative brahmin background.
It may be asked why did the reformed seek answers to their doubts in the same religious writings which the orthodoxy quoted. The reason was they had to tell people that the religion they had always been made to swear by, actually did not have any place for social misdeeds. So to root out sati, Rammohun had to quote the scriptures as did Vidyasagar to prove that Hindu religion did not prohibit widows form marrying again. Evan the more extremist Young Bengal did the same. A after published in their mouthpiece Bengal Spectator in 1842 said, "religion does not in any way stand in the way widows remarrying."
But merely quoting scriptures to the devil would not have helped, it would have led to waste of time in endless debates allowing the roots of the malaise to go down deeper. So help by way of legislation was needed. Not all the reformers, however, were in agreement with this, Rammohun had initially resisted such a method to do away with sati even though he hated the custom. Similarly Young Bengal had doubts about polygamy being stopped though executive orders instead of an enlightened people themselves discarding the practice. The Christian missionaries and men like Prasanna Kumar Tagore and Vidyasagar on the other hand though otherwise.
It is a complex issue Can social reform be always brought about by legislation? There cannot be a straight answer. People had accepted the abolition of sati but were not prepared to accept any such ban on polygamy. Then also, while the reformers repeatedly raised the question of social values, personally they themselves did not always practice what they preached. One reformer was all for womens education but kept his wife and daughters in the darkness of illiteracy. Another married off his daughter while she was still a child and yet thundered against the practice.
Now let us take a look at world of today. Throughout India cases of female foetus being destroyed are on the rise, the number being two million every year. According to the latest survey of the World Health Oganization girl children are also dying at an alarming rate which is 63 per cent more than boys in the age group one to four. Yet all the reforms movements in the 19th century were aimed at women's freedom and emancipation. A remarkable product of the movements was Rassundari Devi who, while performing all household duties, had elevated herself form illiteracy to an educated person and writer. She wrote, "the Hindu social customs of our country in those days were evil, everything was denied to women, the hapless creatures led lives of animals."
At the time of Rassundari, women's education was not for all. When Bethune School was started in Calcutta, it was stated, "None but the daughters of respectable Hindus are taken in." Little wonder then that it took anther one hundred years for daughters of low caste families to enjoy the benefits of education
It was similar with widows. The efforts by reformers had little effect on the bulk of them. Thus in 1863 Kailashbasini mourned the lot of widows whom, among other things, society did not allow even a drop of water to drink on certain days of a month no matter how much they suffered. With a heavy dose of sarcasm she commented, "Oh Hindu religion, I think you and also thank that great soul who created you".
Is this a picture truly unknown to the Bengali reader in the 21st century? Perhaps the only need today is that he, or she, will have to step out of the city to see it.
And sati? Isn't bride burning so common these days another form of sati? Yes, today we may not see 'Kulin' brahmins practicing polygamy but what we see is not less shocking, much of that is read as history is present in contemporary society.
It will be difficult to search for feminists in the early years of Bengali renaissance. But there were men whose untiring efforts had given women sings of freedom. Just as the Unitarians in Europe and USA, Bengal had her Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Keshub Chandra Sen, Sashipada, Dwarkanath Gangopadhyay, Satyendranath Tagore, Shibnath Shastri and such others. It was because of them that Bengali Women found their own foothold in society and later attained some measures of economic independence though the profession of teaching. It 1295, of the Bengali calendar, the Journal Bamabodhini indicated this when it spoke of organizing women so that they could teach and also make thing which would be a source of livelihood.
Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay made the apt comment, "there is little point in holding on to old social norms and ideals women must come forward, fearlessly face all problem and build for themselves a new road, a new way of life."
Among the women who played pioneering role in this direction, mention must be made of Swarnakumari Devi and her Sakhi Samity, Saraladevi Chowdhurani (Bharat Stri Mandal), Lady Abala Bose (Nari Siksha Samity), Saroj Nalini Dutta (Nari Mangal Samity) and of course Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. The Passage of time has not made them irrelevant.
Discussing a subject which has been deliberated for the last hundred years is frought with the danger of repetition. So when I decided to study the subject afresh, I had worry sitting heavy on my shoulders. The only way I could get rid of it was by my by digging deep into the mountain of information that exists. I am not sure whether this volume will be a pointer to any new direction, particularly when it is centred round a single spot, a single district. But then a single spark can start a prairie fire, a single spot can indicate the total nature of the problem.
Women have learnt to demand and fight for their rights which still elude them. Today they have men by side in larger numbers and even in such a place where mothers had thrown their girl children into the river, wives had Jumped on to funeral pyres, to avoid remaining a spinster girls married men on their death bed to ensure for themselves a place in heaven.
In Europe it is pointless searching today for the circumstances in which women had found themselves during the Industrial Revolution. With us it is exactly the opposite. As for Muslim women they still seem to be living in the middle Ages-society feels all that they need to learn is a bit of Bengali and Urdu so that they can study the religious books. As for the Hindu here still remain elements encouraging child marriage and not being punished. Not only in India but in the entire south-east Asia religious fundamental is women to drag back society to the dark ages, particular the women. In our homes there still exist the grandmothers of Shibnath Shastri who, when her granddaughter was born, had burst into tears. Anurupa Devi wrote, "my birth brought happiness to none."
Witnessing the cremation of Vidyasagar, Mankumari Basu had wailed, "a bright sun in the human world is sinking, India has lost her lost pride". Perhaps even today women are waiting for a man like him. Even enlightened men have tried to hold women back as did Keshub Sen who was strongly opposed to higher education for women. It was not strange that in such a society Chandramukhi Bose had to give up teaching as principal of Bethune College after her marriage. In the words of Rassundari, "in Bengal God has always remained a mute spectator to the pain and anguish of women."
To women God appears always in the shape of a man. But by no means is man a mute creature. He does not hesitate to douse the same women in petrol even when leading her to light. And women themselves are often seen to support man's barbarism as if it is a way of life. Yes, even today.
Being influenced by the Western liberalism, humanism and rationalism, the English educated upper and middle classes took initiative in restructuring the social life removing existing superstition and other reprehensible social habits. Of them, Rammohun Roy appeared in a pioneering role. Then, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar played a vital part in the extension of social reform movements. The Christian Missionaries had also a role in this regard. The leading figures of Young Bengal assisted the movement creating favourable atmosphere for social reforms. Both Rammohun and Vidyasagar made efforts to build up publish opinion in support of social reforms depending on the Hindu scriptures. Even the spokesmen of Young Bengal tried to rationalize their arguments referring to the scriptures.
Very soon the social reformers realized that only by referring to the scriptures they would not be able to remove the social ills. The intervention of the government would be essential. They thought of accelerating progress of social reforms with the enactment of laws by the government. But the social reforms were somewhat hesitant to pursue this path. Rammohun had such doubts. He even advised Lord William Bentinck not to prohibit Sati system by enforcing law. The prominent persons of Young Bengal opposed government intervention for the restructuring of the social system. A noted thinker like Akshay Kumar Datta did not favour the idea of prohibiting polygamy by the government. But Prasanna Kumar Tagore and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar realized the necessity of government intervention. In fact, Vidyasagar wanted to legalize widow remarriage and prohibit polygamy with the help of the laws enacted by the government.
The social reformers of nineteenth century Bengal were confronted with this question: Would it be possible to transform society radically by enacting laws? This was a fact that in certain spheres official laws were acceptable to the people. The government could enforce anti-sati act with the support of the people. Vidyasagar could give marriage to a large number of widows during his time. But the upper caste Hindus could not normally accept the widow remarriage. It was very difficult to get a Brahmin purohit for solemnizing this marriage even at a time when the entire country was galvanized with a new spirit during the nonviolent non-cooperation movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.
In real sense the development of individual mind is closely interlinked with the issue relating to social change. For many centuries the Hindu society was overwhelmed with the established customs and practices depending on the scriptures. In this situation the question of emancipation of the individual is very important. How the society will be emancipated without the emancipation of the individual? In spite of the progress of modern education the question of emancipation of the individual has no significance in an insert socio-education structure. This was the reason for which the educated people could not wholly emancipate themselves from superstition in their family and social and life. The authoress of this volume very efficiently analysed the contradictory ingredients, which moulded the psyche of the reformers. She wrote that there were reformers who took the initiative for female education but they never realized the necessity of removing the ignorance of their wives or daughter through modern education. They went out for a short leisurely walk with their wives with the help of the police and never hesitated to perform child marriage in case of their daughters Dr. Sunita Bandyopadhyay very boldly unmasked these reformers.
In order to get a proper answer to the question, why inspite of phenomenal growth of knowledge in the twenty first century girls are awfully neglected, we shall have to look at the limitations of Bengal and Indian Renaissance. It is quite well-known that the leading figures of Young Bengal could not retain their identity as rationalists. They found consolations in going back to the Hindu fold. Thus the Bengal Renaissance had failed to give a proper shape to the question of individual emancipation. It was also a fact that the reformers were mainly concerted with the education of upper caste girls. They had no perception about the uplifting of lower caste girls. In the midst of these limitations there were a few forward looking persons like Rammohun and worked very hard for giving 'human dignity to women'.
William Adam and Mary Carpenter also played important part for the extension of female education. Dr. Sunita Bandyopadhyaya rightly pointed out that for their sincere and untiring efforts the ground was prepared for women to achieve self-dependence. In fact, for them women could aim at emancipation. Dr. Bandyopadhyaya also mentioned that at that time the concept of 'economic freedom' was not noticeable in the discussion on the emancipation of women. In the sixties of the nineteenth century this teachers actually ended the era of 'Zenana female education'.
The idea of giving dignity to women was floated in the nineteenth century. The efforts of the social reformers created favourable atmosphere for building up a new society. For that it becomes possible for several pioneering women to widen the path of emancipation of women. Thoroughly analyzing the role of these women, Dr. Bandyopadhyay has greatly enriched the social history of Bengal. She has assertively stated that like the women of consider herself as 'an abuse of God's creation'. Women has progressed much in the struggle of her self-assertion. In spite of the, various obstacles are on the way development of her real self-assertion. The emancipation of women would acquire its natural way if ignorance and poverty are removed.
I consider this work as a mentionable addition to the historical discourses relating to the journey of Bengali women towards modernism. I heartily congratulate Dr. Sunita Bandyopadhyaya for writing such a well-documented readable book.
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