250 Years Later

Rediscovering and Rehabilitating Rammohan Roy

Asok Chattopadhyay

This year 22nd May being the 250th birth anniversary of Raja Rammohan Roy has got up almost the blue azure from a section of Indian revolutionary left. It has been iterated that Raja Rammohan was ‘one of the earliest and greatest campaigners’ for the ‘modern’ India.

It has been said that the Raja is ‘best remembered’ because of his ‘historic contribution’ towards the abolition of the inhuman sati system prevalent in the then Bengal. It has been averred that owing to Raja’s ‘spirited, bold and persuasive campaign’ against the inhuman and infamous sati system, the then Governor General Lord Bentinck was ‘forced’ to ‘outlaw’ such a truculent practice in 1829. The Raja indeed did have agitprop against the cruel system but when Lord Bentinck was about to outlaw such a system, the Raja objected and said that such a practice ‘might be suppressed quietly and unobservedly’! The Raja opined that such an enactment would ‘give rise to general apprehension’. The reason he argued was as follows:

‘‘While the English were contending for power they deemed it politic to allow universal toleration and to respect our religion, but having obtained the supremacy their first act is a violation of their profession, and the next will probably be, like the Muhammadan conquerors, to force upon us their own religion’’.

But Lord Bentinck paid not much heed to Rammohan’s objection and promulgated on December 4, 1929 that ‘hereceforth whether such a case of sati burning following the death of her husband be occurred ‘voluntarily on her part or not, shall be deemed guilty of culpable homicide and shall be liable to punishment’.

One more contribution of the Raja appears to have been emphatically up-roared. Oft-quoted saying is found reloaded to the effect that far before the struggle for India’s independence in the first half of the twentieth century Bengal, the Raja ‘was deeply influenced by the emancipatory ideas’ of the French Revolution happened in late eighties of the eighteenth century and found him to have ‘felt greatly elated by the attainment of independence by the countries of South America from Spanish colonialism’! But this very Raja was quiet unconcerned of his own country from the fetters of the English colonialists! He considered the English rule in India to be just blessings for these countrymen! He wrote:

‘‘Thanks to the supreme disposer of the events of Universe for having unexpectedly delivered this country from the long-continued tyranny of its former Rulers, and placed it under the government of the English—a nation who not only are blessed with the enjoyment of civil and political liberty, but also interest themselves in promoting liberty and social happiness, as well as free enquiry into literary and religious subjects, among those nations to which their influence extends’’.

So why the Raja would be eager to favour independence from the fetters of such a deliverer? He found his entire wishful firmament under the oneness of the British rule. To the consideration of the Raja the union of India with the England should have been bound ‘for an unlimited period’ to reap the best harvest in the common interest of the countrymen! He pleaded for free trade and colonisation of the English in the country, stood by the permanent settlement done by Lord Cornwallis in 1793 and even supported the indigo plantation despite the indescribable distress of the cultivators. On December 15, 1829 at Calcutta Town Hall Rammohan delivered his speech in support of colonisation and free trade. In his deliverance the Raja said:

‘‘From personal experience, I am imposed with the conviction that the great our intercourse with European gentlemen, the greater will be our improvement in literary, social and political affairs, a fact which can be easily proved by comparing the conditions of those of my countrymen who have enjoyed this advantage with those who unfortunately have not had that opportunity; … As to the indigo planters, I beg to observe that I have travelled through several districts in Bengal and Bihar, and I found the natives residing in the neighbour-hood of indigo plantations evidently better-clothed and better-conditioned that those who lived at a distance from such stations. There may be some partial injury done by the indigo-planters; but on the whole, they have performed more good to the generality of the natives of this country than any other class of Europeans whether is or out of the service’’.

What sort of ‘modern India’ the Raja hailed as some revolutionary left outfits venture to prop needs much explanation? Emotion commanding over political views cannot but invite disaster to ideological stands.

Fifty-five years have passed after the massacre of the ‘protesting peasantry’ in Bangaijote under Naxalbari in the third week of May 1967. At the behest of a ‘communist’ home minister police fired and killed ‘eleven people, including eight women, two of them with children strapped on their backs’. And then arose the ‘Spring Thunder’ and the then Bengal, Bihar and rest of India woke like an angry lion awaken from prolonged sleep. According to Ilina Sen, ‘the peasant revolution’ flared up, emboldened ‘with the support of many dissident communist cadres’. She stepped up further to say:

‘‘Internationally, this was a time when the students and youth came on to the streets to express their anger against the ruling classes and governance system—against the cold war, the Vietnam death factory, the archaic education system, and the simple lack of political will among the rulers to solve basic existential issues. In Bengal, all of this culminated in the expulsion from the CPI (M) of dissident leaders like Charu Mazumdar, Sushital Roy Chowdhury and Saroj Dutta. Since they no longer had access to the pages of the Desh Hitaishi, a new paper, the Deshabrati was launched. Articles covering movements in North Bihar, Bengal and Telengana published in the Deshabrati were hugely popular’’.

Following this historical peasants uprising a new horizon of thought and culture came into being. A relook, revisit of the colonial history brought forth a sharp contrast on the fore. The nineteenth century Bengal renaissance came under the fury of rethinking. The colonial hangover gradually came dropping down and a new war field relating to intellectual domain evaporated. And even anarchy came up following behind. The great sociologist and Marxist intellectual Benoy Ghose revisited his Banglar Nabajagriti and branded it a ‘hoax’. Saroj Dutta, a renowned poet, essayist, translator, journalist and overall a Naxalite theoretician did have ventured to exceed the excess. Anarchy ruled him over. He theorised that ‘a new culture could only emerge if the old was forcibly destroyed.’ And this seeded bane trees that worked the worst. Ilina Sen described it in the following lines:

‘‘The murti bhanga andolan (breaking of statues of reformist leaders), boycott of classes doing out bourgeois education by students in schools and colleges, and violent killings of political opponents led to a general chaos, and brutal state repression killed many youth and jailed and tortured thousands of others. Several leaders like Sushital Roy Chowdhury opposed the slide into anarchy in writing. SD opposed this publication on record, on the ground that the youth’s enthusiasm and energy would be impeded by these debates’’.

Saroj Dutta was murdered by the Calcutta police in the late mid-night of August 4 (1971), beheaded and left in the Calcutta Maidan. And before passing a complete year of Saroj Dutta’s assassination, the indomitable Naxalite leader Charu Majumdar was murdered in the Lalbazar police custody on July 28, 1972. And thereafter the third Communist Party (CPIML) splintered into groups. But the regeneration of the new world outlook that emerged from the Naxalite movement stayed working in the intellectual arena and in the political domain also. But the main legacy-claimer of the mainstream of the Naxalite movement appears to somersault by degrees to right rather than left. They now seem to prefer get back mainstream constitutional politics to vote out the fascist force from the political power and to capture it by the peaceful politics of alliance with the official lefts and even the rightist ones. And this transformation needs change of ideological stance and practice too. Now the class concept diminishes, caste concept expands to its full extent. Once turned enemies now have become dearer friends.

What Charu Majumdar, the invincible leader of Naxalbari and CPIML, wrote in 1971 in the Liberation (July 1971-January 1972 issue) is quote- worthy:

‘‘Naxalbari lives and will live. … We know that as we move forward we shall face many obstacles, many difficulties, many acts of betrayal and there will be many setbacks. But Naxalbari will not die … When Naxalbari receives congratulations from the heroes in the rubber plantations of Malaya who have been engaged in struggle for 20 years, when congratulations are sent by Japanese comrades who have been fighting against the revisionist leadership of their own Party, when such congratulations come from the Australian revolutionaries, when the comrades of the armed forces of great China send their greetings, we feel the significance of that immortal call, ‘Workers of the World, Unite’, we have a feeling of oneness and our conviction becomes more strong and firm that we have our dear relations in all lands. Naxalbari has not died and it will never die’’.

These sayings perhaps now sound not so much as it rang fifty-one years ago. Now the question of a new Charu Majumdar and a new Saroj Dutta has arisen! The obstinate old are now felt hopeless to make advancement towards the new path of ideological practices in the making. Now the remembrance of the 25th May is pale enough under the sharp sunshine, it is not just more than a mere date of calendar and not a fresh oath taking pledge! Despite many wrong-doings, miscarriage of practices and even Himalayan blunders committed—the bacon it collocated in order to view and review the social movements have not lost its relevance on to the way ahead. But now people have got out of the track and have anchored far from the dreamy red east. The new world view that the Naxalite movement got people enough to unmask the real facet of the Bengal Renaissance of the nineteenth century Bengal and the colonial delusion has now been rejected by degrees. As a result a sea change in respect of measure sticks of the role of the nineteenth century intellectuals, writers and social workers doing their job under the yoke of the colonial hangover! Now a section of the revolutionary left of the Naxalite family appears crazy to pay tribute to the Raja Rammohan Roy in a manner quiet unforeseen. The question of the main contradiction in the colonial India has, so to say, been rejected. Being the saviour of the constitution and being the roader to constitutional movement—an un-thought of change of ideological frame-up and practices has taken a different pathway quiet free from that of the bloody seventies happened fifty-five years ago. The revolutionary political philosophy of the Naxalites in the fiery seventies of five decades back, is left with a shady reference. The questions of class orientation, class concept and class struggle, as Karl Marx iterated, appear to be off the shore and chant another hymn for a dawn! Now almost all the renowned intellectuals, writers, social activists of the cultural arena, including those decried for their anti-people activities, are now being welcomed and rehabilitated. And the effulgence shrouding Raja Rammohan Roy on his 250th birth anniversary, in question of fray with the hindutvawadi BJP fascism, is somehow a ‘spontaneous overflow of emotion’ and nothing more.

Rammohan was silent of the heroic struggle waged by the peasant leader Titumir who wanted the Bengal peasantry to have been free of zamindary-tyranny and British oppression. The Bengal renaissance men kept this struggle out of their syllabus. During his permanent-stay at Calcutta, the Raja never was concerned of the inhuman distress of the serf and slaves having had to undergo in their everyday life. Sale of a female child happened at Burdwan at Rs 150 only in 1825. An incident of the sale of a domestic wife of a person happened in Burdwan at the cost of a few rupees! It happened in the year 1828. The newspapers of the time did have reported such much news frequently. B B Majumdar wrote in his History of Indian Social and Political Ideas that ‘Bengal and the southern part of Bengal presidency had also a considerable number of slaves.’ He even lamented :

‘‘If there was some demand for the abolition of the Sati from the Hindu society, there was none at all for the abolition of slavery in India’’.

The distress of the widow women in respect of the sati system i.e widow-burning touched the Raja deep in his heart and he moved to get the satis unfettered from such a truculent system. Indeed it’s a very positive response the Raja did to get this system off the track. But at the same time the sensitive Raja fought shy of the slave trade which frequently happened in Calcutta during this time. But the then Urasian poet Henry Louis Vivian Derozio registered his sensitive concern to this effect and wrote a poem entitled Freedom to the Slave in 1827. He wrote:

How felt he when he first was told
A slave he ceased to be;
How proudly beat his heart, when first
He knew that he was free!—

In the end he pleaded for the slave to have been enunciated of all serfdom he had to undergo and wrote:

Blest be the generous hand that breaks
The chain a tyrant gave,
And, feeling for degraded man,
Gives freedom to the slave.

Was the Raja unfamiliar with this concern of Derozio, a left leader of the then Bengal of Hindu College? Certainly not. He fought shy of it and invested all his efforts to the cause of the ill-fated widows.

The East India Company was fond of branding the slave trade as free labour as a tame name! British parliament passed the abolition of the slavery act in 1833 in Britain and the English ruler at last outlawed this trade in India in 1843.

A de novo effort is now witnessed to find out a gross acceptance of the so-called renaissance men of the nineteenth century Bengal against their almost negligible negativity! A fresh individual-cult, in this ‘land of lotus’, against the iconoclasm is in the making. And this has somehow been welcomed by a section of the revolutionary left in their political agenda and in the arena of the social science also. And thus the Raja is being rehabilitated with his positive epoch keeping the dark at bay in the year of his 250th birth anniversary. If his move for the emancipation of the wretched widowed women to get rid of an age-old feudal social system (actually pertaining to land and property) is the best job the Raja did in his life, then it has to be acknowledged that he was disinclined to have these widows remarried. Armed with the logic having had from the yellow pages of religious books,

he proceeded to his way on. Scientific arguments appeared to have no reference he opted to use for the purpose. So did Vidyasagar too in later years. Rammohan translated the upanishads into English from Sanskrit. The upanishads he translated in English were the Moonduk Oponishad, the Kenopanishad, the Kathopanishad, the Isopanishad and an abridgement of the Vedantas. In the introduction to Kenopanishad, the Raja wrote that he was not inclined to invest his best effort to ‘surrender completely’ in the hands of shastras. And just after that he wrote:

‘‘To illumine the reasoning faculty and knowledge of morality by their light and then to depend upon the beneficence of the Almighty God’’.

How such a man could have been a ‘campaigner’ of a ‘modern India’ as envisaged by the helmsman of a revolutionary left remains far from having a gate-pass to the argumentative arena of revolutionary culture. In the mid-sixties Keshab Chandra Sen, one of the stalwart of Brahmo Samaj movement, opined that the Raja’s ‘creed’ was just but a ‘standing mystery’ and ‘the world seems to be hopelessly disagreed as to what his real convictions were’. He was said to be sick of the Muslim oppression in the Mughal regime and eulogised the British to get this country rid of those dark days! And perhaps to this context the helmsman of a revolutionary left wrote that the East India Company had ‘grabbed Bengal by defeating Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in the battle of Palashi’ and had got India under their control. The Palashi-conspiracy between the then feudal landlords, Zemindars, capitalists like the Sheths and the East India Company appears here to have no rooms. Was there at all a war happened at Palashi between the Nawab of Bengal and the East India Company? A political conspiracy of the then traitors and quislings seem to have been rubbed off from the history and brand it a mere war and defeat game that paved the Company way for their hegemonic rule over the country! It’s a concocted view of history, a sharp departure from ideological stance. And this way the view of the so-called renaissance men of the nineteenth century Calcutta has been shared and a bye off process to the new thought of the stormy years five decades back nears to take a complete gesture.

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022