Re–Reading Bankimchandra Anew

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MANAS DAS |

ALTHOUGH Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, the Scott of Bengal, and the key figure in the literary renaissance of Bengal, is primarily known in our country and elsewhere as a pioneering Bengali novelist and the composer of India’s national song “Vande Mataram”, some of his works have often been criticized for their alleged championing of Hindu revivalism and many criticized the celebrated song itself as it was alleged to have Hindu overtone or to be an invocation of a Hindu goddess.

■ Statue of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in Kolkata |

Although the Constituent Assembly gave Bankim’s song equal status with Jana–Gana–Mana in spite of choosing Tagore’s song as national anthem and Jawahar Lal Nehru spoke highly about this song, a section of political leaders and people have continued to consider him to be a Hindu revivalist who, they thought, merely highlighted the glorious tradition of Hindu religion.

 

It appears that the allegation of Hindutva elements in Bankim’s writings does not hold much water and often results from a selective reading of his works. Nobody accused Bankim of communalism when Rabindranath sang Vande Mataram at the 12th annual session of the Indian National Congress held in Kolkata in 1890 with Rahamatullah Sayani as President

 

But if we go through his works carefully, it appears that the allegation of Hindutva elements in Bankim’s writings does not hold much water and often results from a selective reading of his works. Nobody accused Bankim of communalism when Rabindranath sang Vande Mataram at the 12th annual session of the Indian National Congress held in Kolkata in 1890 with Rahamatullah Sayani as President. Many critics of Bankim often forget the fact that he introduced the superiority of Hindu characters as a dramatic element in his historical novels. But in his novels we also get the sterling qualities of some Muslim characters: the chivalry and prowess of Osman as well as the spirit of sacrifice of Ayesha in Durgesnandini; the humaneness of Mobarak and Jebunnisa in Rajsimha and the fidelity of Dalani Begum in Chandrasekhar.

 

In his essays entitled Bangadesher Krishak he was concerned mostly with the Muslims who were in a majority in rural Bengal. He mentions both Hasim Sekh and Rama Koibartya as examples of the suffering peasantry. But Bankim felt that Bengalis prospered socially and intellectually more during the Pathan period, though they rolled in misery and servitude during the Mughal period

 

In an article in Bangadarshan written before the publication of Anandamath Bankim wrote: “Bengal is the land of Hindus and Muslims, it is not the land of Hindus alone”. In his essays entitled Bangadesher Krishak he was concerned mostly with the Muslims who were in a majority in rural Bengal. He mentions both Hasim Sekh and Rama Koibartya as examples of the suffering peasantry. But Bankim felt that Bengalis prospered socially and intellectually more during the Pathan period, though they rolled in misery and servitude during the Mughal period.

However, Bankimchandra’s relevance in today’s India stems from the fact that he was a great social critic and the fearlessness and sincerity of his social commentary through his writings can inspire generations to come in achieving or preserving democratic ideals like freedom of speech and expression, and in inspiring nationalistic feeling without encouraging jingoism.

■ Satidaha | Wellcome Collection Gallery

A civil servant by profession, Bankim is more popular to the common people as a path–breaking novelist than as a creative social thinker. His success lay in rescuing Bengali language and literature from religious verbosity. In his novels, he introduced romance in Bengali literature and portrayed lively characters throbbing with their normal human emotions and sentiments. But in the midst of the superb story-content of these novels, what should not be forgotten is that the novelist Bankim was also a keen observer and an analyst of the social realities around him. Literary criticism, social life, religion, law, politics, morals and economics were all touched and enriched by him in his fiction.

A discerning reader can never fail to notice the social philosopher in Bankimchandra relentlessly scanning the social maladies of his time and providing his remedies for eradicating them. Although Bankim was born in a family that cherished religion, tradition, social and moral values of upper–class Bengali Hindu society, the period in which lived and worked was one of all–round modernising social, educational and religious reform, and rationalism too was getting its roots deep into the minds of Bengalis.

 

Bankim’s objection was mainly against that form of inequality which found expression in caste barriers of Hindu society, racial discrimination in a colonial society and economic inequalities of various types. Glaring inequality between the feudal lords on the one hand and the poor and landless peasants on the other compelled him to write a treatise Bangadesher Krishak (The Peasants of Bengal) in which he ruthlessly exposed the massive exploitation of the poor and the landless peasants by the zamindars

 

Bankim, however, did not associate himself with any organised social reform movements though he maintained indirect connections with them. In 1872, he brought out Bangadarshan under his editorship. Though short–lived, the publication gave a tremendous jerk to the slumbering Bengali intellectuals of the last quarter of the 19th century. Like most of his contemporaries, Bankim was shocked at the all–round degeneration of the Bengalis under the British rule. With almost a missionary zeal, he took upon himself the arduous task of educating the masses. Lokahita (philanthropy, benefaction or public welfare) was the primary concern of Bankim’s critical enterprise.

■ Anandamath

In Dharmatattva (1888), Bankim developed his own version of Hindu religion in terms of the activism of the Gita as well as the positivistic, humanitarian and philanthropic social service cult of Auguste Comte. Bankim, however, was a traditionalist in that he had a profound faith in the persistent fundamental values of the Hindu society and religion. This is also evident in the fictions where he clearly distinguishes good from evil, the good being always with traditional social ethos.

 

Bankim wrote: Widow remarriage is neither good nor bad; though it is good that widows in general should have the right to marry again, it is not good for all of them, for the woman who really loved and was loyal to her deceased husband would never marry again

 

The tragedies of Shaibalini, Kunadanandini and Rohini — three important women characters in Bankim’s novels — unmistakably reveal the conservative social reformer in Bankim. Though it is a fact that Bankim brought in romance element in Bengali literature in ample measure, he could not throw away the conservative influence of his family in his writings. In his novel Chandrashekhar, the heroine Shaibalini developed a sort of romantic affair with Pratap who, for some social inhibitions, could not marry her. But she, even after her marriage with a Brahmin pundit Chandrashekhar to whom she was honest in her duties, maintained her genuine love for Pratap and even risked her life to meet him. But Bankim’s Pratap yielded to the pressure of conservative social custom and backed out of the game.

Yet Bankim was not a blind stickler for anything traditional in Hindu society. Contrary to the prevailing notions about him, Bankim was a stern critic of the Bengali Hindu society which denied minimum human rights to women. Although he was not fully supportive of the widow–remarriage movement launched by Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar on moral grounds, he did not deny the logic behind it. In his essay on equality, Samya (1879), Bankim wrote: “Widow remarriage is neither good nor bad; though it is good that widows in general should have the right to marry again, it is not good for all of them, for the woman who really loved and was loyal to her deceased husband would never marry again.”

 

The same Bankimchandra who preached the cult of worshipping the nation as Mother–Goddess in his Vande Mataram song. For his moral integrity and his intellectual and professional accomplishments even many Britishers held him in high esteem

 

Yet Bankim was a great champion of the rights of women and he contemptuously analysed the despicable condition of women in a male–dominated society and felt the need for initiating some reforms to liberate them. In his essay Prachina and Navina (Old and New), Bankim wrote that there can be no social development without the corresponding development of the women–folk. He was also vehemently against polygamy and described as socially harmful and contrary to all natural principles of ethics, and he even wanted a ban on this practice. It was not difficult for Bankim to realise the importance of the creative role of women in human civilisation and so highly valued women education so that they can stand on an equal footing with their male counterparts. For this, Bankim considered it essential that women should have the right to property, including the right to inheritance.

The all–pervasive inequality between the sexes did not appear as an isolated phenomenon to Bankimchandra. He considered it a specimen of social inequality with which he was very much obsessed at a particular stage of his literary career. The three men — Buddha, Christ and Rousseau — who rose in war against inequality in society were described by Bankim as the greatest products of mankind. Bankim’s objection was mainly against that form of inequality which found expression in caste barriers of Hindu society, racial discrimination in a colonial society and economic inequalities of various types. Glaring inequality between the feudal lords on the one hand and the poor and landless peasants on the other compelled him to write a treatise Bangadesher Krishak (The Peasants of Bengal) in which he ruthlessly exposed the massive exploitation of the poor and the landless peasants by the zamindars, a class that emerged out of the Permanent Settlement of Lord Cornwallis.

Bankim realised that introduction of railways and application of technology have not changed the pitiable condition of peasants and economic progress was not a matter of pride if it did not reach the rural masses. Topics like liberty and independence also got Bankim’s attention in ample degree. To Bankim, however, the real criterion of liberty is whether in a particular country there is exploitation of and discrimination against the subject race. On this acid test he examined the British rule in India and concluded that while England had ruled over Indians, it paid little attention to the problems of the people of the country. He found that under the British rule, worthy Indians were not getting due status and recognition which would fit well with their intelligence, education, status and attainments. As a result, Indians were being denied political education and training in modern techniques of defence and administration. Yet he strongly appreciated that western science and literature delivered some real good to the people of India.

Although Bankimchandra was critical of the British rule in India which he held responsible for the general decline of India, he found many positive aspects of the British government in India. In his novel Anandamath, the rebel Santanas did not win against the British rulers, implying that Bankim believed that the British conquest of India was a historical necessity. Yet it was the same Bankimchandra who preached the cult of worshipping the nation as Mother–Goddess in his Vande Mataram song. For his moral integrity and his intellectual and professional accomplishments even many Britishers held him in high esteem. He was frequently in trouble with his superior officers because of his courage and strong sense of personal dignity. After one such case he was transferred from his post of Asstt. Secretary to the post of Dy. Magistrate and Dy. Collector. Robert Knight wrote in his paper on 6 February 1882 that “Bankim Chandra Chatterjee is a man of high character and attainments and whatever be the reasons for his transfer we are glad to be assured that it implies no reflection on him as a public servant”. Politics was not his forte and he seemed to shy away from it in order to avoid the wrath of the rulers. In a letter to Shambhuchandra Mukherjee, the editor of Mookerjee’s Magazine, he said: “I won’t take up politics because then I would be sure to rouse the indignation of Anglo–Saxonians against Mookerjee.” That is why Bangadarshan stayed rather aloof from the battleground of politics.

The Scott of Bengal was earnestly in favour of reforming the old social order within the periphery of colonial administration. But Bankim‘s views on social reforms were inclusive of the eternal and transcendental elements of ancient Hindu civilisation without any blind prejudice against any religion. ■

[LOOKEAST is not responsible for the opinions, facts or any media content presented by contributors. Manas Das, a freelance contributor, teaches English at the Sailendra Sircar Vidyalaya, Kolkata.]

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