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The Great Cultural Revolution: The debate surrounding Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s legacy is symbolic of it

Revolutions are messy affairs. Age old icons will be destroyed, ancient ones will be revitalized and new ones will emerge as a nation leapfrogs into the future.

A great cultural revolution is afoot in the country. When Narendra Modi returned to power with an even greater majority than in 2014, nearly every political commentator agreed it was not mere politics that was at play here, it also underlined a fundamental cultural shift in the country.

We are living in an age of chaos. People on the right of the political spectrum were jubilant over the cultural revolution that Narendra Modi is representative of. However, revolutions are messy affairs. Age old icons will be destroyed, ancient ones will be revitalized and new ones will emerge as a nation leapfrogs into the future.

Almost everyone on the Indian political right was salivating at the prospects of a cultural revolution under Narendra Modi. But revolutions are a chain of events that hardly anyone has any real control over. Incidents which under normal circumstances would be significant are buried under a pile of rubble while others which are insignificant in themselves have massive bearings on the future.

The events of the past couple of days is symbolic of all cultural revolutions. It is only during cultural revolutions that the incoherent rant of an actress who has largely been a failure initiates a chain of events that makes people wary of the impact it could have on the electoral prospects of their favoured political party in a particular state.

I am, of course, referring to the entire debate surrounding Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The debate was initially sparked by Payal Rohatgi, an actress who has developed a penchant for sharing pictures of herself on social media with words that are meant to appeal to the Hindu Right. In a video that she shared on Twitter, she described Sati as an act that was committed by women of her own volition and called Raja Ram Mohan Roy, hailed as the Bengali social reformer who abolished the practice of Sati, a Christian and a British stooge.

It sparked a massive debate with one popular account on social media eventually commenting that Raja Ram Mohan Roy was indeed a Christian while others called him a British stooge without commenting on Sati itself or voicing any support for Rohatgi. The consequence of it all was certain influential people from the Bengali community, among the ‘right-wing’ itself, interpreted it as an insult towards the whole community.

The idea then soon gained ground and numerous people, including non-Bengalis, took affront and endorsed the notion the criticism of Raja Ram Mohan Roy as disparaging the Bengali community itself. What has transpired since then could only be described as the social media equivalent of a massive bar fight. It is important then to separate the wheat from the chaff and dissect the actual points of disagreement without getting involved emotionally invested in the whole matter. Needless to say, a critique of a Bengali stalwart is not equivalent to criticizing the entire Bengali community.

We have to begin by placing Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his actions and words in their own proper context. The social reformer was born into an era when the British were taking control of Bengal. By the time he had grown up, they had taken complete control of the region by the end of the 18th Century. After centuries of dominance by Islamic regimes, the morale of Hindus in Bengal was at an all-time low.

As was the situation elsewhere, Hindus in the region suffered immensely under tyranny of Islamic rule. Therefore, when they were eventually vanquished by the Britishers, Hindus were quite grateful for it as the new rulers were quite benevolent when compared to what was before. Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s worldview was shaped greatly by these circumstances.

The inferiority complex that Roy suffered from is evident from his “Appeal to the Christian Public” as quoted by the well renowned and highly respected historian R.C. Majumder. In the Appeal, he laments the inability of the Hindus in Bengal to effectively resist the Islamic regimes while praising Sikhs and the Marathas for overthrowing the tyrants. In the end, he calls the Britishers’ victory over the Islamic tyrants as ‘Divine Providence’ for the ‘Natives of Bengal’.

Source: Sandeep Balakrishna (Twitter)

It is also true that Roy’s foundation of the Brahmo Samaj as a monotheistic creed was deeply inspired by Christianity. It appears almost obvious that he had indeed converted to the Unitarian sect of Christianity. He published a book ‘The Precepts of Jesus’ which drew great criticism from Baptist Missionaries.

Thus, there are three facets to Roy which his critics have gotten absolutely correct. One, he was very sympathetic to the British regime. Two, he was a Christian. Three, the foundation of the Brahmo Samaj was deeply inspired by the principles of Christianity.

However, things are rarely ever Black and White and usually much more complicated than they first appear. The same is the case with Roy. Thus, his actions and words require a much more nuanced evaluation.

Firstly, it was normal for Hindus of Bengal at that point of time to be sympathetic towards the British regime. After the horrors perpetrated by Islamic rulers, the British indeed appeared as great liberators. Secondly, as is quite evident, Roy, the very intelligent person that he was, suffered from a deep sense of inferiority complex and considered the Hindus in the region to be inferior to Marathas and Sikhs even, much less the British. Therefore, it is easy for us to speculate that he believed Hindus of Bengal could learn a great many things from the Britishers.

We can also speculate that Roy perceived the faith of Britishers to have played some part in their victory over Mughals.

Therefore, he appears to honestly believe that Bengal Hindus will benefit greatly if they at least emulated the faith of the Britishers if not convert entirely to Christianity. For an intellectual of that era, it was natural to hold these opinions. The soul of Bengal had been pillaged and raped by Islamic rulers for centuries, therefore, it can be considered quite normal for intellectuals to believe there was something intrinsically flawed with native Bengali culture itself that required a remedy.

Therefore, we have a situation where one side condemns the facts while the other the context. The fact of the matter is, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, for the good or bad, did have a profound impact on Bengal. We can also speculate that much after his demise when Hindus of Bengal started regaining their self-confidence, the Brahmo Samaj was readopted into the Hindu fold with modifications.

The hallmark of revolutions is the destruction of the revered icons it is directed against. Roy is an icon of the secular state, therefore, in the cultural revolution that is underway, his legacy will be dissected and debated and efforts will be made to cast him down from the pedestal he has been accorded. However, people who wish to do so must also respect the fact the circumstances Roy operated in and if they do manage to grasp it, perhaps they will not be able to respect him but at least they could let his legacy rest in peace.

It is also a fact that Sati acquired a perverse form in Bengal and had to be abolished by law. It won’t do much harm to credit Roy in this regard at least. There is great angst in the country currently, as is the norm with revolutions, perhaps, in due course of time we can give people their fair share of credit while being acutely aware of their shortcomings.

Roy is symbolic of an era when Hinduism was at one of its lowest ebbs in Bengal. Therefore, as a cultural stalwart, his opinions and works reflect that fact. It’s not merely a coincidence that Roy was succeeded by Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee in the Bengali cultural sphere. Even Rabindranath Tagore, who is revered by the secular-liberal elite, quite clearly perceived Hinduism to be superior to Christianity and Islam. And they were eventually followed by rather dubious people after India gained its independence which is indicative of a certain fact.

Our cultural icons are reflective of the circumstances they lived in. Roy was symbolic of an era when the self-confidence of Hindus was destroyed and yet, he did make a profound positive contribution to Hindu society. Sri Aurobindo was reflective of a period when Hindus of Bengal had regained their self-respect and their confidence and were in the mood to conquer the world. Going forward, we ought to be careful and sympathetic in our evaluation of cultural stalwarts.

The debate surrounding Roy has also brought to the fore the numerous fissures within the ‘right-wing’ itself. Calls are being made to purge certain sections of it which are being labelled as ‘fringe’ and there’s considerable conflict underway.

It certainly appears that people who were excited about the prospects of a cultural revolution and even hungry for it did not quite assume that this is exactly what a revolution looks like. It perhaps ought to have been clear from the very beginning that the destruction of icons won’t be limited to Nehru and Gandhi alone. While it remains to be seen the fate that awaits the legacy of Roy, we can make safe speculations about the infighting within the Right.

Within the next five years, these battles will only become more frequent by the day with a temporary respite in between. The current debate was sparked by Payal Rohatgi, the next may be sparked by Kamal R Khan for all we know. One thing is for certain, the ‘purge’ is not happening and the debate cannot be silenced. The cat is out of the bag and it will be very difficult to put it back in.

Another interesting aspect of it is the fact that people ignoring the facts about Roy are largely those from the ‘Old Guard’ of the Right-Wing and those ignoring the context represent the ‘Young Guard’. It is symbolic of the direction our country is headed in. The ‘Old Guard’ may assume that it could silence the ‘Young Guard’ with their authority, however, that appears quite unlikely at this point.

The best outcome that one could hope for is a synthesis between the two factions. However, there is too much anger at this point for any such synthesis to occur. It is very well impossible to make credible speculations about the outcome of cultural revolutions, therefore we cannot say for certain how any of it ends. But one thing is for certain, things would get a lot messier before it remotely starts getting better.

Edit (6:27 pm, 28th May): An earlier version said that a popular history account on Twitter called Raja Ram Mohan Roy a British stooge. It has been corrected to say that others made that claim.


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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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