The demolition of the bust of legendary social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in Kolkata during the road show of BJP President Amit Shah is deeply agonising for any Indian. It is in that tragic context we should hark back to Gandhi’s illuminating article on Vidyasagar written on September 16 1905 in the Indian Opinion started by him in South Africa to educate Indians, transmit news and views and above all make them familiar with the icons of India.

Gandhi said at that time, ".... had Ishwarchandra been born among a European people, an imposing column, like the one raised by the British for Nelson, would have been erected as a memorial to him. However, a column to honour Ishwarchandra already stands in the hearts of the great and the small, the rich and the poor of Bengal".

Gandhi would not have imagined that a 114 years later, forget an imposing column, Vidyasagar’s bust would be destroyed by workers of a party ruling India. It is certainly tragic that his bust has been demolished violently by those who have no love for history and are adept in distorting the legacy of those who stood above religion and caste to transform society along progressive lines .

If we juxtapose the unveiling of the huge multi-crore statue of Sardar Patel in Gujarat by Prime Minister Narendra Modi against the demolition of the bust of Ishwar Chadra Vidyasagar in Kolkata during the BJP chief’s election campaign, then the contrast in itself reveals the state of affairs in the 21st century where the BJP has brazenly appropriated icons, and devalued the shared legacy of our ancient civilisation.

Gandhi's article on an iconic figure like Vidyasagar educates us about the exalted place Bengal secured in India because of the pioneering services rendered by its people, wedded to transformation and change based on progressive values.

Attributing the special distinction of Bengal in India to the succession of great men born there during the 19th Century Gandhi affirmed that in his view, “Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was the greatest among them".

He questioned patriarcy, took bold decisions to start school and college for women, and championed the cause of widow remarriage in those days. His contribution to gender equality and women empowerment is epoch. In demolishing the bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar the perpetrators were attempting to demolish the idea of equality and equal opportunity for all, irrespective of gender.

Explaining the meaning of Vidyasagar, the title conferred on Ishwar Chandra, Gandhi said that it meant an ocean of learning. He added that Vidyasagar “was an ocean of compassion, of generosity, as well as of many other virtues."

Today when majoritarianism in the name of Hindutva is privileging immediate religious identity over numerous other multiple identities of citizens it is instructive to find that Gandhi presented Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in terms of his inclusive and broad outlook. And stated, “he was a Hindu, and a Brahmin too. But to him, Brahmin and Sudra, Hindu and Muslim, were all alike".

His catholicity was evident in his action in feeding poor Muslims at his own expense. Wearing a dhoti, shawl and a sleeper he looked very dignified and graceful and with that simple attire he met the Governors and poor alike. "He was", Gandhi said, ''really a fakir, a sannyasi or a yogi."

Prime Minister Modi who calls himself a fakir and the Chief Minister of UP with Yogi attached to his name should reflect on the works of Vidyasagar and atone for the demolition of the statue of one of the greatest social reformers of India.

Vidyasagar was a scholar of Sanskrit. While walking to the Sanskrit college located in distant Kolkata he learnt English numerals from the milestones erected on the road side and memorized them. His proficiency as a student of Sanskrit secured him the job of a teacher of that subject. The current dispensation at the centre talks ad nauseum about the necessity of promoting Sanskrit in educational institutions, but should first learn the lessons of humility and culture from Vidyasagar’s life. As for his the pursuit of Sanskrit was an ardious quest for expansion and the cultivation of mind.

Once in 1925 when Gandhi was addressing a public rally in Kolkata he recalled Sir Surendranath who told him with pride that he belonged to the school of Vidyasagar and the dearest cause of his life was to extend service to the women who became widows when they were girls. He quoted his words " I belong to the school of Vidyasagar. You will find it written in the first page of my book. If I had to rewrite the whole of my life, what do you think I would do? I would serve the neglected widow. I would repair the fortunes of many a broken home. I cannot bear the sight of innocent children having widowhood enforced upon them. Let the young men of Bengal remember their little innocent sisters."

Gandhi then wrote " The political freedom of this country involves our contract with every department of life. You may not get political freedom but cannot wait for social amelioration."

Such was the impact of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar on the collective conscience of the nation during the freedom struggle. Gandhi's words, "The political freedom of this country involves our contract with every department of life. You may not get political freedom but cannot wait for social amelioration" made in the context of Vidyasagar constitute categorical imperatives for our time when winning elections have become the be all and end all of political persuasion without any semblance of its integration with social and economic issues.

In demolishing the bust of Vidyasagar a sinister attempt has been made to give primacy to politics of hooliganism over the compassionate rebellion of one of the foremost social reformers produced by Bengal and India.

Vidyasagar represented the soft power of India in the 19thCentury against the hard power of the mighty British empire. The outrage at the demolition of Vidyasagar's statue is in defence of that soft power. Politics of hooliganism can never be any match for the soft power embedded in the vision of Vidyssagar.

The hard power of money to build a grand statue of Vidyasagar, as promised by the Prime Minister, is an affront to Vidyasagar who never can be represented in terms of grandeur and grandstanding.

Eventually the soft power of Vidyasagar will register a remarkable triumph over the violence and vandalism which have been unleashed by the people advocating hatred and presenting Nathuram Godse as a patriot.

SN Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure as Director in Prime Minister's Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat.