Editorial 1
Death made him


Look back in superstition

Time past is forever present. No other explanation will suffice when a girl actually �marries� a dog. Which way is India going, if an educated man, living not far from Calcutta, gets his four year old daughter married to a friend�s dog to save her from the evil eye? The macabre event took place with all the fanfare associated with a traditional wedding, with guests and presents, rounded off with a dowry paid to the dog�s owner. This is the country where girls were once married off to trees, or to dying old Brahmins being carried for the last rites to the Ganges.

Such marriages were meant to save women from the terrible fate of remaining unmarried and therefore becoming outcasts. The past cannot be disowned, it can be transcended. But with this gruesome throwback, it is clear that the past is very much with the present, lurking in the superstitious fears encouraged by unscrupulous middlemen like the astrologer who advised this girl-dog �wedding�.

It was the father�s concern for his accident-prone child which made him get her a dog as groom. Although this act of fatherly protectiveness does reduce the child�s status to that of the female of the canine species, this particular crime was not in its impulse social. The point lies elsewhere. A girl-dog wedding, with priest and ritual, is only possible in a culture which is not only used to, but approves of, anything outrageously bizarre and cruel, as long as superstition clothes it in terms of social, domestic or religious good.

And it is not only the past that is relevant here. This is, after all, the land where widows are still apotheosized if they jump onto their husband�s pyres � never mind that the law against it is more than 150 years old, where women are hunted down as witches even in the middle of a metropolis like Calcutta, and where little children are married off to each other � again illegally � in the midst of socially accepted festivities. It is no use pretending that such practices are confined to remote rural areas or to economically and educationally underprivileged classes. Because they are not.

The girl-dog �wedding� could have been a comic episode in a fantasy novel. Since it is not, some explanation has to be sought for the undying power of superstition, with or without religious trappings. It can undo at a stroke all the good that education, the spread of television and access to information networks, the law or the struggles of women�s rights and human rights groups can achieve. It is almost as if primitive social usage is somehow more comforting in an era becoming rapidly complicated and insecure through globalization, economic liberalization and technological advances.

Superstition has the touch of the familiar and, most valuably, makes thinking unnecessary. The contradiction this phenomenon implies is present in other forms as well. It is played up and exploited not by middlemen but by politicians in the caste-based politics that has overtaken the country and is contributing to its social fragmentation. It is a consolidation of traditional forms of exploitation in the disguise of socio-economic advancement.

Behind all superstition lies a brutal form of exploitation, some practice which brings benefits to one or another group of people. The brunt of superstitious practice is almost invariably borne by women, children or the underprivileged, the very groups targeted for improvement by education, rights groups and the law. The only effective way to deal with the amorphous power of superstition is to take exemplary action against each horrific event. By allowing individuals to get away with girl-dog weddings, or witchhunts, or sati or child marriages, politicians and the police are conniving with the forces of darkness. It is like letting the perpetrators of mob violence, rape, arson and murder get away. Politicians and the police are quite practised at this. It is not surprising that India should continue taking backward steps.    

Mookerjee, Shyama Prosad, born 1901; son of Sir Ashutosh; educated at Presidency College and Law College, University of Calcutta; called to the Bar from Lincoln�s Inn; lecturer, Law College, Cal. Univ.; president, council of post-graduate teaching in Arts, Cal.Univ., 1934-47; president, council of post-graduate teaching in Science, 1943-45, Cal.Univ.; vice-chancellor of Cal.Univ. for two terms beginning 1934; member Bengal legislative assembly, 1937-45; minister to the government of Bengal, 1941-42; minister to the government of India, 1947-50; founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh; leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha; D.Litt (honoris causa), Cal.Univ.; died in Kashmir, 1952.

If India had a proper Who�s Who, this is perhaps how the entry on Shyama Prosad Mookerjee would read. What such a dry as dust and barebone summary of a chequered career does not convey is the respect he was accorded in Bengal�s public life. When the news of his death reached Calcutta, all work in the city came to a halt for two days. Legend has it that even public conveyance did not ply. Moreover, such an entry says nothing about Mookerjee�s outstanding record in the examinations of the University of Calcutta. Like many others of his family, he never stood second in any examination conducted by the Calcutta University. It would also not record his powers of oratory which enthralled his audience and in Parliament left India�s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, withered and in tatters.

It is obvious from the brief curriculum vitae given above that Mookerjee spent the better part of his working life in Calcutta University. He served his alma mater for nearly 26 years. He was elected to the Senate and the Syndicate immediately after his father�s death in 1924. He became vice- chancellor at the remarkably young age of 33. Both these, the election to the Senate and the elevation to the number one job in the university, bore testimony to the tremendous influence that the Mookerjee family wielded in that institution at that time.

It was the university, and not politics, now the subject of controversy, which was at the heart of his work. The official history of the first 100 years of Calcutta University wrote that �like his father, the University was his life, his aspiration and his dream�. Despite this, his work at the university is not being recounted and evaluated in the centenary of his birth.

In Calcutta University, Mookerjee played an important, perhaps even a crucial, role in bringing about three changes. The first of these is of long term significance and carries obvious contemporary resonances. This was the revision of the Matriculation Regulations which were passed in final form in 1935. But the process of revision went back to 1922 and passed through a number of stages. Mookerjee, after he became a member of the Senate, was instrumental in introducing a number of significant amendments. One of these related to making vernacular the medium of instruction in all subjects other than English. The regulations also allowed for answers to be written in one or the other major vernaculars. Supporting these changes, Mookerjee urged his colleagues to �look ahead to the time when our mother tongue will be the medium not only of our Matriculation Examination but also of the highest examinations in this University.� In terms of approach to education, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is in direct line to Mookerjee.

Mookerjee followed up his advocacy of the vernaculars as the medium of instruction by initiating a scheme of publishing a series of books in Bengali on the different arts and sciences. This scheme, as the paucity of good books in Bengali suggests, was not too successful.

The other area in which Mookerjee took a leading role was in the creation of a Board of Secondary Education which would be responsible for the whole of Bengal. Mookerjee obviously did not foresee the dangers inherent in this proposal. Growth in the number of school students has made examinations conducted by one board into a mockery. Mookerjee clearly did not visualize a spurt in education.

A third field was the consolidation of the central library of the university and of streamlining the various collections it held. Dare one say that this was a job not for the vice-chancellor but of a good librarian?

Mookerjee was thus a moderately successful vice-chancellor, nowhere as innovative as his illustrious father. But he nurtured Calcutta University as his constituency and used it as his launching pad to enter a wider public arena. In the 1945-46 elections, the Hindu Mahasabha contested 26 seats and lost all but one. The lone winner was Mookerjee who won unopposed from Calcutta University, thus confirming the popular impression that the university was the Mookerjee family�s bailiwick. His ideological orientation had become clear long before this. As the vice- chancellor of the university, Mookerjee had established a close relationship with the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East which was sponsored by Benito Mussolini�s government.

In Calcutta, his brief moment of political glory was in November 1945 when the police opened fire on a student procession. The students in protest refused to leave the street where the demonstration had been stopped. Mookerjee was the only important political leader who rushed to the spot and talked to the students and the police. In his diary, Mookerjee ruefully recorded that despite his repeated personal requests the other leaders had refused to accompany him to the trouble spot.

At the national level, he worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Hindu Mahasabha did not get banned with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh after the murder of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. In the public mind, Mookerjee�s name is associated with the establishment of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Christophe Jaffrelot in his detailed study of the Hindu nationalist movement has shown that the move to set up a new party came from within the RSS and it found in Mookerjee a convenient leader. The ruling body of the new party was dominated by senior swayamsevaks. Mookerjee, as the president, was allowed to thunder in the Lok Sabha but the policy line of the Jana Sangh was controlled by the RSS leadership.

The evaluation of Mookerjee by his contemporaries remains somewhat elusive. That the RSS leadership would not allow him to control the policy line of the Jana Sangh suggests that his commitment to Hindutva was considered suspect by the hardliners.

There is one other extremely damaging assessment. Lord Mountbatten in one of his reports to London wrote that according to the then governor of Bengal, F.J. Burrows, Mookerjee was �so low that a snake could not crawl under his belly�. There is no reason, of course, to take such a statement seriously but would Mookerjee have liked the comment from someone who claimed to know him well?

There was nothing in Mookerjee�s political career that was worth writing home about. His stewardship of the university had substance but its impact may not have been altogether beneficial for the institution and the state. More importantly, in terms of the present controversy, it was no different from the policies pursued by those who claim to have �fundamental differences� with him. In any case, which successful vice-chancellor and powerful orator gets his centenary celebrated with such fanfare?

The clue to the fanfare is his death. If Jawaharlal Nehru�s cat�s paw in Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, had not perpetrated what in West Bengal was perceived as a martyr�s death, Mookerjee, as a political leader, would have been as unforgettable as, let us say, Buddhadev Bhattacharya.    


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