I hear a lot and also had to explain a lot why Bengal produced so many socio-political leaders, intellectuals, great writers, artists and so on. Many non-Bengalis refute it as 'Bengal/Bengali superiority' complex, while others seem to be confused in their search for a rational explanation. But almost everyone agrees that there was a renaissance in Bengal, which was not much present in any other part of India.
Many assign the credit for Bengal renaissance to British education. That is surely a major reason. But not the only or probably the main reason. British and other European powers established many schools, colleges and universities not only in Bengal but also in many other places as well (1).
There are few issues that worked for Bengal, which started long before the Europeans, including the British, arrived there. In fact, the Europeans arrived India via southern or western coast. The first European, Portuguese Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, Kerala in 1498. The first British trading ship, the Hector, commanded by William Hawkins, landed in Surat, Gujarat, in 1608, during the reign of Mughal emperor, Jahangir. But the main impact of European as a whole and British in particular was unfolded in Bengal and not in Southern or Western part of India.
Here we need to keep in mind that Bengal was not fully under Delhi and Mughal rule at any time in history. People in that part of India never witnessed repeated invasion and war violence that was a regular affair. The drastic socio-political change imposed by Muslim rulers, who came from central and middle east Asia, was restricted to fewer places and was less dominant in Bengal.
Bengal has a very unique distinction to have among the first democratically elected kings in Asia, Gopala around 755 AD. It traditionally had a very pluralistic, more open society. Had a history of institutionalized education, that include the famous Nalanda University and educational institutions in Gauḍa (currently. Malda), Nabadwip, the place where Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1553 CE), the spiritual leader of Baishnab sect was born and spent a significant part of his life, and globally famous ISKCON.
Bengal had a vibrant trading history long before the Europeans arrived and the Europeans took advantage of it. Many people there used to be very entrepreneurial risk takers, unlike what we see today. Bengal retained one of the most important trading and business centers during British rule and early part of independent India as well.
These are among the reasons for which the British, initially East India Company, established its capital in Bengal. But the British was little apprehensive about other European powers, mainly the French, who was a global threat to British empire. We also need to keep in mind that all this was before that famous Paris treaty (1763), which was signed after ”seven years’ war” to settle the its dispute with the French (along with Spain and Portugal) in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. The French had a long history of cooperation with the local rulers in India as a whole and Bengal in particular. In case of Bengal it was Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah, head quartered in Musheerabad, about hundred miles north of Calcutta (Kolkata). So the British East India Company established Calcutta (by Job Charnock around 1692) and gradually strengthened it. The suspicion against the French was not unfounded. Siraj ud-Daulah, attacked the British to capture its biggest fort, Fort William in Calcutta, at the instigation of the French. This led to the Battle of Plassey (1757). There the British decisively defeated the Nawab and his French allies, resulting in the extension of British power over the entire province of Bengal and, in every practical sense, in India too.
During British rule Bengal Presidency included present day West Bengal, Bangladesh, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, part of Tripura and Burma. Once the Europeans arrived, they initiated concerted efforts to develop local manpower, mainly to do many of the lower grade jobs in administration, judiciary, law enforcement etc. British needed a lot of trained and skilled manpower to rule over this huge colony. One of the places where such effort took its deepest root was Calcutta. Here we need to remember that British gave similar efforts in other parts of India too but its impact was not so profound. Renaissance did not much happen in those places.
Calcutta was the capital of India till the new capital was inaugurated and became functional in 1931. During this period many Bengali professionals, scholars and thinkers got the opportunity to know British culture, politics, justice, science, education and, most importantly, modern democracy. We also need to remember that many of the famous Bengali intellectuals who ushered renaissance there got higher education and exposure in Great Britain as well.
Besides, Britain, few other European powers have its impact on Bengal. It includes the French, Portuguese and Dutch. It gave Bengalis a competitive advantage and a separate yardstick to understand British culture and education. A large region around Kolkata was known as “Little Europe” and currently being promoted by West Bengal State Government for tourism.
As British education and socio-cultural evolution gained ground in Bengal, many of its renaissance people were taking shape in almost every field of life- started from education, science and technology, socio-religious reform and most importantly, in freedom struggle, mostly via violent means. Most Bengali freedom fighters, like Netaji, seemingly had a far more impact on British rule, as we are now learning from recently declassified documents by the British government. The same sentiment was echoed by many contemporary Indian scholars and freedom fighters like BR Ambedkar.
Overwhelming majority of the prisoners in the notorious cellular jail in Andaman, where the most violent and feared (by the British rulers) freedom fighters were kept, were Bengalis. One can check the list of names of the prisoners, still maintained there in the jail.
Formal education in Bengal probably was not that different than many other parts of India, e.g Tamil Nadu (Madras), Maharashtra (Bombay), where students excelled to become clerks or servants for their European masters. But it’s the socio-political evolution that made Bengal the hotspot of leaders in almost every field. We mostly know about Bengal’s politicians, freedom fighters and few rare mixtures of violent freedom fighters who later became great spiritual leaders like Aurobindo Ghosh, later known as Sri Aurobindo. After renouncing violence he established the famous ashram in Pondicherry.
All the three major national level political parties find its root to Bengal. Womesh Chunder Bonnerjee was the first president of Indian National Congress. Syama Prasad Mukherjee was the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which later became Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Manabendra Nath Roy was the founder of Communist Party of India, which initiated communist movement in India and also abroad. He was also the founder of Mexican Communist Party.
Bengal had a rich history of religious rebellion and reform. Religious reformers like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu started raising voice against Brahmin and upper caste domination and caste based hatred among Hindus. He is also credited to prevent rampant conversion of Hindus, mainly ‘lower’ caste Hindus to Islam, slowing down the fast spread of Islam in contemporary society. There are many unorthodox Hindu preachers who denied ‘sanatan Hindu dharma’ and its rituals.
Traditionally non-Brahmins and non-Kshatriyas dominated Bengal. Sen, Ghosh, Dutta, Bose, Pal (Paul) used to be major players. The traditional ‘upper’ caste dominance was almost non-existent in Bengal till very late when Ballal Sen of Sena dynasty imported some Brahmins from Kannauj area in Uttar Pradesh. Some think he merely revived, while others think he introduced caste based social hierarchy in Bengal. Here we need to keep in mind that his son, Lakshman Sen (1178-1206 CE) was the last Hindu king of Bengal. He was defeated by Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, the same person who destroyed the famous Nalanda University, to start Muslim rule in Bengal.
Religious (Hindu) preachers like Ramakrishna and his famous disciple, Swami Vivekananda preached against caste division among Hindus. Both had a very different interpretation of Hinduism, in stark contrast to that of Adi Shankara. Swami Vivekananda went one step further and prescribed not only non-veg eating but also beef among Hindus. Vivekananda was quoted as saying, “When his disciple Chakravarti asked his opinion about consuming non vegetarian food, Swami Vivekananda ordered him to eat fish and meat as much possible to become healthy and courageous. He once proudly recalled of ancient Hindu society of beef eating Brahmins and advised the youths of India to be strong so that they could understand Gita better, with biceps".
Bengal did and still do not have much presence of Kshatriyas, the warriors and king class, unlike many other parts of India. Folklore and mythology assign that credit to saint Parashuram, who vowed to get rid of Kshatriyas. Such historical facts set the stage for subsequent socio-political leaders to get advantage of.
Bengal’s open culture affected the other religious minorities too, mainly the Muslims, who are mostly the converts from lower caste Hindus. Many Bengali Muslims and Christians were revolutionary in their teaching, writing and vision- e.g Lalon phokir, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Michael Madhusudan Dutta. Attachment towards Bengali language, culture and Interpretation of religion among Bengalis played an important role during liberation war (Mukti Yudha) in East Pakistan around early 1970s, to create independent Bangladesh. Language Movement (Bhasha Andolôn) in East Pakistan during mid 1950s helped making the ground for liberation war later.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy almost single handedly able to legally ban burning of widows and allowing remarriage of Hindu widows. That earned him the title “the father of the Indian renaissance”. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee and his wife Basanti Devi, parents of BJP founder Shyama Prasad Mukherjee ( for literacy, mainly for local people in local language and for girls), Acharya Prafulla Chandar Roy (against caste division, promoting science education among Hindus and cultivating wealth creation by objective scientific research and entrepreneurship), writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and many more contributed immensely to that cause of breaking socio-religious superstitions, bigotry and socio-political reform to establish a more just and democratic society. These are few reasons why Bengali literature is so rich and also equally matured, even in global standard. The only noble prize in literature, in India, went to a Bengali, Rabindra Nath Tagore, who was far more than just a romantic and a critical writer.
Many talented people from other parts of India were also immensely influenced while staying and working in Bengal. The notable example would be CV Raman, the first and so far, the only Indian scientists to get Noble Prize. He got the prize in 1930 while working in Calcutta University with many other equally talented scientists. Then comes the RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. His life and later socio-political activities was hugely influenced by his stay in Kolkata as a medical student, where he got to know and interacted with many Bengali intellectuals and freedom fighters like Pulin Bihari Das, Aurobindo Ghose.
It’s unfortunate that people who sacrificed the most during freedom struggle, knew the country, its people and its culture much better, were sidelined during the last part of Indian freedom movement and in independent India. That ignorance and/or immaturity is still reflected in many colonial era laws, irrelevant public policy in present day India that include caste based reservation, separate laws for different religion. It would not be unfair to say that we failed to a great extent in our goal to make India a vibrant, prosperous democracy with rule of law, equal and democratic law, for every citizen with unbiased law enforcement.
We still say 'Bengal renaissance'. It easily could have been 'Indian renaissance which started in Bengal', just like European renaissance started in Italy and then spread almost all over Europe. A society or country develops when it duly acknowledges its past, learn its lesson from its history but do not enjoy living in the past or bask in past glories. Understanding and accepting our past is very important to build our future- a better future. And it must be based on facts and logic, not just some manufactured narrative to suit personal or political agenda or other form of utopia of "Ram Rajya".
"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it" and most unlikely to prosper in the future. India as a whole and Bengal in particular lost and keep on losing the people who have wisdom and courage to swim against the tide, stand up against the herd mentality that is being perpetuated in the name of culture, tradition, religion, politics or, even, peace.
1. These are the few oldest universities in India- Serampore College (1818), Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee (1847), University of Mumbai (1857), University of Madras (1857), University of Calcutta (1857), Aligarh Muslim University (1875), Allahabad University (1875).
Some of the oldest medical colleges in India are- École de Médicine de Pondichérry (1823, currently known as Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Pondicherry), Calcutta medical College, Kolkata (1835), Madras Medical College, Chennai (1835), Escola Médico-Cirúrgica de (Nova) Goa (1842, currently known as Goa Medical College), Grant Medical College, Mumbai (1845), Christian Medical College, Vellore (1900), King George's Medical University, Lucknow (1911), Patna Medical College, Patna (1925).
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