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A letter to the UGC : Epoch making Social thinkers of India

This is a copy of the letter sent to the chairman of UGC. The number of persons that agreed to sign it after it was circulated, is high. However, I have only the few names as saved by Piyali, at the point of time when it was circulated for signature collection.

I am putting it up for record. Perhaps someone can produce the full list of signatories and attach it after this post.


The Chairman
University Grants Commission
Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg

15th April, 2008.

Sub : Reference of Rabindra Nath Tagore, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in the UGC Scheme under the name and style as Epoch Making Social Thinkers of India: Buddhadev, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru & Ambedkar


We write this letter to express our concern over the text and implication of University Grants Commission's adopted guidelines with regard to the history of Social Reform in India.

Reference is made to clause 18 of its Guideline to schemes for financing projects under the name and style as EPOCH Making Social Thinkers of India : Buddhadev, Gandhi, Nehru & Ambedkar.

Regarding epoch making social thinkers of the modern era, we propose that the list of modern epoch making social thinkers include at least the following:

  • Rabindranath Tagore
  • Raja Rammohan Roy
  • Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

Each of them did pioneering and epoch making work in transforming the Indian society to the post Independence modernism, and not only saved it from further isolation and insularity, but strengthened it from within by first removing self destructive forces within the society, and then encouraging it to cast aside the narrow walls and compartments our society had erected around and within itself and expand its reach, its vision and its inclusive spirit.

No one has better defined our national identity than Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore was born at a time and in an atmosphere where fundamental changes were sweeping across the land. Gone were the centuries of isolation and insulation of a society under the long shadow of self denial and shrinkage. A new India was beginning to find its feet with a new understanding of cultural and historical achievements of its past, and at the same time opening its doors to the modernism of the west. It was an important juncture in India's history. Rabindranath Tagore recognized this and strived to reshape national thinking so it rediscovers not just its cultural heritage initiated at the times of the forest hermitage of the Upanishadic days, but also be ready to reach out to the world of great nations as an equal member.

Tagore possessed a vision far ahead of his time in his study and ideas on social reform and began to engage in it early in his personal life. He started first at Shilaidaha, in Greater Bengal, today's Bangladesh, in engaging Muslim villages to form cooperatives for village schools and health care. Later, at Santiniketan, today's West Bengal, India, He expanded on it greatly and involved with wide ranging involvement in rural reconstruction, all of which is well documented.

His experiments involved universal education, promoting harmony with nature, rural development through education on health and hygiene,  productive agricultural methods, rural co-operative societies, dairy farming, establishment of Milon Mandir clubs (meeting places), so that rural folks can congregate and discuss social and cultural issues,  and, Village meetings where disputes can be amicably resolved. He worked to find ways to reach basic healthcare to the rural masses. He realized early the social value of village fairs, and established a number of them to promote self reliance, appreciation of rural artistry and talent. He also understood the timelessness of folk music and rural / mythological drama and their ability to reach the hearts of the masses, and proceeded to create numerous songs and drama with powerful social messages that borrows from our mythological past and enshrines such values as women's emancipation, or universality of humanism above religion, creed and caste divisions. He initiated the practice co-education of girls and boys together in the same school, at a time where even western schools were still segregated among sexes.

Possessing a keen sense of need to maintain the environment and to promote a lifestyle in harmony with, and not in conflict against nature, he initiated a number of groundbreaking ceremonies, functions and awareness programs to promote the ideas of tree plantation, keeping a balance between urbanization, aesthetics and natural surroundings and initiated natures’ study on the ecological and environmental front. Tagore was a perhaps century ahead of his time.

Tagore took a leadership role in the Swadeshi movement early on, added the musical score to Bankim Chandra's poem Vande Mataram and first sang it himself in Kolkata in 1896. He was the president of the National Convention where notable freedom lovers such as Mohandas Gandhi, Chittaranjan Das, Motilal Nehru and others would gather and form a common platform for initiating a movement for self rule for India. Patriotic songs composed by him are National Anthems for two nations, viz., India and Bangladesh. Rabindranath Tagore was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913,  and was also awarded with the ‘Knighthood’ by the then British Government; but Tagore denounced his Knighthood in protest against the inhuman treatment and mass murder of unarmed civilians in Jalianwallahbag known in the history as “Jalianwallahbag massacre”. He took a leadership role in Banga Bhanga (partition of Bengal) Andolan in 1905-06 and was the first Indian to lend his voice for commercial recording of the song Vande Materam. It was during those protest marches that the slogan “Vande Materam” spread out from Bengal and swept through the nation. His policies on education is now being studied in far off lands, and his views have permeated into the general Indian psyche, and there are few Indian languages that have not had positive influence from his prolific literary output, as noted by Nehru in his book “Discovery of India”. To introduce stronger fellow feeling and communal harmony toward national integration he was the first man to introduce “Raksha Bandhan” among all the fellow citizens.

He attracted visionaries from the world over to come and join hands in his rural experiment and progressive work at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Mahatma Gandhi along with Nehru used to be visitors at Santiniketan, and both of them imbibed an invaluable input from Tagore on issues of Nationalism, Secularism, National Integrity and Reforming the society from within. Gandhi and Nehru visited Santiniketan, participated in the efforts at Sriniketan, and had long interactions with Tagore in finding a definition of a Universal United India as a Nation. In the formative days of the early decades of the last century, he was part of the holy trinity Tagore-Gandhi-Nehru that conceptualized the very notion of a culturally anchored diverse yet unified community drawing its strength through inclusiveness. No one has better defined our National Identity and National Integrity than Tagore. The very idea of India, with its inclusiveness and its ancient wisdom, is Tagore's creation. In a sense, the National Anthem, composed by Tagore, gives us the philosophy of our constitution. Tagore is even read and cited by many educationists and leaders for the proposals of ‘Internationalism and Integrity’.

His social awareness about India is aptly represented in many of his speeches, songs and dance drama. We include just one to highlight his views of a truly free India:
Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

Mind Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Not content with regional and national social reform, Tagore was farsighted enough to make repeated trips to the Far East, as well as to the West, to promote the concept of a universal, pan-cultural  society of man that would interact, enhance and support each other, rather than be narrow, selfish, and warlike against one another. In 'Discovery of India' Nehru identified Tagore as India's Internationalist par excellence.

The Prophet of Renaissance : Rammohan Roy

Tagore in turn was highly influenced by two great personalities of the 19th century - Ram Mohan Roy and  Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. Rammohan Roy was the first philosopher of modern India at the threshold of the 19th century. Well-versed in Sanskrit, Persian, English, and Bengali, he was the first to develop a universal and unitarian approach that laid the basis for the subsequent religious and secular social movements in Bengal and elsewhere.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the single Indian who raised his voice against Satidaha-pratha (widow burning) and instrumented the law against it with the help of the then British-raj; he was the first Indian member of the House of Lords of British Government; more to say, he was the founder of Brahma Samaj which contributed to the Swadeshi movement and promoting the unique view of a multi-religious society with a common inclusive bond, by way of conceptualizing Sarva-Dharma-Samanvaya (the core of Secularism) in a state. Having studied Sanskrit, Latin and Persian, with deep knowledge in the Koran and the Bible along with Hindu scriptures, he was among the first Indians to form an Unitarian view to religion that strove to find common secular roots to spiritualism within multiple faiths rather than dig into the dogma that separated man from man. He had realized early on that if India was to survive a close encounter with the British and still retain its languages, religions and identity, India would have to reform itself from within. He strove to bring these changes, thereby protecting India from being culturally overwhelmed by any intimate contact with the British and the rest of the western civilization.

The Pioneer of Social Reform : Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar arrived after the era of Rammohan Roy. Vidyasagar in the middle of 19th century was a profoundly learned man who was actually a mentor to several generations of Bengali scholars, including Tagore, and a very active social reformer years ahead of his time. India was then facing a new class of invisible people - unwanted widows that would otherwise have been burned ‘alive’ to death with their husbands. Society had no humane seat for these unfortunate women, as they had no avenue to earn their living, and being women, was also shut out from society with nothing to look forward to in their lives. The practice of old men acquiring child brides was also producing an increasing number of such widows, who became the collective victims of social injustice, humiliation and servitude, for the rest of their lives. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar stood alone to face the combined wrath of religious and social orthodoxy and dogma, to legalize and promote Vidhava-Vivaha (widow remarriage) and Stri-shiksa (women's education). He then embarked on abolition of polygamy among high caste Hindu, child marriage and child brides. In the field of education he established a Sanskrit College so the language of the scriptures and wisdom of our past great thinkers could be made available to a widening circle of Indians and not restricted to a handful of home-learned Pundits. He was the first Principal of the college and introduced modern system of education in traditional learning, and established schools for girls. In fact, the flowering of modern womanhood in India owes its debt to the great efforts of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. India probably has no comparable person in that time frame that did as much as he did. His endeavours did not go through a smooth path of developments; rather it was a tough battle against the orthodoxy and also against the foreign rulers.  

It is our strong belief that the above three stalwarts fully deserve to be specially mentioned among epoch making social thinkers of India. Their omission would leave the list incomplete, and present a distortion of our social history.

It is our failure, if the greater masses of India are kept ignorant about the immense contribution of Rabindranath Tagore, Vidyasagar and Raja Rammohan Ray for our continuous development in independent thinking ability nurtured in the sovereign state of modern India and yet with traditional rational values.

We therefore appeal that the names of Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Ram Mohan Ray and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar be included and specially mentioned in clause #18 on the Guideline to schemes for financing projects by the University Grants Commission.

Signed as under:

  1. Piyali Palit, Jadavpur University, India
  2. Santanu Mitra, Delta, Canada
  3. Chirajyoti Deb, Florida, USA
  4. Pramita Mallick, Kolkata, India
  5. Tamojit Roy, Bangalore, India
  6. Chandana Sen Sarkar, New Jersey, USA
  7. Sudipto Das, Delaware, USA
  8. Tapas Basu, Chestershire, UK
  9. Anandarup Ray, ….USA
  10. Pradip Malhotra, Kolkata, India
  11. Sanghamitra Chandra,
  12. Anuradha Mitra, Delta, Canada
  13. Lee Tan, Vancouver, Canada
  14. Champak Das, Berhampore, India
  15. Debadyuti Chakraborty, Kolkata, India

This letter to the UGC is several months old now. Does anyone know what if anything the UGC might have done with this ?

If nothing has happened so far, is there something we can do as a follow up?

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