3 of 3
Like any other nation in the world, India has its own set of diverse problems. One such is the caste system, and the way it has erected walls between people for centuries. Discrimination and disparity is so ingrained in our society—seeping throughout the echelons— that it has been normalized to the extent of indifference.
My ancestor Sasipada Banerjee is considered as one of the pioneers in evolving effective ideas to solve these problems. Sasipada (1840 - 1924) belonged to the high Kulin caste of the Brahmins but he gave up his inheritance, his "sacred thread" to join the Brahmo Samaj — a religious and social reform movement which was begun by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Sasipada came under the influence of this movement and was more inclined to social service because of the condition of the country. He chose education as his first step. He started schools for girls and night schools for the labouring class. These night schools laid the foundation to the Working Men's Movement, the first of its kind in India.
Sasipada tackled the situation of the "untouchables", at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, in a very practical manner. To set an example, he would visit the houses of people deemed from the "lowest caste" and shared meals with them; he also invited most of them to enjoy meals at his house. He started a recreation club for workers to cure them of alcohol addiction. Even today the Sasipada Institute in Baranagar houses an important library with a century-old tradition. I am glad that my ancestors worked to towards these issues, however, we still have a very long way to go. Casteism continues to remain a challenge today in India, with widespread discrimination, segregation, and life-threatening conditions for those in the lowest sections.
Banalata Devi, the daughter of Sasipada and Rajkumari Devi (read about Rajkumar in part two - A Family of Migrants), lived a short life of twenty years. She had an astonishing linguistic flair and knew English, Bengali, and Sanskrit equally well. Banalata organized an institution called Sumati Samiti for the upliftment of women. Through this institution, she invited numerous ordinary women to write about their aspirations and the struggle they faced on a daily basis because of suppression and patriarchy; she endeavored to educate and empower these women.
Banalata Devi founded the first Bengali magazine for women entitled, Antahpur. Her institution also encouraged parents to send their daughters to school. She married Sasibhushan Vidyalankar, the editor of Jivanikosh. Along with him, Banalata continued to work for oppressed women and women's rights.
The issue of social inequality and injustice remain as one of the biggest problems plaguing Indian society to date. The caste system gave rise to a social hierarchy that still controls much of day to day activities, in both rural and urban India.
My great-great-uncle Prafulla Chandra Mukherji (1884-1982) was a witness to the cruel arrogance of the British in power which made him a rebel for life. He joined the Swadeshi movement in Calcutta under the leadership of Surendranath Banerjee during the Partition of Bengal while Prafulla was still studying at the Calcutta University. Due to their protests and rebellion, they were prevented from finishing their college education. Finally on the encouragement from well-wishers including Rabindranath Tagore and Justice Sarada Mitra, they left the country and went to the United States in 1906.
In the US they were compelled to work in factories so as to finance their education. He and a few others who migrated to the US with him, published a quarterly bulletin, "Free Hindustan" which carried articles on the social, economic, and political conditions of India. He worked for the rights of Indians and Asians in the US and was on the Executive Committee of the War Resisters League.
He had been a peace activist and was in Times Square in New York City every Saturday in silent protest against the US role in the Vietnam War for about 10 years. He was also in Washington DC with the Civil Rights Demonstration led by Martin Luther King Jr. When I read about the Civil Rights Movement in my regular history lessons, I had no idea that one of my ancestors was a part of these protests. I was spellbound by the fact that my ancestor had not only contributed to the community in India but also to the United States!
Learning and exploring my ancestry has been an extraordinary experience as a part of this three part blog series. After better understanding my lineage, a lot has been discovered; where certain traits, predominantly visible in my current family members, come from, why certain things are the way they are and so much more. Understanding my family's history has given me a different outlook on different aspects of life and I feel proud to know how my ancestors had contributed to the welfare of society. I have been able to understand different problems in today's world from a different perspective altogether. From scientists to social workers to aristocrats to migrants— my ancestry covers it all!
Before I end this series, I'd like to mention that my thamma (grandmother), who has helped me a lot throughout this journey of discovering my ancestry. Born in Solapur, Maharashtra in 1944, she has been a true migrant herself. From Maharashtra to Delhi to Bengal, and even to Sudan for a short while! Having travelled all over the world, she has acquired immense knowledge and understanding of society. She worked in various senior positions, including as an archivist and librarian at the Rabindra Bhavan (Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan), the Tagore Archives and Library, for over three decades. She has helped hundreds of people, from work related to Tagore studies, history and archives, or otherwise. She has written and edited several books on him and his work.
She is the kindest and the most generous person I have ever been fortunate to meet.
This is the third blog post of a series of 3.
These blog posts will cover topics such as my ancestry, benefits and problems of migration among others.
Check out the other blog posts of this series:
This is a personal blog. Any facts, views or opinions are not intended to malign, criticise and/or disrespect any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.
While we strive to present only reliable and accurate information, should you believe that any information present is incorrect or needs to be edited, please feel free to contact us.
Honest feedback is much appreciated!
Banalata Devi - My grandmother, Supriya Roy