Surendranath Banerjee

Surendranath Banerjee

Gentlemen, let us sit at feet of our ancestors and hold communication with the the masterminds of ancient India. Approach reverentially the sacred record of your sires. Remember that you are studying the sayings and doings of your revered ancestors, of those for whose sake alone you are remembered, for whose sake alone the intellectual elite of Europe even now feel a deep and an ardent interest in your welfare. If you cannot attain the intellectual eminence of your ancestors, why not strive to emulate their moral grandeur? And permit me to remind you, that upon the moral regeneration of your country depends its intellectual, its social and its political regeneration.”

Surendranath Banerjee

“Gentlemen, I invite you to this noble task, the moral regeneration of your country, a task, in every way worthy of your highest ambition. If you indeed accomplish this noble task, your names will be emblazoned in characters of gold in the ineffaceable pages of history and will be handed down to remote posterity to receive the countless blessings of unborn generations. Gentlemen you have your choice between a life of active and patriotic duty and a life of indifference, of carelessness, of disregard of sacred obligations. Countrymen of Valmiki and Vyasa, make your choice, and whether you choose the one line of conduct or the other, remember the hopes of posterity are centred in  you and that your great fathers from high places in heaven are looking down upon you”.

Surendra Nath Banerjee

“Young Men, whom I see around me in such large numbers, you are the hopes of your country expects great things from you. Now, I ask, how many of you are prepared, when you have finished your studies at the college, to devote your lives, to consecrate your energies to the good of your country, (‘all’ was the response). May you prove true to your resolve, and carry out in life the high purpose which animate your bosoms”.

“I have a strong conviction and an assured belief that there comes a time in the history of nation’s progress, when every man may verily be said to have a mission of his own to accomplish. Such a time has now arrived for India. The first has gone forth; celestial mandate has been issued that every Indian must now do his duty or stand condemned before God and man. It is indeed not necessary for us to have recourse to violence in order to obtain the redress of our atrocity. Those rights and the privileges are secured by the Constitutional agitation, which in less favoured countries are obtained by sterner means. But peaceful as are the means to be enforced, there is a stern duty to be performed by every Indian. And he who fails in that duty is a traitor before God and man”.

“I am confident of the great destinies that are in store for us. You and I may not live to see that day. These eyes of ours may not witness that spectacle of ineffable beauty. But is it nothing to know when you are dying, when you are about to take leave of this world, of its joys and sorrows, when the past of your life is unfurled before you when eternity opens wide its portals, is it nothing to know at that last awe inspiring, supreme moment of your lives, that you have not lived in vain, that you have lived to help in the course of your country’s regeneration? Let us all lead patriotic, worthy and honourable lives that we all may live and die happily and that India may be great. That is my earnest and prayerful request. May it find a response in your sympathetic hearts”.

The above excerpts from the speeches of Surendranath Banerjea clearly show that he was a great patriot. His early speeches were quite fiery. He had a great following more than that of people engaged in religious and social revolt. His eloquence was responsible for a political evolution in India. One of his students Bipin Chandra Pal (Later of Bal-Lal-Pal fame) once wrote, “The greatest and the inspiring message of Surendranath early propaganda was through his lectures on Joseph Mazzini’s life, particularly his extremely sensitive patriotism: patriotism which so worked upon his youthful imagination that even as a schoolboy he refused to join in any form of join in any form of gaiety of his family and community in the face of  bondage in which the country lay under Austrian domination, drew out all the latent passion for national freedom. The trainees of the Austrian army of occupation in Italy, who treated even the Italian intellectuals of the middle class as members of an inferior race, indeed literally as helots and slaves made a profound impression upon our sensitive minds. Neither the person nor the property of the Italian in the neighbourhood of the Austrian military camps, nor even the honour of their women, were safe from the wanton insults and outrages of Austrian officers and soldiers. We imagined or saw a great resemblance between the Italians’ position under domination of Austria and our position under the British rule. In the outlying districts  in case between European and Indians the latter could hope to receive practically no justice. All these things working upon our youth imagination created a profound sympathy in us with the struggle for national freedom in Italy led by Mazzini when the story was presented to us by Surendra Nath”.

It is a known fact that the Mazzini story as told by Surendra Nath resulted in the formation of many secret societies. Banerjea was himself President of some of them. But unlike Italy where the objective of the revolutionaries was to assassinate and get rid of the Austrian rulers Surendranath appealed to the masses to remain away from any type of violence and to adopt the constitutional methods. Ina way he was the precursor of the Ranade-Gokhale moderate group.

The speeches of Surendranath Banerjea also show that after the first war of Independence in 1857 there was a total vacuum of national or revolutionary upsurge on the political spectrum of the country. Many a leader associated themselves with the political activities. But it seems that none of them was enthused with the revolutionary spirit of the happenings of 1857. Dadabhai Naoroji was 32, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya was 19, Mahadeo Govind Ranade was 15, Annie Besant was 10 while Surendranath Banerjea. None seems to have been associated with the spirit of revolt. It was rather more apparent in Tilak who was only 1 in 1857, in Bipin Chandra Pal who was born a year after the war, in Bhikaji Cama who was born 4years after the war and in Lajpat Rai who took birth eight years after the first war of Independence. Gokhale, who was born nine years after the war paddled himself with Ranade and passed on the luck to Gandhi. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, of course, gave the immortal song Vande Mataram that inspired all the people throughout the struggle for freedom till 1947.

The credit of arousing the masses to a great extent goes to Annie Besant and Surendra Nath Banerjea. Both of them organised a large number of meetings throughout the country and had a great following. But while Annie Besant, being a British Surendranath too could not forget the obligations of those who had helped him in England while he was not being accepted as an I.C.S Officer.

Surendranath Banerjea was born on November 10, 1848, nine years before the first war of Independence. He belonged to Taltola in Kolkata Originally the family belonged to Faridpur district. His forefathers had moved out to settle in Barrackpore near Kolkata from where Mangal Pandey had given a call for the war.

Gokul Chandra Banerjea was an orthodox Brahmin deeply religious while his father Durgacharan opted for medicine and became a reputed physician with a handsome practice in Kolkata. He was modern in his views and westernized in outlook. Surendranath felt a connection both with his tradition-bound grandfather and his modern father. At the age of five he was admitted to Bangla Pathshala. Later when he was eleven he joined Doveton College in 1859. Doveton College was an institution meant for boys and girls of European parentage. The English medium was a problem for Surendranath. He hardly knew that a mastery over that language would draw huge crowds of young men around him later on.

Surendranath won many prizes and awards. He received many scholarships too. His Principal and Indian and European teachers saw seeds of bright future in the young boy. After passing matriculation examination in 1863 he passed Fellow of Arts in 1866 and graduated in 1868. The same year he left for England to appear in the Indian civil service examination. It was quite fascinating for him to be in London for a number of years. In England he joined the University Collegiate School, London in 1868. He had great regard for three of his British teachers under whose able guidance he passed Indian Civil Service examination in 1869. But the Civil Service Commissioners removed his name from the list on the ground that had crossed the age of 21. The controversy was on his date of birth. He had ultimately to go the Queen’s Bench for a writ mandamus. Three advocates helped him and the judges upheld their point of view. He was allowed to join the probationers.

Returning to India in 1871 he was appointed as Assistant Magistrate in Sylhet. But the District Magistrate did not favour him. He was displeased with Surendranath specially when he passed the departmental examination while an English colleague failed. The District Magistrate went on to find a fault with Surendranath who was dismissed on a false charge in which the accused was declared an absconder while he was not. But the warrant issued by the Peshkar was signed by Surendranath. Realizing that it was a case of racial prejudice Surendranath proceeded to England. But the authorities considered it ‘a gross carelessness and dishonesty in discharging his judicial duties’. He started studying to qualify for the bar. After the studies were over the benchers raised an objection that, as he was a dismissed government servant he could not be called to the bar. The prospects were gloomy. He had no option but to come back to India empty handed a pauper a ruined man.

But Surendranath did not lose courage. He thought it over and concluded that it was all because he was an Indian. He decided that he should adopt a career to save his helpless people to save from this racial discrimination. He took up the task changing his dismissal a lifelong cause. Although he was obliged to all those English men who had helped him he was not in a mood to surrender. He was rather hailed as Mr. ‘Surrender Not’ by some of his friends and well wishers.

Ram Gopal Sanyal, in his book A General Biography of Bengal Celebrities wrote that his dismissal from the I.C.S was actually unfortunate for the government and fortunate for the country. C.Y. Chintamani too wrote in his Indian Politics Since Mutiny, “While the state lost, the country gained”. S.K. Bose, in his book Surendranath Banerjea went a step further when he wrote “Decks were now cleared for Surendranath emergence on the public scene as one of the makers of the country’s modern history”.

Kolkata was the capital of India. Naturally if a movement started in Bengal it would spread throughout the country if efforts were made. Surendranath Banerjee knew it well and so he, for the time being, wanted to concentrate his activities in Bengal rather Kolkata. But he had financial problems. Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar came to his rescue and got a job for him in the Metropolitan Institution. The same year he took over as professor of English on a salary of Rs. two hundred a month. As he preferred to stay in Kolkata he did not take a better remunerative job in Tripura. He served in the Metropolitan institution from 1875 to 1880. Thereafter for five years he served as professor of English in Free Church College, Kolkata. He founded Ripon College after the name of Lord Ripon whom he had befriended because of his liberal views. He worked in Ripon College (Now Surendranath College) upto 1913.

After 1885 Surendranath Banerjee was free to set his firm foot in the political setting of the country. He started organising meetings after college hours. His political propaganda a much larger following than that of social and religious revolt of his times. Bipin Chandra Pal wrote about him, “It (his speech) made a very powerful appeal to our infant patriotism and put new strength and even bitterness to the anti-British feeling. The audience carried with them from the meeting a new patriotic fervour.” People started calling him the ‘Uncrowned King of Bengal’.

Surendranath was not satisfied by his fame. He decided to form groups of young men who would work for the nation in different parts of the country. Thus he founded Indian Association on July 26, 1876 nine years before the formation of Indian National Congress. Surendranath made an all India tour to establish branches of the Association. He visited Lahore in Punjab and went to Mumbai and Chennai in 1877-88. According to Dr. R.C. Mazumdar it was a landmark in the history of India’s political regeneration. For the first time, after the first war of Independence people realized that India is one Unit. Henry Cotton, an I.C.S officer wrote, “The Bengali Babus now rule public opinion from Peshawar to Chittagong. A quarter of a century ago there was no trace of this. Yet it is the case that during the past year, the tour of a Bengalee lecturer, lecturing in English in upper India, assumed the Character of a triumphal progress, and at the present moment the name of Surendranath Banerjea excites as much enthusiasm among the rising generation of Multan as in Dacca”.

On behalf of Indian Association Surendranath Banerjee visited Lahore and Amritsar in Punjab; Agra, Aligarh, Kanpur, Varanasi, Meerut, Lucknow and Allahabad in U.P. Later on he went to Mumbai, the Commercial Capital of India where he was close to Pherozeshah Mehta, Manglik and K.T. Tilang. He proceeded to Ahmedabad. In pUne he stayed with Ranade. He visited Chennai too. He put four objectives of the Association before the people the creation of a strong body of public opinion in the country; the unification of the Indian races and people upon the basis of common political interests and aspirations, the promotion of friendly feelings between Hindus and Muslims and the inclusion of the masses in the great public movements of the day.

Surendranath of course, was the messiah of political unity in the country. He himself wrote about his tours, “For the first time, under British rule, India with its varied races and religions had been brought upon the same platform for a common and united effort. Thus was it demonstrated that whatever might be our difference in respect of race and language or social and religious institutions, the people of India could combine and unite for the attainment of their common ends. The ground was thus prepared for the Congress movements.”

It was rather not so simple and dashing, as it may seem to be. The Britishers were also worried about it. On the one hand Surendranath Banerjee prepared ground for the Congress on the other A.O. Hume made efforts to catch hold of the educated young who would be Indian in grab and British in thinking. With this aim he gave birth to Indian National Congress in 1885. Both Hume and Surendranath considered it their achievement.

Besides organising public meetings and conferences of Indian Association Surendranath wanted to have a paper too to support his views. He purchased the ‘Bengali’, an English daily of the times. He edited the paper successfully and remained a journalist till 1920. As an eminent editor he participated in the Imperial Press Conference in London as a representative of the Indian Press. His speeches in the conferences brought him prominence to the extent that the British Government took a decision to suppress the Indian Media. It passed the Vernacular Press Act to muzzle the Indian language newspapers in the supreme council in one sitting in 1878. Arms Act and Licence Act followed it.

Surendranath Banerjee again took a lead. Meetings were held throughout the country specially in Bengal under the auspices of Indian Association. This movement aimed at passing of political leadership into the hands of middle class intelligentsia. The government again retaliated by passing Ilbert Bill introduced by Mr. Ilbert, Law member of Viceroy’s council according to which British subjects could be tried by the judge of their own race. It meant that a case against a Britisher could not be filed in the court of an Indian judge. There was again in agitation against this Bill. When the agitation was over Surendranath was arrested on a charge of contempt of court as he had made comments in the Bengali against the Chief Justice of Kolkata High Court who had ordered a Hindu to produce the image of his household deity in the court. He was sentenced to two months imprisonment the first imprisonment of an Indian Political leader. It evoked protests throughout the country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

A picture of united India was gradually coming up. It was held out by Surendranath before the people who exhorted them to be united. He said “In the name, then, of a common country, let us all Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees, Members of the great Indian Community, throw the pall of oblivion over jealousies and dissensions of bygone times and, embracing one another in fraternal love and affection, live and work for the benefit of beloved fatherland”. To let the flame of nationalism burning Surendranath planned to hold national conferences annually in different parts of the country. The first session of the National Conference was held Kolkata in December 1883. A large number of delegates from different parts of the country attended it. The next session again was in Kolkata the next year followed by the first session of the Indian National Congress in Mumbai in 185. Surendranath and his friends thought that the questions and problems raised in the National Conference were similar to those discussed in the Indian National Congress. The base too was the same the educated middle class intelligentsia. Thus National Conference was merged with the Indian National Congress.

This concord gave rise to the dominance of the moderates on the political scene of the country who believed in the constitutional way to get independence. It was dominant till 1905 and included W.C. Banerjee, Anand Mohan Bose, Lal Mohan Ghosh, Ras Behari Bose, Surendranath Banerjea from Bengal; Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Badruddin Tyabji, M.G. Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale from Bombay; P.H. Naidu, Subrahmanya Aiyar, Vira Raghavachari, and Keshav Pillai from Madras Presidency. In the beginning it was dominated by Surendranath Banerjea. Later on the reins were taken by Gopal Krishna Gokhale.

Surendranath remained a staunch guide and leader of the moderates in Indian National Congress. He was elected President of the Pune Session in 1895 and the Ahmedabad session in 1902. He did not go for hollow fame when he said, “We do not aspire to occupy the position of leaders. We are only anxious that the light which is in us, that the light under which we have basked for so many long years, should spread over the whole of India and Chase away that Cimmerian darkness which has settled over the intellectual and moral atmosphere of this great country”.

The British government could see that the efforts of A.O. Hume were not totally in their favour. The leadership of Congress had slipped from his hand to that of more active nationalists. Surendranath Banerjea had already started the Swadeshi movement when the Government took a decision to Partition Bengal on July 20, 1905. The move was first opposed in Bengal in huge meetings. Later on it spread throughout the country. In his book, A Nation in Making Surendranath Banerjee wrote, “We felt that we had been insulted, humiliated and tricked”. There was a mammoth meeting. It rather gave final shape to the movement for complete freedom of the country from British yoke. In the same meeting a resolution was adopted to boycott British goods. The Swadeshi movement was born much before the call for it was given by Tilak and Gandhi.

All moves in the country were towards national lines. ‘Vande Mataram’ became the soul-stirring cry of new patriotism. Tagore called Surendranath ‘Loknayak’ while the people of Bengal considered him Rashtra Guru. In 1890 Surendranath went to England s a member of the Congress deputation where he expressed his fiery ideas saying “When we ask for representative institutions, we ask for something which is in entire accord with the genius and temper of the people of India, in entire accord with the traditions of their country”.

But Surendranath concept of tradition was quite different from that of the extremists. While the latter took inspiration from the first war of independence of 1857 the former wanted a transfer of power from Great Britain to India in a constitutional way. Surendranath Banerjea as leader of the moderates had already suggested some points for reforms the idea of confederation was also suggested. In Communion with these Edwin Montagu, the then Secretary of State for India published a report in April 1918 Report on Indian Constitutional Reforms generally known as the Montagu Chelmsford Report. Chelmsford was the Governor General of India. The report ‘did not come upto the Indian expectations’. It didn’t mention the total transfer of power. Thus it was opposed by all except the moderates. They favoured the report. Naturally it resulted in an open war between the moderates and the extremists. The moderates moved out of the Congress that was dominated by Tilak.

The irony is that a person who was a fighter, remained a member of Kolkata Corporation as an active congressman and did remarkable work as a member of the Legislative Council the man whose services were terminated by an English officer, who was not allowed to practice in the bar accepted knighthood when it was offered to him in 1921 a crucial year in the history of Indian National Congress when preparations were being made for the 1922 movement. Surendranath also accepted the post of a minister in the Bengal Government. The people of Bengal where he was a prominent leader did not approve his actions and he lost the election to the Legislative Council in 1923. He faded out of public life at the fag end of his mortal life. It is, thus not very strange that Bipin Chandra Pal the fiery extremist of the Lal-Bal-Pal fame too followed the footsteps of his professor Surendranath when in the last days of his life he accepted the offer made by an English Paper in England to write articles for it on India. The articles would favour the British policies.

During his last days Surendranath continued writing his political autobiography A Nation in Making. On August 4, 1925 he fell seriously ill and took leave of the mortal world on August 6. The physicians could not save him. There is no doubt that in his youth he struggled for political rights that created the climate and conditions for complete independence. Amrita Bazar Patrika, the leading newspaper of Kolkata wrote, “The father of  Indian Nationalism passes away.” Even Mahatma Gandhi said, “Surendranath has left a much larger family to mourn over his death. He was one of the makers of India”. It was quite natural for Gandhi to say that as he himself was a follower of Gokhale who was the then leader of the moderates.

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