Patriots > Early Nationalist and Moderates > Surendranath Banerjee
Surendranath Banerjee (1848-1925)
Surendranath Banerjee was born on 10 November 1848 in a reputable Kulin Brahmin family, settled in Calcutta. His father Durga Charan Banerjea was a medical practitioner and, as a student of the Hindu College, had imbibed modern liberal ideas. So, although the grandson of an orthodox Brahmin, Surendranath got his school education in the Parental Academic Institution, attended chiefly by Anglo-Indian boys. He graduated from the Calcutta University in 1868, and on 3 March of the same year proceeded to England along with Romesh Chunder Dutt and Bihari Lal Gupta to compete for the Indian Civil Service. He passed the competitive examination held in 1869.

There were some troubles over his exact age, and though he was declared disqualified, the question was settle in his favour after a reference to law-court. Being successful in the final examination in 1871, he returned to India and was posted to Sylhet as Assistant Magistrate. Mr. Sutherland, the District Magistrate, did not look upon his Indian subordinate with favour and took advantage of a technical error to make a formal complaint to the Government against Surendranath.

A Commission appointed to inquire into the complaint found him guilty, and he was dismissed from service. There is hardly any doubt that racial prejudice was at the bottom of the whole affair. Surendranath proceeded to England and appealed to the India Office. Not only was the grievous wrong not redressed, he was not permitted even to enroll himself as a Barrister.

The prospects before Surendranath were indeed very gloomy, but he did not lose heart. He believed that he suffered because he was an Indian and made a grim resolve to devote himself to the task of saving his helpless countrymen from similar predicament in future. During his stay in London from April, 1874 to May, 1875, he equipped himself for this task by intensive study of various subjects which included the writings of Burke, Mazzini and many other great liberal thinkers and patriots of the West.

On his return to India in June, 1875, Surendranath began his new career as a Professor of English, first in the Metropolitan Institution and then in the Free Church College, and lastly in the College founded by him and named Ripon College, now known as Surendrnath College. He took full advantage of his teaching profession to make the Indian students inspired with a new sprit. For this purpose he delivered many public lectures in and outside Calcutta on suitable topics such as Indian Unity, Life and Teachings of Mazzini and the history of Shivaji, the Sikhs, etc.

In a speech delivered in 1878 he urged the young men of India to dedicate their lives and consecrate their energies to the good of their motherland. He was the most eloquent speaker that India has so far produced, and his inspiring address had marvelous effects on the young minds.

The great nationalist leader, Bipin Chandra Pal, himself a great orator, writing of his student days remarks on the very first lecture of Surendranath: “It made a very powerful appeal to our infant patriotism and lent new strength and even bitterness to the anti-British feeling. The audience carried with them from this meeting a new patriotic fervour.” Regarding Surendranath’s speech on Mazzini, he said; “The tyrannies of the Austrian army of occupation in Italy…made a profound impressionon our sensitive minds....We saw or imagined a great similitude between the position of the Italians under Austrian domination and our own position under British rule.”

Thanks to the Brahmo samaj and particularly the eloquent discourses of Keshab Chandra Sen, the English-educated young men of Bengal were hitherto attracted by the programme of social and religious reform. But the eloquence of Surendranath diverted their minds to nationalism, and as B. C. Pal, himself a Brahmo, admits, “Surendranatha’s political propaganda gathered a much larger following than that of the social and religious revolt.” This transference of Bengali youth’s interest and energy to the political regeneration constitutes the first great contribution of Surendranath to the national cause of India.

His second great contribution was the foundation, on 26 July 1876, of the Indian Association which was intended to be the center of an all India political movement. This was principally achieved by the all-India political tour undertaken by Surendranath on behalf of the Association. Its nominal object was to organize a public protest against the reduction of the age-limit of the competitors for the Indian Civil Service Examination from 21 to 19, but the true aim and purpose of the tour was the awakening of a spirit of unity and solidarity among the people of the different parts of India, through the sense of a common grievance.

Surendranath visited and addressed public meetings in a large number of important towns in North India as far as Lahore and also in the Presidencies of Bombay and Madras (1877-78). This propaganda tour of Surendranath constitutes a definite landmark in the history of India’s political regeneration. For the first time there emerged the idea of India as a political unit, and its importance was not lost upon far-sighted Englishmen.

Henry Cotton, a member of the I. C. S. wrote: “The Bengalee Babus now rule public opinion from Peshawar to Chittagong. A quarter of a century ago there was no trace of this: the idea of any Bengalee influence in the Punjab would have been a conception incredible to Lord Lawrence … 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 Surendra Nath Banerjee excites as much enthusiasm among the rising generation of Multan as in Dacca.”

The great popularity of Surendranath all over India was clearly demonstrated when he was sentenced to imprisonment on a charge of Contempt of Court for remarks made by him in his paper, the Bengalee, against the Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court for ordering a Hindu to produce the image of his household deity in the Court. A wild outburst of indignation accompanied by ‘hartal’ all over Bengal such as was never before witnessed marked the political consciousness of the masses.

Far more significant was the public meetings of protest were held in Agra, Fyzabad, Amritsar, Lahore, Poona and various other towns all over India. Even a Pandit of Kashmir, ignorant of English, burst

into tears, crying, “Our Surendranath is in jail.” Surendranath’s successful tour had thus set the stage for a more practical demonstration of the newly awakened sense of political unity of I India in the shape of an all-India political conference sponsored by Indian Association. The first session of the National Conference held in Calcutta on 28, 29 and 30 December 1883, was attended by more than a hundred delegates from different parts of India. The second session, held in Calcutta on 25, 26, and 27 December 1885, was more representative than the first and the plan of holding annual session of the Conference in different parts of India was accepted.

For the first time in history a realistic picture of the political unity of India was held out before public eye, forestalling the Indian National Congress. The chief credits for this goes to Surendranath and entitles him to the epithet of ‘Father of the Nation’ which his greatful countrymen gave him.

Immediately after the conclusion of the second session of the National Conference in Calcutta, the first session of Indian National Congress was held at Bombay (28 December 1885). The questions and problems discussed in this two all-India political conferences were practically identical and the National Conference was merged in the Indian National Congress. Surendranath was not invited to the first session of the Congress till at the very last moment when, preoccupied with the second session of the National Conference in Calcutta, he could not attend it.

It was apparent that the first session of the Congress was less successful from every point of view than the National Conference, and this perhaps explains why the authorities of the Congress were particularly anxious to enlist the sympathy and support of Surendranath for second session of the Indian National Congress to be held in Calcutta.

The Calcutta session of the Congress in 1886 marked a distinct advance in its tone and spirit and henceforth Surendranath played a leading part in the National Congress and twice became its President, in 1895 and 1902. It is undoubtedly due to the part of Surendranath and colleagues in Bengal that the Indian National Congress came to be looked upon, after the second session, as the handiwork of the Bengalees. Such a view was expressed by Sir Syed Ahmed, Lord Dufferin and even the historian Malleson.

It is neither necessary, nor possible to discuss in detail in this short article the political activities of Surendranath as one of the most prominent leaders of Indian National Congress during the next twenty years. But reference must be made to the leading role he played in the unique agitation against the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the Swadeshi and Boycott Movement which followed it.

The strong leadership and personality which he displayed throughout that memorable campaign, particularly at the Barisal Conference, made him the ‘uncrowned king of Bengal’. The reception accorded to him on his return from Barisal to Calcutta, and all along the way, was such as a king might envy. His carriage was drawn by his enthusiastic admirers who had ultimately the satisfaction of seeing that he did unsettle the Partition of Bengal which Lord Morley had declared to be a settled fact.

He had reached the climax of his political career in 1906, and then set in the decline. The cleavage between the Moderates and the Extremists led to the steady decline of the Moderate Party of which Surendranath was the strongest pillar. The Home Rule League and the emergence of Gandhiji made the people lose faith in the programme of the Moderate Party, and the publication of the Montagu Chelmsford Report was the signal of war between the Modrates and the rest. The Moderates went down, and when they walked out of the Congress in 1918, Surendranath along with them practically walked out of the history of India’s struggle for freedom.

With the zeal of a new convert Surendranath steadily worked to make the Reforms a success. He accepted the Ministry and also the Knighthood, which closed the eventful career as a great national leader. His unpopularity was demonstrated by his crushing defeat at the General Election for the Bengal Legislative Council in 1923, and he retired from active politics and ploughed a lonely furrow till death relieved him on 6 August 1925.

Surendranath was an educationst as noted above. He was a great journalist and the Bengalee, edited by him, occupied a very high place in Indian journalism and made a conspicuous contribution to the growth of nationalism in India. In 1909 he attended the Press Conference in London. He was a member of the Calcutta Corporation (1876-99) and resigned as a protest against Lord Curzon’s policy of effectively destroying its popular character. But as a Minister he had the consolation of restoring its democratic character.

He was a member of the Indian Legislative Council for many years and did good work in that body. He had very liberal social and religious ideas. He advocated widow remarriage and raising the marriageable age of girls, and presided over the Provincial Social Conference.

It is great pity that Surendranath died, almost unwept, unmourned and unusing by the public excepting a very small class. Yet it should be remembered that Surendranath never abandoned the high ideals of his youth; only at the age of seventy he did not choose to follow the untrodden path which younger generations pursued in preference to the old one which, he believed, had brought the country within sight of the promised land - the dream of his whole life. It is possible to argue that the path chosen by him would also have brought us freedom; and though there might have been delay it would have saved us from the partition of the country and the many other evils from which we have suffered during the last twenty-five years.

Whatever we might think of such a possibility, it can not be altogether ignored and should make us more charitable in forming our final estimate of Surendranath Banerjee. In any case, it is high time we should cherish his memory and give due honours to him for what he did for the national regeneration of his country during the long period of about half a century, and not judge him today by what he failed to do during the fag end of his life.

Author : R.C.Majumdar