Surendranath Banerjee

Surendranath Banerjee



Surendranath Banerjee
Surendranath Banerjee
         Surendranath was born in Calcutta on 10 November 1848. He was second of the five sons of Durga Charan Banerjee, a reputed medical practitioner. Surendranaths early schooling was in a pathshala but at the age of seven he was sent to Parental Academic Institution, Calcutta, attended mainly by Anglo Indian boys.
He graduated from the Calcutta University in 1868. The same year, he left for England along with R.C. Dutt and Bihari Lal Gupta, to compete for the Indian Civil Service. He passed the competitive examination in 1869. There was some problem about his age, which was resolved in his favour. He qualified in the final examination in 1871 and returned to India. He was posted as assistant magistrate at Sylhet. His British superior, Mr. Sutherland, contrived to show defects in his official work, and complained to the higher authorities. A commission of enquiry was appointed; the charges were investigated and Surendranath was found guilty of serious dereliction of duty. He was dismissed from service and was sanctioned a pension of rupees fifty per month. He went to England to appeal to the India House but did not succeed. Not only was the grievous injustice not undone, but he was also debarred from enrolling at the Bar. Surendranath stayed on in England for another year (April 1874 to May 1875), devoting himself to the study of the works of Western social and political thinkers. In June 1875, he returned to India as a frustrated man, but did not lose heart and started thinking about another career. As it was proved later, the loss of the Indian Civil Service was a huge gain for the country. Surprisingly, in 1882, seven years after his dismissal, he was made an honorary presidency magistrate of Calcutta and a Justice of Peace.
Soon after his return from England, he accepted the post of a professor of English at the Metropolitan Institution at the request of Vidyasagar. In addition, he also started serving on the staff of the City College, when it was established in 1879. In 1880, he left the Metropolitan Institution and joined the Free Church College, where he stayed till 1885. In the meantime, in 1882, he had taken charge of a school known as Presidency Institution, which was later upgraded to a college and renamed Ripon College (now known as Surendranath College) after the viceroy, Lord Ripon and continued teaching there. As a teacher, he became very popular among students and inspired them with a new spirit of political consciousness. He served as a teacher for thirty-seven years from 1875 to 1912, when he was elected to the Imperial Legislative Council. It was with great reluctance," he said, that I ceased to be a teacher, for I loved the students and rejoiced in their company" While working as a teacher he had also been taking part in political activities and had combined a teaching career with a political career, with amazing success in both.
In 1876, he along with Anand Mohan Bose and others formed the Indian Association, to create a strong body of public opinion about the problems facing the country. This was achieved to a great extent by the all India political tour undertaken by Surendranath, under the auspices of the Indian Association, soon after its formation. The apparent purpose of the tour was to organize a public protest against the reduction of the age limit of the competitors for the Indian Civil Service examination from twenty-one to nineteen years, but the real purpose was the awakening of a spirit of unity and solidarity among the people of the different parts of India, through a sense of common grievance. He visited many important towns of north India, as far as Lahore. The following year (1877-78) he covered Bombay and Madras Presidencies. The propaganda tour of Surendranath from one end of the country to another constitutes a definite landmark in the history of India’s political progress. It clearly demonstrated that in spite of differences in language, creed and social institutions, the English educated people of this great sub-continent were bound by a common tie of ideals and interests, creating a sense of underlying unity which enabled them to combine for a common political objective. For the first time in living memory, even historical tradition, there emerged the idea of India, over and above the congeries of states and provinces into which it was divided”.
Surendranath began to address and educate a much larger audience when he took up the editorship of the Bengali, in January 1879, which was started by W.C. Bonnerji. Soon, it became a powerful organ of public opinion and a vehicle of mass education. It was subsequently converted into a daily and specially came into prominence during the Ilbert Bill controversy (1880s) when it ably met the diatribes of the Anglo-Indian press. He remained the editor of Bengali till 1920. While Surendranath was in the midst of Ilbert Bill controversy, he happened to criticize J.F. Norris, chief justice of the Calcutta High Court, who had insisted in the production of Saligramshila (image of Lord Shiva) as witness in a case. Surendranath wrote that it hurt the religious sentiments of' the orthodox Hindus. He was charged with contempt of court and was imprisoned for two months (May-July 1883). It raised a storm of protest throughout the country, which amply demonstrated his popularity as a national leader. After his release, Surendranath again toured the country. Taking advantage of the newly awakened sense of political unity of India, he organised under the auspices of the Indian Association the first ever all-India Political Conference in Calcutta, on 28 December 1883 which was attended by one hundred delegates from different parts of the country. This was followed by the second National Conference in December 1885, a few days before the Indian National Congress was formed in Bombay. The National Conference, headed by Surendranath forestalled the Indian National Congress in all essential aspects. He could not attend the first inaugural session, but after that, he was one of the most conspicuous and respected leaders of the Congress, till his resignation from its membership in 1918. The National Conference merged with the Indian National Congress after 1885. Henceforth, Surendranath played a leading part in the Congress and twice presided over its sessions of 1895 (Poona) and 1902 (Ahmadabad).
The partition of Bengal in 1905 threw up several leaders who tried to mould the public opinion against this act of Lord Curzon. Surendranath was perhaps the most prominent among them. “The strong leadership and personality which he displayed throughout that memorable campaign, particularly at the Barisal Conference, made him the uncrowned king of Bengal".
Surendranath was a member of the Calcutta Corporation from 1876 to 1899. He was a member of the Congress deputation, which toured England in 1890 to plead for the representative government by reconstitution of legislative councils. He was twice elected by the Calcutta Corporation and twice by the Presidency Division to the Bengal Legislative Council, where he was a member for eight years. In 1909, he was the only member from India to attend the Imperial Press Conference. In 1912, he was chosen a member to the Imperial Legislative Council for the period 19115-16, where he moved several important resolutions.
Surendranath was a moderate like Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Gokhale and others. They believed in British dispensation and generosity and advocated Constitutional methods as a means for achieving a representative form of government. The schism between the Extremists who believed in agitation and the Moderates, which came out in the open at the Surat session in 1907, weakened the Congress which was controlled by the Moderates like Surendranath, Pherozeshah Mehta and Gokhale. The decline in the popularity of the Congress also resulted in the unpopularity of its leaders like Surendranath and others. Thus, he reached the climax of his political career in 1906, and then set in his decline. After 1916, the Congress party came under the control of the Extremists. When the Montague-Chelmsford reforms were announced in 1918, the Congress leadership decided to oppose the reforms. On the other hand, the Moderates led by Surendranath wanted to try the reforms as they believed that the proposed reforms were a step towards representative government. When a special session of the Congress was held in Bombay in 1918 to discuss the issue, Surendranath and other Moderates boycotted it. They held a separate conference on 1 November 1918, under the president ship of Surendranath. It was styled as the ‘All-India Conference of the Moderate Party’ which became the nucleus for the ‘National Liberal Federation of India’, formed soon after. Thus, Surendranath walked out of the Congress party which he had nurtured for more than three decades. Consequently, he practically walked out of the history of India’s struggle for freedom. His becoming a minister of local self-government and health in the Bengal cabinet in 1921 and being knighted the same year, further tarnished his image as a great national leader.­ He came down from once famous ‘Surrender Not Banerjee’ to ‘Sir Surrender’, in the eyes of the masses. Being a man of principles he supported the Montague-Chelmsford reforms in the Bengali and wrote a series of articles against Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. In one of the articles, he wrote, “Noncooperation is nowhere as compared to the influence that swadeshism exercised over our homes and our domestic life. There are 'innumerable villages in Bengal where the charkha and khaddar are unknown. An industrial movement linked with political controversy may receive a momentary impulse, but in the long run it suffers by such association. An industry must be conducted on business lines. Capital, organization and expert knowledge, these constitute the basic foundations of an industrial enterprise”. He further criticized Gandhi for his manic craze for Hindu-Muslim unity. In the same article he wrote, “Of course, we admire the supreme solicitude and the earnest efforts of Mr. Gandhi to secure Hindu-Muslim unity. But in judging of the communal strife’s, which we all deplore, let us not, for the sake of historical justice, forget the part non-cooperation movement had in fostering and promoting it”.
However, Surendranath was no more the idol of the masses. His unpopularity was demonstrated by his crushing defeat in the elections for the Bengal Legislative Council by the young Bidhan Chandra Roy of the Swarajist party. The fire that burnt in Surendranath during the swadeshi movement had deserted him. He retired from active politics and spent lonely years of his remaining life like his contemporary B.C. Pal, who also had dared to challenge Gandhi. It was an extremely gracious gesture, however, on the part of Gandhi to visit Surendranath in Calcutta a few months before his death. About this visit Gandhi wrote in Young India (14 May 1925) under the title ‘The Sage Barrack pore’: “I was privileged to visit Sir Surendranath Banerjee at his residence at Barraekpore. I had heard that he was ailing and that age had told upon his steel frame. I was anxious, therefore, to pay my respects to him. Though he might not approve of some of my activities, my regard for him as a maker of modern Bengal and a Nester of Indian politics has not suffered any diminution. I remember the time when educated India hung on his lips. Sir Surendranath has a magnificent mansion situated on a river bank among beautiful surroundings. All around there is a great quiet, I expected to see him lying in bed, weak and care-worn. Instead, I found myself in the presence of a man standing erect from his seat to greet me affectionately and talking to me with the buoyancy of youth”.
Gandhi also wrote the obituary of Surendranath on the same lines when he died soon after on 6 August 1925.
The last two years of Surendranaths life were spent writing his autobiography A Nation in the Making. He concludes his autobiography with a plea for “cooperation and not non-cooperation, assimilation and not isolation. Any other policy was fraught with peril to our best interests and was suicidal. That is my message to my countrymen, delivered not in haste or impatience, but as the mature result of my deliberations and of my lifelong labours in the service of the motherland”.
That proved to be his swansong.

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