Banerjea, Surendranath N.
BANERJEA, SURENDRANATH N.
BANERJEA, SURENDRANATH N. (1848–1925), Indian politician and nationalist leader A pioneer of moderation in nationalist politics, Surendranath Banerjea infused the English-educated middle class with ideals of communal harmony, faith in British rule, and belief in progress. Widely admired for his eloquence and oratory as well as his unshakable political and personal convictions, he was nicknamed "Surrender Not."
Banerjea was born in 1848 in a Kulin, high-ranked Brahman family in Kolkata. His father, Durga Charan Banerjea, was a medical practitioner. Surendranath was introduced to Western ideas by his liberal-minded father, and at the Presidency College where he received his education. Upon graduation, he went to England to sit for the Indian Civil Service examination. He passed and qualified for an administrative appointment in the British Indian government. He was posted at Sylhet in Bangladesh as an assistant magistrate. He was, however, soon dismissed from the post on the grounds of a technical impropriety in a report on his age, prepared by a sub-ordinate, that Surendranath had failed to correct. It was a severe punishment for a minor oversight. Banerjea traveled to London to appeal his case in vain. He decided to try the next best course open to young educated Indians—to sit for the Bar examinations. He was denied admission. Convinced that the personal wrong done to him was evidence of the "impotency of a people" under British rule, he decided to dedicate his life to political awakening in Bengal and in India, in accordance with his faith in the Western ideals of fairness and justice.
Upon his return from the failed mission in England, he chose teaching as his profession. He became a professor of English at the Metropolitan Institution, then at the Free Church College. Seeking an educational forum where he could articulate his reform ideas, he helped establish a college of his own. He named it Ripon College after the marquis of Ripon, the viceroy of India from 1880 to 1884. (The college is now called Surendranath College.) With his stirring eloquence, he inspired students, intellectuals, and the educated public in Kolkata and other major metropolitan cities of India. He became the editor of the Bengalee, an English-language newspaper that became the mouthpiece of his measured, moderate political views. He founded the Indian Association, the political platform that battled the landholders' British India Association. He traveled the length and breadth of India promoting his brand of nationalism. In the process, he became a leading figure in the Indian National Congress, and the champion of Indian demands in England, which he visited from time to time. In the 1900s, he was without doubt the most important leader in the Calcutta Corporation and the Bengal Legislative Council. When Lord George Curzon announced the partition of Bengal, Banerjea's commanding figure, with striking white beard and baritone voice, took up the cry of protest at public meetings and rallies. This was his finest moment.
The slide began in 1907. Banerjea could not control the passions he had roused in India's youth. The political movement he led, based on newspaper articles, public meetings of protest, petitions, and deputations, was now of no avail. Extremist violence had gripped the swadeshi movement. In a remarkable about-face, Banerjea found himself joining hands with landlords and Muslim leaders to meet with the viceroy to seek his intervention. "It was simply marvelous to see..the 'King of Bengal' sitting on my sofa with his Mohammedan opponents," quipped Lord Minto, the viceroy (Broomfield 1968, p. 67).
From 1912 until his death in 1925, Banerjea participated in all the major political developments: the Lucknow Pact of 1916, the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, the satyagraha (noncooperation) movement of 1921. But his influence was on the wane. The extremists dismissed Banerjea and his ilk of upper-middle-class moderates as irreligious, luxury-loving blind followers of British institutions and recipients of titles and honors given as rewards for loyalty. He also had formidable opponents in men like C. R. Das, Ashutosh Mookherjee, and young leaders of the day like Subhash Chandra Bose and Dr. B. C. Roy. Dr. Roy defeated Banerjea with a large margin in the 24-Parganas Municipal constituency during the elections to the Bengal Legislative Council in 1923.
Banerjea's career in the last fifteen years of his life comprised tireless efforts to deflect the British from their course of action, and to stem the rising tide of militancy in the neonationalists. His efforts met with an equal lack of success on both fronts.
Dilip K. Basu
Broomfield, J. H. Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth Century Bengal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
Majumdar, R. C. History of Modern Bengal. 2 vols. Kolkata: G. Bharadwaj & Co., 1978–1981.