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Bonnerji, Womesh C.


BONNERJI, WOMESH C. (1844–1906), first president of the Indian National Congress. Barrister Womesh C. Bonnerji of Calcutta presided over the first meeting of the Indian National Congress on 28 December 1885 in Bombay. Seventy-three professional men, representing British India's major cities and far-flung districts, gathered during that Christmas week in Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College, a self-selected inchoate "Parliament" of New India's elite. Bonnerji, born in Sonai to a Bengali Christian family, was educated at the Oriental Seminary in Calcutta, and in 1864 sailed to England, where he studied law and was called to the Bar of London's Middle Temple. He returned home to join Calcutta's High Court in 1868. Inspired by his visits to London's Parliament and Temple of Justice, he became one of young India's most eloquent advocates of representative government.

Surely never before had "so important and comprehensive an assemblage" gathered on Indian soil, President Bonnerji told his compatriots at that first session of the Congress. Though not popularly "elected," they were uniquely qualified to speak for India's voiceless masses, since all Congress delegates shared their "sentiments," "feelings," and "community of wants." In 1892 Bonnerji was again invited to preside, over a larger seventh session of India's National Congress in Allahabad. He was also elected that year to represent the University of Calcutta's Senate on Bengal's Legislative Council.

In 1901 Barrister Bonnerji moved to London and established his practice there, pleading before the Privy Council, until he lost his vision in 1904. He died in July 1906, half a year after his brilliant young friend, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, presided over the Benares Congress. In his eulogy to Bonnerji, Gokhale hailed him as a man whose wisdom and political integrity should have elevated him to the position of prime minister of India, had India been an independent nation-state. Bonnerji, like Gokhale, Mahatma Gandhi's "political guru," was one of New India's bravest and best political leaders.

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoCongress Party ; Gandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Gokhale, Gopal Krishna


Martin, Briton, Jr. New India, 1885. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.

Sisson, Richard, and Stanley Wolpert, eds. Congress and Indian Nationalism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988.

"W. C. Bonnerji's Presidential Addresses to the Indian National Congress, 1885 and 1892." In The Indian National Congress. 2nd ed. Madras: G. A. Natesan, 1917.

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