Surendranath Banerjee (1848-1925) was a major figure in early Indian nationalism. A believer in moderate means, he was deeply committed to achieving constitutional objectives by constitutional methods.
Surendranath Banerjee was born in Calcutta on Nov. 10, 1848, into a Brahmin family. His father was a distinguished physician. Banerjee received his early education at Doveton College in Calcutta. Upon taking a degree in English literature from Calcutta University, he went to London and in 1869 became the second Indian to succeed in the Indian civil service competitive examination, after an official effort to exclude him had failed.
Banerjee was appointed to a post in Sylhet in his home-land; however, in 1874 he was dismissed for a minor and apparently inadvertent procedural error. His efforts at reinstatement failed, and as a dismissed civil servant he was also refused admission to the bar. Banerjee felt he had been discriminated against because he was Indian. He embarked on a political career to organize Indian public opinion, to redress wrongs and protect rights, and to give Indians a serious role in the administration of their country and a voice in the counsels of their government.
On returning to Calcutta in 1875, he took a chair in English literature at the Metropolitan Institution (now Vidyasagar College) and subsequently founded and taught at the Ripon College (now Surendranath College). Banerjee was active in teaching for 37 years and considered it his chief vocation, though inseparable from his political work. In 1878 he became proprietor of the Bengalee, an English-language newspaper, through which he espoused liberal causes for nearly half a century. Banerjee was instrumental in founding the Indian Association in 1876, and he played a prominent role in the Indian National Congress from the time of its founding in 1885. He was president of the Congress in 1895 and 1902.
Banerjee was a believer in moderate means of political agitation, meetings, petitions, and legislative action. His grasp of the English language and his skills as an orator and debater made him an outstanding public speaker and a master parliamentarian. He reached the peak of his political career in opposing the partition of Bengal in 1905, an official action which was modified in 1911. During these years he was often called "the uncrowned king of Bengal."
But nationalist politics in India meant opposition, and increasingly there were others whose opposition was more vigorous and who came to center stage. Banerjee could accept neither the extremist view of political action nor the noncooperation of Gandhi, then emerging as a major factor in the nationalist movement. Banerjee saw the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 as substantially fulfilling Congress's demands, a position which further isolated him. He was elected to the reformed Legislative Council of Bengal in 1921, knighted in the same year, and held office as minister for local self-government from 1921 to 1924. He was defeated at the polls in 1923. He died at Barrackpore on Aug. 6, 1925.
The basic source on Banerjee is his autobiography, A Nation in Making: Being the Reminiscences of Fifty Years of Public Life (1925), a classic account of the early nationalist movement. Recent studies of the period with interesting assessments of Banerjee's role are Daniel Argov, Moderates and Extremists in the Indian National Movement, 1883-1920: With Special Reference to Surendranath Banerjea and Lajpat Raj (1967), and J.H. Broomfield, Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth-Century Bengal (1968). □