Satish Chandra Banerji: A Sesquicentennial Tribute

Update: 2021-06-20 04:58 GMT

Great lives spread a fragrance and an aura that outlive their mortal sojourn. It is for us to remember and pay tribute to such persons. One such person is Dr. Satish Chandra Banerji whose 150th birth anniversary falls on June 20. His accomplishments were great and his character not only noble but also very amiable and pure unsullied by any stain. His personality was not distinguished by...

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Great lives spread a fragrance and an aura that outlive their mortal sojourn. It is for us to remember and pay tribute to such persons. One such person is Dr. Satish Chandra Banerji whose 150th birth anniversary falls on June 20. His accomplishments were great and his character not only noble but also very amiable and pure unsullied by any stain. His personality was not distinguished by a few admirable prominences, but was uniformly elevated. He shines undimmed in the galaxy of our lawyers.

Muhurtam jvalitam shreyo, na tu dhumayatam chiram: It is better to flame forth for one instant than to smoke away for ages. His was such a life that burned bright like a vestal flame and was put out very soon, departing at 44 having blazed a trail of glory. He lived in an age of great contemporaries who included Pandit Motilal Nehru, Pandit Sundar Lal and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, most of whom lived longer than him but his attainments in the much shorter span of life that was given to him outshone those of many others. It has been rightly said that we can hardly have any real perception of his true moral and intellectual dimensions. We know so little of him when there is so much to know. Such an able appraiser as Dr. Kailash Nath Katju observed that Dr. Satish Chandra Banerji is undoubtedly the most learned lawyer that the Allahabad Bar has produced.

He was born on June 20, 1871. His father Avinash Chandra Banerji was a Judge, Small Cause Court. The places where the boy Satish received education were determined by the uncertainties of his father's transfer from place to place. He had his early schooling in the Government High School, Allahabad. Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya was a teacher there - Satish being one of his students. On his father's transfer to Aligarh, he joined the M. A. O. College, Aligarh where there were eminent teachers some of whom evinced a keen interest in Satish. It was his association with such scholars like Profs. Wallace and Theodore Arnold that kindled in him a thirst for literature and philosophy. On his father's re-transfer to Agra, he joined the Agra College. The Principal there was a Scot - Mr. Thompson, a profound scholar of philosophy who soon saw in his pupil the gleam of philosophic talent and he took a personal interest in Satish. The years of his pupilage under Principal Thompson saw the fruitful flowering of the latent seed of philosophy in him. In Prof. Andrews, a distinguished scholar of Cambridge, Satish found a true guide for his literary pursuits and his study of Elizabethan literature and mid-Victorian poets became very profound. To say that very few scholars who have devoted themselves to the study of Shakespeare have had that exact and intuitive perception of him as Satish would be no exaggeration.

His academic laurels were unique and extremely distinguished. In 1890 he took the B.A. examination in English Literature of both the Allahabad and Calcutta Universities and obtained a first class first in both. While yet a student of M. A. class, he brought out an edition of Tennyson's 'Princess' with a very learned introduction. Again in 1892, he sat for his M. A. simultaneously in the Calcutta and Allahabad Universities and topped at both the places. In the same year he brought out a philosophical treatise containing the dialogues of Berkley with his critical introduction reviewing the history and progress of English idealism. Prof. Fraser, a reputed authority on Berkley was so much impressed by the merit of this work that he came to regard Satish as one of the greatest scholars on Berkley outside England.

In 1892, on the death of his father at the young age of 46, Satish took a professorial job in the Hugli College, Calcutta. He won the Prem Chand Roy Chand Scholarship of the Calcutta University which was the highest honour an Indian scholar could aspire for. His thesis on Sankhya philosophy received the acclamation of no less a person than Max Muller who, in his later work, paid the highest tribute to the talent of Satish Banerji. His research on Sankhya philosophy attracted many to the study of Hindu thought. With so rare a literary talent and the meditativeness of a philosopher in him, one naturally expected him to remain in the academic sanctuary, but it is not always that things happen as expected. It was the sphere of law and not the university which was to see the fulfilment of his destiny and with no less lustre.

He attended Sir Fredrick Pollock's Tagore Law Lectures on the Law of Fraud and Misrepresentation and won a special medal. He appeared for the law examination and got the first position; but owing to shortage of his attendance, the gold medal could not go to him. So poignant was Sir Frederick's grief at this unkind cut that he persuaded the University to award a special medal to Satish as recognition of his merit. In 1894, after passing the LL. B. examination from the Allahabad University, he started his professional career joining the Bar at Lucknow as a junior of Syed Mahmood who had just reverted to the Bar after resigning as a judge of the Allahabad High Court. Satish Banerji, by his acumen and assiduity, soon won the heart of Mahmood who found in him a true intellectual companion. His stay with Mahmood was, however, not long and soon in 1896 he shifted to Allahabad permanently. After a few months' in the district courts, he started practice in the High Court as a vakil. With practically no briefs during the usual initial period of waiting, he devoted himself whole heartedly to the study of Indian and Continental laws. In 1900, he took his honours in law and just a year later earned his Doctor of Law from the Allahabad University.

He treated law as a science and was widely read. It is said that his powers of advocacy were not equal to the depth of his learning. An exceptionally gifted person like him with years of quiet study though putting in a few occasional appearances could not remain in obscurity. His erudition and vision in law captured the attention of all and they acknowledged his learning. Day by day he was gaining recognition and everyone felt sure of his brilliant future. He had his break in 1901 with the Landhaura Raj case which was then proceeding in the trial court at Saharanpur. His performance in that case attracted the notice of all and established his credentials as an erudite lawyer and a skilled advocate. Slowly but steadily he gathered a large practice both in the High Court and in the lower courts, particularly in the western districts of the Province. In 1905 he was enrolled as an advocate and in another two years he was in the front rank of the profession.

The Tagore Law Professorship of the Calcutta University is considered the ultimate: it is the pole star on the Eastern horizon of jurisprudence. Satish Chandra Banerji was appointed to that chair. The most worthy and lasting product of his genius is his Tagore Law Lectures delivered in 1906 at the young age of 35 years and published as a treatise on the Law of Specific Relief. It is a legal classic and authority on the subject. To quote Sir Asutosh's tribute in the Foreword to the second edition in 1917: 'The monumental work is acclaimed in legal circles as a triumph of erudition and research. The accuracy and lucidity of the exposition of legal principles which throughout characterised the work marked it out as a contribution of enduring value.' As a scholar and a writer Banerji had few equals and no superior.

He had great humility and equanimity and did not display his remarkable learning. His deportment was humble and urbane. He could maintain his equanimity even under the gravest provocation. He never over-elaborated his arguments, being averse to display of scholarship beyond the imperative requirement of the occasion. He was always easy to follow combining exact statement, logical precision and lucid exposition. "Rarely was to be found so much of substance so admirably dressed and flavoured, in so small a receptacle." The rapidity with which his point could reach the mind of the judge reflected how in a few words he could offer the quintessence of the whole theme of his contentions. Some of the cases in which he appeared and argued attained the status of causes celebres. No leadership of the Bar was possible without the background of a deep scholarship and learning of law. And Banerji was gifted with these in abundance.

He was also active in public life and played many roles. Just a month before his death he was elected to the Legislative Council as a representative of the Allahabad University of which he was a fellow. He was the Secretary of the 25th Indian National Congress, and was elected as President of the U. P. Congress Committee in 1914. A man of letters that he was, his interest in journalism was natural. The proposal to start a nationalist newspaper in Allahabad had long been felt and in starting the 'Indian People' his contribution went a long way. Later on when 'Indian People' was transformed into 'The Leader' he was one of the first Chairmen of its Board of Directors.

Such was the life of Dr. Satish Banerji, a life lived in deeds not in years. Providence was not kind enough to add years to his life, but he was wise to add life to the years that were given him. It was a life of purest devotion, intense action and thought and it consumed him prematurely. With a feeble constitution he broke under the pressure of work, and, on the 8th of June, 1915, he answered the final summons of his Maker at the early age of 44. So quietly he accepted his illness, it is said, that none could know of his grave condition until the happening of the inevitable. He went much before his time leaving us wondering as to what might have been had he lived longer.

His career was meteoric. From his joining the High Court in 1896 to his death in 1915- in a brief span of about two decades- he attained what most would not in a whole lifetime. "The history of the Allahabad Bar has not a more spotless character to commemorate; incorruptible in integrity, modest without diffidence, learned without vanity, independent and dignified without asperity or pride." Distinction is the consequence, not the object of great minds: Satish Banerji lived it. The light that shone through his mortal frame is not extinct, it still radiates through the pages of his Tagore Law lectures.

The epitaph- conveying sublime truth- which he had himself chosen for his father equally applies to him:

'He is not dead whose noble life/Leads thine on high./To live in hearts we leave behind/ Is not to die.'

And we may add adapting Laurence Binyon:

He shall not grow old, as we that are left behind grow old:/Age shall not weary him nor the years condemn,/At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember him.

It is good to recur to such great men and to study their lives and characters. Their lives exhort us to the same useful and tireless labour which made them great and inspire us with fresh love for our profession, which they so ardently loved and of which so eminent a role model as Rufus Choate, the great American lawyer and statesman said, "There is nothing else in the world to like."

The principles, values and erudition taught by the giants of the past and so typically illustrated by their own lives constantly remind us of our roots and that it is for us to keep the flame bright when the torch is in our keeping. The love and respect with which we light the memory of Satish Chandra Banerji on his sesquicentennial birth anniversary is a measure of his greatness both as a man and a lawyer. On an occasion like this we can have no better wish than that we may evidence the same humility and aspire to the same noble contribution as the best of our forebears have made to the living law and prove ourselves worthy of them and the great heritage and traditions.

Views are personal.

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