Sir Asutosh Mookerjee - The Renaissance Man: A Centennial Tribute

V. Sudhish Pai

25 May 2024 5:33 AM GMT

  • Sir Asutosh Mookerjee - The Renaissance Man: A Centennial Tribute

    If greatness consists in the combination of character and intellect of the highest order and if it is to be judged by the enduring value of solid work done in the fields of thought and action and its lasting impact on people and events, Sir Asutosh Mukhopadhyay was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding men, one of India's greatest sons. Mathematician, lawyer, judge, jurist, educationist, he...

    If greatness consists in the combination of character and intellect of the highest order and if it is to be judged by the enduring value of solid work done in the fields of thought and action and its lasting impact on people and events, Sir Asutosh Mukhopadhyay was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding men, one of India's greatest sons. Mathematician, lawyer, judge, jurist, educationist, he was all this and more- greatness personified, great in the truest and noblest sense of the term. 25th May, 2024 marks the centenary of his passing. It is appropriate that we remember him, draw inspiration from his life and work and light his memory.

    The tender plant of Renaissance flowered in the alluvial soil of 19th century Bengal. Renaissance is the revival of art and literature and all that is beautiful and refined under the influence of classical styles. It is the rekindling of interest in something, the resurgence of the finer things of life- civilization. It is a change in thinking – a kind of rebirth. A Renaissance man is a person with a wide range of talents and interests. Bengal was ripe for and witnessed such revival from the early 19th century with persons like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Maharishi Debendranath Tagore. In the field of law there were pioneers like Sumboo Nath Pundit, Dwarka Nath Mitter, Gooroodas Banerjee. In the mid 19th century a triumvirate of extraordinary persons of the Bengal Renaissance was born. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (born 6.5.1861) who exemplified in his truly resplendent life extraordinary mastery of almost every form of art and literature; Narendranath Dutt, later Swami Vivekananda (born 12.1.1863) the great morning star of Indian spiritual Renaissance; Asutosh Mookerjee (born 29.6.1864) the pioneer and representative figure of the resurgence of science, law and education.

    India was passing through a tumultuous period then. There was a small group of people who in keeping with the best in our tradition, sought to create a synthesis of the old and the new, of Indian culture and western thought. Their influence on contemporary life and events was great. One of the most representative figures of this class of pioneers was Asutosh Mookerjee. There is a class of men, very small in number, which seems unable to make a definite choice or stick to one when it is made and who insist on an equal expression of all their multifarious gifts and create their own environment ultimately leading to their splendid success in life. Such pre- eminently was Asutosh.

    When we think of Sir Asutosh, his life and work, the range of his mind and the gamut of his activities and achievements, we are simply astounded that so much could be achieved so excellently in the span of one life which was not that long. To praise him or pay tribute to him is to paint the lily, gild refined gold and throw a perfume on the jasmine. So exemplary was he in his personal and functional qualities and accomplishments. Speech gives way to silence – the silence of worship and reverence. One is reminded of Arthur Mee's tribute to Socrates: Asutosh Mookerjee was like a mountain peak dazzling in the last rays of the setting sun, a strange figure, almost lost to us in the mists of time, but living in the minds and hearts of men as long as right is might and life is stronger than death.

    Asutosh Mookerjee was born on Wednesday, June 29, 1864 at 3.55 a.m. as the eldest child of Dr. Ganga Prasad Mookerjee and Srimati Jagattarini Devi. It was a respectable, noble and learned family. The great Krittibas who wrote the first Bengali version of the Ramayana was an ancestor of Asutosh. Another ancestor was Ramachandra Tarakalankar whom Warren Hastings appointed to the Chair of Nyaya in the newly founded Sanskrit College. The father, Ganga Prasad was one of the earliest graduates of the Calcutta University and amongst the best known physicians. He was one of the first to write medical literature in Bengali. He accomplished a translation of Valmiki Ramayana in Bengali verse. That was published sometime ago by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and the Asutosh Mookerjee Memorial Institute under the auspices of his great grandson Justice Chittatosh Mookerjee. Such was the rich lineage of Sir Asutosh.

    It is of significance that the young Asutosh happened to meet Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar one of the pioneers of Renaissance once at the Mughal Sarai Railway Station and then at a book shop in Calcutta-Thackers Spink & Co where Vidyasagar presented Asutosh a copy of Robinson Crusoe with his signature. That was a prized possession of Asutosh. The great Vidyasagar appears to have been impressed with the young boy's earnestness and recognised in him a kindred spirit.

    Asutosh had a disciplined and rigourous schedule which coupled with his innate brilliance enabled him to scale extraordinary heights. He was truly educated both in the school and at home, the father imparting him lessons in various subjects. He was a mathematical prodigy. He became a member of the London Mathematical Society while still at school. He solved a large number of geometrical problems. Some of his solutions were so excellent that they were accepted as original contributions to mathematical studies and named after him as Mookerjee Theorems. His mathematical paper giving an elegant new proof of the 25th proposition of the first book of Euclid which he had prepared when he was 13 years was published in the Cambridge Messenger of Mathematics in 1881. His second mathematical paper in which he gave Some Extensions of the Theorem enunciated by Salmon was published shortly thereafter. He secured a first class first in B.A. and M.A. Mathematics and a Master's Degree in Physics. Displaying remarkable originality he continued publishing his papers in Mathematics some of which were quoted in text books. His classmates at the Presidency College, Calcutta included some all time greats like Swami Vivekananda and Brojendra Nath Seal.

    He sat for the Premchand Roychand Studentship examination in 1886 in Mathematics, pure and mixed, and Physics and won the award. This was considered the coveted blue ribbon of University career in Calcutta. It is noteworthy that he was appointed an examiner at the MA examination in Mathematics the year after he himself took his Master's Degree. His love for Mathematics did not curb his interest in and attention to other subjects. His versatility was amazing. Asutosh turned out to be an intellectual giant. English, Sanskrit, Philosophy, History, Science and Law all attracted him. His mastery over Sanskrit, Physical Sciences, Law and Mathematics was so profound that he was looked upon as an incarnation of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. His reading was deep and extensive. His contributions appeared in well known journals of the day both in India and outside. He acquired knowledge of French and German also to study the works of famous mathematicians. Very early in life he became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Member of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, among various others.

    Asutosh joined the law classes at the City College in 1884 where S.P. Sinha (later Lord Sinha) was one of his teachers. He attended the Tagore Law Lectures and for three successive years won the gold medal awarded for high proficiency in the subject matter of those lectures. The University authorities and the lecturers were astounded by the young Asutosh's expertise on these varied branches of law. Successive Vice Chancellors referred to his work both in Mathematics and law in highly appreciative terms. He won all the coveted prizes. To say that he was a genius would only be to err on the side of restraint.

    Asutosh Mookerjee's association with and involvement in the activities of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science and in its development is worthy of mention. This is one of the most important aspects of his life- working experience and teaching Mathematics and Mathematical Physics which later shaped his vision of Science education in India. He joined the Association in 1887 having already acquired pre-eminence in the contemporary world of Mathematics equipped as he was with his ability in innovative research. He delivered lectures of an exceptionally high standard on Physical Optics, Mathematical Physics and Pure Mathematics- twelve lectures in 1887, twenty in 1888, thirty five in 1889 and twenty nine each in 1890 and 1891. He wrote seventeen full research papers- 15 on Pure Mathematics and 2 on Applied Mathematics. In 1906, Gooroodas Banerjee remarked that unmistakable indications of a brilliant future career were seen in Asutosh even many years earlier. His efforts in and contribution to the study and research in Science and Mathematics are monumental. It may be said that he created mathematical ambience, a whole culture for generations of mathematicians and was a maker of mathematicians.

    To quote Sir William Brag: “A good student is like a fire which needs but the match to start it. It is a discipline to put the text book to one side and get out further knowledge by one's own efforts.” Dr. R.P. Paranjpye, a Senior Wrangler said that if Asutosh had made up his mind to devote himself entirely to the study of Mathematics he was sure to have secured a place in the front rank of world mathematicians. Sir Gooroodas Banerjee as Vice Chancellor of the University had made a desperate attempt to create a chair for Asutosh but he failed to collect even a sum which would yield a modest income of Rs.4000/- a year which was all that was thought would be sufficient to maintain him as a Research Professor. The result was that to quote Asutosh himself “I drifted into law.”

    In 1888 he took his B.L Degree and was articled to Sir Rashbehary Ghose, a revered name in the world of law and a close friend of Ganga Prasad Mookerjee. It is of interest that Asutosh had noted in his diary, which he kept as a student, on 7th February, 1886, “....In the afternoon, father and I saw Rashbehary Babu; he is of opinion that none but the best men ought to join the Bar, and the times are so hard that even these best men must wait before they can succeed...” He began his practice in the Calcutta High Court on 31st August, 1888. When Sir Rashbehary brought out the second edition of his Tagore Law Lectures on the Law of Mortgage, he was greatly assisted by his articled clerk and the great jurist acknowledged it in his Preface to the book.

    For several years he diligently engaged himself in studying both from the original texts and under the guidance of eminent scholars the principles of Hindu Law and Mahomaden Law apart from other branches of law. With the combination of his extraordinary intellect and industry which he ungrudgingly offered at the altar of the profession, he soon made a mark and built up a large and lucrative practice. His great success was attributed to his forceful character, deep and extensive study, unremitting toil, brilliant advocacy, genial temper and extraordinarily quick grasp and comprehension, backed by total dedication.

    In 1889 he became a Fellow of the Calcutta University and was elected a member of its Syndicate. While practising as a lawyer he obtained the Degree of Doctor of Law in 1894. He continued his scientific studies also. Sir Asutosh was appointed Tagore Law Professor at the Calcutta University in 1898, at the age of 34. The Tagore Law Professorship is considered the pole star on the eastern horizon of jurisprudence and in the roll of Tagore Law Professors one finds names of very eminent men whose works adorn the law libraries across the world. He delivered a course of lectures on the Law of Perpetuities in British India. The Law of Perpetuities, as a branch of the Law of Property, had as its object restraint on the creation of future conditional interests, aiming also at the prevention of non-alienation of property. The lectures were marked by thoroughness so characteristic of him. He discussed the subject in all its ramifications. He concluded his Tagore Law Lectures saying “It has been my constant endeavour to present to you not merely the precepts of the law as they are, but also the reasons for their present form. This process by which we trace legal rules and formulas to the first principles that lie at the foundation of our system of jurisprudence may occasionally appear to be dry and uninteresting; but once you are familiar with it, let me assure you, you will find nothing more stimulating to your intellect. Never forget that in the words of one of the foremost jurists of this generation (quoting from what Sir Fredrick Pollock wrote to his senior Lord Lindley), law is neither a trade nor a solemn jugglery, but a true and living science.”

    Sir Asutosh had in him the making of a great leader and administrator. His impress is writ large over modern Bengal. In 1899 and 1901, he was elected to the Bengal Legislative Council representing the University of Calcutta and in 1903 he was re- elected as representative of the Calcutta Corporation. The same year he was elected to the Imperial Legislative Council as representative of the non official members of the Bengal Council.

    He distinguished himself as an educationist. Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy was deeply impressed by his work as a member of the Indian Universities Commission and considered him to be the one who could implement the Commission's recommendations as embodied in the Indian Universities Act, 1904. He, therefore, decided to appoint him Vice Chancellor of the premier University of Calcutta. That necessitated his elevation to the High Court because until then no non official had been appointed Vice Chancellor. Sir Gooroodas Banerjee was the first Indian Vice Chancellor.

    Asutosh Mookerjee was appointed a judge of the Calcutta High Court in June 1904. This was in a way the fulfilment of a cherished ambition to follow in the footsteps of great judges and exemplars like Sumboonath Pundit, Dwarkanath Mitter and Gooroodas Banerjee. It also meant the opportunity to serve the University. While his elevation deprived public life and the nation of his active participation and service, it turned out to be a boon for education and the judiciary. His appointment as a judge and his tenure on the Bench significantly expanded the universe of judicial discourse.

    For the next almost twenty years he adorned the Bench of the Calcutta High Court and in the words of Sir Lawrence Jenkins, the most celebrated of British Judges and Chief Justices: “Sir Asutosh may justly be said to be one of the brightest ornaments of the Bench of the High Court of Calcutta.” Of him it may be said as was said of Sir George Jessel, the illustrious Master of the Rolls, “There have been judges more learned, judges more subtle, judges more eloquent, but none who possessed his rare combination of clearness, vigour of understanding, varied knowledge, swiftness of apprehension, and mastery of legal principles. He had always the faculty of hitting the right nail on the head.” Sir Asutosh officiated as Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court for a few months in 1920 and 1923. He was felicitated both by the public and in the High Court. Few people have been considered brighter ornaments to the Court they presided over.

    A couple of instances will bear out the excellence of every work undertaken by him. As a young lawyer appearing in a criminal appeal, with his keen knowledge of Mathematics he applied the laws of Hydrodynamics to successfully disprove the prosecution case against his client and secure his acquittal. As a judge he learnt and mastered a language- Arabic, read the original texts and delivered judgement. The usual practice was for newly appointed judges to be put on the Division Bench with Sir Asutosh presiding. He was a trainer of judges- 'used as the break horse with each new judicial colt being harnessed to him.'

    A peaceful and orderly society is what all look for. Peace is the fruit of justice and it is justice which cements the fabric of a secure society. The concept of justice is concerned with the adjustment of human relations. It is however not in any ideal sense. Justice is administered according to law. Law is the means of ordering the lives of the people and the relation between man and man and man and the State. “Civilization involves the subjection of force to reason and the agency of such subjection is the law,” said Roscoe Pound. Law is perhaps the greatest integrating force in a pluralist society like ours. The hallmark of a society claiming to be civilized may be said to be its ability to do justice. A State is successful when the people have the assurance that they are living in a just society under the protection of law and an adequate legal system. The judiciary and the legal system contribute to the existence of a just society and to the civility of the nation, the civilising function of the judge being the removal of a sense of injustice. Here comes the role of the judges and the lawyers.

    Edmund Burke said that the law sharpens the mind by narrowing it; but in a few of our great judges law has lifted the mind to a level of comprehension and kindled a degree of humane ardour unsurpassed in any other profession. The individual contribution of judges is absorbed in the anonymity of the coral reef by which the judicial process shapes the law. In the course of a century the acclaim of a bare handful survives. Sir Asutosh belongs to that select class. He is rightly regarded as one of our most celebrated judges. To generations who have passed their lives in the law his is truly clarum et venerabile nomen.

    He brought to bear on his work as a judge his inexhaustible energy, devotion, learning and that highest kind of integrity – the integrity of scholarship. As a judge he had an open mind till the end. He used to repeat that a member of the Bench ceased to be a judge if he were opinionated and did not keep an open mind till the end; when it is claimed by one that he knows everything it only shows his ignorance; it is never too late to be a student and that is no disparagement even for a judge. As with all truly learned and great men he said that after more than three decades of diligent study of law he had a more profound and abiding sense of ignorance than what oppressed him at the beginning of his career. He approached every matter and decided every case with utmost thoroughness and perspicacity. His scholarly judgements are monuments of perseverance and skill. He said that a judge should be considerate to the Bar and more specially help the inexperienced juniors, just as the Bar should be respectful, pleasant and firm to the Bench. Sir Asutosh also possessed utmost judicial integrity which is something much more than integrity in common parlance. Judicial integrity is essentially a passion for justice informed by a deep and abiding morality. It is the courage of conviction and the willingness to reach the result that a judge's understanding of the law tells him is right and not that which is most popular.

    Asutosh Mookerjee believed and maintained that in order to formulate new principles of law one must so equip oneself as to be able to make a comprehensive survey of the great historic prospect which stretches out from the Roman times to its recent developments in all well-ordered polities. Such knowledge can never be fruitless, for it has been well said that law is but the product of human life, the expression of the human mind, the declaration of the social will for the satisfaction of human needs. He cultivated a thorough knowledge of almost every system of law. His quest for principles took him far afield to the decisions of American Courts, not merely the Supreme Court of the United States, but also of the State Courts, and to the decisions of the highest courts of the Colonies.

    It is said that there are two things which a judge has mainly to do-to make the law wisely, “to fashion each stone he adds to fit the architecture of the vast fabric reared by the wisdom of past centuries” and also administer the law wisely. This ideal was always before Sir Asutosh. What the Advocate General said on Justice Mookerjee's retirement: “No junior felt embarrassed in your court where good law was well administered. In the maze and labyrinth of adjudged cases you ever walked with a firm step holding aloft the torch of justice” represents perhaps the best and the most ideal in a judge. Asutosh Mookerjee was that.

    A judge, said Justice Cardozo, must think of himself as an artist who although he must know the handbooks should never trust to them for his guidance; in the end he must rely upon his almost instinctive sense of where the line lay between the word and the purpose which lay behind it, he must somehow manage to be true to both. This ability is born out of wisdom- the gift of God. Justice Mookerjee had it in abundance. He shared the belief with Justice Holmes that “law like the life itself is not doing a sum, it is painting a picture.” The pictures he painted will be looked to and studied as long as the art of judging remains part of our heritage. He enriched legal thought and contributed to the development of law in such ample measure as is sufficient to confer immortality on any judge anywhere. Indeed, so qualified an appraiser like Justice Hidayatullah, places Sir Asutosh along with Justice Mahmood among the six most eminent judges that India has produced and says that his learning was vast, his knowledge deep and exact and his exposition of law complete.

    His palatial three storeyed house at 77, Russa Road, (now Asutosh Mookerjee Road) Bhowanipore, was known all over Calcutta as an abode of Goddess Saraswati. It was filled with books on all subjects, some of them not available anywhere else. His was perhaps the largest private library in India consisting of about one lakh books on every subject. Every room and every corridor had shelves with books running from the floor to the roof. The main library was housed on the second floor. It is estimated that he purchased books worth Rs.5 lakh or more in those days.

    Sir Asutosh Mookerjee was an ardent student of American decisions and American legal literature. His collection of American law books and reports of the Supreme Court and State Courts had no compeer outside the USA. He had a collection of Canadian and Australian Reports as well. His judgements bear testimony to his knowledge of American precedents. Three of the lawyers – Dr Rashbehary Ghose (under whom the Judge himself had served his apprenticeship) Mr. Justice Lalmohan Das and Sastri Golap Chandra Sarkar also used to obtain through Sir Asutosh Mookerjee and study the American decisions.

    While on the Bench he gave an astoundingly large number of judgements. There are more than two thousand reported judgements and they cover every aspect of law. All of them are eminently readable and authoritatively lay down the legal position with precision, clarity and elegance. To refer to and quote them is to string pearls as Justice Frankfurter said of the judgements of Justice Holmes. Referring to his judgements Chief Justice Dawson Miller of the Patna High Court said that 'the name of Sir Asutosh Mookerjee was a household word throughout the High Courts of India, his judgements were invariably lucid and a masterful exposition of law on every subject with which they dealt, they had only to be quoted to command universal respect'. To him law was essentially a science of principles to be applied in the light of man's social evolution and required from men of law the highest kind of integrity –the integrity of scholarship which he displayed in full measure as a judge. Many of his judgements have been referred to with approval by the Privy Council and the Supreme Court. They bear the unmistakable impress of his personality and have contributed in no small measure in shaping the law.

    It is of interest and significance that even when he was concurring, Sir Asutosh generally wrote separate, comprehensive judgements adopting his own line of reasoning, referring to various relevant authorities and bringing to bear a fresh approach to the problem on hand. Equally interesting and significant is the fact that he is never known to have written a dissenting judgement. Perhaps the other judges always agreed with him.

    In the 100th issue of the Law Quarterly Review in January 1985, its then editor P.V. Baker referred to Lord Denning's many, many judgements for about 38 years as the abundant raw material for the Law Quarterly Review. Justice Mookerjee's more than 2000 judgements provide us ample raw material for study and research, to enlighten and help the development of law. Through a study of these judgements we also endeavour to understand and appreciate the man and the judge and his judicial philosophy.

    Sir Asutosh's eminence as a jurist was due to his great erudition and broad outlook. He did not belong to the class of lawyers who scored their triumphs by readiness in retort, resourcefulness, cleverness in cross examining or eloquence. He was a lawyer's lawyer and a judge's judge-every inch a jurist. As a jurist Asutosh was greatly influenced by the historical school in England led by Sir Henry Maine, who in turn was influenced by both the German Historical School of Savigny and by the Darwinian theory of evolution. This influence led him to apply to jurisprudence the historical and comparative methods. It was his belief that law and legal institutions must be studied historically for a proper understanding, that law is never static but evolves and assumes new forms with changes in society. He taught lawyers to look at the Indian law in its relation to other systems of law especially English law. He said that history involves comparison.

    While he was aware of the significance of the past, he was conscious of the fact that law was made for man and not man for law. He has therefore been described as a historical and sociological jurist. He believed with Dean Roscoe Pound that law must be stable and yet it cannot stand still. His celebrated statement: 'Law is coeval with society and society cannot co-exist without law. Law had its origin in the remote antiquity... It has adapted itself notwithstanding all the imperfections of its mode of development through ages, to all the wonderful complications of modern life', brings out his concept of law and its significance. He was aware that there was no escape for the law from the struggles of life and that the course of law has to run parallel to the course of life. His approach to law and his judgements show his earnest desire to adapt the law to the needs of the society. Like all great men, he was ahead of his times in his juristic conceptions as also in other matters and problems facing society. It has been rightly said that being in the field of law meant to him being in a profession that is indispensable for the well being of our social life.

    'The jurist even as a spokesman for the court cannot escape from being himself', as Hamilton said in A Jurist's Art. This is very true of Sir Asutosh also. In law, even when rules are compelling and cases fall upon one another in dull monotony, the manner and the personality of a judge appear in the interstices of his opinions and Asutosh was ever himself among his various brother judges, the distinctive style of his opinions always standing out. One cannot but notice with awe and reverence the glowing peaks in his judgements. His judgements bear the impress of a distinguished jurist evolving doctrines of law suited to the peculiar need and environment of India on the basis of theories of English Common Law and statutes. He would enunciate a principle and reason upon it closely and logically. His power of reasoning made it possible to distinguish with ease between different principles and to define the respective spheres of their application. “Nothing is omitted which he feels may be necessary in order to convince the suitors and the Bar of the correctness of his decision.” His judgements are a repository of all cases that might possibly have a bearing on the question at issue. To assess his juristic acumen one must consider his judgements in this light. He was not a mere analytical jurist. His greatness lay in his delineation of the subject matter of the lis from a historical and sociological perspective.

    He looked upon the rule of precedents as the greatest safeguard of the rule of law and the most effective check on judicial arbitrariness and uncertainty of law. He cited the laws and case laws of different lands out of a 'universal sense of justice which urges that all men are properly to be treated alike in the like circumstances', as Llewellyn put it. Citation with him, it has been rightly said, was not born of an infantile complex of seeking a juridical father. He did not rely on precedents out of laziness to rework a problem once solved or as a time and energy saving device. Rather he was happy to note that the principle or idea which had struck him had already inhabited other minds and he always acknowledged his 'sources'. He quoted foreign precedents, as he himself said, merely to indicate that his conclusions were based upon substantial grounds of convenience and justice and not upon any artificial or technical reasons peculiar to any particular system of jurisprudence and more for the reason of illustrating the position that the conclusions which he reached were consonant with the principles adopted independently in other systems of jurisprudence. He thought that it was only prejudice and a spirit of conservatism, a blindness to the developing social needs and relations, which could shut out the use of that fruitful source of general principles.

    But he was no slave of precedents and never hesitated to depart from them whenever warranted. He paid attention not so much to the actual decision of a given case as to the principle underlying the decision. As he said quoting Lord Mansfield, 'the reason and spirit of cases make law, not the letter of particular precedents'. He is compared with Sir George Jessel, M.R. who was always careful to examine cases cited before him to see whether they have been virtually overruled, although judges have not said so explicitly. He also demonstrated the truth of the old saying “no precedents can justify an absurdity.”

    Sir Asutosh excelled both as a civil judge and a criminal judge. Though he did not have a wide practice as a lawyer on the criminal side he gradually blossomed as one of the distinguished criminal judges. His judgements on the criminal side were no doubt lesser in number but they are known for their astonishing vitality and demonstrate his vast erudition, his dauntless courage in upholding the law, his concern for individual liberty, his dignified judicial restraint, his keen juristic outlook. He had the antennae, indispensable for great judges, that registered feeling and judgement beyond quantitative proof and mathematical logic.

    During his tenure as a judge Bengal was seethed in revolutionary movement. The Calcutta High Court stood as a bastion against executive high-handedness and to protect personal liberty and Sir Asutosh's role in this was no mean one. He insisted on strict compliance with procedural requirements, thereby reminding us of the truth of Justice Frankfurter's statement many years later that the history of liberty is the history of observance of procedural safeguards. He had a brave heart and that was the secret of his independence. Fearlessness is a sine qua non for the growth of the other noble qualities, wrote Mahatma Gandhi in Young India. Walter Scott echoed the same sentiment when he said that without courage there can be no other virtue. It is the first requisite of a judge, for fearlessness alone can maintain the rule of law. He also showed as a judge that the ultimate guarantee of personal liberty is the personality of the judge and that liberty is safe not in the hands of the ignorant even with the best of intentions but with judges of adequate knowledge.

    He took a very noble view of the legal profession and of the lawyers' role in society. The growth of his mind as a jurist is a very illuminating chapter of his life. In his famous address on the study of law at the Benares Hindu University he said quoting the renowned American jurist Joseph Story, “Lucubrations of twenty years will do little more than conduct us to the vestibule of the temple; and an equal period may well be devoted to exploring the recesses.” He wanted the votaries to be conducted down the historic path of social and legal evolution. “The labyrinth” as he advised students, “was to be penetrated by skill and mastered by a frequent survey of landmarks.” He reminded us that the study of law makes men acute, inquisitive, dextrous, prompt in attack, ready in defence and full of resources.

    Among learned men of law he was more learned and he knew that those amongst whom he worked respected such knowledge. The atmosphere in the High Court those days was conducive to judicial learning. It has been said 'few men have written so faultlessly in a language not their mother tongue.' Judgements of some eminent judges not only decide the case on hand but expound the science of the law and philosophy and are also literary gems. You have a beautiful fusion of law, philosophy and literature. In his judicial pronouncements Sir Asutosh recognized the importance of the sense of legal history in ensuring that judicially declared principles advanced the interest of the society at large, though uttered in the context of individual cases. That is the relevance of the common law tradition of which he was a great exemplar.

    Law knows of no finer hour than when it cuts through formal concepts and transitory emotions to come to the rescue of the oppressed. Justice Mookerjee always believed and said that procedure is the handmaiden of justice and if there was no procedure for something which the justice of the cause warranted or required, he would devise some procedure and render justice. His great passion was to do real justice. In that endeavour he moulded procedure and brushed aside the conservatism which fails to conserve and which nurtures the form at the expense of the substance. We hear echoes of this in his judgements. His impact and enduring imprint on the legal system and the judiciary is indeed remarkable. We see him as a creative jurist and a master craftsman.

    He lived a rich life packed with intense activity covering a wide range. Perhaps no other judge in India had such varied interests making such enormous demands on his time. Seldom has so much been packed in one human life and it was so very distinguished, inspiring and ennobling. He said that it behoves the great to be ever active. It is impossible to estimate the magnitude of the magnificence of his personality and contribution and do justice to the content of so manifold a nature and so full a life.

    The greatest work of Sir Asutosh, it is truly believed, was in the sphere of university education. The transformation of the Calcutta University from a mere examining body to one of the greatest teaching universities in the East with Masters courses and research in different subjects was his lasting achievement. Having been appointed to the Senate in 1889 when he was 25, he was associated with the University for the remaining 35 years of his life. The history of the Calcutta University is more than half his biography. His broad statesmanship, his remarkable power of organisation, his versatility, his love for national culture, his courage and tact all came into full play in his work in the University. While the University produced many a distinguished son, none was so passionately devoted to her as he was. His Convocation Addresses delivered year after year, made one to feel the throb of his passion for reform and service.

    It was Jefferson who said, “If you expect a nation to be ignorant and free you expect what never was and never will be.” That is the importance of education. Education is the neatest agent of change and advancement and also essential for cherishing and protecting freedom. But education is not simply literacy, not just the imparting of the three R s. It is the transmission of vitality and enthusiasm as Dr. Radhakrishnan put it. Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man, said Swami Vivekananda. To enable one to act justly, promptly and magnanimously is the Miltonic aim of education. Education has been said to be the technique of transmitting civilization which is an act of the spirit. In order to transmit civilization education has to enlighten the understanding and enrich the character. Sir Asutosh said that it was elementary that the formation of character is of infinitely higher consequence than the absorption of knowledge. Education must arouse intellectual curiosity and confer the capacity to think clearly.

    The Earl of Oxford and Asquith in a Rectorial Address to the students of the University of Aberdeen uttered some pregnant and eloquent words, “Keep always with you, wherever your course may lie, the best and most enduring gift that a University can bestow- the company of great thoughts, the inspiration of great ideals, the example of great achievements, the consolation of great failures- so equipped you can face without perturbation the buffets of circumstance, the caprice of fortune, all the inscrutable vicissitudes of life.” Perhaps no better conception of University could be thought of. In short the purpose of education is to make a better and fuller human being. Asutosh Mookerjee in his 35 years of association with Calcutta University earnestly endeavoured to achieve this. His efforts in establishing modern education in Bengal and making it accessible to a larger section of the populace were colossal.

    The University Act of 1904, which sought to tighten British Government control over University administration was vehemently opposed. It was at this time of political upheaval and lack of credibility in the Government regarding University administration that Asutosh Mookerjee was invited to be the Vice Chancellor. The rest is history. Asutosh Mookerjee was most competent but fiercely independent. “We stand unreservedly by the doctrine that if education is to be our policy as a nation, it must not be our politics; freedom is its very life blood, the condition of its growth, the secret of its success----there stands forth unshaken the conviction that our insistent claim for the freedom of the University is a fight for the most sacred and impalpable of national privileges.” He was greatly impressed by the model of German Universities- how their admirable combination of teaching and original investigation exalts and ennobles teaching and enormously stimulates and facilitates research and their unbounded intellectual curiosity to facilitate instruction in all branches of human knowledge. He was indeed a leader and builder of institutions.

    Asutosh Mookerjee became the Vice Chancellor of the Calcutta University in 1906 and held that office till 1914 and thereafter intermittently till 1923 when he declined further extension as he felt there were attempts to curb the autonomy of the University. Like Jefferson, the former U.S. President even more well-known as the Founder of the University of Virginia, Asutosh showed a passion for higher education. “Nothing is dearer to me than my University,” he said. He converted the Calcutta University into an academy for teaching and research, untrammelled by official control and interference. Realizing that development of a national language was necessary to arouse national fervour and create appreciation for national culture, he introduced Bengali as a subject in the Calcutta University. He introduced other Indian vernaculars too as subjects of study in the University. He had the intuitive gift of spotting men of unusual ability and that enabled him to usher in the Golden Age of the Calcutta University. It was Sir Asutosh who induced Sir C. V. Raman, Noble Laureate, who was then Assistant Accountant General to take up Palit Chair of Physics in the University, and it was again he who made the choice of Dr. Radhakrishnan for the Philosophy Department of the University. He had also recognised the genius in Srinivasa Ramanujam. He was also responsible for the Calcutta University getting munificent donations particularly from Rash Behary Ghose and Tarak Nath Palit and, of course, the Maharaja of Darbhanga. In the words of Lord Lytton, “What the University is today is the result of Sir Asutosh's work. For many years, Sir Asutosh was in fact the University and the University Sir Asutosh.”

    It was again Sir Asutosh who was responsible for establishing the University Law College in Calcutta. Earlier law was taught in different colleges in the Province. It was in 1908-1909 that a separate college for the study of law alone was started. The first Principal of the Law College was S.C. Bagchi. Among the earlier teachers mention may be made of Gopal Chandra Sarkar Sastry, eminent writer on Hindu Law, Asutosh Mookerjee himself, Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, Bijan Kumar Mukherjea and Sudhi Ranjan Das, both later Chief Justices of India.

    Sir Asutosh was of the view that a strong, independent and competent Bar was essential for a strong and independent Bench. With a view to improve legal training he introduced in 1909 reforms in the University. He insisted on holding Moot Courts. He himself would be presiding over such Moot Courts on Saturdays and Sundays. For a proper and systematic study of the different subjects detailed Synopses of the entire syllabus were prepared and distributed free to the students. He also delivered special lectures to the law students on various subjects. Some of those who had the benefit of his direct training ultimately rose to the top of the profession and a few became distinguished judges and jurists.

    His Convocation Address on 28th March 1914, at the end of his first stint as the Vice-Chancellor, drew the following editorial comment from The Statesman which was owned and run by the British: “We do not remember to have ever read such a lofty convocation speech from the Vice-Chancellor of any University in India or elsewhere. It throws a flood of light into the inner recesses of Sir Asutosh's unique character and genius.” In his opinion, the most essential feature of University life is absolute academic freedom. For him education was religion and freedom was the very breath of its existence. His last Convocation Address on 24th March 1923 was again soul-stirring. In his Convocation Address to the Mysore University in 1918, he warned that we should not simply be absorbed in contemplation of the glorious past, that we should not waste precious time and strength defending theories and systems which however valuable in their own days had been swept away by the irresistible avalanche of worldwide changes.

    A versatile genius, he was for many years an enthusiastic member of the Asiatic Society which was set up in 1781 and was its Vice President and President. His numerous addresses to that body exemplify the catholicity of his interests and the wide range of his learning. His contributions enriched the Society's journal. He pleaded for an awareness of our historical and cultural heritage. One of the earliest research scholars in India who contributed original papers even to international journals, he did not give up his scientific studies when he joined the Bar or went to the Bench. He was the President of the Calcutta Mathematical Society which he founded in 1908 and guided its activities until his end. His connection with the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science was profound. He presided over many of its sessions. He was the Founder President of the Indian Science Congress in 1914. He was Chairman of Board of Trustees of the Indian Museum. He was also Chairman of the Council of Imperial (now National) Library and of the Sanskrit Association. He was a friend of the Sanskrit Pandits and of their ancient learning and was anxious to revive its intellectual glory. He was equally keenly interested in Bengali and spoke of the glorious future of Bengali literature. He was the President of the Mahabodhi Society also.

    He was an unfailing and appreciative patron to scholars and a loving and sympathetic mentor to students. He always radiated humane understanding and cultural warmth. Although his activities lay outside the field of politics, he was deeply patriotic. Writing of Asutosh in Nature, Professor Cullins remarked that “every earnest, intellectual worker, however humble or however eminent, would find in him a wise understanding friend, and could talk to him as to a co-worker and an equal. Specialists in the most diverse literary and scientific subjects would find him familiar with the latest relevant literature. To every band of men engaged in the quest after truth and light, his help and encouragement were greatly and unselfishly given, and in learned societies and gatherings he was a dominant figure, giving appreciation where it was due and advice where it was needed”.

    Although a staunch votary of enlightened liberal values and an ardent social reformer he did not forsake Hindu traditions and his advice to the students used to be not to denationalize themselves in their just admiration for all that was best in the culture of the West. When his eldest daughter was widowed at a young age, he performed her second marriage in defiance of all orthodox opposition. This was an example of his orthodoxy not being incompatible with modernism. His orthodoxy was perhaps a part of his nationalism. Outside court hours he could be seen in familiar Indian- Bengali costume. He would receive his European visitors also in that characteristic homely Indian style and he proudly said that he did not feel ashamed to expose his sacred thread to the gaze of foreigners. His orthodoxy was an expression of his respect for the past and was perhaps due to his profound historical sense. But he was never rigid. In his social outlook he resembled Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar whom he must have regarded as his exemplar. He was conservative to preserve what is good and liberal to make necessary changes. About him it has been said that he was a wonderful epitome of the combination of Indian and European cultures.

    Possessed of a heavy physique and formidable whiskers and built on heroic mould, he earned a name for himself for his fearless fight against all wrongs and came to be known as 'Bengal Tiger'. This fearlessness was a natural concomitant of his independence of character and the spirit of freedom which often brought him into conflict with the highest dignitaries of the British Government in India. “Freedom first, freedom second, freedom always” was his guiding principle of life. He personified the courage never to submit or to yield. Indeed he exemplified in his life what the poet said: From compromise and things half done/Keep me with stern and stubborn pride/And when at last the fight is won/God, keep me still unsatisfied.

    Sir Asutosh retired from the Court at the end of 1923. He suddenly took ill and passed away on May 25, 1924. He had not completed 60. His life and work was thus unhappily cut short at its zenith. But the light of his genius will continue to illumine the path for generations to come. The legal community, the world of education and humankind at large were diminished by his demise. Nature which had bestowed so many blessings and gifts on him failed to clothe his mortal frame with physical immortality. In his sudden passing people were unkindly reminded of the close proximity of Death to Life, a life so vigorous and lively.

    The secret of Sir Asutosh's power, more than anything else, it is believed, is Synthesis – a word which he and his colleagues used very often in their monumental report on the Calcutta University. It is a happy synthesis between the East and the West, between idealism and pragmatism, between nationalism and universalism, between self assertion and self abnegation- that explains the greatness of the man and the strength of his unique character. This was Renaissance at it best of which Asutosh Mookerjee was both a product and a builder and promoter. Indeed, synthesis and accommodation have been the hallmarks of Indian ethos which was eloquently expressed by Dr. Radhakrishnan, “Why look at things in terms of this or that? Why not try to have both this and that?” He aimed at excellence in all that he did and exemplified in his life the great Chandogya Upanishadic verse: yadeva vidyaya karoti, shradhaya, upanishada, tadeva viryavattaram bhavati – whatever is done with vidya (knowledge), shradha (faith, conviction, dedication – the totality of positive attitudes) and upanishad (deep thinking- contemplation) becomes supremely efficient.

    How would history view Asutosh's work and character? It is best to refer to what his distinguished Syama Prasad Mookerjee wrote:

    He dominated the minds of his countrymen and shaped their affairs in far too many departments- all with the same sheer plenitude of masterful control- for us now to predict that here only is his title to abiding renown. In daring, in determination, in massiveness of intellect, in strength of character, Asutosh belongs to that brotherhood of adventurers who in ages past had founded states and kingdoms. He belonged to the race of heroes of action, the true karmaveers of ancient Indian conception...In boldness of conception, in fertility of resources, in resoluteness of purpose which grows stronger after each defeat, in courage of heart and deftness of hand, which seeks to dare all and do all, Asutosh was almost without a peer. To him man was the creator and not the creature of circumstances; and he always impressed others as a supreme architect, a builder-up of the destinies of our society and nation.

    In him was a dual personality acting in perfect harmony - the man of action and the man of imagination. He was a great powerhouse of ceaseless practical energy as also a superb dreamer of dreams. But he was far from conjuring up shimmering utopias of fancy. It cannot be said of him 'a beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain'. He had, as Tagore said, 'the courage to dream because he had the power to fight and the confidence to win'. This imaginative and speculative quality formed the guiding principle of all his practical schemes. Another supreme trait of his mind which rendered possible the crowded magnitude and extensiveness of his achievements was his boundless, robust optimism. It was not the happy-go-lucky, carefree optimism; he had that hope and that faith in the future which could move mountains. In the wildest of storms his sheet-anchor could hold. Dr. Radhakrishnan particularly struck by the significance of his innovations said “Genius anticipates experience”.

    He was two generations ahead of his times with his forward-looking mind and far-seeing spirit. He sought to infuse into the lifeless torpor of his countrymen the sanguine elixir of which he had himself drunk. He shared the religion of Swami Vivekananda -Glory to God in the Highest and Service to Man. Life piled upon life were all too little for the service of his country. But he was taken away rather early at the height of his powers and glory. And we are but left with an unfulfilled dream of what might have been.

    Some of his thoughts and utterances bear repetition and are equally relevant even now. “Remember that it is not enough to be a good man and to achieve success in life. There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world; it is to stoop down and lift mankind higher. There is a nobler character than that which is merely incorruptible; it is the character which acts as an antidote and is preventive of corruption…. Be not content merely to avoid evil and the forces of corruption. Society requires not passive resisters but active helpers. It lies in you to illuminate the perfection of an unselfish culture with the light of devotion to humanity.”

    His life's work is best described in his own words. “The felling of trees, the digging out of stubborn roots and stones, the draining of marshy soil, the clearing of obstructive weeds and finally the toils of ploughing and sowing: Now, at last, the fruits of all this labour begin to show themselves...the cultivator has done his best.” What he once said- 'Great comfort springs from the consciousness of rectitude of purpose, from the conviction that the cause to which one devotes all his strength and for which one renounces the ordinary delights of life, is a high and sacred one', brings out his personality and attitude to life.

    Sir Asutosh's personality was the sum total of all his achievements and more. As Radha Binod Pal said, “Nothing in Sir Asutosh could absorb the whole man, nothing human was alien to him, truly a Renaissance character. One most fruitful aspect of Sir Asutosh's life illustrates Bagehot's emphasis on the importance of influence-wise and honourable persuasiveness- exerted from outside upon those wielding power, he had the gift of conveying his personality on paper, thereby vastly extending the range and depth of his influence and his resourcefulness and will could fuse many discordant notes to make possible many impossible things.” He added that none could avoid the consciousness of that piercingly searching attention of the Bengal Royal Tiger's exceptionally shining eyes.

    He can be said to have belonged not merely to his generation, but to a line, which reflecting the genius of the human race, has moved with unbroken continuity through the centuries. The three great driving forces of civilization- science, law and education found a remarkable meeting point in Sir Asutosh. He was thus the very spirit and embodiment of the Renaissance and his contribution was substantial and significant. He received no material reward but had the immense satisfaction of his own sense of duty well done and winning the lasting love and gratitude of his fellowmen in abundant measure.

    Sir Asutosh was indeed a multi-faceted and many splendoured gem. He touched life at many points and left his indelible impress on men and matters. It is 100 years that he is no longer with us, but his trail remains unblazed. It will be so. We may try to emulate him but we must fail because Sir Asutosh was an artiste and it can be said of him as was said of Beethoven: He traversed all, he comprehended everything. He who follows him cannot continue, he must begin anew, for his predecessor ended only where art ends. But his life and work are as relevant today as ever. They will continue to inspire and ennoble us. We treasure his memory and cherish his ideals and aspirations. He was a genius and “in all true genius there is a touch of art and art is immortal.” He was truly a rare pilgrim of eternity who scaled high peaks of excellence.

    Age shall not weary him, nor the years condemn.

    At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember him.

    Author is a Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India

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