He was like a mountain peak that dazzles 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. We may as well say this of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, borrowing a tribute by Arthur Mee to that great Greek Philosopher, Socrates.
Events crowd in upon us and because of their quick succession we are apt to miss their significance. Sensational events that seem to happen almost daily make us tend to forget legendary personalities and historic events. It is in the fitness of things that we remember and pay tribute to Deshbandhu on his 150th birth anniversary. He was a jewel among lawyers and a prince among patriots.
C.R.Das hailed from a traditional, well known Baidya family of Bikrampur in Dacca, East Bengal. It was an illustrious family of lawyers. His grandfather, Kashishwar Das was a Public Prosecutor in the Court of Barisal. His father Bhuban Mohan Das was a well known Attorney at the Calcutta High Court; his mother Nistarini Devi was a lady of rare qualities. They were residing at Pataldanga Street in Bow Bazaar area of Central Calcutta. Among his cousins were Satya Ranjan Das, an eminent lawyer who delivered the Tagore Law Lecture on The Law of Ultra Vires in 1903 and Satish Ranjan Das who was Advocate General of Bengal and Law Member of the Viceroy's Executive Council. His younger brother Profulla Ranjan (P.R.) Das was one of our most acclaimed lawyers. Sudhi Ranjan Das, another cousin rose to be the Chief Justice of India.
Chittaranjan was born on 5th November 1870 at Calcutta as the eldest son of Bhuban Mohan Das. He had his schooling at London Missionary Society's Institution at Bhowanipore in Calcutta and graduated from Presidency College, Calcutta in 1890. He went to England to qualify for and enter the Indian Civil Service, but having failed therein decided to take up the Bar as his career. While in England, he met Dadabhai Naraoji and campaigned for him. Dadabhai won a seat in the House of Commons and became the first Asian to be in the British Parliament. C.R.Das was called to the Bar from the Inner Temple in 1892. Returning to India, he joined the Calcutta Bar in 1894.
He started criminal practice, both in the High Court and in the mofussil courts. He soon made his name as an able criminal lawyer. The secret of his success is said to have been that when he was engaged in a criminal case, good, bad or indifferent, he made up his mind to win it by making the case his own. He first made a mark in the profession as a defence counsel on behalf of Aurobindo Ghose, in the Alipur Bomb case. It was the first major case that he handled. It was a labour of love. C.R.Das was opposed by the redoubtable Eardley Norton on behalf of the Crown, but he displayed great ability in handling witnesses and Aurobindo was acquitted. C.R.Das who was two years older than Aurobindo knew him during their student days in England.
The trial of Sri Aurobindo, his brother Barindra Ghose and others accused interalia of conspiracy and waging war against the Crown took place in 1908. The trial was before Beachcroft, Additional Sessions Judge, Alipur. Byomkesh Chakrabarti one of the leaders of the Bar was briefed for the defence but he quit after a month. C.R.Das accepted the brief and fought doggedly in the Sessions Court and in the appeal in the High Court. He rose to the challenge and did the case admirably well.
His address to the Court in summing up his defence of Aurobindo was soul-stirring and has been etched in memory. He said:
"My appeal to you, therefore, is that a man like this who is being charged with the offence imputed to him stands not only before the bar in this Court but stands before the bar of the High Court of History and my appeal to you is this: That long after this controversy is hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, this agitation ceases, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone his words will be echoed and re-echoed not only in India, but across distant seas and lands. Therefore, I say that the man in his position is not only standing before the bar of this Court but before the bar of the High Court of History.
The time has come for you, Sir, to consider your judgment and for you, gentlemen (the assessors) to consider your verdict. I appeal to you, Sir, in the name of all the traditions of the English Bench that forms the most glorious chapter of English history. I appeal to you in the name of all that is noble, of all the thousand principles of law which have emanated from the English Bench and I appeal to you in the name of the distinguished Judges who have administered the law in such a manner as to compel not only obedience, but the respect of all those in whose cases they had administered the law. I appeal to you in the name of the glorious chapter of English history and let it not be said that an English Judge forgets to vindicate justice. To you gentlemen, I appeal in the name of the very ideal that Arabinda preached and in the name of all the traditions of our country; and let it not be said that two of his own countrymen were overcome by passions and prejudices and yielded to the clamour of the moment."
This has gone down in history as one of the most moving perorations, worthy of quotation and remembrance for all time and turned out to be truly prophetic.
The trial judge acquitted Aurobindo and some of the accused while holding the other accused including Barindra guilty and awarding capital punishment. The appeal came up before Chief Justice Lawrence Jenkins and Justice Carnduff. The leading counsel for the appellants included C.R.Das, R. C. Bonerjee and Jatindra Mohan Sengupta. All the accused were saved from the capital punishment- Barindra Kumar Ghose vs. Emperor ILR 37 Cal 467. Chief Justice Jenkins in his judgment paid a handsome tribute to C.R.Das for his handling of the case. He said ".........Though against several of the accused the convictions under Section 121A of the Indian Penal Code have been upheld; it is a satisfaction to feel that those accused have been represented before us by counsel and pleaders who have spared no effort or industry on their behalf, and have brought to our notice everything that could be legitimately argued for their client's advantage; and I desire in particular to place on record my high appreciation of the manner in which the case was presented to this Court by their leading Advocate Mr C.R.Das."
C.R.Das' fame spread far and wide. He was then entrusted with the Dumraon case which also he won. This brought him a fortune. In the Dacca Conspiracy case also in which he argued the appeal before Sir Lawrence Jenkins, his great ability was recognised. His reputation in criminal cases had reached such a high water mark that the Government of India retained him as the Crown counsel in the Munition case, offering him higher fees than to Mr. Gibbon, Advocate General of Bengal.
He was closely associated with Bipin Chandra Pal of the Lal-Bal-Pal fame and supported him and Aurobindo to publish the English weekly Bande Mataram. He entered politics and public life in 1917. At the height of his legal career, C.R.Das gave up his lucrative practice at the Bar, during the non-cooperation movement. He simply stormed the citadel of leadership. He was a prince among men. His sacrifice, his courage in word and deed and his towering personality enabled him to say "no" when the occasion demanded it. With stoic indifference to material comforts, he was unconcerned about personal privations and physical sufferings and sacrificed colossal professional income. He gifted all his properties including his house to the nation. This monumental sacrifice, which reduced him from affluence to poverty, raised him in the estimation of the people who were simply electrified. He was given the honorific 'Deshbandhu' – friend of the nation and came to be familiarly known as 'Deshbandhu Chittaranjan'.
He became the acknowledged and the most influential political leader of Bengal. His political career spanned less than a decade but it was stellar and sufficient enough to leave an indelible mark on our national life. His political disciples included Deshapriya Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, Sarat Chandra Bose and, of course, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose whose chosen political guru he was. Deshbandhu's influence on his followers was very profound. They were inspired by the example of his personal sacrifice in the service of the nation, his far-sighted politics and his razor sharp intellect. He had deep affection for them, indeed, it was unconditional love on both sides. Even in the august company of the remarkable people who were in the forefront of the freedom struggle, C.R.Das stood out for his utter selflessness which endeared him to his followers and the people at large. As he observed, "Life is larger than politics." Any political differences rightly did not affect personal relationships.
As Subhas Chandra Bose felt about him : "Here was a man who knew what he was about, who could give all that he had and who could demand from others all that they could give." C.R.Das became the master of Subhas' choice. In December 1921 Chittaranjan Das and his family courted arrest. Even outside the prison he had felt "the handcuffs on my wrists and the weight of iron on my body- the agony of bondage."
The committee appointed by the Congress to inquire into the Jalianwala Bagh incidents included Deshbandhu and Pandit Motilal Nehru. While C.R.Das yielded to none in his capacity for ardour and was for taking all necessary action in the national movement, he could at the same time appreciate the limitations of circumstance and adjust accordingly. He was not, therefore, averse to talks with the British Government for moving slowly towards Swaraj. He was of the view that Gandhiji had bungled and mismanaged in revoking the mass civil disobedience movement in the wake of the Chauri Chaura violence.
C.R.Das campaigned for the Congress to adopt the policy of entering the legislatures to paralyse them from within. Deshbandu presided over the Gaya session of the Congress in December 1922. His proposal for joining the legislatures was defeated by a huge majority. He, therefore, resigned and formed the Swarajya Party as an integral part of the Congress itself. In his memorable Presidential address C.R.Das paid tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. In 1923 he became the President of the Bengal Provincial Congress. The special session of the Congress at Delhi in 1923 permitted Congressmen to take part in the elections. This was a triumph for his view. He then founded an English daily Forward which was one of India's best in the line of journalism. C.R.Das took keen interest in the labour movement also. He presided over the Trade Union Congress in 1924 and coined a famous slogan 'Swaraj for the 98 percent.' He was also in touch with Sir Asutosh Mookerjee to discuss national affairs and the freedom movement.
Elections to the legislatures took place in early 1924 and the Swarajya Party emerged as a strong and brilliant minority in the Central Legislature and with sufficient strength in the Legislative Councils of Bengal and the Central Provinces. In the elections to the Municipal Corporation of Calcutta also the Swarajya Party contested and won a majority. C.R.Das persuaded himself to be the city's first elected Mayor. He thus had the triple Crown placed on his head. He was the President of the Bengal Provincial Congress, the first elected Mayor of Calcutta and the leader of Swarajya Party in the Council.
Apart from his scholarship and eminence in the legal world, he was well-versed in devotional literature and himself composed Bengali verses. He was thus a distinguished poet too. He had a strong spiritual background and a few months prior to the end of his mortal life, he said, 'a life best spent is a divine life of renunciation.' He had a Radha Krishna Deity which he worshipped and before his death gave it to the celebrated novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee who wished to take it from him.
Deshbandhu's wife Basanti Devi shared his ideas and ideals and denied herself many worldly pleasures and comforts to keep pace with her sage-like husband rendering it easy for him to live his life in the manner he wished and donate his time, attention and money for worthy causes. They were an ideal couple. They had three children- Aparna Devi whose son Siddhartha Shankar Ray became a Chief Minister of West Bengal, Chiraranjan Das and Kalyani Devi. Widowed at the young age of 45, Basanti Devi lived a long life, she was there during his birth centenary, departing in 1974 at the age of 94.
It is said that once Basanti Devi took their young grandchild - Siddhartha Shankar Ray to Mahatma Gandhi's prayer meeting seeking the Mahatma's blessings. The child had quite a bit of gold on him. After blessing and patting the boy, Gandhiji asked Basanti Devi to remove all the gold from the child and hand it over to him for the Harijan Welfare Fund and extracted a promise that the child would not be adorned with any gold.
Touching upon his multifaceted personality and his manifold interests and achievements, one may reflect: "Important though they may be, life is more than mere mastery of abstract principles of law and their application to facts of individual cases. Life, likewise, cannot be confined to mundane affairs of politics and other such public activities. Life also is not an essay in dialectics or prolonged intellectual exercise. If human life is not to suffer from incompleteness and imperfections, it has to seek satisfaction of those inner yearnings, deep and dormant, which manifest themselves in emotions and feelings, the craving in the human heart for things of beauty, of art, things which put us in tune with the still sad music of humanity and the melody born out of the pain and joy of life".
C.R.Das took ill in the summer of 1925 and went to Darjeeling where he stayed in N.N.Sircar's house Step Aside for rest and recuperation. He was improving but developed a high fever from which he did not recover. He answered the final summons of his Maker suddenly in the evening of 16 June, 1925 at a relatively young age of 55, after a meteoric career, both at the Bar and in public life. The whole of India and especially Bengal were under a pall of sorrow and gloom. The funeral at Calcutta witnessed a sea of humanity. The procession was led by Mahatma Gandhi who said that Deshbandhu was one of the greatest of men, he dreamed and talked of freedom of India and nothing else and looked upon all Indians as his brethren without any differences based on religion and the like. Eloquent tributes to his memory were paid by the Bench and the Bar. Chief Justice, Sir Lancelot Sanderson said— "My learned brothers and I recognize that the profession has lost one of its most respected leaders and we join with you in expressing our great regret at his very untimely death." Such was the measure of the man who was described by Lord Birkenhead as a "vivid, arresting and dynamic personality."
We reach a point when as we perceive greatness we are left with a feeling: that of which we cannot speak intelligibly is something about which we are bound to keep silence. But it is the silence of reverence and worship, not of ignorance. It is in this spirit that we have to approach and endeavour to understand and appreciate the all time greats like Deshbandhu.
If our heritage is not to perish and our society is to endure, we need men like C.R.Das, men of vestal unapproachability and we need to remember and honour them. As Will Durant said, "Just as continuity of memory is necessary for the sanity of an individual, continuity of the nation's traditions and culture is necessary for the sanity of the nation."
Many noble and patriotic hands have laboured at the erection of the edifice of free India; Chittaranjan Das' contribution to this great endeavour was indeed momentous and inspiring. His greatness was defined not by wealth or by power but by selfless service and sacrifice at the altar of Mother India. He 'watched while others slept and saw the stars which do not see the sun'. He has written himself into the slender volume of our national history and literature of all time. The glory that was the man now belongs to the ages. His life is an inspiration, his memory a benediction. His life and work will continue to inspire and ennoble us. We salute his memory and record our gratitude for such an exemplary life. On his sesquicentennial birth anniversary, we can have no better wish for the country than that the great spirit of this pilgrim of eternity may always abide with us.
Views are personal.