Remembering Freedom Fighters – ‘Deshabandhu’ Chittaranjan Das

via V.N. Gopalakrishnan published on June 27, 2011

Chittaranjan Das popularly called ‘Deshabandhu’ (friend of the nation) was a major figure in the Indian independence movement.  Educated in England, his public career began in 1909. As a lawyer, he successfully defended Aurobindo Ghose in the Alipore bomb case. He was a leading figure in Bengal during the Non-Cooperation Movement, and initiated the ban on British clothes setting an example by burning his own European clothes and wearing Khadi. He also advocated Hindu-Muslim unity.

Chittaranjan Das was a believer of non-violence and constitutional methods for attaining independence. A champion of national education and the vernacular medium, he felt that the masses should be properly educated to participate in the nationalist movement. He believed that the prevalent western system of education would only promote “a kind of soulless culture”. He was against caste-discrimination and untouchability. He laid emphasis on women liberation and widow re-marriage. He also put the idea of reconstructing villages through the incorporation of local self-government and co-operative credit society systems.

Chittaranjan was born in an upper middle class Vaidya family of Telirbagh in Bikrampur, Dacca (now in Bangladesh) on November 5, 1870. His father, Bhuban Mohan Das was a reputed solicitor of the Calcutta High Court and a keen member of the Brahmo Samaj. After receiving his early education at the London Missionary Society’s Institution at Bhowanipore, Calcutta, Chittaranjan Das passed the entrance examination in 1885 as a private candidate and graduated from the Presidency College in 1890. While at the College, he took active part in the Students’ Association and moved for permitting the use of Bengali in university examinations. During this time, he came in contact with Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghose and helped them in publishing Bande Mataram, an English weekly for propagating the ideals of Swaraj.

Later he proceeded to England to compete for the British-dominated Indian Civil service. After failing the competitive examination, he joined the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1894. He returned to India in the same year and enrolled as a Barrister of the Calcutta High Court. In 1908, he was called upon to appear on behalf of Aurobindo Ghose in the Alipore Bomb Case. Aurobindo Ghose was acquitted thanks to his brilliant handling of the case. He was also the defence counsel in the Dacca Conspiracy Case.

In 1917, he was invited to preside over the Bengal Provincial Conference held at Bhowanipore, Calcutta. At the Conference, he delivered his memorable presidential speech in Bengali and rose to national fame by virtue of his excellent qualities and oratorical skills. He played an important role in the controversy over the election of Mrs. Annie Besant as President of the Indian National Congress for its Calcutta Session.

In 1918, both at the Congress special session in Bombay and at the Annual Session in Delhi, Chittaranjan Das opposed the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms which sought to establish a dyarchy for India. The demand for Provincial Autonomy was propounded despite opposition from Mrs. Annie Besant and others. As a member of the non-official Jalianwala Baug Enquiry Committee, he went to Punjab in 1919. At the Amritsar Congress, he opposed the idea of co-operation with the Government in the implementation of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms.

Chittaranjan Das supported the Non-cooperation Movement by Gandhiji. He took a leading part in the boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1921. The government declared the boycott as illegal. Chittaranjan Das decided to defy the arbitrary order and was arrested with his wife and son and sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment. After his release in 1922, he was elected President for the Congress Session at Gaya. With the suspension of Gandhiji’s Non-cooperation Movement, he  advocated an obstructionist policy inside the legislative councils with a view to mending or ending the dyarchy. But the majority in the Congress rejected his proposal. Thereupon, he resigned as President and formed the Swarajya Party with Motilal Nehru, Srinivas Ayyangar, Ali brothers and others. The party was recognized as the parliamentary wing of the Congress. The Swarajya party gained remarkable success in Bengal and the Central Provinces and won majority seats in the legislative councils. In 1924 the Swarajists captured power in the Calcutta Corporation, and Chittaranjan Das became the first popularly elected mayor of Calcutta.

In 1914, he published Narayan, a literary magazine and composed several poems. His first collection of poetry titled Malancha received protest from the members of the Brahmo Samaj.  They even boycotted his marriage. His other works are Mala, Sagar Sangit, Kishore-Kishoree and Antaryami. Chittaranjan Das brought out a newspaper called Forward and later rechristened it as Liberty to fight the British Raj.

Chittaranjan Das realized that Hindu-Muslim unity was essential for the attainment of Swaraj. He wanted “Swaraj for the masses, not for the classes.” Hence in 1924, he formulated the Communal Pact to promote permanent peace between Hindus and Muslims. He also envisioned a pan-Asiatic federation of the oppressed nations and advocated India’s participation in it. For his devotion to the cause of self-rule, he got the title ‘Deshabandhu’ (friend of the nation).

In 1925, his health deteriorated and in May that year, he withdrew to a mountain home in Darjeeling, where Gandhiji visited him. On June 16, 1925, he passed away at the age of 55. The funeral procession in Calcutta was led by Gandhiji. His legacy was carried forward by his disciples like Subhash Chandra Bose. A few years before his death Das gifted his house and the adjoining lands to the Nation to be used for the betterment of women. Today it is a huge hospital called Chittaranjan Seva Sadan.

(Author is a freelance journalist and social activist. He can be contacted on [email protected]).

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