Patriots >Extremist Leaders > Das,Chittaranjan (Deshabandhu)
Das,Chittaranjan (Deshabandhu) (1870-1925)

Chitta Ranjan Das, whose life is a landmark in the history of India’s struggle for freedom, was endearingly called ‘Deshabandhu’ (Friend of the country). Born on 5 November 1870 in Calcutta, he belonged to an upper middle class Vaidya family of Telirbagh, Vikrampur, in the Dacca district. His father, Bhuban Mohan Das, was a reputed Solicitor of the Calcutta High Court. An ardent member of the Brahmo Samaj, he was also well-known for his intellectual and journalistic pursuits. For his generous disposition and extravagant habits, he became an adjudicated insolvent towards the end of his career (d. 1914). Chitta Ranjan’s patriotic ideas were greatly influenced by his father’s.

Chitta Ranjan was the second child and eldest son of his parents. His youngest brother was P. R. Das, a Judge of the Patna High Court. In 1897 Chitta Ranjan married Basanti Devi, daughter of Barada Nath Haldar, Dewan of Bijni Estate in Assam. After receiving his early education at the London Missionary Society’s Institution at Bhowanipore (Calcutta), Chitta Ranjan passed the Entrance examination in 1885 as a private candidate. He graduated from the Presidency College in 1890. He then went to England to compete for the I. C. S.; but he was “the last man out” in his year. Therefore he joined the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1894.

In his intellectual pursuits Chitta Ranjan was fond of Sheeley, Browing and Keats in particular, and in general of European literature including plays. He was deeply interested in Religion and Philosophy: he studied Brahmo religious books as also Vaishnav literature; the teaching of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and the ideas of Swami Vivekananda impressed him too. He was conversant with the writing of Bankim Chandra, D. L. Roy, Girish Ghosh and Tagore. In later life, while in prison, he used to read books on political philosophy, It was Bankim Chandra who partly influenced him in his political ideas. Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya also influenced him, making his nationalism dynamic and kinetic.

While in England during 1890-94, he gave electioneering speeches on behalf of Dadabhai Naoroji, besides an address at a protest meeting, presided over by Gladstone, in connection with offensive anti-Indian remarks made by John Maclean. In 1894 Das came back to Indian and enrolled himself as a Barrister of the Calcutta High Court. But he did not get the backing badly needed to make a good start in the profession.

The Calcutta Bar was then crowed with great personalities like Griffith Evans, T. Palit, Monmohan Ghosh, W.C. Bonnerjee and T. A. Apcar. His anxiety to remove the stain of insolvency on his father’s name made his mark as a criminal lawyer. It however took some time to render his financial position satisfactory. Like his father, Chitta Ranjan had also to take shelter of the Insolvency Court.

In 1907 he appeared as the defence lawyer of Bramabhandhav Upadhyaya and Bhupendranath Dutta who were prosecuted for general admiration, though he did not succeed in baffling the prosecution. The turning-point in his career came when he was called upon to appear on behalf of Aurodondo Ghose in the Alipore Bomb Case (1908). It was due to his brilliant handling of the case that Aurobindo was ultimately acquitted.

In his eloquent advocacy in this case he concluded: “ . . . a man like this who is being charged … stands not only before the bar in this court but also stands before the bar of the High Court of History …he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity…his words will be echoed and re-echoed not only in India, but across distant seas and lands…”. Success in this case brought Das to the forefront of professional and political platform.

Chitta Ranjan was the defence counsel in the Dacca Conspiracy Case (1910-11). He was an adept in civil law as much as in criminal law. His success in the Dumraon Raj Adoption Case bears testimony to his emience as a civil lawyer. Within a very short period he built up a fabulously lucrative a practice. In 1920 his professional monthly income rose to Rs. 50,000. In 1913, when Chitta Ranjan rose almost to the top of his profession, he took the rather unusual procedure of paying his as also his father’s time-barred joint debts for which they had gone to the Insolvency Court. This act, prompted by his high moral sense, made a profound impression on his countrymen.

Early in life Chitta Ranjan gave vent to his intense patriotic feelings as a student of the Presidency College and also while away in England during 1890-94. In 1901 he financially contributed to support the agitation in South Africa. He was associated with the revolutionary organisation, the Anusilan Samity. During the Anti-Partition Agitation he played his role as a co-worker of S. N. Banerjea, Bepin Pal and Aurobindo Ghose; he gave lectures on Swadeshi movement and associated himself with two nationalist organs-the New India and the Bande Mataram. He also raised his voice against Curzon’s Indian Universities Bill and indictment against the Bengales.

It was, however, not before 1917 that Das came to the forefront of nationalist politics. In that year he was invited to preside over the Bengal Provincial Conference held at Bhowanipore. At the Conference Chitta Ranjan gave in Bengali his memorable presidential speech, animated by lofty idealism and patriotic fire. Chitta Ranjan’s political career was brief but meteoric. In course of only eight years (1917-25) he rose into all-India fame by virtue of his ardent patriotism, sterling sincerity and political field in 1917 took place at a crucial moment.

Patriotism was a consuming passion with Chitta Ranjan -a part of his religion and “not an imitation of European politics”. It was echoed in his speech at a meeting held at Mymensingh in October 1917. In the field of Indian nationalism Deshabandhu was a seer; he had no doubt about the final victory of the cause and the fulfillment of India’s cultural and spiritual mission in the world.

In 1917 Chitta Ranjan played a significant role in the controversy over the election of Mrs. Annie Besant President of the Indian National Congress for its Calcutta Session. During this period (1917-18) he also took part in the agitation against the Government policy of internment and deportation under the Defence of India Act. On the eve of the Calcutta Session (1917) of the Congress, he had been on a lecturing tour in Eastern Bengal, addressing large gathering on Self-Government. In his impassioned address on the Self-Government resolution at the Congress Session, he affirmed: “I want the power to build my own constitution in a way which is suited to this country”.

In 1918, both at the Congress special session in Bombay and at the Annual Session in Delhi, Das opposed the scheme of Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms. The demand for Provincial Autonomy was successfully propounded in the teeth of vehement opposition from Mrs. Besant and others. In 1919 Chitta Ranjan went to the Punjab as a member of the non-official Jallianwala Bagh Enquiry Committee. At the Amritsar Congress (1919) he made the first advocacy of obstruction while opposing the idea of co-operation with the Government in the implementation of the 1919 Reforms.

In 1920 at a special session of the Congress held at Calcutta under thepresidency of Lajpat Rai, Gandhiji gave his famous programme of Non-Cooperation with the Government.

Das sought some changes in it but in vain. He, however, had the support of Pal, Malaviya, Jinnah and Mrs. Besant. Three months later the Congress met at a Nagpur where he, however, accepted Gandhiji’s lead and came back to Calcutta to renounce his large practice at the Bar.

The whole nation was deeply impressed to see this supreme act of self-sacrifice. Deshabandhu now threw himself heart and soul into the movement. Besides the Non-Cooperation Movement, the large-scale exodus of the Coolies from the Assam tea gardens and the strike of the Assam-Bengal railway employees engaged his attention in 1921. The same year he was elected President for the Congress Session to be held at Ahmedabad.

In its repressive measures the Government declared as illegal the Congress Volunteers’ organisation which took a leading part in the boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales (1921). Deshbandhu decided to defy the arbitrary government order. Along with Subhas Bose, Kiran Sankar Roy and many others, his wife Basanti Devi, son Chira Ranjan and sister Urmila Devi were arrested. Deshbandhu himself was arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. After his release in 1922, he was elected President for the Congress Session at Gaya.

With the suspension of the Non-Cooperation Movement at the instance of Gandhiji, following the Chauri Chaura incident, the whole country went into despondency. At this critical hour Deshbandhu endeavoured to give a new orientation to Indian politics through his Council Entry programme, i.e. "Non-Cooperation from within the Councils”. He however met with vehement opposition from the Mahatma and the “No-changes”. At the Gaya Congress C. Rajagopalachari led the Council-Entry opposition. His motion being lost, Deshbandhu resigned the presidentship.

Thereafter he organised the Swarajya Party within the Congress in collaboration with Motilal Nehru, the Ali brothers, Ajmal Khan, V. J. Patel, Pratap Guha Roy and others. It was initially known as the bitter criticism launched by the “No-changers” like Shyam Sundar Chakraborty and J. L. Banerjee, the Jalpaiguri Conference was organised by the Swarajists, Maulana Azad was elected President of the Congress special session at Delhi, where the programme of Council-Entry was approved. The programme was later confirmed at the Cocanda Session.

At the General Election of 1923 the Swarajists swept Bengal. Deshbandhu spurned the offer of Lord Lytton to take the responsibility of the Transferred Department. In the Council he followed the policy of smashing the official and semi-official machinations, despite the Government’s repressive measures. Chitta Ranjan’s policy of Council-Entry was vindicated by the Government’s defeat on the Budget. He not only succeeded in killing Dyarchy in Bengal but also in shaking the Bureaucracy in India to its very foundations.

In 1924 the Swarajists captured the seats of the Calcutta Corporation. Deshbandhu was elected the first Mayor of the Corporation. He proved to be an ideal Myor in every respect. He was re-elected as Mayor the next year. In 1923 he presided over the All India Trade Union Congress at Lahore, and in 1924 at Calcutta. In 1925 Deshbandhu was the President of the Bengal Provincial Conference held at Faridpur. In this last Presidential Address he put forth his ideas on Swaraj and Dominion Status.

Deshbandhu wanted “Swaraj for the masses, not for the classes”. To him, “Swaraj is Government by the people and for the people”. In his made out a strong case for Dominion Status. He held:” Dominion Status to-day is in no sense servitude…advantages in the real spirit of co-operations”.

Further, he believed in non-violent and constitutional methods for the realisation of national independence. He explained:” I am one of those who hold to non-violence on principle … It is for India to show light to the world-Swaraj by non-violence and Swaraj by the people”. (Presidential speech, Gaya Session of the Congress, 1922).

An advocate of communal harmony and Hindu-Muslim unity, Chitta Ranjan effected, in 1923, the Bengal Pact between the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal, though opposed by a section of the Congress.

In the economic field, Das stressed the need of constructive work in villages. He did not favour the idea of mere industrialisation and held: "Industrialisation reduces man to a machine”. For the re-construction of the ‘cottage’ and ‘national’ industries he wanted the agriculturists to be trained up “in the ways of useful handicrafts”.

A champion of national education and vernacular medium, he felt that the masses should be properly educated to participate in the nationalist movement. He deprecated the prevalent Western system of education that would only promote “a kind of soulless culture”. He was associated with the foundation of the ‘National Council of Education’ and other similar institution such as the ‘Gauriya Sarvavidyatan’ and ‘Calcutta Vidyapith ‘. In 1921 he presided over the National Educational Conference held at Vikrampur.

Chitta Ranjan also made his mark as a poet and an essayist. The ‘Malancha’, his first book of verse, was published in 1895. Later four more volumes of lyrics were pusbilsed-‘Mala’, Sangit’. He contributed short stories and articles to different journals. As a journalist his contribution was likewise note-worthy. He started a literary quarterly, the Narayan, in 1914, and an evening daily, the Bangler Katha, in 1922, both in Bengali. In 1923 he founded the Swarajya Party organ, the Forward, and in 1924 the official organ of the Calcutta Corporation, the Municipal Gazette.

Chitta Ranjan was ostentatious in his mode of living till he joined the Non-Cooperation Movement: after 1921 he led a simple life. His religious and social outlook was liberal. Under the Brahmo influence he was first a Vedantist, but later showed leanings towards the ‘Sakta’ (Mother-cult) and Vaishnavism. He was against caste-discrimination and untouchability. A believer in women’s emancipation, he supported the spread of female education and window he gave his own daughters in marriage in Brahmin and Kayastha families.

Chitta Ranjan’s munificence in the social filed was proverbial; there were innumerable cases of his private charity. He made over his property to a trust for the country’s service. At his Bhowanipore residence is now located the hospital named Chitta Ranjan Seva Sadan.

Chitta Ranjan passed away on 16 June 1925 at Darjeeling at the age of fifty only. His mortal body was taken back to Calcutta where the last rites were performed. Thousands of people with Gandhiji at their head joined the over two-mile-long funeral procession to pay homage to the departed leader.

Great as a jurist, Chitta Ranjan was the greatest and most dynamic leader of the Bengal. He was an eloquent exponent of her thought and culture. Above all, he was apostle of Indian nationalism. In the words of Tagore, “the post gift that Chittaranjan left for his countrymen is not any particular political or social programme but the creative force of a great aspiration that has taken a deathless form in the sacrifice which his life represented”.

Author : N.C.Chatterjee