The worst hit by Das’ untimely demise was Subhas Bose. He was left without an anchor and a pillar of support to navigate the power-politics of the Congress.
“I first met Mr C.R. Das and Pandit Motilal Nehru in Delhi in June, 1924. Mr Das offered to financially help a younger advocate like myself… He was too big a soul to be communal, as is demonstrated by his desire to come to terms with the Muslims on a fifty-fifty basis, both in the legislature and in the services in Bengal… His death was a great loss to India, and to me personally.”
Chaudhary Khaliquazzaman (1889-1973),
Muslim League leader of the United Provinces and Governor of East Pakistan in 1953-54.
When Deshbandhu Chittaranjan (C.R.) Das (1870-1925) passed away in the month of June 95 years ago, a critical phase in the Freedom Movement was coming to a close. It ended with the death of the Punjab Kesari—Lala Lajpat Rai—in November, 1928 at the hands of the colonial police.
An era of Gandhi-Nehru ascendancy was on the threshold.
The Deshbandhu hailed from Bikrampur, near Dhaka (Bangladesh), which was part of the Bhawal Raj, one of the largest estates in East Bengal. His family-members were adherents of the Brahmo Samaj.
In his last days, he stayed in “Step Aside”, a spacious residence in Darjeeling, then owned by Sir N.N. Sircar, Advocate General of Bengal. This was also the house occupied by Ramendra Narayan Roy, the second (Mejo) Kumar of Bhawal in May 1909. It witnessed the mystifying events which culminated in the Bhawal Sanyasi case—among the most sensational in the chronicles of the Indian judicial system—in which the Mejo Kumar was a principal character.
Owing, in substantial measure, to his father’s intercession with Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress presidency was inherited, more or less, by Jawaharlal Nehru at Lahore at the age of 40 years. A decade later, in 1939, Subhas Bose had no such luck when he encountered the Mahatma’s opposition after being re-elected over the preferred candidate.
As Gandhi was to Nehru, so was C.R. Das to Subhas Bose—an unwavering mentor and guide. In 1934, Bose wrote: “June, 1925 proved to be a turning point… The disappearance of the towering personality of the Deshbandhu from the political arena was for India a colossal misfortune. The Swaraj Party, which owed so much to him, was paralysed…letting loose a flood of communal strife…as we look back on the year 1925, we cannot help feeling that if Providence had spared the Deshbandhu for a few years more, the history of India would probably have taken a different turn.”
When the attitude of the Congress towards the Swaraj Party began to harden, C.R. Das challenged the “no changers” and criticised Gandhi’s policy. He went so far as to say that Gandhi had mismanaged the negotiations with the Viceroy, Lord Reading, prior to the Ahmedabad Congress in 1921.
Gandhi was particularly generous in showering affection and respect. On Das’ death, he said: “Deshbandhu was one of the greatest of men. He dreamed…and talked of freedom of India and of nothing else… His heart knew no difference between Hindus and Mussalmans…”.
The contact between Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Das was cordial and trusting.
Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) thought Jinnah “has true stuff in him, and that freedom from all secretarian prejudice which will make him the best Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity”.
The appellation was no less deserved by the Deshbandhu.
A milestone was reached in 1908 when Barrister C.R. Das appeared on behalf of Sri Aurobindo Ghose in the Alipore Bomb Case—an explosion in Muzaffarpur had killed two women and Sri Aurobindo was the main accused. His brilliant handling led to the acquittal of Sri Aurobindo, who remembered being “visited” by Swami Vivekananda in the Alipore prison and that “…I was hearing constantly the voice of Vivekananda speaking to me…and felt his presence”.
Das took no fees in this matter and himself paid about Rs 15,000 (a princely sum in those days) to defray the expenses.
He also defended Brahmabandhav Upadhyay and Bhupendranath Datta, who were a classmate and a younger brother, respectively of Vivekananda; they faced charges of sedition.
Sri Aurobindo went on to pursue the path of a “spiritual reformer” that took him to Pondicherry (now Puducherry).
Das’ life is a landmark in the history of the national struggle against British rule. His political career was brief but meteoric—in the course of only eight years (1917-25), he rose to all India fame. After his release from jail in 1922, he was elected president for the Congress Session at Gaya.
The Bengal Swaraj Party found in Jatindra Mohan Sengupta (1885-1933) a worthy successor to C.R. Das; he was the Mayor of Calcutta in 1929-30 and also became president of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee. His English wife, well-known as Nellie Sengupta (1886-1973), was the second European-born woman to head the Congress. Unfortunately, Sengupta himself died young.
The worst hit by Das’ untimely demise was Subhas Bose. He was left without an anchor and a pillar of support to navigate the power-politics of the Indian National Congress.
The rest is history.
Two successive Prime Ministers of Pakistan (in the pre-martial law period), Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, a Punjabi (1955-56) and Huseyn Shaheed (H.S.) Suhrawardy, a Bengali (1956-57), have referred to C.R. Das in glowing terms.
Like Subhas Bose, so also Suhrawardy (1892-1963), regarded Das as his “political guru”. He recalled: “The brunt of all elections in Bengal on behalf of the Muslim League had fallen upon me in my capacity as Secretary of the Bengal Branch of the AIML since 1937… Entering politics in 1920…I was the Deputy Mayor of Calcutta with Deshbandhu C.R. Das as Mayor. He was the greatest Bengali, may I say Indian, scarcely less in stature than Mahatma Gandhi, I have ever had the good fortune to know. He was endowed with wide vision, he was wholly non-communal, generous to a fault, courageous and capable of unparalleled self-sacrifice. His intellectual attainments and keen insight were of the highest order. As an advocate he commanded fabulous fees which he laid at the feet of his country… I believe with many that had he lived he would have been able to guide the destiny of India along channels that would have eliminated the causes of conflict and bitterness, which had bedevilled the relationship between Hindus and Muslims and which, for want of a just solution, led to the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.”
In later years, Suhrawardy (now in the Awami League) was a mentor to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Bangabandhu was profoundly influenced by Suhrawardy who is a national hero in Bangladesh.
The legend and the legacy of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das live on. A matchless patriot, he was an unmatched votary of communal harmony and mutual accommodation.
In the current times, when the challenges facing the country have increased exponentially, many lessons need to be learnt from the life and work of this exceptional nationalist.
The crowds at Das’ funeral and the depth of emotion of the people who called him “the uncrowned King of Bengal” were unprecedented. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) penned a couplet that has immortalized the person to whom the words were offered: “You had brought with yourself a life-without-an-end; as you depart you donate the same” [English translation from Bengali].
Arun Bhatnagar was in the IAS and lives in New Delhi.