‘He is not dead whose noble life
Leads thine on high;
To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.’
These were the words with which Dr. Satish Chandra Banerji, the Doyen of Allahabad High Court, had dedicated his magnum opus, The Law of Specific Relief in British India — considered to be a classic in the world of legal literature — to his father Justice Abinash Chandra Banerji. The dedication was not just a loving homage to an illustrious father by his son (who himself went on to become a legend after his untimely demise) but to the one who was counted among the greatest of legal luminaries in undivided India and hailed as the first commentator in India on the Specific Relief Act.
The phrase ‘rags to riches’ is often used for self-made individuals. The life of Justice Abinash Chandra Banerji is not just another ‘rags to riches’ story. On the contrary, it is a story of how one can fight against all odds, emerge victorious and establish oneself as an immortal star in the firmament of greats.
Born in the village of Barisha in undivided Bengal on 24 September 1846, Abinash Chandra was the eldest son of Prasanna Kumar Banerji (born in 1818) and his first wife Prasannamoyee Devi. Two more sons Hari Mohan (b: 24 June 1866) and Anukul Chandra (b: 2 October 1869) and two daughters Purnashashi and Khiroda were born to them after the birth of Abinash Chandra. Hari Mohan was a legal practitioner and had shifted to the United Provinces (presently known as Uttar Pradesh) where he rose to the rank of a Judge. From his second wife Jayakali, Prasanna Kumar had a son named Sarada Prasad (who later established himself as a physician) and a daughter named Haridasi.
Abinash Chandra was a child of poverty. But an incident which took place when he was seven years of age turned the tide of his life. One morning, while he was preparing his school-lessons, his mother Prasannamoyee Devi asked him to go to the market. As he was busy with his studies, the young boy refused to oblige his mother. Enraged at his refusal, Prasannamoyee gave him a sound beating. His self-respect being deeply hurt by this act, Abinash Chandra decided to leave home for good.
This incident has another version. One morning, after reaching the village-school of which he was a student, Abinash Chandra came to know that all classes have been suspended for the day. When he returned home, his mother asked him why did he come back so early. When he stated the reason, his mother refused to believe him. Thinking that he was bunking his classes, she asked him to go back to school. When Abinash Chandra insisted that he was not resorting to falsehood, he received a good beating from his mother who still disbelieved him. As a result of this humiliation, he decided to leave his parental home.
But where to go? Abinash Chandra decided that he would go and stay at his maternal uncle’s residence. Presently, Barisha is a part of south Kolkata but in the 1850s, it was a village situated quite far away from Kolkata. The seven-year-old boy Abinash Chandra walked eight miles to reach Kolkata. He arrived at the banks of the Ganges and asked some fishermen to take him to the other side of the river where his maternal uncle stayed. The fishermen were surprised at the courage of the young boy. Seeing that the boy was a Brahmin, they gave him some fruits to eat and escorted him to his destination.
For the next few years, Abinash Chandra stayed with his maternal uncle who provided him with food and shelter. Although his uncle was affluent enough to fund his education, it seemed that Abinash Chandra took no help from him as far as his education was concerned. He got himself enrolled into the free school established by Mr. Dall and Mr. Duff and passed his Entrance Examination with flying colours. Having obtained a scholarship in the Entrance Examination, he joined the illustrious Presidency College of Kolkata. His limited means prevented him from buying books for his studies so he had no other alternative but to copy out several books with his own hand. Here it is to be noted that although he had left his family, he did not sever ties with them. He would save money from his scholarship and send it to his family at Barisha.
As he studied in a school run by Christians, Abinash Chandra had, for a while, developed an inclination towards Christianity. Mr. Duff had realized the potentialities of young Abhinash Chandra and had introduced him to Reverend Kali Charan Bandopadhyay who was determined to convert him into a follower of Christ. But on the very day he was supposed to embrace Christianity, he met Keshub Chandra Sen, the leader of the Brahmo Samaj. Like many young men of his generation, Abinash Chandra came under the influence of Keshub Chandra Sen — for whom he had a lifelong reverence — and became a staunch follower of the ideals of Brahmo Samaj. However, afterwards he went back ‘to the old faith’ as noted by Sir Surendranath Banerjea, the famous leader of Indian National Congress and a boyhood friend of Abinash Chandra, who recalled in his autobiography, A Nation in Making: ‘But whether as a Brahmo, or as a Hindu, he was one of the finest of men and one of the most agreeable of companions.’ (p. 42, Oxford University Press, 1963 edition)
Abinash Chandra was married to Nistarini Devi, daughter of Prof. Jadunath Mukherjee. The couple had with three sons: Justice Sushil Chandra, Dr. Satish Chandra and Dr. Suresh Chandra.
Blessed with a remarkable diligence, a rare intellect and enviable industriousness, Abinash Chandra obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree with distinction in 1865 at the age of nineteen. He joined the Salkia School as the Head Master and afterwards joined the Hare School of Kolkata as the Second Master. But owing to health issues, he left Kolkata and shifted to Patna where he joined the Normal School as its Head Master. While he was still teaching at the Normal School, he began to study law and eventually passed his Bachelor of Law examinations again with distinction. Following the advice of Pyari Mohan Banerjee, who had earned the title of the ‘Fighting Munsiff of Allahabad’ for his services rendered to the British Government during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, Abinash Chandra decided to leave Patna and shift to Allahabad to join the High Court Bar. Accordingly, he sent his resignation letter. But Dr. Fallon, the then School Inspector of Bihar, who was well-aware of the rare qualities Abinash Chandra possessed, refused to accept it. Instead, he raised the remuneration Abinash Chandra was receiving from the Normal School. Unable to ignore the generous gesture of Dr. Fallon, Abinash Chandra decided to wait for a while. When Dr. Fallon was away on leave, Abinash Chandra resigned from the Normal School and joined the Allahabad High Court Bar in November 1865 where he worked for the next five years. In August 1870 he was appointed a Second Grade Munsiff at Agra. After working as a Munsiff for eight years, he was appointed the Subordinate Judge of Agra. In 1889 he rose to the rank of Judge of the Small Cause Court — a position he held till his demise. He was also posted for a while at Aligarh.
In the summer of 1877, Abinash Chandra received as a guest Sir Surendranath Banerjea during the latter’s visit to North India. Both were playmates when they stayed in Kolkata. ‘We met after a long time, and had revived the memories of olden days,’ recalled Surendranath in his autobiography, A Nation in Making (p. 42).
As a result of his utmost dedication, devotion to the cause of justice and expertise in legal matters, Abinash Chandra earned several promotions within a short span of time and established himself as an irreplaceable legal luminary. His judgments pertaining to ‘Succession to Hathras Raj’, ‘Beswan Principality’, ‘Hasnain Raj’ and other complicated court cases earned him a formidable reputation. Even judges of other courts would forget their professional jealousies and rivalries and praise his judgments whole-heartedly. Whenever any complicated case came up, it was sent to Abinash Chandra for trial. His commentaries on the ‘Civil Procedure Code’ and ‘Specific Relief Act’ (in Urdu) earned wide-spread appreciation.
To illustrate how popular Abinash Chandra was among the rulers of the land, that is, the British, let’s cite a couple of instances. In 1886, at a meeting organized in Allahabad under the chairmanship of Sir John Edge, the then Chief Justice, someone had remarked that none of the Indian judges could be at par with the British judges. Sir John Edge immediately protested and said that if there were Indian judges like Abinash Chandra Banerji he would most readily entrust his case to them for he was absolutely certain that proper justice would be rendered. On another occasion, during one of the meetings of the Public Service Commission, Mr. Beck, the Principal of Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, had spoken disrespectfully of Bengalis. In response, the very first question which was put to him by Sir Charles Turner was: “Do you know Babu Abinash Chandra Banerji, a great judge?”
Through his rare strength of character, not only had Abinash Chandra endeared himself to one and all but had also raised the dignity of Indians in the eyes of British who worked in India. In an article published in Probasi on the achievements of Abinash Chandra, it was rightly observed that ‘no Bengali was perhaps so popular, beloved and so universally respected in his time in the North West Provinces as he was.’ (Probasi, 1308 B.S., 11th and 12th issue, p. 450; translated from the original in Bengali) Born in a poverty-stricken family, he fought against all obstacles in the early years of his youth and by the virtue of his character, intellect and hard-work he had established himself as one of the most famous citizens of Agra. In fact, he was fondly and widely known as ‘Abinash Babu of Agra’.
Here is another interesting vignette about Abinash Chandra Banerji. Once, in an exhibition organized at London, a confectioner from Agra was selling jalebis for a shilling each. Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1858—1936; an active member of the Brahmo Samaj who later joined the Theosophical Society) while buying jalebis from this confectioner told him that he happened to be a friend of Abinash Chandra Banerji of Agra. As a result, the confectioner refused to take any money from Mohini Mohun. Another Bengali traveller had recounted that wherever he visited in the North West Provinces and introduced himself as a friend of Abinash Chandra, he had been warmly received.
Justice Abinash Chandra Banerji was also associated with various academic institutions and social-welfare activities. During his stay in Bengal, he had established a school for girls at Taltolla area in Kolkata. At Agra, he established and helped to establish several schools, libraries, associations and clubs in various places. In 1883, when it was proposed to abolish the Agra Government College, Abinash Chandra initiated a strong agitation against the said proposal and saved it from being abolished. Eventually, a Board of Trustees was constituted and the administration of the college was put in charge of a Managing Committee. Abinash Chandra was selected as a member of both the bodies. ‘For a long time he engaged himself in improving the college. Had he not interfered in the matter in all probability the college would have been altogether abolished.’ (Ibid; translated from the original in Bengali)
Abinash Chandra was also associated with the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College since its inception in 1875. He awarded a medal to the student who topped the Entrance Examinations at the said college. His request to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of the college, to start law classes at the college was duly honoured. When the classes began, Abinash Chandra took the initiative to bring local pleaders to the college to teach law to the students.
Not only was Abinash Chandra famous for his legal knowledge and sense of justice but also for his hospitality. Hundreds of itinerant Bengalis — students, tourists and pilgrims — were warmly received at his residence in Agra. In fact, his house served as a comfortable home for all. ‘There was hardly any pilgrim or tourist who came to Agra during his time and did not share his hospitality.’ (Probasi, 1308 B.S., 11th and 12th issue, p. 449; translated from the original in Bengali)
Owing to his busy schedule, Abinash Chandra could hardly take care of his health. The severe physical strain and brain work which he had to undergo for his professional commitments took a toll on his health. Around 1884, when he was in his thirty-sixth year, he was diagnosed with ‘Bright’s Disease’, an inflammatory disease of the kidneys which is now known as acute glomerular nephritis. For the last eight years of his life, Abinash Chandra lived with this incurable disease but disallowed it to overpower him mentally. Towards the beginning of 1892 he was appointed the Judge of Allahabad High Court but by the time the news was published in the gazette, Abinash Chandra had passed on to the Beyond.
Abinash Chandra Banerji died on 2 April 1892 at the age of forty-five in Agra. When the news of his death was announced, not only did the court at Agra stopped its work for the day but all the schools and colleges of the city were closed as a mark of homage. When his body was being carried along the highway, there was an endless shower of flowers and garlands on him from houses on both sides of the road. As per a report published in the Probasi journal, the view of the last journey of Justice Abinash Chandra Banerji was a sight to behold. The report further adds that at his death hundreds of tongues recited his glorious praise, thousands of hands joined together to bid him adieu in a manner which befits a sovereign emperor.
Needless to say, the unconditional love, adoration and respect which Abinash Chandra had received from his countrymen, even kings and emperors did not receive.
Thus passed away a noble soul leaving behind a grand legacy which was further enriched by his three sons. But that is a different tale!
Photograph of Justice Abinash Chandra Banerji printed in Probasi, 1308 B.S., 11th and 12th issue.
About the Author: Born on 13th October 1984 to Jayanta and Sanghamitra Banerjee (eminent actress of Bengali cinema), Anurag Banerjee is an award-winning poet, essayist, researcher, biographer and translator. A former faculty at NexGen Institute of Business and Technology, Kolkata and Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research (SACAR), Pondicherry, he established the Overman Foundation, one of India’s leading research institutes dedicated to the ideals of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, at the age of twenty-five in March 2010. He has lectured in several national symposiums and seminars organized by Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research, Sri Aurobindo Bhavan (Kolkata), National Council of Education and Jadavpur University and authored more than two hundred and fifty research papers which have been published in anthologies and journals of repute. He is a Trustee of Sri Aurobindo Sakti Centre Trust which runs the “Sri Aurobindo Bal Mandir” School at New Alipore, Kolkata. In April 2011, he received the prestigious ‘Nolini Kanta Gupta Smriti Puraskar’ awarded by ‘Srinvantu’ and Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata. In December 2021 he received the ‘Shiksha Bharati Award’ from the Indian Achievers’ Forum ‘in Recognition of Outstanding Professional Achievement & Contribution in Nation Building’. He is a great-great-great-grandson of Justice Abinash Chandra Banerji.