Sir Surendranath Banerjee (10 November 1848 – 6 August 1925) was one of the earliest Indian political leaders during the British Raj. He founded the Indian National Association, one of the earliest Indian political organizations, and later became a senior leader of the Indian National Congress. He was also known by the sobriquet, Rashtraguru (the teacher of the nation).
Surendranath Banerjee was born in Calcutta, in the province of Bengal to a bengali family. He was deeply influenced in liberal, progressive thinking by his father Durga Charan Banerjee, a doctor. Banerjee was educated at the Parental Academic Institution and at the Hindu College. After graduating from the University of Calcutta, he traveled to England in 1868, along with Romesh Chunder Dutt and Behari Lal Gupta to compete in the Indian Civil Service examinations. He cleared the competitive examination in 1869, but was barred owing to a dispute over his exact age. After clearing the matter in the courts, Banerjee cleared the exam again in 1871 and was posted as assistant magistrate in Sylhet. However, Banerjee was dismissed soon from his job owing to racial discrimination. Banerjee went to England to protest this decision, but was unsuccessful. During his stay in England (1874–1875) he studied the works of Edmund Burke and other liberal philosophers.
Upon his return to India in June, 1875, Banerjea became an English professor at the Metropolitan Institution, the Free Church Institution and at the Ripon College, founded by him in 1882. He began delivering public speeches on nationalist and liberal political subjects, as well as Indian history. He founded the Indian National Association with Anandamohan Bose, the first Indian political organization of its kind, on 26 July 1876. He used the organization to tackle the issue of age-limit for Indian students appearing for ICS examinations. He condemned the racial discrimination perpetrated by British officials in India through speeches all over the country, which made him very popular.
In 1879, he founded the newspaper, The Bengalee. In 1883, when Banerjea was arrested for publishing remarks in his paper, in contempt of court, protests and hartals erupted across Bengal, and in Indian cities such as Agra, Faizabad, Amritsar, Lahore and Pune. The INA expanded considerably, and hundreds of delegates from across India came to attend its annual conference in Calcutta. After the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 in Bombay, Banerjee merged his organization with it owing to their common objectives and memberships. He was elected the Congress President in 1895 at Poona and in 1902 at Ahmedabad.
Surendranath was one of the most important public leaders who protested the partition of the Bengal province in 1905. Banerjea was in the forefront of the movement and organized protests, petitions and extensive public support across Bengal and India, which finally compelled the British to reverse the bifurcation in 1912. Banerjea became the patron of rising Indian leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Sarojini Naidu. Banerjea was also one of the senior-most leaders of the “moderate” Congress – those who favoured accommodation and dialogue with the British – after the “extremists” – those who advocated revolution and political independence – led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak left the party in 1906. Banerjea was an important figure in the Swadeshi movement – advocating goods manufactured in India against foreign products – and his popularity at its apex made him, in words of admirers, the “uncrowned king of Bengal.”
The declining popularity of moderate Indian politicians affected Banerjea’s role in Indian politics. Banerjea supported the Morley-Minto reforms 1909 – which were resented and ridiculed as insufficient and meaningless by the vast majority of the Indian public and nationalist politicians. Banerjea was a critic of the proposed method of civil disobedience advocated by Mohandas Gandhi, the rising popular leader of Indian nationalists and the Congress Party. Accepting the portfolio of minister in the Bengal government earned him the ire of nationalists and much of the public, and he lost the election to the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1923 to Bidhan Chandra Roy, the candidate of the Swarajya Party – ending his political career for all practical purposes. He was knighted for his political support of the Empire. Banerjea made the Calcutta Municipal Corporation a more democratic body while serving as a minister in the Bengal government.
Banerjea died in 1925. He is remembered and widely respected today as a pioneer leader of Indian politics – first treading the path for Indian political empowerment. He published an important work, A Nation in Making which was widely acclaimed.
The British respected him and referred to him during his later years as “Surrender Not” Banerjea.
But nationalist politics in India meant opposition, and increasingly there were others whose opposition was more vigorous and who came to center stage. Banerjee could accept neither the extremist view of political action nor the noncooperation of Gandhi, then emerging as a major factor in the nationalist movement. Banerjee saw the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 as substantially fulfilling Congress’s demands, a position which further isolated him. He was elected to the reformed Legislative Council of Bengal in 1921, knighted in the same year, and held office as minister for local self-government from 1921 to 1924. He was defeated at the polls in 1923. He died at Barrackpore on Aug. 6, 1925.