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Chittaranjan Das (C R Das) (1870-1925): Biography, Contributions, Literary Works

Chittaranjan Das, popularly known as C.R. Das, also called Deshbandhu or ‘friend of the nation’, was a freedom fighter, politician, political leader and co-founder of the Swaraj Party. He believed in extremist ideology and supported the beliefs of the Lal-Bal-Pal trio. He also served as the president of the Indian National Congress (INC) for a session. Das was one of the most dynamic political leaders of twentieth-century Bengal and was known for his strong personality, struggle, sacrifice, selflessness, dedication and devotion.

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Early life and education

  • C.R. Das was born on 5th November 1870 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to an upper-middle-class Vaidya family.
  • His family belonged to Vikrampura located in the Munshiganj district of West Bengal (now Bangladesh).
  • His parents were Bhuban Mohan Das and Nistarini Devi. His father served as a solicitor of the Calcutta High Court and was known for his intellectual and journalistic pursuits. 
  • He received his early education at the London Missionary Society’s Institution at Bhawanipur (Calcutta) which he had joined in 1876.
  • He passed the Entrance Examination in 1886 and completed graduation from Presidency College in 1890. In the same year, he left for England to appear for the Indian Civil Service, which was dominated by the British. 
  • Das could not qualify for the civil service examination and decided to join the legal profession. Das joined The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple to practice law in London, England.
  • In 1893, he was called to the English Bar. In 1894, he returned to India and enrolled himself as a Barrister at the Calcutta High Court.
  • In 1897, Das married Basanti devi, daughter of Barada Nath Halder, Dewan of Bijni Estate in Assam. She was an extraordinary woman and became a matriarch figure in the freedom movement. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose regarded her as ‘Ma’ or ‘mother’.

Legal career

  • Das started practising as a barrister at Calcutta High Court from 1894 onwards.
  • In his legal profession, Das defended Indians who were accused of political offences.
  • He defended many freedom fighters such as Brahmabandhab Upadhyay and Bhupendranath Datta who were charged with sedition.
  • It was the trial of Sri Aurobindo Ghose in 1908 that brought C.R. Das into the limelight. Das’ brilliant defence of Sri Aurobindo in the Alipore Bomb Case helped the latter finally be acquitted.
    • He handled the case meticulously and concluded it with an address in the Calcutta High Court with a passionate appeal that helped in Sri Aurobindo’s acquittal.
    • The success, in this case, helped Das come to the forefront of professional and political platforms.
  • He also acted as the defence counsel in the Dhaka Conspiracy Case, initiated in 1910-11.
  • Das was an expert in both civil and criminal law which helped him build a lucrative career within a short period.

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Political journey

  • C.R. Das joined politics in the early twentieth century. His political career lasted for merely six years but even in that short period, he left his mark which is remembered forever.
  • C.R. Das from a young age was a patriot. During his college days, he was a member of the student wing of the Indian Association where famous nationalist leaders like Surendranath Banerjee, and Ananda Mohan Basu used to give speeches. 
  • He was associated with revolutionary organizations like the Anushilan Samiti. When Prathamanath Mitra, the president of Anushilan Samiti was preaching the idea of patriotism among the youths, C.R. Das also took the membership.
  • He was a co-worker of Surendranath Banerjee, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghose. He was also a supporter of the Lal-Bal-Pal trio and supported both Bipin Chandra Pal and Sri Aurobindo Ghose in publishing the English weekly Bande Matram.
  • He utilised the issue of the Partition of Bengal (1905) for expanding revolutionary activities in Bengal.
  • In 1906, C.R. Das joined the Indian National Congress (INC) but took no active part in it initially.
  • However, C.R. Das began his full-fledged political career in 1917 and came to the forefront of nationalist politics then.
  • He played a significant role in the controversy over the election of Mrs Annie Besant as president of the Indian National Congress for its Calcutta Session in 1917 and worked hard to get her appointed as the president of INC.
  • He presided over the Bengal Provincial Conference held at Bhawanipur in 1917.
  • C.R. Das believed in the idea of ‘Swadeshi’ and rejected the notion of development as promoted by Western powers.
  • In the Calcutta session, he put forward a plan for village reconstruction that suggested reforms such as the establishment of local self-government, cooperative credit societies and revival of the cottage industry.
  • In 1918, both at the Congress special session in Bombay and the Annual Session in Delhi, Das opposed the scheme of Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms considering it completely inadequate and disappointing.
  • He denounced the Reforms for it aimed at installing a dual government system or dyarchy in the country. He demanded provincial autonomy despite vehement opposition from Mrs Annie Besant and others.
  • In 1919, C.R. Das went to Punjab as a non-official Jallianwala Bagh Enquiry Committee member. At the Amritsar Session 1919 of the Indian National Congress (presided over by Motilal Nehru), he was the first to advocate obstruction while opposing the idea of cooperation with the British government in the implementation of the 1919 Reforms.
  • In 1920, Das supported the Non-Cooperation movement that started in the same year and sacrificed all his luxuries and supported the cause of ‘khadi’. Though Das disagreed with Gandhi’s resolution on non-cooperation initially, for he believed in the policy of obstruction from within the legislatures, he later supported the movement wholeheartedly and renounced his lucrative practice at the Bar. 
  • Das took a leading part in the boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales to Calcutta in 1921. He was also concerned about the large-scale exodus of the coolies from the Assam tea gardens and the strike of the Assam-Bengal railway employees.
  • C.R. Das during the Non-Cooperation movement initiated a ban on British clothes in Bengal. 
  • In 1921, Das organised and volunteered for the Congress Volunteer Corps because the All-India Congress Committee had asked for the recruitment of ten million national volunteers to accelerate the movement of non-cooperation. 
  • This participation on a mass scale due to Das’ efforts eventually turned the Non-Cooperation Movement into a mass movement following which the British government began retaliating in adverse ways.
  • He was jailed along with his wife and son for six months for participating in the movement in 1921. In the same year, he was elected as the president of the Ahmedabad Congress but could not preside over it since he was arrested before the session.
  • When Gandhi called off the Non- Cooperation Movement in 1922, C.R. Das strongly criticised it calling it a grave mistake for it demoralised the political workers to a great extent.
  • C.R. Das was elected president at the Gaya session of the INC in December 1922 but resigned from the post later on the issue of the Council-Entry programme, i.e., non-cooperation from within the councils.
  • Gandhi’s calling off the movement of non-cooperation made Das endeavour to give a new orientation to Indian politics, which was, through his Council-Entry programme, i.e., ‘Non-cooperation from within the Councils’. 
  • He was vehemently opposed to the INC’s principle of boycotting the legislatures. He held that entry and presence into the legislatures were needed to offer uniform, continuous and consistent obstruction to the government.
  • However, his idea met strong opposition from Gandhi and the “No-changers”. At the Gaya Congress, C. Rajagopalachari led the Council-Entry opposition and Das’ motion could not get through. 
  • Following the rejection of his idea, at the Gaya session, Das resigned from the presidency of the Indian National Congress and laid the foundation of the Swaraj Party.
  • He presided over the All-India Trade Union Congress held at Lahore and Calcutta in 1923 and 1924 respectively. He also presided over the Bengal Provincial Conference held at Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) in 1925.

Swaraj Party

  • After the events at the Gaya session of INC, Das organized the Swaraj Party initially known as the Congress-Swaraj-Khilafat Party within the Congress in collaboration with Motilal Nehru, the Ali brothers, Ajmal Khan, V.J. Patel, Lala Lajpat Rai and others.
    • C.R. Das was elected as the president of the party.
  • The newly-founded party aimed to contest the elections to Central Legislative Assembly in 1923 and derail British rule through anti-government activities within the council chambers.
  • The Swarajists won more than 40 seats in the Central Legislative Assembly in 1923, but their numbers were never quite enough to prevent the British from passing the legislation they desired or believed was needed to maintain internal order in India. 
  • The party was gaining gradual mass support and hence, to prevent a split and keep Congress intact, a compromise was eventually reached between Swaraj Party and INC.
    • The resolution on Council entry was finally passed by the Special session of the Delhi Congress.
  • In the 1923 election to the Bengal Legislative Council, the Swaraj Party achieved a remarkable victory.
  • As a leader of the new party, he devoted his energies to bringing about Hindu-Muslim amity and unity since he understood that it was difficult to attain freedom without the collective support of both communities.
  • He and the Swaraj Party offered to give Hindu-Muslim collaboration a concrete shape with an agreement, signed by leaders of the two communities in Bengal, which came to be known as the Bengal Pact. 
    • Unfortunately, the Pact was opposed by many of the Congress leaders of Bengal including many Bengali middle-class Hindus, such as SN Banerjee, Bipin Chandra Pal and others.
    • Despite being rejected by the Indian National Congress, he succeeded in getting the terms of the Pact ratified by the Bengal Provincial Congress Conference, held at Sirajganj in June 1924.
  • Swaraj Party gained huge popularity in Bengal and different other parts of India. In 1924, the Swaraj party won the elections of Calcutta Corporation and C.R.Das became the first elected mayor and was re-elected for the next term also.
  • Following the death of Das in 1925, the party was eventually disbanded by 1927.

Other contributions

  • Contribution to literature
    • Das studied Rabindranath Tagore and was an admirer of Keats, Shelly and Browning. He was also deeply influenced by Vaishnava poets. At the early age of sixteen, Das began writing Bengali poetry. Das was a distinguished Bengali poet and has an abiding place in Bengali literature.
    • During the volatile period of the Swadeshi movement, C.R. Das wrote two volumes of his poem ‘Malancha’ and ‘Mala’ and published them.
    • Some of his other published poems are Sagar Sangit (The Song of the Sea), 1913, and Antaryami (The All-Perceiver) published in 1914, Kishor-Kishori (The Youth) published in 1915.
    • In 1913, when Sri Aurobindo was in self-imposed exile in Pondicherry and needed financial help, Chittranjan Das offered him Rs. 1000 in exchange for a translation of his Book of Poems called Sagar-Sangit. The translation was eventually published in 1923.
    • He founded a high-class literary journal called Narayan and edited it for five years. It also contained some of his poems. He was also closely associated with New India and Bande Mataram.
    • He founded the weekly Forward, the organ of the Swaraj Party in 1923 establishing new standards in journalism and greatly influencing public opinion.
    • He also founded the Municipal Gazette, the official organ of the Calcutta Corporation in 1924.  
  • Social contribution
    • Das believed in non-violent and constitutional methods for the realisation of the dream of national independence.
    • In the economic sphere, he stressed the need for constructive work in villages.
    • He supported the idea of national education in a vernacular medium and felt that all the masses should be properly educated to participate in the nationalist movement.
    • In the religious and social spheres, he was a liberal. He supported women’s emancipation, the spread of female education, and widow re-marriage and advocated inter-caste marriage.
    • When Das served as the Mayor of Calcutta, the program of work for the Corporation included free primary education, free medical relief to the poor, a better supply of filtered water, better sanitation facilities, housing for the poor, development of suburban areas, improved transportation facilities and greater efficiency in administration at cheaper cost.
    • A few years before his death in 1925, he gifted his house and the adjoining lands to the nation to be used for the betterment of the lives of women through the institution of a medical school and hospital for women.
    • His house turned into a political institution where consultation, organization and discussions on propaganda took place.

Death and legacy

  • Death
    • Deshbandhu Chitta Ranjan Das passed away on June 16, 1925, in Darjeeling at the age of 55 suffering from poor health conditions.
  • Legacy
    • Observing his huge sacrifice for the nation, the people of India were deeply moved and lovingly called him Deshbandhu, the friend of the nation.
    • Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose considered Das his guru and was one of the greatest of his political disciples.

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