The other unwelcome first-class passenger: A peek into the legendary life of Ashutosh Mukherjee

“Ashutosh had the courage to dream because he had the power to fight and the confidence to win - his will itself was that path to the goal" - Rabindranath Tagore.
Ashutosh Mukherjee
Ashutosh Mukherjee

“Ashutosh had the courage to dream because he had the power to fight and the confidence to win - his will itself was that path to the goal.”

- Rabindranath Tagore

“Bagh” in Bengali means Tiger. Don’t know too many lawyers who have been conferred such a title. So here is the story of one such lawyer who won the sobriquet “Banglar Bagh” or Tiger of Bengal. It was a time of plenty for Bengal and like our National Bard, Tagore, this young person too was gifted in more ways than one. Like Tagore, he too was knighted and that too at the young age of 24. We can remember him as a mathematician (having founded the Calcutta Mathematical Society in 1908) or a great educationist (having served as the second Indian Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, for 10 years). However, let’s take a look at Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee the lawyer, something that is rarely done!

Born on June 29, 1864 at Bowbazar, Calcutta, Sir Ashutosh, at the age of 15, got a scholarship to study at the Calcutta University. As a young boy, Sir Ashutosh had met Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and this had left a deep and lasting impression on him. He joined the fabled Presidency College and during his student days, he came into contact with the great Swami Vivekananda. He was the first student to obtain a dual degree - an MA in mathematics and an MSc in Physics.

In 1883, SN Bannerjee was arrested for contempt of court relating to an article he wrote criticizing a Calcutta High Court order. This sparked off protests and a group of students led by Ashutosh decided to protest at the Calcutta High Court itself. Perhaps this steeled his resolve to explore the world of law. He proceeded to study law at the City College, Calcutta, where he won the ‘Tagore Gold Medal’ for three successive years - 1884, 1885 and 1886. In 1888, he received his degree and enrolled as a ‘vakil’ of the Calcutta High Court. He joined the chambers of Rash Behari Ghosh, who has a doyen of the Bar of the time.

Sir Ashutosh and academia could not be kept apart for too long, and by 1897, he had received an LLD and was serving as the Tagore Professor of Law at Calcutta University. He published a book titled The Law of Perpetuities in British India, and in 1904, was elevated as a justice of the Calcutta High Court.

Sir Ashutosh had always shown courage and character in his many avatars. As Vice-Chancellor, he was under tremendous pressure to rusticate Subhas Chandra Bose for assaulting Professor Oaten. Anxious to protect the career of young Bose, Ashutosh arranged to have him transferred to another college - the Scottish Church Missionary College. As the colonial government viewed the University as a hotbed of sedition and wanted to impose conditions and control on the functioning of the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Ashutosh refused further appointment. He had left an indelible mark on the University having persuaded greats like CV Raman and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to join as faculty, not to forget even roping in Tagore to give several guest lectures. Sir Ashutosh’s southern connect did not end here. When the Calcutta University had to legally battle the Imperial government, Sir Ashutosh drew upon the services of Sir Sankaran Nair, a member of the Madras Bar.

Viceroy Lord Curzon invited Sir Ashutosh to be a judge of the Calcutta High Court. He said we would accept the assignment if his mother permitted him to do so. With his mother’s green signal, he assumed judgeship in 1904 and remained a judge till 1923, even officiating as Chief Justice of Bengal in 1920. In those days, the colonial government was never in favour of native Indians holding such positions. As a judge, Sir Ashutosh had delivered about 20,000 judgments, many of which are still cited as examples of judicial craftsmanship. One of his decisions though sticks out as a sore thumb. India’s women lawyers would view this decision with scorn.

Jhuma Sen, in her article titled The Indian Women who fought their way Into the Legal Profession, published in The Wire, writes about this case. Regina Guha’s father Abhijit Guha was an established criminal lawyer in Calcutta. He had fallen in love with a Baghdadi Jew and converted to Judaism. Young Regina Guha, supported by her father, not only picked up a law degree in 1916, but attempted to enter the Bar to practice. Her application with the Alipore District Court was forwarded to the High Court and a special bench of five judges, which included Sir Ashutosh, heard the same. Regina’s case was presented by Barrister Eardley Norton, a civil rights advocate and a card carrying member of the Indian National Congress. Regina’s lawyer fell back upon the General Clauses Act to argue that as the definition of “male” is taken to include “female”, the Legal Practitioners Act when it referred to men included within its fold ‘women’ lawyers as well. Sir Ashutosh disagreed. He held “there was no escape from the position that the Legislature in this country never contemplated the admission of women to the rank of Legal Practitioners.”

Junior lawyers, however, would be pleased with an incident Dr Rajendra Prasad narrates in his autobiography. This Bihari lawyer had joined the chamber of Khan Bahadur, who was rumoured to be appointed in the Governor’s Executive Council. So clients were already on the lookout for other lawyers. In one such case, while the vakalat was in Rajendra babu’s name and the poor chap had done all the research for his senior Bahadur, the clients engaged another senior to argue the case. The judge noticed the young lawyer helping the senior lawyer and asked him if he had any other precedents which he could call from the library. Two days later, Prasad's friend informed him that the Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University was interested to know whether he would like to work as Professor of the law college. The surprised future President of India was informed that the Vice-Chancellor was none other than Justice Ashutosh Mukherjee - the judge who had been impressed by the hard work of the junior lawyer who was only two years in practice!

Dr. Rajendra Prasad
Dr. Rajendra Prasad

Lord Curzon wanted Ashutosh to visit England so that Britons could experience first-hand scholars produced by the colonial education system. Ashutosh politely declined saying, that his mother’s religious beliefs would not permit her to allow her son to cross the seas. In those times, there was a belief among many high caste Hindus that crossing the seas would result in losing their caste purity. “Tell your mother that the Viceroy and the Governor General of India commands her son to go,” thundered Curzon in his missive. “I will tell the Viceroy and the Governor General of India that Ashutosh Mukherjee refuses to be commanded by any other person except his mother, be he Viceroy or somebody higher still,” Ashutosh firmly responded.

Banglar Bagh Ashutosh played a key role in mentoring the future Sher-e-Bangla (Lion of Bengal) Fazlul Huq into joining the Calcutta High Court Bar, where he practiced for decades. Fazlul Huq, perhaps deeply influenced by his mentor, had teamed up with Ashutosh's son Shyama Prasad Mukherjee to form the coalition Shama-Huq Ministry. Huq, as leader of the Krishak Praja Party, was the Bengal Premier and Shyama Prasad, as leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, was his deputy as Bengal Finance Minister. This was Bengal’s last chance of a united existence. Sadly, both the Bengal Congress and the Muslim League spared no effort to bring down the curtains on this experiment in Hindu-Muslim cooperation! Huq, once the driving force behind the Lucknow Pact between the Muslim League and the Congress, would go on to joining hands with the League and, in Lahore, fellow lawyer and once Lucknow Pact champion Muhammad Ali Jinnah would get him to sponsor the resolution for the creation of Pakistan!

Post retirement, Sir Ashutosh was back in private practice. He died suddenly in 1924 at Patna, where he had just lost a bitterly contested litigation on a Hindu succession matter to his opponent, Barrister Syed Hasan Imam.

An avid bibliophile, Sir Ashutosh had an enviable collection of over 86,000 books, most of which stand donated to the National Library by his heirs.

In 1964, the Government of India issued a stamp to commemorate the memory of Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee. Other than Nani Palkhivala, few lawyers, judges or jurists have been conferred with such a rare honour!

Nani Palkhivala
Nani Palkhivala

It is sad that Independent India has had to live only with the tale of Gandhi’s humiliation on a train in South Africa while memories of greats like Sir Ashutosh have been allowed to fade. To make amends, let me narrate an incident about when, like our Mahatma, Sir Ashutosh was an unwelcome first-class train passenger. Christian Wolmar writes about it in his book Blood, Iron and Gold: How Railways Transformed the World. Ashutosh had dozed off and on awakening found that his sandals were missing. His co-passenger, a white plantation owner, had thrown them out of the window to show his disapproval of a native travelling in the first class. However, the fellow made the mistake of going to sleep himself. When he woke up, he found that his jacket was missing. Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee assured him, "your coat has gone to fetch my slippers!"

Sanjoy Ghose is a Senior Advocate of the Delhi High Court.

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