With his bristling moustache and piercing gaze, Ashutosh Mukherjee lived up to his sobriquet ‘Banglar Bagh’—the tiger of Bengal. From Subhas Chandra Bose to Srinivasa Ramanujan and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to C.V. Raman, the people who helped shape modern India interacted with Mukherjee at some point in their illustrious careers.
In describing the judge who is said to have passed judgements in nearly 20,000 cases and the educationist who single-handedly put Calcutta University on the world map, Rabindranath Tagore had said: “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.” He is also considered the first modern Indian mathematician to enter the field of mathematical research.
According to his grandson, Sivatosh Mukhopadhyay, Ashutosh Mukherjee’s career that oscillated between academia and law could be encapsulated into three ‘phases’. “The first phase of his career was as a votary of mathematics, the second phase as a devotee of law, and the third phase as a creator and builder of the University.”
But his legacy isn’t pristine. Ask female lawyers about his ruling on the role of women in the Indian legal system.
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‘Freedom’ in universities
Born on 29 June 1864, at Bowbazar in Kolkata, Mukherjee was the first student from Calcutta University to earn a dual degree—MA in Mathematics and MSc in Physics. But his tryst with the institution would continue long after. He went on to serve as the second Indian Vice-Chancellor of the university for a decade.
As an educator who was not afraid to speak his mind and uphold the truth, Mukherjee had said, as that it was “freedom first, freedom second, and freedom always” for him when it came to the university space. And he delivered too.
Perhaps the greatest display of his faith in the spirit of freedom in colleges was when Subhas Chandra Bose assaulted a history professor at Presidency College in 1916 for his racist comments against natives. Bose was suspended from the college and there was mounting pressure to rusticate the young revolutionary. But vice-chancellor Mukherjee didn’t quite budge. He arranged for Bose to continue his education at the Scottish Church missionary college.
As vice-chancellor, Mukherjee also introduced several innovative graduate programs on Islamic culture, anthropology, comparative literature, applied psychology, industrial chemistry, ancient Indian history and culture. One of his significant achievements was to bring the Senate and Syndicate to terms for recognition of Indian vernaculars—Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Pali being introduced as preferable subjects at the University.
It was this attitude of resilience and innovation that Mukherjee became not only a judge but also the Chief Justice of India at a time when Britishers wouldn’t nominate Indians for higher positions.
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Breaking, building barriers in law
Mukherjee’s entry into law is believed to have begun following the arrest of Rashtraguru Surendranath Bannerjee, then editor of The Bengali, for publishing remarks that were in contempt of the court.
After completing his law degree in 1888, Mukherjee became a vakil at the Calcutta High court. By 1897, he received the doctorate of law, LLD, while serving as the Tagore Professor of Law at the university and published The Law of Perpetuities in British India. In 1904, he took charge as a judge of the Calcutta High Court and was elevated to the post of Chief Justice of Bengal in 1920.
However, to this date, his ruling on the role of women in the legal system has been a thorn in his legacy. “There is no escape from the position that the Legislature in this country never contemplated the admission of women to the rank of Legal Practitioners,” he had said in the case of Regina Guha, as recorded by academic Jhuma Sen. Mukherjee had argued against Guha, who wanted to be enrolled as a pleader at the Alipore district court.
Reminders of Mukherjee’s persona
Mukherjee was knighted by the British crown at the age of 24 in recognition of the many contributions he had already made. Among other landmarks named after him, the walls of Asutosh College in Hazra, Kolkata, which he established in 1916, stand tall as a reminder of his towering persona.
He was also a fellow at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Royal Astronomical Society, Physical Society of France and the Mathematical Society of Palermo, and became a member of the Royal Irish Academy, the London Mathematical Society, the Paris Mathematical Society and the American Mathematical Society.
Mukherjee was also one of the first to recognise the work of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Moreover, he is also credited for highlighting the work of physicist C.V. Raman, philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, PC Roy (‘the father of chemistry in modern India’), historian and epigraphist D.R. Bhandarkar. It was at his behest that these personalities became a part of the Calcutta University scholarly milieu. In fact, Mukherjee persuaded Raman to teach Physics and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to teach philosophy at the university.
Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, in a speech after Mukherjee’s death on 25 May 1924, at the age of 59, described him as “far greater than merely a great educationist. His heart was with the nation. He was a builder. He tried to build this great Indian nation and honour it by his activities and I know many were the plans he formed, of work after his retirement”. Researchers to this day continue to study the reforms he brought in.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)