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Remembering WC Bonnerjee, the first president of Indian National Congress

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An advocate of the Swadeshi movement, Bonnerjee remains one of the youngest presidents of the Congress.

In 1885, at the first session of the Indian National Congress, Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, an eminent lawyer, was chosen as its president.

In the party’s 133-year history, Bonnerjee, a nationalist and advocate of the Swadeshi movement, remains one of the youngest presidents of the Congress.

On his 173th birth anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at the life of one of the pioneers in modern Indian politics.

Career as a lawyer

Bonnerjee was born on 29 December 1844, in the Kidderpore area of Calcutta (now Kolkata) into a family of two successive generations of lawyers.

He attended the Oriental Seminary and Hindu School in Calcutta. However, before he could write his class 10 exams, his father got him articled to a local attorney, W.P. Downing, in 1861. And thus began his journey as a lawyer.

A year later, he started working as a clerk at the office of lawyer W.F. Gillanders. Bonnerjee learnt the art of writing deeds and pleadings here.

In 1864, Bonnerjee moved to London after he won the R.J. Jijibhai scholarship for his education. During his time in London, he studied under two prominent lawyers, T.H. Dart and Edward Fry. He also took part in establishing the London Indian Society in one of his earlier political efforts.

Three years later, Bonnerjee was invited to the Calcutta Bar. On his return in 1868, he started practising at the Calcutta High Court and fought his first case from his father’s firm. With support from Sir Charles Paul, Barrister-at-Law of the Calcutta High Court and J.P. Kennedy, Bonnerjee established himself in the high court.

The turning point in Bonnerjee’s career came in 1883, when he defended politician Surendranath Banerjea in a contempt of court case in the Calcutta High Court.

He was appointed a fellow of Calcutta University and became president of its Law faculty in 1886. He also represented the Calcutta University in the Bengal Legislative Council in 1894 and 1895.

Bonnerjee was the first Indian appointed as a Standing Counsel, and not just once but thrice — 1882, 1884, 1886.

In 1901, he retired from the Calcutta bar.

Also read: The ‘greatest envoy’ of Hindu-Muslim unity who later ensured a separate Muslim nation

As a politician

Bonnerjee presided over the first session of the Indian National Congress in 1885 — the biggest highlight of his career. He was 41 at the time of his unanimous election as the president of the party in the Bombay session.

He again presided over the Allahabad session of INC in 1892.

As part of his work for the Congress, Bonnerjee proposed the formation of standing committees of the party in every province for better coordination in work. He also proposed limiting party activities to just politics, and not indulging in social reforms.

Bonnerjee also strongly condemned the British Salt Tax, saying it was an unjust tax on “almost the chief necessity of life” in a poverty-stricken land.

Like other nationalists of the time, he favoured industrialisation of the country and advocated the Swadeshi movement.

Also read: Remembering Madan Mohan Malaviya, the moderate Hindu ‘Mahamana’ who founded BHU

Later life

In 1902, Bonnerjee moved back to London with his wife Hemangini Motilal and three children.

In London, due to his strong affinity towards his birthplace, Bonnerjee named his Croydon residence after Kidderpore.

On 21 July 1906, Bonnerjee died of prolonged sickness at the age of 62.

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