Obituary: Sankardas Banerji
SANKARDAS BANERJI's life spanned most of the century, from the heyday of the Bengal Renaissance and the security of the world before 1914 to the last days of the British Raj, and Communism West Bengal style. He was one of the most celebrated lawyers of his generation and renowned for his passionate championship of the underdog.
Banerji was born in 1903 into an aristocratic family in the Nadia district of central Bengal, who had been landowners in the area for some 600 years. The Banerjis were one of the first families in Bengal to embrace Western science and learning in the 19th century. Sankardas Banerji's father studied medicine at University College Hospital, London, and later in Paris, under Louis Pasteur, before returning to India in 1891 as one of the first Western- trained doctors and surgeons. Banerji's mother, one of the first women in India to hold a university degree, was from an equally distinguished family. Five of her brothers married nieces of Rabindranath Tagore and Devika Rani, 'the first lady of Indian cinema', was Banerji's first cousin.
Sankardas Banerji grew up in an unusual and cultivated atmosphere where the best of Indian landed tradition was combined with a love of Western learning, science and literature. The close circle of family and friends included most of the names famous in the Bengal Renaissance, the vibrant intellectual and artistic awakening of Bengali culture and language of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which led to wider Indian nationalism and ultimately independence: among them were the poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, Sakumar Ray, the humorist and publisher, and Sir JC Bose, the physicist and botanist.
After schooling at the Hindu School in Calcutta and a law degree from Calcutta University, Banerji enrolled as an advocate of the Calcutta High Court. He then joined Lincoln's Inn, was called to the Bar in 1927 and returned to Calcutta shortly after.
Partition in 1947 saw much tragedy and loss of life in Bengal. Banerji's wife's family fled to the Indian side of the border, losing almost all their considerable property in what became East Pakistan. Memories of the great Calcutta killings of 1946 were still vivid, of months of curfew, and bodies lying in the streets. Faced with the threat that his home might be transferred to Pakistan, and warned that Muslim League supporters would seize it, Banerji took his nine-year-old son and they prepared to hold the house. Warned of ambush, they escaped probable death by hiding under the seats of the railway carriage, continuing to the nearest town, Plassey, where they could get help. The local villagers helped them to hold the estate until the deliberations of the Boundary Commission were made known; that the estate would be in India.
Much of Banerji's early success at the Calcutta Bar was due to his unusually detailed knowledge of land law and country matters as it was to his incisive cross-examinations in court.
Associated with Nehru's Congress Party since 1936, Banerji finally entered politics in 1952, when he was elected to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. He remained in Bengal rather than becoming an MP in the central federal parliament in Delhi because it enabled him to combine a political career, which reached its peak as Finance Minister of the State of Bengal in 1962, with a successful law practice. But equally important to him was raising his growing family and shooting, farming and gardening at his beloved Plassey House, the only country house and garden of European classical style that survived, through Banerji's efforts, the land reforms of the 1950s.
The 1950s saw the development of a political friendship with the Nehru family which lasted three generations. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were both visitors when campaigning in West Bengal. Banerji's last government appointment was as Advocate General in 1967, a post in which he was extremely successful. Since then the Congress Party has been in opposition in West Bengal. Banerji's brief attempt to set up a separate Bengal Congress party in 1967 petered out.
Sankardas Banerji continued to practise law until over the age of 90 and much Scotch whisky flowed when his 60 years as a barrister was celebrated. He was known for his charity, endowing in memory of his parents a high school in Nadia district, one of many personal charitable projects.
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