A strange story: Dismissal of Surendra Nath Banerjea from the ICS

justice is blind

“You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” Malcolm X  – By Any Means Necessary

Nefarious plot to hoodwink his mother!

The second batch of Indians in the ICS comprised only three, all Bengalis—Surendranath Banerjea, Beharilal Gupta and Romeshchandra Dutt—to qualify in 1871. Pioneer among the Indians was Satyendranath Tagore, who made it to “the heaven-born service” in 1863. Banerjea was, however, the first Indian to be dismissed from the steel-frame of colonial administration. The incident which triggered Banerjea’s dismissal, strangely, is rarely called in public discourses.

An accused Judisthir Kaibartta, in absentia, turned out to be his nemesis. Banerjea’s famous memoirs furnishes few bare facts of the case and ambience of Sylhet, the theatre of his tragedy. Both father Dr. Durgacharan Banerjee and son were infatuated by the aura of Indian Civil Service. The famous son, 58 years later, recorded that under a ‘nefarious plot’ [1], to use  his own words, the plan of journey to England for ICS examinations, was “carefully concealed”  from none other than   “my mother, and when at last on the eve of my departure the news had to be broken to her, she fainted away under the shock of what to her was terrible.” [2]

The shock of son’s betrayal, needless to emphasize, inflicted the cruellest blow to his mother, who instantaneously fainted! We can claim without any apprehension of contradiction that no Indian mother would stand so blindly to blast her children’s cherished dreams, if taken, in good faith, into confidence. In the end, she shines noble and sublime always and invariably, even though a son is a shame to motherhood.

Undeterred, the son, who was to become a legend of his motherland did not look back though the poor mother fainted. He sailed out of the country to chase his dreams. Incidentally, the son was kept in dark about his father’s death on February 28, 1870, lest the bereavement, if known, adversely impacted his preparations for the upcoming ICS examinations.  [3]  

First-Class Magistrate’s own order Greek to him?

Posted to Sylhet as Assistant Magistrate under District Magistrate, H. C. Sutherland, Banerjea joined on November 22, 1871, to “learn my work from him” as an apprentice. A stranger to Sylhet though, the Magistrate treated him “at first with cordiality and with a sense of lofty patronage.” [4] The initial cordiality between them, however, soon evaporated, nay, turned sour and was replaced by hostility. His account disclosed that Sutherland, an Anglo-Indian was “not very popular” which, astonishingly, claimed Banerjea, “I soon discovered.” [5] This attempt at discovery of unpopularity of the boss, arguably, was destined to invite unfortunate and unpleasant consequences. It was undeniable audacity on Assistant Magistrate’s part, as it did not take long to reach the ears of District Magistrate and thereby dramatically embittered relation between two ICS officers—one subordinate and the other controlling authority. “All this led to an alienation between the Magistrate and myself and the suspension of all friendly and personal relations,” bemoaned Banerjea.  This was inescapable.

Another Assistant Magistrate at Sylhet, was Posford, also an ICS, two-year senior to Banerjea. Both the Assistant Magistrates took Departmental Examinations which Banerjea passed but Posford could not. Following his success, Government vested the Bengali Assistant Magistrate with a first-class magisterial power together with usual pay increment. But, surprisingly, Banerjea believed that “My success was the cause of my official ruin.” [6] According to him, the District Magistrate did not like that “I should have passed and that Posford should have failed.” The contrast in Sutherland’s eyes, noted he further, was “derogatory to the prestige of the ruling race.” A grotesque logic few would perhaps buy.

His “position became extremely uncomfortable, if not absolutely intolerable” with the deterioration of relation between the Banerjea and Sutherland. [7] Without doubt the situation was grim, as there was “an alienation between the (District) Magistrate and myself and the suspension of all friendly and personal relations.” Incompatibility as this between the two was the perfect recipe for immediate disaster of an ICS probationer. The gnawing psychological moment had arrived, to remind us of the proverbial “round peg into a square hole.”

Untouchable Judisthir Kaibartta, Nemesis of the ICS     

At this juncture came “the climax in connection with a theft case in which one Judisthir was the accused” who was charged with theft of a boat. Originally on the file of Posford, the case was transferred to Banerjea for trial. “Owing to my heavy work it,” claimed Surendranath, had to be postponed from time to time. On December 31, 1872, an order was passed that the accused should be entered in the Ferari list, the list of absconding prisoners.” [8] This hardly can be accepted as the statement of facts. Banerjea explained that as a matter of fact the accused Judisthir had not absconded. Thereafter he added that it was an “artifice” for passing the order so that he could avoid giving an explanation for the long pendency of the case. Synonyms of ‘artifice’ are trickery, deception, dishonesty, cheating, bluff, chicanery, intrigue, fraud, pretence, to note few. One can rarely boast of ‘artifice’ in judicial record as edifying at all. The artifice went against a poor boatowner who sought justice from the court.

Bipin Chandra Pal, a leader of Indian freedom struggle, was a native of Sylhet district.  He had unflatteringly about Banerjea that “the foolish and rather easy going, young Bengali civilian whose unique position as a saheb had somewhat turned his head.” [9] He was a teenager in 1871. In 1874, when Banerjea was unceremoniously dismissed from ICS, Bipin had matriculated from Sylhet Zila School. The episode unfolded right before eyes and within the hearing of this impressionable teenager.

Banerjea’s substantial defence “Owing to my heavy work it (the case) had to be postponed from time to time” [10] was squarely debunked by a distinguished Bengal Civilian, 54 years later. Moti K. Kirpalani joined the ICS in 1925. His civilian, judicial and diplomatic assignments, home and abroad, included the District Magistrate and District and Sessions Judge, Midnapore, Barisal, Comilla and Chittagong while diplomatic assignments, besides Minister, Embassy of India, Washington, were Deputy High Commissioner, Karachi, Bangkok and Brazil, etc. He recorded that “As an Assistant Magistrate at Rajshahi I did not have much work to do: prepare for my Departmental examinations; learn the Bengali language…” etc. [11] An outsider, Kirpalani was to learn Bengali language. His assertion sharply nailed Banerjea’s defence as a lie and exposed his ‘artifice’. “I signed the order along with a heap of other papers” confessed and continued he, “My attention was not drawn to it; nor did I know it or understand the significance of the order.…If I had knowingly signed the order and knew its significance, such a mistake would have been impossible.” [12] How outlandish it indeed to speak as this was for an ICS officer exercising first-class magisterial powers!

An authority on public administration Philip Mason writes, “In the course of his first year, Banerjea sent in a false return. On one list he gave a full explanation for delays in dealing with the case—but the same case was included in another list of cases in which no action had been taken because the accused could not be arrested.” The Bengal Government held an inquiry by three senior officers, who found that “Banerjea had deliberately intended to deceive the Collector. The sentence was dismissal. Banerjea become a dismissed Government servant, branded for life.” [13]  A compassionate allowance of Rs. 50 was sanctioned for him.[14]

Banerjea set a glaring example for passing judicial order without application of mind. His peshkar, Kailash Chandra Deb led him to the abyss of darkness.

These facts rarely find focus in historiography. Upshot of Banerjea’s action in the end resulted in denial of justice to Jaikrishna, a poor boatowner. If first-class magistrate’s own order was Greek to him and if authorities were not impressed by his explanation, could they really be blamed for punishment inflicted on him?

To claim that the Surendranath was dismissed from ICS for a minor error of technical character or to portray him as a victim of racial discrimination is a ploy to defend his gross failure to deliver justice. Such pleas covered the disgraced ICS with colourful tapestry to deflect attention from the real reasons of his dismissal. State’s fundamental responsibility to provide justice to an aggrieved complainant was trampled.

Banerjea forgot that Jaikrishna was a citizen at par with any other ordinary citizens, enjoying equal rights and protection of law of the British Empire, white or brown, rich or poor, British or Indian.  The complainant deserved equal treatment as a British citizen. Sadly, justice eluded the complainant. The Kaibartta, an untouchable caste in 1872, by the way, was the largest Sylheti caste, engaged in cultivating and fishing, who aggregated at 1,34,523. [15]

An illustration of unflinching attachment and loyalty Surendranath had exhibited a decade after his dismissal from ICS may be cited. Relation between England and Russia reached a flashpoint “in 1885 when Russians drove off the Afgans from Panjdeh, [a border fort] and occupied it.” A frenzy of war took Indians by storm.  “Mobilization was ordered” and military preparations began. “The war which appeared inevitable was averted” by a dexterous Prime Minister Gladstone.” [16] On apprehension of outbreak, lo and behold, Surendranath accompanied 500 youth of sound health from respectable families to the British Army Headquarters for enrolment in as honorary soldiers for fighting against the Russians. [17]

Bengal cheered and admired the same Banerjea, as rashtraguru, i. e., ‘guru of nationalism’ for his leadership 20 years later during anti-partition agitation and swadeshi movement beginning in in 1905. He was a leader endowed with conflicting proclivities. About 15 years later in 1921 the rashtraguru was sworn as a minister by Lieutenant-Governor Lord Ronaldshay. Same year Knighthood was conferred on him. He carried the colonial badge of honour with pride till his last breath in 1925.

[1] Surendra Nath Banerjea, A Nation in Making, OUP, 1925, p. 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Surjyakumar Ghosal, Karmabir Surendranath, (BS 1318) 1912, Calcutta, pp. 13-14.

[4] Surendra Nath Banerjea, A Nation in Making, OUP, 1925, p. 27.

[5] S N Banerjea, A Nation in Making, OUP, 1925, p. 27.

[6] Ibid.

[7] S N Banerjea, op. cit., pp. 27-28.

[8] Ibid., p. 28.

[9] Bipin Chandra Pal, Memoirs of my Life and Times, 2nd revised edition, Calcutta, 1973, p. 122 quoted by A K Biswas in Social and Cultural Vision of India, Pragati Publications, Delhi, 1996, p. 182.

[10] Banerjea, op. cit.,

[11] K. L. Punjabi, ICS, The Civil Service in India, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, edited in 1965, p. 128.

[12] Banerjea, op. cit., p. 29.

[13] Philip Mason, The Men who Ruled India, Rupa & Co., Calcutta, 1992, p. 252.

[14] Ibid., p. 29

[15] A Statistical Account of Assam, Volume II, Districts of Goalpara (Including the Easter Dwars), The Garo Hills, The Naga Hills, The Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Sylhet and Cachar, Trubner & Co., London, 1879, p. 279.

[16]  R. C Majumdar, H C Raychaudhuri & Kalikinkar Datta, An Advanced History of India, Macmillan, Fourth edition, reprinted 1991, p. 829.

[17] Surjyakumar Ghosal, Karmabir Surendranath (Bengali), 1912, Calcutta, pp. 177-178.

Dr A K Biswas is a retired IAS officer & former Vice-Chancellor, Dr B R Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, writer, Dr A K Biswas can be reached at [email protected]


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News