Chittaranjan Das, whose life is a landmark in the history of India's struggle for freedom, was endearingly called 'Deshbandhu' (friend of the country). Born on 5 November 1870 in Calcutta, he belonged to an upper middle class Vaidya family of Telirbagh in the then Dacca district.
His father Bhuban Mohan Das was a reputed solicitor of the Calcutta High Court. An ardent member of the Brahmo Samaj, he was also well known for his intellectual and journalistic pursuits. Das's patriotic ideas were greatly influenced by his father's.
After receiving his early education at the London Missionary Society's Institution at Bhowanipore in Calcutta, Das passed the entrance examination in 1885 as a private candidate. He graduated from the Presidency College in 1890. He then went to England to compete for the I.C.S.; but he was ‘the last man out’ in his year. Therefore he joined the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1894.
It was Bankim Chandra who partly influenced him in his political ideas. While at the Presidency College, Chittaranjan was a leading figure of the Student's Association; and from Surendranath Banerjea he took his first lessons in public service and elocution.
In 1894, Das came back to India and enrolled himself as a Barrister of the Calcutta High Court. But he did not get the backing badly needed to make a good start in the profession. In 1907, he appeared as the defence lawyer of Brahma (Bhadhav) Upedhyaya and Bhupendranath Dutta who were prosecuted for sedition.
His abilities as an advocate evoked general admiration, though he did not succeed in baffling the prosecution. The turning point in his career came when he was called upon to appear on behalf of Aurobindo Ghose in the Alipore Bomb Case in 1908. It was due to his brilliant handling of the case that Aurobindo Ghose was ultimately acquitted. This case brought Das to the forefront professionally and politically.
Das was the defence counsel in the Dacca Conspiracy Case in 1910 - 11. He was famous for his handling of both civil and criminal law. It was, however, not before 1917 that Das came to the forefront of nationalist politics. In that year he was invited to preside over the Bengal Provincial Conference held at Bhowanipore. At the Conference Das gave in Bengali his memorable presidential speech, animated by lofty idealism and patriotic fire.
Das's political career was brief but meteoric. In course of only eight years (1917 - 25) he rose to all - India fame by virtue of his ardent patriotism, sterling sincerity and oratorical power. His advent into politics in 1917 took place at a crucial moment. He played a significant role in the controversy over the election of Mrs Annie Besant as President of the Indian National Congress for its Calcutta Session. During this period he also took part in the agitation against the Government policy of internment and deportation under the Defence of India Act. On the eve of the Calcutta Session of the Congress, he had been on a lecturing tour of Eastern Bengal, addressing large gatherings on Self - Government.
In 1918, both at the Congress special session in Bombay and at the Annual Session in Delhi, Das opposed the scheme of Montagu - Chelmsford Reforms as wholly inadequate and disappointing. The demand for Provincial Autonomy was successfully propounded in the teeth of vehement opposition from Mrs Besant and others.
In 1919, Das went to Punjab as a member of the non - official Jallianwala Bagh Enquiry Committee. At the Amritsar Congress in the same year he made the first advocacy of obstruction while opposing the idea of co - operation with the Government in the implementation of the 1919 Reforms.
In 1920, at a special session of the Congress held at Calcutta under the presidency of Lajpat Rai, Gandhi ji announced his famous programme of Non - Cooperation. Das sought some changes in it but in vain. He however, had the support of Pal, Malaviya, Jinnah and Mrs Besant. Three months later the Congress met at Nagpur where he, however, accepted Gandhi ji's lead and came back to Calcutta to renounce his large practice at the Bar.
The whole nation was deeply impressed to see this supreme act of self - sacrifice. Besides the Non - Cooperation Movement, the large scale exodus of coolies from the Assam tea gardens and the strike of the Assam - Bengal railway employees engaged his attention in 1921.
In its repressive measures the Government declared as illegal the Congress Volunteers organisation which took a leading part in the boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1921. Deshbandhu decided to defy the arbitrary government order and was arrested and sentenced to six months' imprisonment.
After his release in 1922, he was elected President for the Congress Session at Gaya. With the suspension of the Non - Cooperation Movement, Deshbandhu tried to give a new orientation to Indian politics through his Council - Entry programme, i.e. ‘non-cooperation from within the Councils’. He however met with vehement opposition from the Mahatma and the no - changers. At the Gaya Congress C. Rajagopalachari led the Council - Entry opposition. His motion being lost, Deshbandu resigned the presidency.
Thereafter he organised the Swarajya Party within the Congress in collaboration with Motilal Nehru, the Ali brothers, Ajmal Khan, V. J. Patel, Pratap Guha Roy and others. It was initially known as the Congress - Swaraj - Khilafat Party. In spite of the bitter criticism launched by the no - changers like Shyam, Sundar Chakraborty and J. L. Banerjee, the Jalpaiguri Conference was organised by the Swarajists in 1923.
Through the efforts of the Swarajists, Maulana Azad was elected President of the Congress Special Session at Delhi, where the programme of Council - Entry was approved. The programme was later confirmed at the Cocanada Session. Deshbandhu wanted “Swaraj for the masses, not for the classes”. He believed in non - violent and constitutional methods for the realisation of national independence. In the economic field, Das stressed the need of constructive work in villages. A champion of national education and vernacular medium, he felt that the masses should be properly educated to participate in the nationalist movement.
Deshbandhu also made his mark as a poet and an essayist. His religious and social outlook was liberal. A believer in women's emancipation, he supported the spread of female education and widow remarriage. An advocate of inter - caste marriage, he gave his own daughters in marriage Brahmin and Kayastha families.
Chittaranjan passed away on 16 June 1925 at Darjeeling at the age of 55. The greatest and most dynamic leader of the then Bengal, he was above all an apostle of Indian nationalism.
“What is freedom? It is impossible to define the term; but one may describe it as that state, that condition, which makes it possible for a nation to realise its own individuality and to evolve its own destiny. The history of mankind is full of stirring stories as to how nations have struck for freedom in order to keep their nationalism and their individuality inviolate and untarnished.”
From the Presidential Address - Deshbandhu C. R. Das I.N.C. Session, 1922, Gaya. (Presented by Mahatma Gandhi)