The Tiger of Bengal

The Tiger of Bengal

July 10, 2014

On June 29 the Tiger of Bengal turned 150. It was the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, the prolific educator, often called Banglar Bagh, or ‘Tiger of Bengal’ for his high self-esteem, courage, academic integrity and a general intransigent attitude towards the British government.

Today he is most known for his efforts to spread education and make it more accessible, through his position as the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University (CU) from 1906 to 1914 (four consecutive two-year terms), and from 1921 to 1923. He was in fact only the second Indian to become the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University (the first was Gurudas Banerjee from 1890 to 1892).

However, he was much more than that, and Sivatosh Mookerjee, eminent biologist, had this to write about his grandfather on the occasion of his 125th birth anniversary in 1989: ‘When I look back into the history of his time to comprehend the gradual emergence of a man as a destiny-maker, I am impressed by three principal phases, one followed by the other in the unfolding of his life. 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. Though ultimately Sir Asutosh was more known for the third phase of his work with the University, the two earlier phases of his life were equally important in making what he would eventually become.’

Asutosh, with wife Jogmaya in London

Brilliant mathematician

Asutosh Mookerjee was a brilliant student. He passed the entrance examination conducted by CU in third position, earning a scholarship. In 1883, he passed the BA examination in first position and was awarded the Premchand-Roychand scholarship to complete a postgraduate degree in mathematics. Brilliant that he was, he obtained a double masters, in mathematics in 1885 and in physics 1886. He thus became the first student to be awarded a dual degree from Calcutta University.

Though a brilliant mathematician, he was not appointed as a research professor at the University of Calcutta because it was unable to raise the needed funds (Rs 9000 annually, then). At that time, Calcutta University was more of an examining body than a centre for serious research. Instead, he was offered a job in the Department of Public Instruction. He turned it down, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Law degree.

A young Sir Asutosh

Asutosh Mookerjee was a brilliant mathematician, so much so that at the age of just 16, in 1880, he published a mathematical paper titled ‘Proof of Euclid 1.25’ in the British journal, Messenger of Mathematics. This was to be the first of a numerous papers in mathematics both for foreign and Indian journals. He made seminal contributions in the fields of geometry and differential equations, appreciated by eminent mathematicians of the day like Arthur Cayley, Andrew Russell Forsyth and others.

Eminent lawyer

As a lawyer he was outstanding too, rising to be a judge of Calcutta High Court. He was one of the most eminent legal luminaries of pre-independent India. He was a highly successful advocate. Asutosh entered Calcutta High Court as an advocate in 1888 where his senior was Sir Rashbehari Ghosh, a legal stalwart at that time. In 1894, he obtained Doctor of Law degree and was appointed by Calcutta University as Tagore Law Professor. He became a judge of Calcutta High Court in 1904 and retired in 1923, also officiating for a few months as Chief Justice of Bengal in 1920. He passed judgements in nearly 2,500 cases, many of which are still quoted as masterpieces of judgment. He, though, pursued his mathematical studies and research even when he was busy as a lawyer.

Asutosh Mookerjee (front row, third from left) in the company of other eminent lawyers

Seminal educator

However, perhaps his greatest contributions were as an educator. As the vice-chancellor, he introduced a variety of disciplines in Calcutta University and opened a number of institutes as well as part of the university. Thus he was responsible, to a large extent, for transforming Calcutta University from an examining body to a major centre of learning and research in the Indian subcontinent. According to his biographer, NK Sinha, Asutosh Mookerjee was ‘convinced that a combination of research and teaching was the inalienable basic principle of a University.’ He was instrumental in discovering many talents, among them the scientist, Dr CV Raman and the philosopher and future President of India, Dr S Radhakrishnan.

Asutosh Mookerjee as vice-chancellor of CU

It was to Calcutta University that Asutosh Mookerjee invited CV Raman to come and join, in the physics department. Raman worked out his 1930 Nobel Prize-winning research into light in a small ramshackle laboratory on Bowbazar Street (now called BB Ganguly Street), not far from the Calcutta University campus on College Street. Sir Asutosh also invited Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the legendary philosopher and later President of India, to teach in the university. Radhakrishnan was also a Nobel Prize nominee in literature five times from 1933 to 1937, and in peace twice, in 1950 and in 1956.

The famous trio of Indian science and mathematics, Meghnad Saha, PC Mahalanobis and Satyendranath Bose, who went on to make seminal contributions to science, were all contemporaries of Asutosh Mookerjee in Calcutta University, and established themselves at Calcutta University mostly at his behest.

Using his vast network of scholars and friends, he brought in accomplished professors, both Indian and European, to the university. His writer-son Uma Prashad recalled years later that, wherever he went, he would meet some friends of his father. Even in remote Peshawar.

Famous protege CV Raman

Asutosh Mookerjee was initimately associated with the university from a very young age. At just 25, he became a member of the syndicate. He was a member of the Senate and Syndicate for over 16 years. For 11 years he was the president of the Board of Studies in Mathematics, representing the university in the Bengal Council from 1899 to 1903. He was an additional member of the Viceroy’s Council representing Bengal during 1903-04 and a member of the Indian Universities Commission in 1902. These responsibilities made him eminently eligible to become the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, which he remained for four consecutive terms, and then one more term later. He was knighted by the British government in 1911, and became known as Sir Asutosh Mookerjee.

Asutosh Mookerjee founded some of the well-known institutes of Calcutta University. He was responsible for the foundation of Bengal Techinical Institute (which later became Jadavpur University) in 1906 and Calcutta University College of Science (better known as Rajabazar Science College) in 1914. Asutosh College was founded under his stewardship in 1916, when he was the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University.

Further, he founded Calcutta Mathematical Society in 1908 (and served as its president from 1908 to 1923), was thrice elected president of the Asiatic Society (1907-08, 1921, 1922), was appointed the president of the Imperial (now National) Library Council in 1910 and was the president of the inaugural session of the Indian Science Congress in 1914. Along with Dr Ziauddin Ahmed, he was also appointed a member of the 1917-1919 Sadler Commission, presided over by Michael Ernest Sadler, which inquired into the state of Indian education.

Legend has it that when Asutosh Mookerjee bought books at Kolkata’s famous book market on College Street, a porter had to carry them home. He had a personal collection of around 80,000 books, which his heirs donated to the National Library, where they are kept in a separate section.

A view of the Sir Asutosh Collection at the National Library

Banglar Bagh, the Tiger of Bengal

Asutosh Mookerjee stood up to the British attitude of considering Indians servile and only good for doing their bidding. This was what made him the Banglar Bagh or ‘Tiger of Bengal’.

A few memorable incidents serve as pertinent pointers to the appropriateness of this sobriquet. Once Asutosh Mookerjee had to visit Aligarh as a member of the University Commission. On his way back, while he was travelling in the first class compartment, a British military officer, who was a co-passenger, threw his indigenous shoes off the train out of contempt while he was sleeping. When Asutosh found his shoes missing on awakening, he could see through the whole matter. So he did likewise: in no time he threw out the sleeping British officer’s coat out of the window. When the officer woke up and enquired about his costly coat, Asutosh boldly replied, “Your coat has gone to fetch my shoes!”

Another memorable example of his boldness is when he defied the request of Lord Curzon, the then viceroy of India, on the strength of his fathomless devotion to his mother. The viceroy made a request to Asutosh to pay a visit to England so that the Britons could see a specimen of the scholars produced by British education in India. As his mother would not allow her son to cross the seas, because of the superstition about kala pani, Asutosh had to decline the request. At this Lord Curzon wrote: “Tell your mother the Viceroy and Governor-General of India commands her son to go.” The Tiger of Bengal though was not to be taken up. He wrote back with a cutting “Then I will tell the Viceroy and Governor-General of India that Asutosh Mukherji refuses to be commanded by any other person except his mother, be he Viceroy or be he somebody higher still.”

The words of the French scholar, Sylvan Levi’s are worth recalling here: "Had this Bengal Tiger been born in France, he would have exceeded even Clemenceau (French prime minister, one of the principal architects of the Treaty of Versailles), the French Tiger. Asutosh had no peer in the whole of Europe."

Stamp dedicated to the Tiger of Bengal

He stood up to the British all right. But he was astute in his dealings as well. He was at home with the street-fighters of the freedom movement on the one hand and the British viceroy and his administrative machine on the other. Diversity was intrinsic to the charisma of Asutosh.

A major political triumph Asutosh scored in the first year of his vice-chancellorship was to oppose the recommendations of Bamfylde Fuller of Eastern Bengal and Assam to disaffiliate a number of schools because a number of boys in these schools had taken part in the anti-partition agitation (against the partition of Bengal in 1905). Asutosh used utmost tact in convincing the viceroy, Lord Minto, who had appointed him the vice-chancellor, that such a move would be unfair and unwise. Minto accepted the advice of Asutosh. Fuller could not take this and resigned, which Minto promptly accepted. With reference to Asutosh, in his letter to Morley on January 23, 1907, he wrote: ‘His evident force of character has impressed me’. This force of character showed itself time and again, often to the embarrassment of the government.

Again, when Subhash Chandra Bose, then a student of Presidency College, which was under Calcutta University, assaulted Professor Oaten, an Englishman, for abusing Indians, he was suspended from the college. There was immense pressure on Sir Asutosh, the vice-chancellor, to rusticate Subhas from the university. But he could not allow the academic life of a brilliant student to be nipped in the bud for standing up against injustice. So instead, he arranged for Subhash to continue studies at the Scottish Church missionary college.

The origin of the sobriquet, Banglar Bagh (‘Tiger of Bengal’), by which he is well-known, has a French connection, according to Dinesh Chandra Sen (Bengali writer, educationist and researcher of Bengali folklore) in his biographical book, Asutosh Smritikatha (1936). The famous war-time French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau possessed a fearsome, walrus whiskers-like (or tiger whiskers, if you will) moustache, which, along with his defiant nature, earned him the nickname Le Tigre (‘The Tiger’). Sir Asutosh Mookerjee’s proud possessing of a similar moustache, and a similar defiant, never-say-die attitude prompted the newspaper, Amrita Bazar Patrika to bestow on him the title of Banglar Bagh.

Man driven by a mission

Asutosh Mookerjee strived for the propagation of education and science in Bengal, and in India by extension, through his vice-chancellorship of Calcutta University. He took the best out of western education and Indian heritage to stimulate the minds of young Indians. He rendered colossal services in establishing modern education in Bengal and making it accessible to a larger section of the population. Asutosh Mukherjee left behind a large intellectual and cultural legacy for his charmed compatriots, scholars, students, admirers and friends.

Ramananda Chatterjee, often called the father of Indian journalism, wrote: “The services rendered to Calcutta University by Sir Asutosh Mookerjee deserves unstinted praise. No man ever devoted his intellectual powers, his energies and his time to the service of this University to the extent that Sir Asutosh has done. No one possesses such grasp of the details of all its affairs as he does.” In a similar vein, Lord Lytton, who was governor of Bengal, said: “Asutosh, in the eyes of his countrymen and in the eyes of the world, represented the University so completely that for many years Asutosh was in fact the University and the University, Asutosh.”

"Men are always rare in all countries through whom the aspiration of their people can hope to find its fulfillment, who have the thundering voices to say that what is needed shall be done; Asutosh had the magic voice of assurance. He had the courage to dream because he had the power to fight and the confidence to win – his will itself was the path to the goal."

– Rabindranath Tagore

Statue of Asutosh Mookerjee in front of Victoria House, Kolkata

Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team

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