Dhirendranath Datta: Glimpses of a life
M. Waheeduzzaman Manik
Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta (1886-1971) was the harbinger of the formative phase of the Bengali language movement, and he had made history on February 25, 1948 by demanding that Bengali to be recognized as one of the State languages of the new nation of Pakistan even though his proposal was meant to be an amendment permitting the use of Bengali along with Urdu and English in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. During the early years of Pakistan, he had remained an ardent defender of the Bengali language both in the CAP and the East Bengal Legislative Assembly. He became a martyr of the liberation war of Bangladesh in April 1971. Despite his pivotal role in jumpstarting the formative phase of the Bengali language movement during the most defining moment of Bangladesh's quest for freedom and self-determination, his name has thus far remained essentially forgotten and neglected. It is also ironic that there exists a serious paucity of literature on the formative phase of his life and political struggle.
Dhirendranath Datta was born on November 2, 1886 in a village named Ramrail, approximately three miles away from Brahmanbaria, a sub-divisional town of the then Tripura (then spelled as Tipperah) district (later renamed as Comilla district). Dhirendranath Datta was very intimate with his father, who was a very kind man, and he was very inspired by his father's idealism. He inadvertently did not mention his mother's name in his memoirs. However, he mentioned that his father got married with a daughter of Bhubanmohan Rakhhit of Chapitala village under Sadar subdivision of Tripura district. He lost his mother when he was only 9 years old
After finishing his education at Ripon College, Dhirendranath Datta decided to go back to his home district to live and work, and he made this determination instead of seeking a job or pursuing a legal career in Calcutta, a city where he lived and studied for almost six years. He left Calcutta on February 27, 1910 to start a teaching job in a high school that was located in a remote village named Bangra under the jurisdiction of Muradnagar Thana of the then Tripura district. He worked there as Assistant Headmaster of Bangra Umalochan High (English) School from March 1, 1910 through February 2, 1911. Although he enjoyed his teaching job in that rural high school, he decided to quit this job to pursue a law practice at Comilla town. He formally started his law practice on February 8, 1911 in Comilla town, and he continued to be a distinguished lawyer there till his brutal murder in April 1971 at the hands of the murderous Pakistani army.
Dhirendranath Datta's debut in Bengal politics dates back to his student days at Ripon College. His subsequent political life was enormously conditioned by the life experiences and insights that he had gained during his student days in Calcutta from 1904 to 1910. He was a first year F.A. student in 1905 when he got involved in the anti-British movement to annul the partition of Bengal. In those turbulent years, both the Indian National Congress and the Bengal provincial Congress were dominated by two groups of leaders. While Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), Bipin Chandra Pal (1870-1932), and Aurobindo Ghosh (1872-1950) led the extremist group, Surendranath Banerjee was the leader of the moderates. Dhirendranath Datta was the supporter of the moderate group in the Congress. However, he was also deeply inspired by the dedication and oratory of Bipin Chandra Pal, the leader of the extremists.
Dhirendranath Datta worked as a volunteer at the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress which was held in Calcutta in December 1906, and he was deeply inspired by Dadabhai Naoroji's demand for Swaraj (self-rule) for India. In 1908, he also attended the annual conference of the Bengal provincial Congress at Boharampur. Although he was deeply inspired by the Congress demand for boycotting foreign goods, he had protested when some delegates to the Congress conference at Boharampur proposed the creation of the so-called 'Bentwood Chair'.
Dhirendranath Datta also participated in the social conference that was held in Comilla during the 1914 provincial Congress meeting, and he opposed a proposal for 'widow marriage'. He regretfully recapitulated that incident in the following words: "I am saying this with a sense of shame that I had opposed the question of widow marriage even though I completely changed my view later about widow marriage." In fact, he became a champion of various social reforms even within his own religion throughout his political career, especially during the years between the two World Wars. As a delegate from Tripura district, he attended the Bengal provincial Congress in April 1919 in Mymensingh, and on his return to Comilla he was devastated at hearing the news of the barbaric massacre of innocent civilians by the British on April 13, 1919 at Jalianwalabagh.
By mid-1920s, Dhirendranath Datta had emerged as a champion of various social reforms even within his own religion. In 1921, he was instrumental in founding the 'Mukti Sangha' at Comilla, the principal aim of which was to eradicate untouchability and caste system from the Hindu society. In 1923, he was also involved in the establishment of 'Abhoy Ashram' at Comilla. He also worked hard to forge a durable unity between Hindus and Muslims. Although he was a supporter of the Congress, he was greatly inspired by many admirable efforts of C.R. Das and his Swarajja party toward forging Hindu-Muslim unity. He was deeply shocked after he heard the news about the sad and sudden death of C.R. Das on June 16, 1925.
In its historic Lahore Session in late December 1929, the Indian National Congress had demanded 'Purna Swaraj' (full independence) for India, and it was stipulated that if the British Government failed to grant independence by January 26, 1930 then a Civil Disobedience movement would be launched throughout all provinces of India. Dhirendranath Datta made a conscious determination to follow through the Congress directives at any cost. When the time for real action against the British came on January 26, 1930, he wholeheartedly supported and followed all directives of the Congress through his direct participation in the civil disobedience movement.
Dhirendranath Datta organized a huge mass procession at Comilla town on July 2, 1930 protesting Motilal Nehru's arrest. In defiance of the police order, the protestors under his leadership had refused to disperse the procession. On that day, he was mercilessly lathi-charged by the then British Superintendent of Police of Tripura district. Dhirendranath Datta and a host of other protestors were arrested on July 2, 1930 for defying police orders. After keeping him for several hours in the police station, the law enforcement authority presented him and his fellow protestors at the Deputy Magistrate's Court in the afternoon of the same day. As a gesture of goodwill, the presiding Magistrate had expressed his desire to release them on bail on the condition that they have to attend the Court on the scheduled dates for trial. He firmly replied, "I refuse to recognize you as a Court." The entire Court was filled with 'Bande Mataram' slogans. He was then sent to Comilla jail in the evening of July 2, 1930. After 15 days, he was summarily tried by a Court inside Comilla jail on July 17, 1930 in which he had again refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Court. This summary Court, presided over by the then Sub-Divisional Officer (S.D.O.) of Comilla, Nepalchandra Sen, who was his former roommate and classmate, sentenced him to three months' rigorous imprisonment.
The dismal failure of the Second Round Table Conference in December 1931 and the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi immediately after his return to India on January 4, 1932 had given birth to the final phase of the Civil Disobedience movement. Dhirendranath Datta was arrested from his Comilla residence on January 9, 1932, and he was kept in jail for one month without any trial. This was his second internment. He was released from jail on February 8, 1932.
Aimed at courting arrest and violating the conditions of the notice, Dhirendranath Datta addressed a meeting in the evening at the Bar Library on the same day he was released from jail. He did not report to the police station. He was arrested at 8 p.m. on February 8, 1932. After he was kept in jail for a couple of days, he was put on trial in front of a magistrate inside the Comilla jail. He demonstrated his uncompromising commitment to the cause of the civil disobedience movement by refusing to take part in that trial but he had issued a pungent statement in which he stated the following: "The notice that has been served upon me is intended to kill the man in me and I have prevented this murder by disobeying the notice." He was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for one year. He was released from jail in February, 1933 after he had served the full term of his sentence. On his return to Comilla in February 1933, he found out that his family had to move out of his Comilla residence and started living in his village home under extreme financial difficulties. By 1933, the Civil Disobedience movement died out.
Dhirendranath Datta was overwhelmingly elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly during the historic provincial legislative election in 1937. Although Dhirendranath Datta had to spend 18 months behind bars during his first tenure (1937-1945) as the member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly, he was one of the most articulate and committed legislators at a critical juncture of the history of the Indian subcontinent. Despite the fact that he was in the opposition in the provincial legislature, he was actively involved in the passage of the Bengal Tenancy Act, the Bengal Debtors' Act, and the Bengal Money Lenders' Act. In 1940, he was elected Deputy Leader (Kiran Shankar was elected as the Leader) of the Congress parliamentary party in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. It was Dhirendranath Datta who brought a cut motion during the budget session in June 1945 that literally led to the downfall of Khwaja Nazimuddin's provincial Government. Pursuant to the fall of the Khwaja Nazimuddin Ministry, the then Governor of Bengal had dissolved the provincial assembly in November 1945 and declared to hold the assembly elections during early (February-March) 1946. As a Congress candidate, Dhirendranath Datta was reelected in 1946 to the Bengal Legislative Assembly. On behalf of the Congress party, Kiranshankar Roy and Dhirendranath Datta were elected to be the Leader and Deputy Leader respectively of the opposition party in the assembly. Since the possibility of partition of India and the province of Bengal was gaining ground in 1946, he had to take some of the most critical decisions of his entire political career.
A life-long champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, Dhirendranath Datta was horrified to see the rise of communalism and the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1946. On the eve of the division of India, he had several options. As the Deputy Leader of the Congress parliamentary party in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, he could choose to opt for India where his political career would have been protected. He could realize that his future was at best problematic in a Muslim majority country if he opted for Pakistan. Yet Dhirendranath Datta made a conscious determination to opt for the new nation of Pakistan. On a matter of principle, he was unwilling to abandon his constituents. He became a member of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP) in December 1946 and continued to be a member of the CAP till this body was arbitrarily dissolved in October 1954. He attended the first session of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP) on August 12, 1947. He also attended the historic session of the CAP on August 14, 1947 in which Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, had transferred power to M.A. Jinnah, the newly appointed Governor General of the new nation of Pakistan. Dhirendranath Datta had moved an amendment at the CAP on February 25, 1948 for adopting "Bengali" as one of the official languages of the CAP. It is clearly evident from his speech that he also demanded for adopting Bengali as one of the "State" languages of Pakistan. Among many others who were in the vanguard of the formative phase of the Bengali Language Movement, his role was seminal in the process of jumpstarting our resistance against those forces that were engaged in repudiating the rudiments of Bengali language and culture through the imposition of Urdu.
It is evident from whatever scanty literature is available on the formative phase of his life that his motto of social service was greatly shaped by his concern for his country and his compassion for common masses. Doubtless, he was a good lawyer-politician. However, the most distinctive quality of this extraordinary man of integrity and honesty was that numerous opportunities could not add luster to his reputation. He never shunned the code of ethics of his legal profession. Nor did he ever deviate from his cherished life-long motto of social service. He was regarded as a person of amiable disposition, and it is fair to suggest that he was a gentleman par excellence. His was a graceful and courteous presence both inside and outside of the courtrooms or legislative chambers. However, on a matter of principle, he was not willing to demonstrate any kind of timidity even before the most powerful.
Dhirendranath Datta performed a yeoman's service during the non-cooperation movement. At a personal level, however, he went through a social and political transformation during this historic movement. His direct participation in this volatile movement also gave him a rare opportunity to practice politics at the grassroots level in the rural areas even though his extended family had to endure untold financial difficulties. His life was also impacted by the historic Civil Disobedience Movement that was launched by the Congress in early 1930s. During different phases of the civil disobedience movement, he suffered three separate prison terms totaling a period of sixteen months. As a participant in the Satyagraha and the 'Quit India' movements that took place in early 1940s, he was put behind bars twice for a total period of eighteen months. The way he had courted arrests and jail terms during those tumultuous years of Bengal politics is an exemplary testimonial to a true freedom fighter and patriot. Since his direct participation in various anti-British movements involved a great deal of personal risk and sacrifice, his deep sense of patriotism and selflessness and his commitment to other people can be identified as the chief incentive behind his bold decision of staying back in Pakistan for which he had to endure humiliation and various forms of hardship. However, his sacrifices did not go in vain. Dhirendranath Datta's profile in courage that was demonstrated both before and after the partition of India and his role as a dauntless defender of the Bengali language and culture will be remembered beyond the boundaries of time.
Dr. M. Waheeduzzaman Manik is chairman of the Department of Public Management at Austin Peay State University and writes from Clarksville, Tennessee, USA.