Bannerjee, Woomesh Chandra

Bannerjee, Woomesh Chandra (1844-1906) lawyer and politician and the first president of the Indian National Congress, was born in a suburb of Kolkata in 1844. Although a lawyer, his father was neither rich enough to send him to England nor was in favour of it; as there was, at that time, a strong social prejudice against crossing the sea. It was with the help of his father's friend Cockerel Smith that Woomesh Chandra went to England in 1864 on a Rustamji Jumxhedji Jiji Bai scholarship to study law. In order to avoid the wrath of his family and friends, he had to flee to England and let his father know about his whereabouts only when he arrived in London. He qualified as a barrister in June 1867 and returned to Kolkata almost one and a half years later and joined Kolkata High Court in November 1868. He later became a successful and renowned barrister. Banerjee earned princely income from legal practice in the Calcutta High Court. He became a `saheb' by anglicising his name Banerjee into Bonnerjee. To his son, he gave the English name of Shelley.

He showed his leadership quality while still in London and with the help of Dadabhai Naoroji, he established an association for the Indians in 1865. Later he helped his junior friend, surendranath banerjea to establish, in 1876 the Indian Association, the first political organisation in India. He was also one of the organisers of the indian natioanl congress and became its first and eighth president. He was a member of the Bengal Legislative Council (1893-95) as well. Highly politicised as he was, he later contested a seat in the House of Commons as a candidate of the Liberal Party in 1898.

Woomesh Chandra was a liberal Anglophile, and a strong supporter of female education. He gave his illiterate wife, Hemabgini, a good education when he returned to Kolkata from London. At his insistence, she became thoroughly anglicised in her outlook and dress style. Still unsatisfied, he wanted his children to become thoroughly europeanised. 'Therefore, he sent his wife and three children to London in early 1874. Hemangini began living permanently in south London since 1888, when Woomesh bought a house there, which virtually turned into the centre of politics of expatriate Indians. His children went to Oxford and Cambridge and received higher education. After his retirement, he went permanently to England in 1902, where he died in January 1906. Even though he allowed his wife to convert to Christianity, he had lost his faith in institutionalised religion and instructed his family not to perform any religious rites after his death. [Ghulam Murshid]