Dwarakanath Ganguly – A Forgotten Hero

Dwarakanath Ganguly’s 175th birth anniversary passed away quietly on 20th April, this year. A crusader for the plight of the downtrodden – Dwarakanath has almost faded away from the history of 19th century Indian Renaissance.

Dwarakanath Ganguly born on 20th April, 1844 in a Kulin Brahmin family at a village named “Magurkhanda” in Bikrampur district, which is now part of Bangladesh. His father was Krishnadhan and mother Udaytara. His father employed at a Government office at Faridpur. Dwarakanath started his education in village local school or “pathshala”, later he shifted to his father’s place and joined a school at Faridpur. But due to his poor health he had to return to his village and continue his studies at a school in a nearby village, Kalipara. Dwarakanath learnt English in this school studied up to entrance level.

During his student life he was deeply influenced by Akshay Kumar Datta’s writing on the plight of Indian women that stated: “The first vital step to social regeneration is liberating woman from her bondage”. When Dwarakanath was only 17, he came to know a kulin girl of his neighborhood was killed by her relatives by poisoning. This incidence touched his mind deeply. He found that it was not a one – off case, but there were several death cases of kulin girls due to this form of marriage. At that time, kulin Brahmin grooms used to have multiple marriages and it was a very common practice in Bengal. But being a kulin Brahmin himself, Dwarakanath decided against this practice and vowed not to go in for polygamous marriage. It is for this strong decision by Dwarkanath it is said that his sisters had to remain unmarried.

He started teaching and worked in two schools for short period before joining a third school in Lonsing village. While Dwarakanath was working as a teacher around 1869, he started publishing a journal named “Abalabandhab” (friend of the women) from Dhaka. Through this journal he started exposing various issues related to women. Noted historian David Kopf has written, “This journal, which is probably first in the world devoted solely to the ‘liberation of women'”. Sambad Prabhakar stated that “Abalabandhab” was a fortnightly magazine published in 10th Jaistha 1276 (22nd May, 1869). Annual subscription including postage of “Abalabandhab” was Rs. 4/-. Through this magazine Dwarkanath began bringing to light concrete cases of exploitation and the extreme suffering of women. “Abalabandhab” became very popular amongst younger generation and Dwarakanath was looked upon as a Hero – championing the cause of women. Apart from “Abalabandhab” he also was an active stakeholder in “Sanjibani Patrika” and “Samalachok”.

Dwarakanath came to Calcutta in 1870 along with famous magazine “Abalabandhab’. It was unclear why he took the decision to settle in Calcutta. According to Sivanath it was the Brahmo young men who had requested Dwarkanath to work from Calcutta. As per Mahendranath Bidyanidhi, the orthodox social pressure on him and his family in Magurkhanda forced him to take the decision to relocate in Calcutta. After coming to Calcutta most probably he stayed in a Brahmo mess called Bikrampur mess in Musalmanpara lane. This mess was famous for its popular residents and the famous nationalist and orator Ananda Mohan Bose was one of its residents, Other famous residents of this mess were Rajaninath Roy, Sashibhushan Datta, P. K. Roy, Srinath Datta during their student life. This mess was also important as Ananda Mohan Bose, Prasanna Kumar Roy, Srinath Datta, Rajaninath Roy and Aghornath Chattopadhyay were initiated into Brahmoism by Keshub Chandra Sen from this mess.

Dwarkanath finally brought his family (his wife, his daughter Bidhumukhi and son) to Calcutta in 1872. Later he settled in the 2nd floor of 13 Cornwallis Street house and stayed there until the last day of his life.

Dwarakanath Ganguly served as a headmaster, teacher and even a cleaner in the boarding school Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya, which was founded in 1873 by an Unitarian lady Annette Akroyd. Dwarakanath virtually looked after everything in this school starting from collecting funds to preparation of food, hostel arrangements, healthcare of students etc. After Miss Akroyd left for her marriage, this school was renamed as Banga Mahila Vidyalaya in 1875. It was this school that brought out the illustrious students like Kadambani Basu, Abala Das, Sarala Das and Subarnaprabha Bose to name a few. Later this school was merged with Bethune school. Bethune School was an eye-opener for the Bengali upper middleclass and led to the opening of other such schools. In 1894, out of 138 students in Bethune school, 70 were Hindus, 55 Brahmos and 13 Christians.

Later Dwarkanath married Kadambini Basu who was 20 years younger to him. With a series of firsts to her credit, Kadambini was also one of the earliest working women in British India and among the first female physicians trained in western medicine in the whole of South Asia. As David Kopf wrote, “Kadambini was, appropriately enough, the most accomplished and liberated Brahmo woman of her time.” When Kadambini decision to study medicine received severe backlash from the upper caste Bengali community, it was Dwarakanath who encouraged her to follow her heart. In fact, when the editor of the popular periodical Bangabasi referred to her as a courtesan in his article, it is said that a furious Dwarakanath confronted him and (in a not very subtle manner) made him swallow the piece of paper where the comment was printed. He also took legal action, as a result of which the editor was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and fined one hundred rupees. Calcutta Medical College refused to admit Kadambini as a candidate despite her merit because there was no history of Indian women studying there. Dwarakanath, who had also been campaigning to ensure accommodation and enrollment of female students in Calcutta Medical College, legally threatened the authorities, after which they allowed Kadambini to study. 1886 marked her record as one the first Indian women physician eligible to practice western medicine alongside Anandi Gopal Joshi. She received her GBMC (Graduate of Bengal Medical College) degree, allowing her to practice. She  left for the United Kingdom in 1892 to get more experience in her field and received various certificates from Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dublin. After returning to India, she worked for a short period in Lady Dufferin Hospital and started her private practice later.

Indian Association was founded by Surendranath Banerjee and Ananda Mohan Bose in 1876. The objectives of this Association were “promoting by every legitimate means the political, intellectual and material advancement of the people”. The Association attracted educated Indians and civic leaders from all parts of the country, and became an important forum for India’s aspirations for independence. It later merged with the Indian National Congress. Within few years of its foundation Dwarakanath became the assistant secretary of this political organization and worked very hard towards its goals.

Ram Kumar Vidyaratna a Brahmo missionary, returned from a visit to Assam with horrible tales of inhuman conditions and exploitation of the ‘coolies’ by the British tea planters. Dwarkanath decided to go to Assam himself to explore the real conditions of those ‘coolies’. It was not an easy task as the planters always tried to hide the real conditions of the ‘coolies’ from the common people. Dwarakanath took personal risk to reach those tea plantations and investigate various ‘coolie’ issues. He took long treks as the plantation region had neither roads nor vehicles, he finally reached “Planter’s Raj” — as the region was colloquially called at that time. He started sending and publishing a series of articles on ‘coolies’ in Krishna Kumar Mitra’s nationalist newspaper “Sanjibani” and Surendranath Banerjea’s “Bengalee” to expose the near-slave like conditions of bonded “coolies” in Assam.  Later he raised the matter to the forums of the Indian National Congress, with the help of fellow Brahmo freedom fighter Bipin Chandra Pal.  Later this ‘coolie’ issue resulted in a nationalist agitation against the colonial rule which forced the British rulers to pay attention on this.

Effectively contesting British claims of worker emancipation, Dwarkanath’s reports told the stories of thousands of Indians who had been lured into Assam’s plantations with the false belief that they would get a living wage in salubrious conditions.They also grimly described the brutal punishments meted out and how one of every four “coolies” died, their deaths casually dismissed by the planters as being caused by disease or failure to adjust to climatic conditions. While Britain’s influential planter lobby did all they could to prevent Dwarkanath’s reports from having much impact on public opinion, they were unable to prevent it from receiving wide publicity in nationalist circles. In fact, the impact was so great that the Indian National Congress sent its own fact-finding missions to Assam to amass evidence. By the early twentieth century, Dwarkanath’s reports on Assam “coolies” had become an important plank for nationalist agitation against colonial rule. And finally, the pressure proved too much for the British, forcing them to abolish the imperial indenture system in 1920.

It was during this period when Dwarakanath was actively involved in politics Sadharan Brahmo Samaj was founded in May 1878. Dwarakanath was one of the most active founders of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and later took the responsibility as the secretary.

In 1890 the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj founded the Brahmo Balika Shikshalaya. It was initially established in the same building 13, Cornwallis Street and Dwarakanath was an active founder and was associated with this school till the last day of his life. Apart from Dwarkanath – the founders included Pandit Shivnath Shastri, Upendra Kishore Roy Choudhury Ananda Mohan Bose, Durga Mohan Das and others.  The Indian Messenger says “… In January 1896, the executive committee of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj felt themselves unable to maintain the institution for want of fund. The school was going to be abolished, when Mr. Ganguli undertook its management on his own responsibility, consenting to incur heavy pecuniary loss for its sake. But for him, the Brahmo community would have this day been without one of its most useful institutions.”

Dwarakanath died on 27th June, 1898 at an age of 54 years. At that time he was the secretary of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and Assistant Secretary in the Indian Association. On his death The Amrita Bazar Patrika reported – “It is with deep regret that we have to announce the death of Babu Dwarka Nath Ganguli, which melancholy event happened yesterday morning. He was one of the most active political characters in the country, and at one time the right-hand man of Babu Surendra Nath Banerjea. He possessed great organising powers, and as Assistant Secretary of the Indian Association, he did considerable service to that body. He was a progressive Brahmo, and held a prominent position among his community. His death is an irreparable loss to the Brahmos. He was a man of considerable energy had always the courage of his conviction. He has left a large circle of friends to mourn for him. We offer our sincere condolence to Mrs. Ganguli in her sad bereavement.”

We must remember him as a person who took strong stand against injustice in every form, it’s time we should acknowledge him as a national “hero” and show our respect he deserves.

By: Amit Das & Biswajit Roy

Sources:

  1. “Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Bangosamaj” by Sivanath Sastri
  2. “Atmacharit” by Sivanath Sastri
  3. “Abalabandhab Dwarakanath Ebong Kadambani” by Narayan Datta
  4. The Indian Messenger

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