Ashutosh Mukherjee: A centennial tribute

Ashutosh Mukherjee's appointment and tenure as a judge of the Calcutta High Court significantly expanded judicial discourse. He brought to bear on his work inexhaustible energy, great erudition and the integrity of scholarship.
Ashutosh Mukherjee: A centennial tribute
Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

If greatness comprises character and intellect of the highest order and is to be judged by the enduring value of someone’s thoughts and actions, Ashutosh Mukherjee was, beyond question, one of the most outstanding men. His life is a story of one signal achievement after another. Mathematician, lawyer, judge, jurist, educationist—he was all this and more. It would be impossible to do justice to content so manifold and life so full in a short article. May 25 marks the centenary of his passing, so this is an attempt at remembering his many contributions.

Ashutosh Mukherjee was born on June 29, 1864. He was a mathematical prodigy. His mathematical papers—some of them written while he was still at school—were published in journals of national and international repute. He secured first class firsts in both BA and MA Mathematics, winning coveted prizes. He then took to law and secured a doctorate. He was equally at home in other subjects. To say he was a genius would be erring on the side of restraint.

Mukherjee built a highly successful career with a combination of intellect and industry. He was appointed the Tagore Law Professor at Calcutta University in 1898 and authored the book, The Law of Perpetuities in British India, in 1902—still considered the polestar on the eastern horizon of jurisprudence. He was appointed a judge of the Calcutta High Court in June 1904. His appointment and tenure on the Bench significantly expanded judicial discourse. He brought to bear on his work inexhaustible energy, great erudition and the integrity of scholarship. His learning was vast and his exposition of law complete. Former Chief Justice Mohammad Hidayatullah placed him amongst the six most eminent judges India has produced.

He adorned the Bench for about 20 years and discharged his duties unremittingly, the quality of his work retaining the same sheen. His judgements have contributed in no small measure to shaping the law and adapting it to the necessities of the time. There are more than two thousand of them reported, covering every aspect of law and all eminently readable and authoritatively enunciated.

Ashutosh Mukherjee: A centennial tribute
Only a reformed Judiciary can deliver timely justice

He shared the belief with American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes that “Law, like life itself, is not doing a sum—it is painting a picture”. The pictures he painted will be looked at and studied as long as the art of judging remains. The jurist, even as a spokesman for the court, cannot escape being himself. The manner and personality of a judge appear in the interstices of his opinions and Mukherjee was ever himself among his brother judges, the distinctive style of his opinions always standing out.

Edmund Burke said that law sharpens the mind by narrowing it. But in a few of our great judges, it has lifted the mind to a level of comprehension and kindled a degree of humane ardour unsurpassed in other professions. The individual contribution of judges is absorbed in the anonymity of the coral reef by which the judicial process shapes the law. In the course of a century, the acclaim of a bare handful survives. Mukherjee belongs to that select class. To generations who have passed their lives in the law, his is truly clarum et venerabile nomen, an illustrious and venerated name.

Mukherjee was closely associated with Calcutta University and ungrudgingly gave of himself to the institution and to the cause of higher education, serving as Vice Chancellor for a few terms. He transformed the university into a seat for post-graduate teaching and research. He was responsible for spotting men of talent and getting them to the university, including persuading C V Raman and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to join as faculty. No other judge in India had such varied interests making such enormous demands upon his time.

He had one of the largest private collections of books—nearly a lakh. There was no catalogue, but he knew where exactly each book was.  The books were presented by the family to the National Library and are now housed in its Ashutosh Mukherjee wing.

Simple in his lifestyle, tastes and habits, he was profound in his thinking and dynamic in action. He was large-hearted and humane. One of his greatest qualities was fearlessness. This earned him the appellation of ‘Bengal Tiger’. He was also a nationalist in dress and outlook. Deeply rooted in our cultural heritage, he was never rigid and was a staunch votary of enlightened liberal values and an ardent social reformer. It may be said that he was an epitome of the best in Indian and Western cultures.

His sudden demise on May 25, 1924 brought down the curtain on an eventful life and career.  He went before his time, leaving us wondering as to what might have been had he lived longer. The love and respect with which we light his memory is a measure of his greatness and his contribution to diverse fields of human endeavour. In his history of the French revolution, Thomas Carlyle wrote of German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe thus: “One of the sort called immortal, him mark.” This would be apt for Ashutosh Mukherjee, too.

(Views are personal)

V Sudhish Pai | Senior advocate

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express