Jnananjan Niyogi was actively associated with the Indian independence movement and was a social reformer.
The son of Braja Gopal and Sumangala Niyogi, he was born at Gaya on 7 January 1891. His father had converted to the Brahmo Samaj, under the influence of his maternal uncle, Hari Sundar Bose, and had moved from Berabuchina (now in Tangail District, Bangladesh) to settle initially at Gaya. The family later moved to Bankipore, where he had his early education. Braja Gopal Niyogi finally joined Keshub Chunder Sen’s New Dispensation as a missionary.
He was in the thick of politics and social reform even before he had completed his college education. He was attracted towards the movement against partition of Bengal in 1905. However, he was strongly influenced by Brahmo ideals and tried to implement them in life. He formed a youth organisation named ‘Band of Hope’ and in 1916, was appointed president of Temperance Federation, a movement against consumption of alcoholic drinks.
Affected by the suffering of humanity he was drawn towards social efforts that saw him actively participate in the relief work during the floods of Damodar River in 1914 and Atrai River in 1916. He was actively associated with and was secretary of Bengal Social Service League established by Dr Dwijendranath Maitra. Among others involved was Nishi Kanta Bose, another leading social reformer.
Niyogi helped to form the Pallisree Sangha for the consolidation of village uplift movement. Having come in contact with and influenced by Chittaranjan Das he formed the Deshbandhu Pallisanskar Samiti.
In 1870, Keshub Chunder Sen had established the Working Man’s Institution, under the auspices of Indian Reforms Association, thereby putting into practice an idea he had imbibed during his earlier visit to England. It was meant for education of the working class and practical training of the middle class. The institution closed down after sometime. In order to revive the idea, Jnananjan Niyogi got together a group of youngsters to form the Calcutta Working Men’s Institution at 1/5 Raja Dinendra Street, Kolkata in 1909. That was an institution with which he was actively associated the rest of his life. Amongst others who were involved in the establishment of the institution were Satyananda Roy, Jitendra Mohan Sen and Benoy Krishna Gupta.
The institution had eighteen branches at one point of time. It organised night classes for workingmen. Apart from regular school classes for primary and secondary education, it organised practical training for such crafts as book binding, tailoring, umbrella making, leatherwork and signboard painting. Apart from its educational and training activities, it organised medical assistance and carried out development work for the benefit of the poor residents living in slums.
He extensively toured the rural areas of Bengal and started using the magic lantern for spreading consciousness amongst the poor and uneducated sections of the population. He was a pioneer in this matter and acquired fame for adopting this method of mass communication in India. It proved to be highly effective and soon attracted the wrath of the administration.
The popular Bengali writer Bimal Mitra has given a vivid description of one of his magic lantern lectures in Kolkata, in his Bengali novel Kori Diye Kinlam. Kiran and Dipankar (Dipu) are two characters of the novel, which had the first half of the twentieth century Kolkata as its backdrop. It was initially serialised in the leading literary magazine Desh and then published in book form. It sold like hot cake. The incident involving Jnananjan Niyogi is quoted below.
Even on that day, Kiran had gone to school. After the classes were over, Dipankar asked, “Won’t we go to the sadhu?”
Kiran replied, “We will go to the sadhu only at dusk. Let us go and attend a meeting before that.”
“In Harish Park.”
There was a big meeting in Harish Park that evening. The place was full of police personnel. Dipankar felt a bit frightened, but many people had collected.
Kiran was used to those places as he went to sell sacred thread in such places. He was not afraid and said, “Let’s go inside.”
By then, many people were sitting on the floor. It was a Congress meeting. Two small tables were there. There was a carbide gas lamp, waiting to be lit up once it was dark. Two gentlemen were occupying two chairs. Half the park was occupied with people. Two or three chairs were there by the side. Newspaper people, as well as police reporters, were waiting with pencils and paper.
Dipankar did not know anybody. He did not know who was Pratap Guha Roy, who was Jnanjan Niyogi or who was Subhas Bose. He did not know any one of them.
He asked, “Which one is Subhas Bose?”
Kiran replied, “Subhas Bose hasn’t come. Jnananjan Niyogi has come. Just wait and see. He will deliver such a speech that tears will roll down your cheeks. There will be a magic lantern show.”
It was not just an ordinary lecture; it was a lantern lecture. The pictures started appearing on a white screen. It seemed that movie pictures had come to a stand still. The images were not moving but once the lecture started everything could be understood. How English soldiers came and occupied India, how the Englishmen cut off the fingers of the weavers, the oppression at Char Minor, the barbarous tyranny against the Sikhs at Budge Budge. The pictures were being shown on the screen and Jnananjan Niyogi was delivering the lecture. What a lecture! Everybody was listening in silence. The English occupied India with one tyranny after another, Picture after picture there were displays about how bad the English were, how tyrannous they were, picture after picture it was that.
Jnananjan Niyogi said, “Are we human beings or animals? Are we trees or stones? What are we? We are neither human beings nor animals. Even if we were animals we would have stood up against them, we would have protested, we would have taken revenge. They have shot us but what have we done? You say what have we done?
Somebody said, “We have flattered them.”
Jnananjan Niyogi said, “No, we have licked their feet.”
A man sitting beside said, “Correct, correct.”
Jnananjan Niyogi continued with his speech. It was the month of Aswina. Mr Catel was walking down the road at Madaripur. The Englishman was manager of a jute mill. A college boy was walking alongside; his umbrella spread open over his head. On seeing it, the blue blood started boiling inside the Englishman. What, such impertinence! Black nigger, you have so much of courage?
The Englishman said, “Close your umbrella.”
The boy said, “Why, why should I close my umbrella?”
The Englishman said, “It’s my order.”
The boy queried, “Who are you to order?”
The Englishman said, “You want to see who I am? See…”
He gave the boy a good beating. The boy lay there, half dead. The Englishman went away.
The matter went to court. The case was put up. The judge delivered the judgement. The boy was at fault. He had incited the Englishman. Mr Catel was not at fault. Then, Mr Templeton himself came for an investigation. After weighing all the arguments, he passed a judgement that Ananga Mohan Das and his three associates would be caned twenty-five times in front of the magistrate. Friend, if we were human beings, then there would have been cane marks even on my back. We are trees and stones and so we lick the feet of those Englishmen. And these people? These people who are sitting beside me and writing reports for Illisheum Row, what will I say about them….
He thumped the ground with his shoes.
Suddenly, where nothing was there, some policemen came running into the meeting from somewhere, waving their sticks. There was chaos all around. People who were listening quietly until then, started running…
Kiran said, “Dipu run, run away quickly…”
Thereafter, where was Kiran, where was Dipu, where was Harish Park…
An avid reader, some of his books are preserved in the Asiatic Society library, Kolkata.
He wrote extensively and published highly provocative booklets inspiring people against British rule. Some of his booklets – Desher Dak, Biplabi Bangla, Bharate Tular Chas, Bharate Kaporer Itihas and Bilati Bastra Barjon Koribo Keno – were extremely popular. The government banned some of these and he was often jailed for revolting against the king. In 1931, he was lodged in Buxa fort in North Bengal, which was turned into a prison “for dangerous revolutionaries”.
While he was a Congressman and was close to Chittaranjan Das, Subhas Chandra Bose and Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy he maintained links with many underground revolutionaries and provided them with support and sustenance.
He was a leader in the field of promotion of swadeshi goods. In order to promote the use of indigenous materials, he used to organise Swadeshi Mela during the Durga Puja festivities. He set up a permanent exhibition at Barabazar and opened a sales counter named Swadeshi Bhandar at College Street Market. At the request of Subhas Chandra Bose, then Mayor of Kolkata, he set up the Commercial Museum on the first floor of College Street Market and organised a Buy Swadeshi movement. He displayed his organisational capabilities in setting up the Indigenous Manufacturers’ Association. He established a Salesman Training Institute for the purpose.
With the attainment of Indian independence, he was associated with the organisational matters of the Congress Party. When refugees poured in from East Pakistan, he put his heart and soul in rehabilitation work. He organised a mobile exhibition on rails the promotion of indigenously manufactured products and displayed his organisational skills during the first all-India exhibition at Eden Gardens in 1948. During the period, he also established the National Chamber of Commerce and All India Manufacturers’ Association.
He took an active interest in the rehabilitation of those affected by the project work of Damodar Valley Corporation and visited many of the rehabilitation villages for interaction with those affected. He was responsible for the site selection, at the primary stage, and initial development work for the setting up of the industrial township at Durgapur.
He was married in 1920 to Asoka, daughter of Damodar Paul. Both his children were brilliant scholars. His daughter, Dr Roma Niyogi, was professor of history at Bethune College, Kolkata. His son, Dr Dipankar Niyogi, was professor of geology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
He died, aged 65, on 13 February 1956 at the Calcutta Working Men’s Institution.