Today we commemorate the birth centenary of Justice Debesh Bhattacharya, whose life was as epochal as the time he lived in.
Debesh Bhattacharya was born in 1914. Political movements fighting for the rights of the working class were gathering momentum across the world. The first half of the 20th century was a juncture of many wars and achievements, empires vanishing and new nations emerging. Youthful Debesh Bhattacharya was not only a keen observer of these events, but was also an engaged participant in some of them.
Justice Bhattacharya belonged to an ancient zamindar family from Ellenga in Tangail. He had been a high achiever thoughout his academic career. After doing his matriculation examination in 1931 from Bindubashini School in Tangail, he studied at Presidency College in Calcutta. After receiving his M.A. degree in Economics and Bachelor degree in Law from Calcutta University, he joined the Mymensingh District Court in 1941. During that time, along with law practice, he took part in the movement against the British colonial rule. He was also involved in the activities of the Communist Party.
As the country was partitioned in 1947 along religious line, Debesh Bhattacharya decided to stay back in the then East Pakistan out of his social convictions. However, the Muslim League government rewarded him by putting him in jail as a “security prisoner” in 1949 for two years.
Following his release from jail, Debesh Bhattacharya relocated his practice to Dhaka in 1952 and served as a Senior Advocate at the East Pakistan High Court. During the tumultuous pre-independence decade of 1960s, leaders of various nationalist and progressive organisations, including Bangabandhu, received substantive support and legal advice from him.
After the Independence of Bangladesh, he was appointed a judge of the newly formed Bangladesh High Court and later, in 1975, he was elevated to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. He was made to retire from this position in 1977 through a Martial Law proclamation.
Through his legal practice and academic pursuits, Justice Bhattacharya established himself as an outstanding jurist. His exceptional competence, impressive erudition and impeccable integrity earned him a distinguished place in the legal profession, especially in the field of land-related civil law. Some of his judgments related to cases of human rights violations, including extra-judicial killing, are truly remarkable and are regularly cited as precedence. His ability to provide profound judicial interpretation of complex legal issues is still widely appreciated by his peers. He joined the founding faculty of City Law College, Dhaka. He donated all his law books to Bangladesh Supreme Court Bar Association Library, which is yet another gesture of his dedication and commitment to his vocation.
Throughout 1980s, Debesh Bhattacharya was deeply involved in the fight for restoration of democracy and in the struggle for upholding human rights in Bangladesh. He was the Founding President of Bangladesh Enemy (Vested) Property Act Repeal Committee. Sadly, his strong voice to annul this discriminatory provision did not find response from any of the governments during his lifetime. Justice Bhattacharya was a member of Gono Adalat (People's Court) set up to try the war criminals of 1971. If he was alive today, he would have been very happy to see that the perpetrators of crimes against humanity are finally receiving punishment. Justice Bhattacharya was a community leader with deep secular values. In the wake of the amendment of the Constitution of Bangladesh providing for state religion, he along with others launched the Hindu Boudha Christian Unity Council to fight for equal rights of the religious and ethnic minorities.
Justice Bhattacharya was also a tough advocate for women's rights, particularly for the Hindu women. He took up his pen in support of modernising Hindu Personal Law by incorporating provisions for divorce and right of inheritance for Hindu women. His efforts were consistently blocked by conservative sections of the society. Even now, after 30 years, these rights for (Hindu) women are yet to be guaranteed by the state.
He was a generous philanthropist. His name is associated with a number of educational and social institutions across Bangladesh. In his native village Ellenga, he established, among others, a high school for girls in his mother's name around 50 years ago. He was president of a number of prominent social and welfare organisations including Gandhi Ashram Trust in Noakhali, Prabartak Sangha, Chittagong and Ramkrishna Mission, Dhaka.
I remember him as a very modest and liberal person with a vision and outlook about Bangladeshi society far ahead of the time he lived in. He used to read widely and had a broad and varied interest in books. In his library in Rankin Street, Wari you could find volumes of Rabindranath Tagore and Manik Bandopadhyay standing along with Adam Smith or Aldous Huxley, next to old issues of Life magazine neatly bound on the bookshelves. The works of William Shakespeare were one of his favourites. During his time in jail as a political prisoner, he asked my mother-in-law to bring him the complete works of Shakespeare. This volume, which was “censored and passed” by Dhaka jail authorities, is still in our home and is treasured by our family.
Justice Bhattacharya very much liked to recite Tagore's poetry and was also himself a poet. A collection of his poems was published in 1998 under the title Kalpokabbo Manjusha.
Debesh Bhattacharya was married to Chitra Bhattacharya. This gracious and erudite lady stood by him during the most difficult times in their lives. Chitra Bhattacharya (Boudi, as everyone called her) was an active social worker and women's rights activist. We felt proud, when in 1996, she was appointed a Member of Parliament from Tangail's reserved seat for women
Many persons have dreamt dreams, but only few can show by example and actions what it is possible to achieve in their own time. The life and works of Debesh Bhattacharya are a true illustration of the achievements of his generation. Today, we express our admiration for and pay our respect to this distinguished jurist and salute the immense self-sacrifice and the inspiring legacy he has he left behind.
The writer is daughter-in-law of Justice Bhattacharya.