Banerjee, Kali Charan

1847 - 1907
Free Church of Scotland

Kali Charan Banerjee had the unique distinction of being addressed as Reverend by the Hindu and Muslim communities despite not being formally ordained. A lawyer by profession, he was a leading light of the Indian National Congress, and played a key role in its policy-making. Elected twice as the Commissioner of the Kolkatta[1] municipal corporation, Kali Charan led an exemplary public life. A die-hard nationalist, he was instrumental in setting up the Bengal Christian Association and promoting the idea of “Hindu Christians”.

Kali [2] was born on February 9, 1847. He was the eighth son of his parents who belonged to the highest category in the caste system, Kulin [3]Brahmins. He lost his father, Hara Chandra Bandopadhyaya, at an early age and was brought up by his mother Chandramani at Khanyan in Hooghly, West Bengal.

As a child, Kali Charan was very religious, obedient, courteous and displayed a helping nature. After returning from school, he used to gather poor boys of the village and teach them what he himself had learned. Even as a lad, he possessed the courage to follow his beliefs.

His early education began at Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, where his father was posted to work. Because of his father’s demise, he was sent to the Oriental Seminary High School in Kolkata. When Kali's elder brother lost his job, Kali was willing to sacrifice his education. But because of his sincerity, and earnest desire for education, two rich Hindu Mallik brothers supported him privately with a stipend of eight rupees per month.[4]

This helped Kali to join the Free Church of Scotland College, where he met Alexander Duff, the principal. When his family wanted him to get married at the age of 15, Duff’s words served as a warning, "Marry your books, my boy,"[5] and Kali resisted this plan for a few years.

He earned many scholarships and medals including a gold medal for his B.A. degree in 1865. Encouraged by his teachers and fellow Bengali students, Kali Charan began studying the Bible and seeking instruction in the Christian faith. Duff was fond of Kali’s interest in Bible study, but he never forced him to become a Christian. When Kali got his first scholarship, Duff brought him the news and asked him if his father was living. Hearing Kali’s response, Duff said, "Why do you not accept God as your Father?" But he remained a devoted Hindu.

During those days, Kali often suffered from a fever. A missionary and his professors met with and prayed for him. Gradually, he joined his professor and student friends in their debating club, the Sunday Bible class, at their hostel and often in the missionary’s home. Kali Charan’s spiritual transformation was the fruit of the labours of a missionary doctor, and a few close Christian friends who spent much time taking long walks, reading the Bible and spending time in praying with Kali secretly, especially on Sundays on the top of the Jute store house.[6] Thus, after a few months of earnest seeking, Kali accepted Christ as his Saviour. Rev. W. C. Fyfe, the Principal of the Free Church Institution, baptised Kali Charan on February 28, 1864.

Subsequently, Kali Charan was appointed as a Professor in the Free Church College under Duff on a monthly salary of 80 rupees. He went on to earn an M.A in 1867, and was promoted to Senior Professor at a monthly salary of 100 rupees. 

Kali Charan sought to keep a balance between his faith in Christ and family relationships. He continued to support his family though they were against his new faith. They even threatened him, but Kali remained firm. Over the course of time, his family relented and permitted him to visit home. Every Saturday he used to visit his family[7] and proved to be a successful evangelist. His wife Elokesi and two nephews did accept Christ and one of them turned out to be the famous Roman Catholic, Brahmabhandhav Upadhyaya.

Within six months of his baptism, Kali wrote to Rev. W.C. Fyfe, expressing his desire to dedicate his body and mind for the service of Christ. For his theological studies, Kali Charan was given an Edinburgh Scholarship of 30 rupees per month. 

He faced another spiritual storm when Lal Behari Day, pastor of the Maniktala Free Church which Kali attended, was compelled to resign because he felt the pay was insufficient to support his family. Day also felt that Indians were not given sufficient rights as ministers and missionaries. In solidarity, Kali gave up his scholarship and theological classes and began to study law.

In response to Kali's reaction, biographer B.R. Barber emphasised: “Let it be said here once and for all, that though Mr. Banerjee gave up his idea of the Christian ministry, he never got away from the dedication of himself to God, and through the long years of his life, was ever ready to preach and teach, and to win his fellowmen by personal effort to Jesus Christ.”[8]

According to D.V. Singh, converts of the 19th century found western dogmas and rituals of the church of little meaning to them. A few others were facing an identity crisis. Things got more complicated as they depended on the missionaries for financial support. This became embarrassing and a certain measure of self-consciousness began to develop because of the renaissance.[9]

While these types of weakness, divisions and foreign dependency hindered elite Indian Christians, on the other side, the Europeans felt threatened. James Vaugham, the CMS missionary, expressed his viewpoint as “many or most of the educated native Christians show feelings of ‘bitterness, suspicions or even dislike’ towards the Europeans”.[10]

H.R. Weber saw this as the impact of nationalism on native Christians, which demanded that native Christians look for a native identity.[11]These aspirations became reality when in 1869, Kali, Lal Bihari, and 23 others organised the Bengal Christian Association. They met monthly to read newspapers and discuss national matters. In 1870, Kali Charan and a few others started a newspaper, The Bengal Christian Herald, later renamed as The Indian Christian Herald.  The very first issue declared that, “in having become Christian, we have not ceased to be Hindus. We are Hindu Christians… We have embraced Christianity, but we have not discarded our nationality.”[12]

In 1877, this group organised the Bengal Christian Conference. In this forum, Kali criticised the missionaries for denationalising the native Christians and also, the native Christians for accepting every Western imposition. He demanded that missionaries allowed natives to conduct worship services in an indigenous format and work towards becoming a self-supporting and self-governing church. Impatient with the missionaries’ response, he and J.G. Shome left their churches to form the Calcutta Christo Samaj (Calcutta Society of Christ). Their vision was to found the "Church of India". Despite their best efforts lasting eight years, denominationalism proved far too strong. Christo Samaj finally died in 1895.

This led Kali to concentrate on mission work and committee meetings. Later, he got involved in an anti-alcohol movement and also the work of the YMCA and YWCA. Alongside this, Kali Charan also continued to practice law at Hooghly. He pivoted to a career in academia and began teaching law at Ripen College and became the Examiner in-charge of Kolkata University. Eventually he was promoted to become the Registrar of the University.[13]

By the year 1877, Kali Charan was a notable public figure. As one of the speakers at a large political meeting held at the Town Hall, Kolkata, he electrified the audience with his speech questioning the imperialistic policy on the Indian Civil Services.[14] In 1879, he resigned from his teaching position to fully devote himself to the practice of law and the service of the nation.

While he was engaged in these activities, the anti-colonial political movement took organised shape in 1885, with the formation of the Indian National Congress (INC). He shared in the patriotic feelings and the desire for self-government that this movement expressed. He was a member of the INC from the very beginning and soon became one of the leading lights of the movement. By now he was a renowned international figure. M. K. Gandhi writes that he heard about Babu Kali from his Christian friends in South Africa.[15] Gandhi did visit Kali Charan at his home when Elokesi, Kali's wife, lay dying. The conversation as recorded in Gandhi's autobiography was a discussion on the doctrine of “original sin” and its absolution. 

In the third session of the Congress (1892-93) Kali Charan was appointed to the committee charged with the duty of drafting the constitution and workings of the INC. He was reappointed to the same committee again in the fifth Congress of 1899. In the fifth Congress, he was responsible for a motion protesting the prohibition imposed by the British Crown on teachers taking part in political movements. He also urged for the appointment of eminent Indian lawyers to the Judicial Committee.

In the twelfth Congress, he moved a resolution asking for improvements in universities.[16] While protesting the Crown, he discouraged the extreme views of some INC leaders and was often influential in maintaining a balance between moderates and extremists. Kali was also a member of the oldest political body at Kolkata – The Indian Association, and was later elected as its president. He sympathised with his countrymen in their socio-political aspirations and always fought for righteousness. Twice elected as Commissioner of the Municipality of Kolkata, Kali always took a genuine interest in the affairs of the city. His concern for the refugees and support towards a home for the downtrodden and out-castes gave him a good reputation among the city-folk.

Barber writes that once in a public meeting convened to congratulate Kali on his elevation to the Legislative Council in 1897, Kenneth S. MacDonald, a missionary from the Free Church of Scotland to Kolkata, remarked that, “Mr. Banerjee was a representative of the Christian communities,” but Sir Gurudas Banerjee, a Hindu, responded that, “it is a mistake to think so; Mr. Banerjee is a representative of all communities".[17]Such was the impact he made on society. Thus, though he was never ordained he was known as Rev. Kali Charan among non-Christians and recognised as Kali Babu with affection and honour by Christians.[18]

Till his last breath, he was busy with public work. At the Congress session of 1906, in Kolkata, Kali Charan was deeply grieved by the split between moderates and extremists that seemed inexorable. He fainted on the dais and had to be carried home. After some days, he attended the Temperance Conference despite a weak constitution and addressed the meeting, but he had to be carried up and down the stairs of the Conference Hall. Following this, his usual activities were curtailed and shortly after, he was confined to his room and died peacefully on February 6, 1907. In his life, he walked cheerfully in faith and was an enthusiastic patriot.


  1. ^ Erstwhile Calcutta, the capital of British India.
  2. ^ He was known among different groups by different names. Among Western missionaries he was known as Kali Charan Banurji, elites of the society used to call him as Babu, his students respectfully called him as Acharya, and by Hindu and Muslim friends as Reverend.
  3. ^ High caste Brahmin.
  4. ^ B.R. Barber, Kali Charan Banurji Brahmin, Christian, Saint (Madras: CLS/YMCA, No year), 3.
  5. ^ Ramanath Palit Pranit, Christiyo Charitromanjari (Vernacular) (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1936), 4.
  6. ^ Barber, Kali Charan Banurji Brahmin, Christian, Saint, 6.
  7. ^ Pranit, Christiyo Charitromanjari, 9.
  8. ^ Barber, Kali Charan Banurji Brahmin, Christian, Saint, 26.
  9. ^ D.V. Singh, “Nationalism and the search for identity in 19th century Protestant Christianity in India,” Indian Church History Review (ICHR) vol. XIV, (December, 1980): 105.
  10. ^ J. Lipner, Brahmabhandhaba Upadhyay’s Life and Thought of a Revolutionary (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 37-38.
  11. ^ H.R. Weber, Ecumenism in Asia (Delhi: ISPCK,1994), 26.
  12. ^ Kaj Baago, “First Independence Movement among Indian Christians,” ICHR Vol.1, no. 1 (June 1967): 66. 
  13. ^ Baggo, “First Independence Movement among Indian Christians,” 66.
  14. ^ He demanded the admission of Indians to high offices; that the test of qualification should be impartial; that the age limit should be raised from nineteen to twenty-two; and that there should be local examination in India. Anil Kumar Sarkar, Amader Naytritva (Vernacular) (Calcutta: Calcutta Christian Tract and Book Society,1962), 33.
  15. ^ M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography (Ahmadabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1958), 171.
  16. ^ G.A. Oddie, Social Protest in India (New Delhi: Manohar Publication, 1979), 178.
  17. ^ Barber, Kali Charan Banurji Brahmin, Christian, Saint, 63.
  18. ^ "Babu" in Bangla means sir, master, gentleman.

Rev. Dr. Ajay Chakraborty (BA, MA, MSW, B.Ed, B.Th, BD, M.Th, D.Th).

The writer is a professor of Church History at the South Asia Bible College/Centre for Global Leadership Development (SABC/CGLD). 



Baago, Kaj. “First Independence Movement among Indian Christians,” ICHR Vol.1, no. 1, June 1967.

Barber, B.R. Kali Charan Banurji Brahmin, Christian, Saint. Madras: CLS/YMCA, No year.

Chakraborty, Ajay. “Kali Charan Banerjee’s contribution towards Indian Christians understanding of National Movement” Bachelor of Divinity Thesis, Senate of Serampore, 2007.

Chakraborty, Ajay. “Kali Charan Banerjee: A Hindu Christian,” New Life Theological Journal vol. 6/2 July-December 2016.

Gandhi, M.K. An Autobiography. Ahmadabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1958.

Lipner, J. Brahmabhandhaba Upadhyay’s Life and Thought of a Revolutionary. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Oddie, G.A. Social Protest in India. New Delhi: Manohar Publication, 1979.

Pranit, Ramanath Palit. Christiyo Charitromanjari (Vernacular). Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1936.

Sarkar, Anil Kumar. Amader Naytritva (Vernacular). Calcutta: Calcutta Christian Tract and Book Society,1962.

Singh, D.V. “Nationalism and the search for identity in 19th century Protestant Christianity in India,” Indian Church History Review (ICHR) vol. XIV, December, 1980.

Weber, H.R. Ecumenism in Asia. Delhi: ISPCK,1994.