Justice Protik Prokash Banerji and I would have never come in contact with each other but for the fact that I was chosen to be the Student Director of the Society for Advancement of Criminal Justice at the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), my alma mater. I was a 22-year old penultimate year law student when I first met Protik Da, as I used to fondly call him, in 2011. I had invited him to NUJS to talk about the impact of the Aruna Shanbaug case and he graciously accepted my invitation. Since then, I have seen him from close quarters as an effective mentor, a fine lawyer, an upright judge, and above all, a very good human being.
Born on June 1, 1969, Justice Banerji did his schooling from Calcutta Boys’ School and read a five-year law course at the University College of Law (Hazra campus), one of West Bengal’s top law schools. He joined the Calcutta bar in 1995 and became the Vice President of the Calcutta Bar Association in 2015. Early on in his legal career, he was trained by some of the finest lawyers at the Calcutta bar, including Kalyan Banerjee, Senior Advocate and a sitting Lok Sabha MP. In September 2017, he took oath as Additional Judge of the Calcutta High Court.
“I remember once asking Protik Da why he chose law and his answer was quick and short: “bro, actually, it is law that chose me!””
Justice Banerji belonged to a family of lawyers. His father, Late Mukul Prokash Banerji, was a Senior Advocate of the Calcutta High Court. His mother, Late Lekha Banerji, was also a lawyer, although she discontinued her practice after some time to look after the family. I remember once asking Protik Da why he chose law and his answer was quick and short: “bro, actually, it is law that chose me!” Justice Banerji’s father always wanted him to become a doctor. However, he somehow saw himself inclined to pursue a career in law.
That decision later became a point of long-lasting friction with his father, and both ended up not speaking to each other for many years. Justice Banerji joined the Calcutta bar in 1994 with a desire and passion to become a fine arguing Counsel. Despite his father being a Senior Advocate, Justice Banerji did not enjoy much of the privileges that a second-generation lawyer would ideally have in the elite world of litigation. Two months into the profession, Justice Banerji’s father, his first mentor, removed him from his Chambers. He would often recollect how he did not have enough money to eat a proper lunch when he started out and was too ashamed to ask for money from his father.
Justice Banerji sincerely missed his father’s guidance and support in the initial stage of his professional career. He had to learn the ropes the hard way. And the challenges that he faced in building his own law practice made him extremely sensitive to the plight of law graduates with no legal lineage, especially those who did not belong to top national law schools. He would frown at, and discourage, nepotism and favouritism. His idea of a successful law practice was a combination of discipline, patience, and hard work. These are attributes that all lawyers should live by.
“He would frown at, and discourage, nepotism and favouritism. His idea of a successful law practice was a combination of discipline, patience, and hard work.”
Affectionate mentors like Justice Banerji are rare and I feel blessed to count myself among his pupils. In May 2012, when I graduated from NUJS, I wrote to him stating that I would like to learn some procedure under him before I go to King’s College London for my LL.M, he responded the very next day: “Welcome aboard bro. Come and meet me today, if you are free.” He would answer my calls each time, even after he was elevated as Judge of the Calcutta High Court. I vividly remember him trying to convince me for hours in his Chambers why I should accept a lucrative foreign job offer and settle abroad along with my parents and forget about litigation or “the monotonous business of earning a livelihood” as he would call it.
Justice Banerji was a man of integrity. As a lawyer, he would get easily irked when someone called the legal profession a business or referred to lawyers as service providers. He had immense respect for the profession of law. For him, being a lawyer is not just about donning a wing collar and putting on a gown but respect for the court and for the process of law. As a judge, there were occasions when he recalled an order after a possible conflict of interest was brought to his notice, and recused himself from a case after the petitioner pointed out that the respondent’s lawyer was a friend of his on Facebook.
“For him, being a lawyer is not just about donning a wing collar and putting on a gown but respect for the court and for the process of law.”
Justice Banerji’s love for music, fashion, and English literature was devout. He was a prolific writer: he was one of the finest draftsmen that the Calcutta bar has seen in recent times. He was a repository of knowledge: he had read every good book that was ever written and enjoyed every fine artistic work that was ever created. No wonder, he was such a delight to communicate with, to work for and to work with. He was a great listener and his intellectual curiosity was always evident.
I feel I would not be writing this today if Protik Da had taken good care of his health. He used to drink heavily and fell victim to dreadful work habits. He would skip meals and sleep, and he smoked like there was no tomorrow. These habits also took a toll on his professional career and there were times when he did not have many cases to argue. I met him several times in the last couple of years and I could see how his health was deteriorating (he underwent bypass surgery in 2019). When I expressed concern about his health, he smiled and told me that I should be happy that he had lost so much of weight and was living a much healthier lifestyle.
It is hard to believe that Protik da is no more with us. His untimely departure – at the age of 51 – has left a deep void in the many lives that he touched. Each one of us will miss him dearly. From the time I learnt that Protik Da has passed on, the song from the movie 3 Idiots has been playing in my head: