Dr. Chinmoy Banerjee

After a long battle with heart failure, Chinmoy Banerjee passed away peacefully on July 29, 2020. He was surrounded by family and friends, listening to one of his friends singing mystic musings, as Glenn Gould’s final performance of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” played in the background. He was also wearing his much-cherished Charlie Chaplin t-shirt.

Chinmoy was always characterized by good humor, and his tastes were eclectic and wide-ranging, from classical music to the Rolling Stones, and from Charlie Chaplin to Ingmar Bergman. In his later years, he became devoted to Indian cinema and co-founded a film society, the South Asian Film Education Society.

Dr. Banerjee taught English literature, literary criticism, and postcolonial studies at Simon Fraser University for 35 years. For many of those years he was both voted and celebrated by students as the “best teacher.” His life was dedicated to learning.

He was born on January 10, 1940, in Baidyabati, Bengal, in his grandmother’s house. He was a middle child. After tragically losing his mother at a young age, he went to Sindia boarding school in Gwalior, where he excelled. His success continued at St. Stephen’s college at Delhi University, where he completed both his undergraduate and Master’s degrees in English Literature, and finished with a First-class standing.

At Delhi University, Chinmoy met his future-wife, Aruna, at Miranda House, the sister college to St. Stephen’s. They shared a passion for literature and music. They married in 1963.

In 1966, their first-born Anand, was born in Bombay. Soon after, Chin travelled to Ohio to do his PhD in 18th century English Literature at Kent State University. During his time at Kent State, Chin began his life-long involvement with progressive politics, starting with the protests against the Vietnam War. On May 4, 1970, Chin, while trying to bring his 4-year-old son Anand to campus pre-school, was turned away by nervous National Guardsmen who pointed rifles at the car. A few hours later, four students had been shot dead, and Chin’s perspective—and political allegiances—had crystallized.  From then on, there was no compromise for him.

In 1970, the family moved to Canada and Chin began to teach English at Simon Fraser University. In December that year, his daughter Nandini was born.

During his early years in Canada, Chinmoy felt lonely and isolated, missing his native India and his extended family. In 1975, he took a one-year leave from SFU and moved his family to India, with the hope that he could make the move permanent. Unfortunately, at that time, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency, and thousands of people critical of her government were imprisoned and tortured without trial. He then realized that, as much as he felt connected with India, his destiny, and the path of his young family, remained back in Canada.

The family returned to Canada and became naturalized Canadian citizens within a few months. He never regretted this decision.

Chinmoy’s political activitism began in earnest when he co-founded an advocacy collective, Indian People’s Association in North America (IPANA), in 1975. IPANA was an organization of progressive Indians living in North America who opposed imperialism and supported democratic rights and social justice in India. IPANA established chapters in many North American cities including Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and New York. It was then led by Dr. Hari Sharma, Dr. Daya Varma and Dr. Vinod Mubayi. Chinmoy became one of the leaders of IPANA and wrote for its two publications New India Bulletin and India Now.

Having engaged in various anti-racist struggles in the 1970s, Chinmoy was one of the founding members and leaders of the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism, which became a prominent anti-racist organization in the province. Among its significant achievements was to successfully mobilize various groups, from very different sectors, to stand together and oppose the Ku Klux Klan, which was attempting to establish a new base of operations in Vancouver in the early 1980s.

Chinmoy was also one of the strong supporters of the Canadian Farmworkers Union, which took up the cause of (mostly immigrant) farm workers, who had, until then, been excluded from protection under British Columbia’s labour laws. He was also one of the founding members and leaders of the Non-Resident Indians for Secularism and Democracy, which eventually became the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD).

Throughout his life, Chinmoy remained devoted to the ideals of democracy in India, his homeland. He was outraged by the attacks on democratic freedoms by the government of Narendra Modi. Under Modi’s government, he saw India moving in an anti-democratic direction, with persecution against minorities reaching levels reminiscent of Europe before World War II.  Whenever protests arose in India against government authoritarianism and attacks on minorities, he always supported them.  He spearheaded local protests in British Columbia against the lynching of Muslims, the attack on the students and professors at Jawaharlal Lal Nehru University in Delhi, and the attack on Dalits.

Chinmoy leaves behind a legacy of activism in the service of the humankind. He inspired many people to fight for a better world of secular democracy and human rights, and his example and inspiration lives on.

Among his philanthropic acts, Chinmoy was the first president of the Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation (HSF). The HSF, in addition to sponsoring cultural events for many local and international organizations, coordinated international conferences and cultural events on migrant labour, Sufi thought, racism, and the environment. The HSF also funded multiple research projects and scholarships. 

Chinmoy Banerjee is survived by his wife Robyn Kathleen Banerjee, son Anand Banerjee (wife Beth), daughter Aedon (“Nandini”) Young (husband Rob), grandson Max, and granddaughters Alexandria and Maya, and step-sons Jack Fairey and Joshua Fairey. In lieu of flowers, we request that you make a donation to a charity of your choice in his honour. A celebration of Chin’s life will be held when COVID19 restrictions are relaxed.