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Dutt, Romesh Chunder [Rameshchandra Datta]locked

  • Tapan Raychaudhuri

Romesh Chunder Dutt [Rameshchandra Datta] (1848–1909)

by unknown photographer

Dutt, Romesh Chunder [Rameshchandra Datta] (1848–1909), administrator in India and author, son of Ishanchandra and Thakamani Dutt, was born in Calcutta on 13 August 1848. He came from one of the Calcutta families who had prospered through their commercial associations with the British East India Company. His great-grandfather, Nilmani Dutt, was famous for his command of the English language in the latter half of the eighteenth century. His father was a deputy collector, but both his parents died while he was a student at Colootolla branch school (later known as Hare School). He was then brought up by his younger uncle, Shashichandra, a well-known literary figure of his time who profoundly influenced him. Romesh married, at the age of sixteen, Mohini Basuja (afterwards Matangini Dutt), second daughter of Nabagopal Basu. They had two daughters. While a final-year student at Presidency College, Calcutta, he planned to sail to Britain without the knowledge (and against the wishes) of his orthodox Hindu grandfather, to whom sea voyages were taboo. Eventually he left for Britain in secret in the company of two friends, Bihari Lal Gupta and Surendranath Banerjea, in 1868.

Early career

In London, Dutt secured admission to University College and sat for the Indian Civil Service examination in 1871. He stood third in the examination and his two friends, Gupta and Banerjea, were also among the successful candidates [see competition wallahs]. Dutt was called to the bar at the Middle Temple the same year, and also joined the Indian Civil Service as assistant magistrate and collector. In 1883 he was the first Indian to be appointed district magistrate, and after serving in many districts of Bengal was appointed divisional commissioner, first in Burdwan and later in Orissa (1894–5). The Anglo-Indian mouthpiece, The Englishman, commented ironically: 'it must be pleasant for the European Civilians who are placed in subordination to the first Native Commissioner in India' (Bandyopadhya, 15). He took leave, ostensibly for reasons of health, and left for England in January 1897, retiring at the end of the year. Probably the real reason was his dissatisfaction at being passed over in favour of his British juniors for appointments to the secretariat. As he wrote to his brother, 'if Government is not disposed to repose any real trust and confidence in me, I am free to utilise my powers and abilities, such as they are, to the benefit of my country in other ways' (ibid., 17–18).

Dutt decided to stay on in England for some years with the twin objects of pursuing his scholarly ambitions and pressing for reforms in India. The council of University College, London, offered him a non-stipendiary lectureship in Indian history in 1897; the only emolument was the fees which the students paid for joining his class. He lectured mainly on the history, literature, and civilization of the ancient Hindus. He also began his translation of the Mahabharata into English verse at this time. His criticisms of government policy had limited impact: in his words, 'they want to shut us out, not because we are critics, but because we are natives, and their policy is rule by Englishmen' (Bandyopadhya, 20–21).

Administration in India

In 1899 Dutt was invited to preside over the fifteenth session of the Indian National Congress held at Lucknow. He gave evidence before the police commission in 1902, arguing that the 'inadequate scale of pay … draw[s] to that service … a class of men not fit for their responsibilities, and that we train them in dishonesty by giving them ample powers, and an undue degree of protection when they are detected in wrong-doing'. He presided over the industrial exhibition held in Benares in connection with the twenty-first session of the Congress in 1905. He pointed out in his presidential address the fact that virtually every nation in the world had policies to protect their industries from uncontrolled competition and since Indians had no control over their fiscal legislation, swadeshi, or the movement for the exclusive consumption of home manufactures, was the only way out. When the premier literary association of Bengal, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, was set up in 1894, Dutt was elected its first president.

Dutt accepted the Gaikwar of Baroda's invitation to join the state service as revenue minister in 1904 and worked hard, in his words, 'to initiate progress in all lines, and to make Baroda a richer and a happier State'. He again went to England on leave in 1906, hoping to recover his failing health. But he had little rest because, with the liberal leader Gokhale to help him, he became involved in the agitation against the decision to partition Bengal. His three-volume Baroda Administration Report, published when he returned to India later that year, is a testimony to his achievements in that princely state. But he was not happy there. 'I feel I am proving false to my higher pursuits, false to my destiny', he wrote in a letter (Bandyopadhya, 27–8). He again took leave from the state service in July 1907, and was appointed member of the decentralization commission in September that year. He travelled extensively in India in connection with its work and went to England in 1908 with other members of the commission. He had prolonged correspondence with the secretary of state, Lord Morley, during his tenure as member. He urged a measure of moderation in dealing with the extremist threat, and argued against the principle of electorates based on caste and creed which, he felt, would exacerbate relationships between the communities. He pleaded for the abrogation of the partition of Bengal, for it had strengthened the hands of the extremists. One of his strongest recommendations, that the district magistrate should not preside over the district board (an institution of local self-government), was not accepted. He returned to India in June 1909, and was appointed diwan of Baroda. He died in Baroda on 30 November 1909, survived by his wife.


Dutt is best remembered for his literary and scholarly contributions. He first began to publish poems and essays in English in the Bengal Magazine (edited by Lal Bihari De) and Mukherjee's Magazine under a pen-name, Arcydae (that is, R. C. D.). The leading literary figure of Bengal, Bankim Chatterji, induced him to take up writing in the mother tongue. The novels he wrote in Bengali are reckoned among the classics of Bengali literature: they include four historical novels, Bangabijeta (1874), Madhabikankan (1877), Jibanprabhat (1878), and Jibansandhya (1879). The last two are very much in the mould of patriotic novels of the period, one built around the career of Shivaji as a great Hindu hero and the other focused on the last days of Rajput glory, their decline traced to the tradition of vendetta and the consequent internecine conflicts. His two social novels, Samsar (2 vols., 1886; rev. edn, 1910; republished after his death under the title Samsar-katha) and Samaj (n.d.), were reformist in inspiration, and written in support of widow remarriage and inter-caste marriage. Dutt also wrote a large number of essays in the literary periodicals of the day on a wide range of topics relating to ancient Indian history, Sanskrit and Bengali literature, contemporary political and economic issues, and travelogues. Some of his letters were published posthumously in literary journals. In 1879 he published a school textbook in Bengali on the history of India. He also took an important initiative in making the Hindu scriptures accessible to his fellow Bengalis. He edited and translated into Bengali the Rigveda-samhita (1885–7), and followed this up with a collaborative effort, entitled Hindushastra: published in two volumes, it contained nine parts covering, in original and translation, large segments of the Vedic literature, the epics, shruti texts, the eighteen puranas, the Gita, and the six systems of philosophy. This monumental work, to which he contributed the translations of the Vedic literature, made the Hindu sacred literature available to educated Bengalis for the first time.

Most of Dutt's publications were, however, in English. Of these the first, Three Years in Europe, was published anonymously (the author was described simply as a Hindu) in 1872; a Bengali translation was published the following year. Based on extracts from letters he sent from Europe, the book is a remarkably perceptive account of Western social mores of his time, and reflects Dutt's highly advanced ideas. Among other things, he deplored the class values of English society, especially the snobbish adulation of the aristocracy. He was also not impressed with the superficial freedom granted to Victorian women, whose education and accomplishments, in his view, were geared to the sole purpose of catching a husband; emancipation of women, he concluded, would come only with the opening of all careers to women. He compared the conservatism of the English on such matters with Brahmanical orthodoxy.

Later Dutt wrote copiously on Indian history, literature, and contemporary problems, and tried his hand at poetry as well. His study of the Bengali peasantry published in 1874 is an incisive study of their condition from the middle ages onwards: he approved of the permanent settlement of land revenue with the Bengali zamindars, but argued that there should be a similar settlement of rent with the peasants so that they had an incentive for improving cultivation. The Literature of Bengal, published in 1877 'with copious extracts from the best writers', was the first serious effort to produce a systematic history of Bengali literature. His other works include A History of Civilisation in Ancient India in three volumes (1889–90): based on Sanskrit literature, this work was a remarkable exercise in cultural history. A number of other volumes were devoted to translations from Sanskrit: Lays of Ancient India (1894); Mahabharata (1899), an abridged translation in verse published with an introduction by Max Müller; Ramayana (1900), also an abridged translation in verse; and Indian Poetry (1905), selections rendered into English. Two of his Bengali novels, Samsar and Madhabikankan, were published in English translation as The Lake of Psalms (1902) and The Slave Girl of Agra (1909) respectively. (Samsar was also translated into Gujarati by a family friend). Besides these he published two autobiographical works, Rambles in India (1895), an account of his travels from 1871 to 1895, and a volume of poems for private circulation, Reminiscences of a Workman's Life (1896).

Dutt's major historical work was his two volumes on the economic history of India under British rule, The Economic History of British India, a Record, 1757–1837 (1902; 2nd edn, The Economic History of India under Early English Rule, 1906) and India in the Victorian Age: an Economic History (1904). Taken with the two volumes of his Speeches and Papers on the Indian Question (1902), this work encapsulates his perception and analysis of the colonial nexus. As noted above, his scholarly interests developed primarily around the literature and civilization of ancient India and, to a lesser extent, the literature of Bengal. This celebrated magnum opus emerged from his public concerns as a moderate nationalist who hoped to alter the conditions of colonial rule through propaganda, debate, and criticism.

Political thought and assessment

Dutt belonged to the generation of Indian nationalists whose faith in the beneficence of British rule remained unshaken, though their own experience of it, as observers and collaborators in administration, contradicted many of their assumptions. Dutt summed up both his persistent faith and his misgivings in a classic passage:

The Indian Empire will be judged by History as the most superb of human institutions in modern times. But it would be a sad story for future historians to tell that the Empire gave the people of India peace but not prosperity, that the manufacturers lost their industries; that the cultivators were ground down by a heavy and variable taxation which precluded any saving; that the revenues of the country were to a large extent diverted to England; and that recurring and desolating famines swept away millions of the population.

R. C. Dutt, India under Early English Rule, 1906, Introduction

With Major B. D. Basu and Dadabhai Naoroji, Dutt formulated what is now recognized as the classic diagnosis of the Indian economic problem under colonial rule. It emphasized the 'drainage of wealth' from India through home charges payable to Britain and unrequited exports, the absence of protection for India's infant industries, and the negative implications of even the constructive efforts like the railways, which deprived many providers of traditional transport services and facilitated the import of British manufactured goods. Two recurrent themes of India's economic nationalism, drainage of wealth and destruction of Indian handicrafts, traceable to the colonial nexus, can be found in the writings of Dutt and his fellow publicists. The swadeshi programme of more militant nationalists owed much to this political economic discourse.

Dutt's exercises in historical analysis of the Indian problem had strong emotional overtones. He commented that at the very time the Delhi durbar of 1903 was celebrated with great pomp, thousands of famine-stricken Indians were living in relief camps. He traced all this misery and maladministration to one basic cause, 'the form and method of an absolute Government—not in touch with the people, and not able to secure their well-being' (Bagchi, 166). He summed up his solution of the problem in two words—'retrenchment' and 'representation'. The first referred to the need for reducing all expenditure inessential for India's needs, especially the heavy military expenditure and the home charges: this would allow, among other things, a reduction in land revenue, which he considered excessive. Secondly, he considered it essential for the success of the administration that Indians should be admitted to some share in decision making. Secretaries of state, ruling without hearing any Indian voice, meant an 'exclusive and distrustful administration' which was necessarily unpopular as well as unsuccessful. 'The oligarchy at Whitehall and the oligarchy at Simla' (ibid., 167) had to be replaced by representative government in which the entire population would have a share. Despite every discouragement, he retained his faith in the methods of persuasion and was deeply worried by the development of extremist politics, especially after the partition of Bengal in 1905. In Baroda, he formed a close friendship with a much younger nationalist, Aurobindo Ghose, who was one of the chief proponents of the new extremism. He conceded in private that the methods of moderation were losing their appeal and the future must lie with the younger leadership. He also spoke with great admiration of a person who inspired the extremists though he had no direct connection with politics, Swami Vivekananda.

Dutt was one of India's great Victorians. His intense seriousness of purpose, public concern, prodigious capacity for hard work, and great scholarship place him firmly in the tradition of Victorian eminence. He was driven by great ambitions—literary and scholarly fame for himself, and an honourable place for India in the community of nations. But all his energy and involvement in public affairs notwithstanding, his personal correspondence makes rather sad reading. One has an impression of loneliness and a sense of failure. He was sceptical about the survival value of his literary labours—the translations from the epics and the economic history excepted. The hopes of progress towards representative government through persuasion were also confounded: extremism in politics, which he abhorred, was taking over. Dutt saw in his own lifetime the failure of the Indian liberals' agenda and, though he never withdrew from his many-sided activities, his last years were overshadowed by a sense of despair.


  • J. N. Gupta, The life of R. C. Dutt (1911)
  • B. Bandyopadhya, Rameshchandra Datta (1947) [in Bengali]
  • S. Banerjea, A nation in making: being the reminiscences of fifty years in public life (1925)
  • M. Bagchi, Rameshchandra (1962) [in Bengali]


  • National Archives of India, New Delhi, corresp.
  • Nehru Museum, New Delhi


  • photograph, repro. in Gupta, Life of R. C. Dutt, frontispiece [see illus.]
  • portrait, National Library of India, Calcutta
  • portrait, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Calcutta, India

Wealth at Death

£198 10s. 5d.: administration with will, 14 Nov 1910, CGPLA Eng. & Wales