Dutt, Romesh Chunder (DNB12)

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DUTT, ROMESH CHUNDER (1848–1909), Indian official, author and politician, born in Calcutta on 13 Aug. 1848, was son of Isan Chunder Dutt, a Kayasth, who was one of the first Indians to become a deputy collector in Bengal. Romesh's great-uncle, Rasamoy Dutt, was the first Indian to be secretary to the Sanskrit College, Calcutta, and to be made a judge of the court of small causes. His female cousins, Am and Toru Dutt, accomplished French and English scholars, both gave great poetic promise at the time of their early deaths from consumption in 1874 and 1877 respectively. Losing his father when he was thirteen, Romesh came under the guardianship of his uncle, Sasi Chunder Dutt, registrar of the Bengali secretariat, and a voluminous writer on Indian life and history. Educated at Hare's school and at the presidency college, Calcutta, Romesh took second place in the first examination in arts of the university in 1866. Some two years later, he, with his lifelong friend Mr. Behari Lai Gupta (afterwards judge of the Bengal high court), ran away from home, and the two, joined by Mr. Surendranath Banerjee, (afterwards famous as a Bengal political leader), set sail for England on 3 March 1868. The practice of studying in England was then rare among Indian youths and was deprecated by the orthodox. Entering University College, London, the three friends studied with diligence, and were all successful in the 1869 examination for the Indian civil service, Dutt taking third place. He also studied for the bar at the Middle Temple, and was called on 7 June 1871.

Joining the Bengal service at the close of 1871, Dutt went through the usual novitiate of district work. Devoting all his leisure through life to literary pursuits, he described in his first book his 'Three Years in Europe' (Calcutta, 1872; 4th edit, with additional matter, 1896). In 1874, in 'The Peasantry of Bengal,' a collection of articles which he had contributed serially to the 'Bengal Magazine,' he urged that the permanent settlement was unwise and ill-conceived, unfairly benefiting the zamindars at the cost both of the cultivators and of the state. His biographical and critical 'History of Bengali Literature' (Calcutta, 1877), issued under the pseudonym of Ar. Cy. Dae, reappeared under his own name in 1895. At the persuasion of Bunkim Chandra Chatterji, a vernacular Bengali writer of repute, he wrote six historical and social romances in his mother tongue, three of which were translated into English 'Shivajee, or the Morning of Maratha Life' (Broach, 1899); 'The Lake of Palms' (London, 1902; 2nd edit. 1903); and 'The Slave Girl of Agra' (London, 1909).

In April 1883 Dutt was appointed collector of Backerganj, being the first Indian to receive executive charge of a district since the establishment of British rule. The experiment was justified by the peace of this difficult district during his two years' tenure. Taking long furlough in 1885, he devoted the first portion to a Bengali translation of the 'Rig Veda.' The vernacular press contended with heat, that Brahman pundits alone could deal with the sacred text. But Dutt persevered, and published in 1886 the first, and still the only complete, Bengali translation of the ancient hymns. He never completely broke with orthodox Hinduism; and though in later years he showed strong leanings to the Brahmo Samaj, founded by Keshub Chunder Sen, he did not join that movement. On return to duty in 1887 he held charge successively of the Pabna, Mymensingh, Dinajpur, and Midnapur districts. While at Mymensingh he wrote an able 'History of Civilisation in Ancient India' based on Sanskrit literature (Calcutta, 3 vols., 1888-90; London, 2 vols., 1893), and also prepared school primers of Bengal and Indian history.

On 25 May 1892 Dutt was created a C.I.E. and in April 1894 he was appointed acting commissioner of Burdwan, being the only Indian to rise to executive charge of a division in the nineteenth century. He served on the Bengal legislative council from January to October 1895, when he was transferred to the commissionership of Orissa, with ex-officio superintendence of the twenty tributary mahals, or native states, of the province. In October 1897, after twenty-six years' work, he resigned the civil service, moved by a twofold desire to pursue Ms literary labour and to take part freely in Indian politics.

Settling in London, he published there 'England and India: a Record of Progress during 100 Years' (1897). It was a plea for extending the popular share in legislation and administration. At the close of 1899 he went to India to preside at the fifteenth annual national congress at Lucknow. India was then suffering from a severe famine, and he mainly devoted his presidential address to a condemnation of the land revenue policy of the government. Lord Curzon of Kedleston, the viceroy, gave him a long audience, and Dutt published 'Famines in India' (London, 1900), a series of open letters to Lord Curzon, setting forth in detail his views of agrarian policy and attributing famine to high assessments. The provincial governments were directed to examine his statements, and upon their replies was based the elaborate resolution of Lord Curzon's government (dated 16 Jan. 1902) on land revenue administration, which was presented to parliament (Cd. 1089). The official papers convicted Dutt's information of much inaccuracy (cf. S. M. Mitra, Indian Problems, London, 1908). Dutt sought to vindicate his conclusions in a new and exhaustive criticism of British agrarian and economic policy in India in two substantial volumes: ‘Economic History of British India, 1757–1837’ (1902), and ‘India in the Victorian Age’ (1904). They were brought out in a second edition under the uniform title of ‘India under Early British Rule’ (1906). A series of minor, yet cumulatively important, changes in land revenue administration, designed to protect the cultivators, were partly attributable to Dutt's representations. Prejudice disqualified him from becoming a safe guide on agrarian history, but the historian of Lord Curzon's viceroyalty admits that on the whole Dutt's agitation had beneficial results (L. Fraser's India under Curzon and After, i. pp. 154–7).

Dutt acted as lecturer on Indian history at University College, London, from 1898 to 1904, and he found time to continue his Sanskrit studies. He translated into English metre large extracts of the two great epics, the ‘Mahabharata’ and the ‘Ramayana,’ linking the excerpts together by short explanatory notes (published in the ‘Temple Classics’ 1899–1900 and subsequently in Dent's ‘Everyman's Library’). Max Müller acknowledged the value of Dutt's scheme. His versatile interests were illustrated by a volume of original poetry, ‘Reminiscences of a Workman's Life’ (Calcutta, 1896; privately printed).

While on a visit to India in 1904 Dutt was appointed revenue minister of the independent state of Baroda, and during his three years' active tenure (August 1904–July 1907) he helped on the reforms of the enlightened Gaekwar (Sayaji Rao). He was the Indian member of the royal commission on Indian decentralisation, which travelled through the country from November 1907 to the following April. He signed the report, but noted his dissent on many points of detail. With Mr. G. K. Gokhale he was unofficially consulted by Lord Morley respecting the scheme of political reforms which were promulgated in 1908–9. Returning to Baroda as prime minister in March 1909, he died there of a heart affection on 30 Nov. of that year, and was accorded a public funeral by order of the Gaekwar.

Dutt married in 1864 a daughter of Nobo Gopal Bose; a son is a barrister in practice in Calcutta, and of five daughters, three are married to native officials in government service.

[Biography by Dutt's son-in-law, J. N. Gupta, I.C.S., 1911; sketch of Dutt's career, a 4-anna (4d.) pamphlet pub. by Natesan, Madras, 1909; Indian National Congress, Natesan, Madras, 1907; Papers regarding Land Rev. System of Brit. India, 1902, Cd. 1089; Dutt's works; L. Fraser, India under Lord Curzon and After, 1911; The Times, 1 Dec. 1909; Indian Daily Telegraph, 2 Jan. 1903; Times of India Weekly, 4 Dec. 1909; personal knowledge.]

F. H. B.