Perhaps the most prolific ICS officer of the nineteenth century was SN Banerjea’s batchmate RC Dutt. His first book was published within three years of his joining the ICS in 1869. It was based on his impressions during his three-year sojourn in England for the preparation for the ICS. The book was titled, ‘Three Years in Europe’ and was published in 1872. It was followed by his book ‘Peasantry in Bengal’ in 1875 based on his experiences as a district officer, which he later expanded into ‘Famines in India,’ published at the turn of the century. By this time, he had resigned his commission in the ICS in 1897 in sheer frustration as ‘his juniors had been promoted to higher posts’ and the Government was not ‘disposed to repose to any real trust and confidence’ in him.
Immediately thereafter, he joined the University College London as a professor of Indian history which gave him the much-needed time and space to read, reflect and complete his thesis on the how the British rule had led to massive drain of wealth from India. By this time, he had established his reputation as a major economic historian of India and thesis on de-industrialisation of India under the British rule remains a forceful argument in Indian historiography.
‘Famines in India’ was a path-breaking book in which he established that the rapacious land revenue settlement and diversion of land for exports of tea, jute, indigo, opium, tobacco led to the pauperisation of Indian peasant. It covered the period from 1770 to the end of the nineteenth century and contained five ‘Open Letters’ to the Governor General and the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, who was not entirely pleased with this effort, especially as by then , Dutt had been elected as the President of the Indian National Congress in its 1899 session .
This was followed by the first volume of the Economic History of India (1757-1857) early in 1902. The second volume appeared in 1904 and this one carried the story of India’s economic history to the beginning of the twentieth century. Both these were published in England. In these, he described the various aspects of the economic administration of British Government, de-industrialisation of India through unfair competition with machine made goods of England, neglect of industrial and agricultural development, high rate of revenue, the consequent impoverishment of the peasantry, the outbreak of famines, the drain of resources through the payment of ‘Home charges’ and the financing of expensive wars beyond Indian borders for British imperial interests.
To quote him: “India in the eighteenth century was a great manufacturing as well as great agricultural country, and the products of the Indian loom supplied the markets of Asia and of Europe. It is unfortunately true that the East Indian Company and the British Parliament discouraged Indian manufactures in the early years of British rule in order to encourage the rising manufactures of England . . . millions of Indian artisans lost their earnings; the population of India lost one great source of their wealth.” He also directed attention to the deepening internal differentiation of Indian society because of the abrupt disconnect the of local economies with the world market, accelerated urban-rural polarisation, the division between intellectual and manual labour, and the toll of recurrent devastating famines.
(To be continued…)
— (The author is a historian,
columnist and Festival Director,
Valley of Words: International Literature
& Arts Festival, Dehradun)