R.D. Mehta (1849-1930): A Leading Calcutta Parsi

This October, the Calcutta Parsi community will conclude year-long celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of the Ervad Dhunjeebhoy Byramjee Mehta’s Zoroastrian Anjuman Atash Adaran, the only functioning fire temple in the city and one of two fire temples in eastern India (the other is located in Jamshedpur). In November 2011 I was invited by the community to give an address on Rustamji Dhanjibhai (R.D.) Mehta (1849-1930), a prominent leader of the community whose generous financial contributions enabled the fire temple to be built. This short article will briefly consider R.D. Mehta’s life and career, including some interesting documents that I have found in the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers in Delhi. A longer article on R.D. Mehta and the Calcutta Parsi community will appear in the agiary’s souvenir publication, to be produced later this year.

Image from the Cyclopedia of India, vol. 1-2 (Calcutta, 1907).

R.D. Mehta was born in Bombay to a family that already had Calcutta connections: his father, Dhanjibhai Byramji (D.B.) Mehta (1826-1907) was based in the city due to his involvement in the “China trade”—a loose euphemism for the opium trade—and in 1860 he decided to relocate his entire family to the eastern metropolis of India. After completing his schooling, Mehta was first apprenticed to an Armenian trading firm (Parsis enjoyed close connections with the city’s prosperous Armenian community) before joining his father’s company. As the China trade began to slacken, R.D. Mehta helped reorient the family business: having secured special equipment and machinery from England, in 1878 he helped set up the first truly modern cotton mill in Calcutta, the Empress Mills, located upriver from Calcutta in Serampur. The common belief in Calcutta was that this expensive, highly-technical mill would be a commercial flop. Empress Mills, however, soon became a roaring commercial success, helping diminish Bombay’s absolute hegemony in the cotton industry. The Mehta’s later diversified into jute as well. Evidence of their commercial success is found in—of all places—the New York Times. In an article on the Parsis, published on 12 October 1902 under the headline “Millionaires of the Orient,” the Times declared “The Petits and the Wadias had captured the cotton on the Bombay side. It remained for the Mehtas to cross over to the Bengal side and capture the jute.”

In 1890, D.B. Mehta, by all accounts a very pious Zoroastrian, decided to set up a private dar-i-meher at his residence at 65 Canning Street, located in north-central Calcutta. Priests from either Bombay or Navsari (there are two differing versions) carried the alat—ritual implements—by foot across the subcontinent. There was already a functioning fire temple in Calcutta, the Banaji family temple (1839) located close by on Ezra Street, but, as I’ve stated in an article shortly to be published, there appeared to be some definite rifts between the Mehta and Banaji families. In any case, D.B. Mehta had long expressed his wish to establish an agiary for the public. After he passed away in 1907, R.D. Mehta and his widowed mother donated a liberal sum—and collected additional funds from the community—to erect a grand structure on Metcalfe Street in Bowbazaar. The foundation stone of the atash adaran was laid on Sunday, 17 September 1911, heralding a new chapter in the history of the Calcutta Parsis.

Today, R.D. Mehta is primarily remembered for his connection with the agiary as well as for the trust in his name. What is less known is that, from the 1880s until the early 1900s, Mehta played a prominent role in emerging nationalist politics in Bengal. While sifting through the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers in the National Archives of India, I have come across several letters between Naoroji and Mehta. Mehta, it appears, functioned as a right-hand man of sorts for Naoroji: Naoroji utilized Mehta’s connections with the Bengali elite in order to coordinate political activities. In 1885, for example, when the new secretary of state for India, Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father), visited Calcutta, Naoroji reached out to Mehta in order to encourage a formal meeting between Churchill and prominent Calcutta citizens. Similarly, Naoroji communicated with Mehta about a British politician or journalist planned a visit to the capital of the Indian empire. In many ways, Mehta was an important conduit between the Bengali political elite and Naoroji—and, through Naoroji, the Bombay political elite.

Included below are some interesting few letters from the Naoroji-Mehta correspondence:

1. R.D. Mehta to Dadabhai Naoroji, 29 January 1885

D.B. MEHTA & Co.

CALCUTTA.

55, Canning Street

29th January 1885

My dear Sett Dadabhai

You will kindly accept my most sincere thanks for your favor of the 21st instant.   I had circulated your letter amongst a number of my friends who I assure you have read with intense pleasure & interest.  We are organising an Evening Party at the India Club for Lord Randolph [Churchill] & have telegraphed for his consent.  No reply is yet received but there is no fear of his refusing the invitation.  An attempt is also made to secure a private interview with him.  Do you think we might impress on Lord R’s mind the desirability of admitting natives to the Commissioned ranks of the Military Service?  If I could be of any use to you here I would indeed be very glad.  Some time ago you wrote to me 2 or 3 letters in connection with the “Voice of India” & I was extremely sorry for not replying to them, & I am sure you will excuse me when I tell you that my father was very sick at the time, in fact his condition was most precarious, & owing to that cause I was not in a fit state of mind to attend to any business.  Mr. [Allan Octavian] Hume has written a letter to Narendra Nath Sen & the question of establishing telegraphic service with England weekly is on the carpet.  What do you think of Lal Mohun Ghose’s candidature for the Parliament?  I sincerely wish that he gets in, he or any one from India if once gets in the Parliament then I think the time has fairly come for India to raise a hue & cry for having representative parliaments Councils.  The matter then should be agitated thro’ the length & breadth of India & not allowed to drop till we have gained our points.

With my best wishes for your health & happiness.

Believe me

Ever Yours Sincerely

R.D. Mehta

Dadabhai Naoroji Esq.

5th Khetwady Lane—Bombay

Lal Mohun is a good speaker no doubt, but he lacks in figures & unless he makes that his special study he will not be very successful.

2. R.D. Mehta to Dadabhai Naoroji, 5 March 1885.

THE EMPRESS OF INDIA COTTON MILLS Co. Ld.  CALCUTTA.

55, Canning Street,

Calcutta, 5th March 1885

My dear Mr. Dadabhai

I owe you apologies for not having sooner answered your very kind letter.  Lord Randolph beyond visiting Sir Jotindro Mohun Tagore at his private residence did not accept anybody’s invitation nor did he grant any interview.  But from the little we saw of him we found him to be a man full of information upon almost every topic.  We expect Mr. Hume here shortly.  He will be the guest of Mr. Nundmohun Ghose,—Lallmohun’s Brother.  It is the intention of our Bengalee Friends to establish a weekly or fortnightly telegraphic service between here & England independently of Bombay, & with that in view they have I think succeeded in securing some Rs. 20.000.  It is a great pity that our aristocratic class remain quite aloof from the Reformed Party, & do not give their desired support.  Our Lieutenant Governor seems to enjoy their confidence & his advice they act upon.  The public utterances of our Governor are beyond all question hostile to the native community & in spite thereof I cannot understand why our rich Zemindars should cling to him.  The Europeans are beginning to dislike our present Viceroy who they fear is more for the Natives than for his own class.  I am afraid he will retire with the change of the Ministry.

Enclosed please find my subscription—No. M68 55013 Bombay 1st August 1881 for Rs. 10—to the Voice of India for the Current Year.

Trusting you are keeping good health & with kindest regards

I am, Yours Sincerely

R.D. Mehta

            How is your son Ardesir?  Has he got over that defect in the leg?

To Dadabhai Naoroji Esq.

Ketwady [sic] 5th Lane

Bombay.

3. 24 September 1906, R.D. Mehta to Dadabhai Naoroji. The letter refers to the moderate-radical split in the Congress as well as to Naoroji’s recent acceptance of the presidency of the Congress for its 1906 session in Calcutta. 

55, CANNING STREET,

CALCUTTA.

24th Septr. 1906

My dear Seth Dadabhai

We are pleased to learn that you have accepted the Presidentship of this year’s Congress.  The Bengalees are fighting among themselves & any one & every one poses as a Leader.  In the lot we have some very good men & some self seeking.  I am sure your presence would tend to settle the matter down smoothly.  We will take it as a great favor if you will put up with us as you so very kindly did on your last visit.  Pray accept this as an invitation from my dear old parents & all of us.  We would not say how very pleased we would be to put you up and to show you your likeness gracing and ornamenting our agiary.

By last mail I have sent my fifth son Khusroo for medical tuition with his eldest brother Maneck, the barrister whom I dare say you know.  My barrister son Maneck aspires to a Judgeship of an High Court & I have to solicit your kind help in the matter.  Need I say how grateful we all would be by our helping him & putting him in the way.

I sincerely trust you are keeping well & with our united kindest regards & best wishes,

I am,

Yours Sincerely,

R.D. Mehta

Further Reading:

Jesse Palsetia, “Parsi Communities ii: in Calcutta,” Encyclopaedia Iranica.

Request for Assistance: Tracing Dadabhai Naoroji’s Descendants

I would like to ask readers for assistance in helping trace any descendants of Dadabhai Naoroji.

Letter to Dadabhai Naoroji by his young grandson, Sarosh. Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India, Delhi.

Dadabhai Naoroji, who was married to Gulbai Shroff (b. 1829?) at an early age, had three children: Ardeshir (1859-1893), who married Virbai Dadina; Shirin, who married Fram Dadina; and Manekbai or Maki (b. 1868), who married Homi Dadina. We know that Ardeshir and his wife had eight children: Perin (Captain), Nurgis (Captain), Kershasp, Jalejar or Jal, Gosi, Meherbanoo or Meher, Sarosh, and Khorshed. Sadly, none of Naoroji’s grandchildren had any children themselves, and therefore this branch of Naoroji’s family went extinct.

At the moment, I do not know much about Naoroji’s descendants through his daughters, Shirin Dadina and Maki Dadina.  I know that Maki and Homi had at least two sons, one of whom was an AH Dadina, who was still alive in 1970, when he wrote a letter to Parsi Avaz (I thank Ervad Marzban Hathiram for bringing this to my attention). They were made navars in 1915 in memory of their grandmother, Gulbai. Unfortunately, this is all I know of any possible Naoroji grandchildren through his two daughters. Maki (who was trained in England as a doctor) and Homi lived with Naoroji at Versova until his death and Shirin and Fram spent some years in Karachi, most likely returning to Bombay thereafter.

I would greatly appreciate it if anyone could supply me more information on these two branches of the Naoroji/Dadina families, as well as any other relations of Dadabhai Naoroji. I hope to construct a Naoroji family tree building on what RB Paymaster sketched in his book, A Farman of Emperor Jehangir Given to Dr Dadabhai Naoroji’s Ancestors Three Centuries ago and a Short History of His Dordi Family of Navsari, published in 1925. I would also welcome any information from Dordi family members who can trace ancestry to Naoroji.

I can be contacted at dinyar.patel@gmail.com.

Many thanks,

Dinyar Patel

India and the Last Jubilee Queen

Note: The following is an article published in The Hindu on 16 June 2012.

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article3533400.ece?homepage=true

India and the last jubilee queen

DINYAR PATEL

The 1897 celebrations for Victoria proved to be an important turning point in the nationalist movement

Last week’s diamond jubilee celebrations in London, marking the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign on the British throne, garnered relatively limited coverage in the Indian media. While several British South Asians played a prominent role in the festivities, any Indian citizens in attendance were more than likely curious tourists. Amongst the hundreds of boats on the Thames was one carrying the Indian tricolour, which, flying amidst the flags of other Commonwealth nations, provided perhaps the only visible reminder that a British Empire even existed.

What a difference a century makes. As celebrations for Elizabeth continue, it is worthwhile to reflect on the last time that a diamond jubilee was celebrated. That was in 1897, when the aged monarch, Victoria, was also the Kaiser-e-Hind, the Empress of India. Consequently, India played a much bigger role in the jubilee, and the jubilee, in turn, had much greater significance for India. The jubilee was an important moment for India in two ways. Firstly, in an imperial system that placed great weight on public displays of loyalty, it gave various Indian communities an opportunity to jockey for political capital and recognition. Secondly, the jubilee presented a conundrum to Indian nationalists. How best to respond? How should congratulatory messages be balanced with political protest? Ultimately, this question helped widen fissures between emerging moderate and radical factions. By the time the jubilee festivities ended in late 1897, the radicals had proven themselves to be a force with which to be reckoned.

Addresses of loyalty

Victoria’s diamond jubilee was designed to demonstrate the strength and diversity of the British Empire. The festivities, which like Elizabeth’s, occurred under mercurial June skies, featured representatives from across the colonies, ranging from Dayaks from Borneo to Hausas from western Africa. Over forty thousand soldiers from all parts of the empire descended on London. Within India, British administrators sought to recreate a microcosm of this pomp and splendour. They invited delegations to present addresses of loyalty and thanks to the viceroy in the summer capital of Shimla. From across the subcontinent streamed in official representatives of the Hindus of Lahore, Khojas of Bombay, Awadhi taluqdars, and Muslim Bengali women.

Other Indians lost no opportunity for lavish and oftentimes servile demonstrations of their loyalty to the crown. Princes held darbars, fed thousands of poor people, and laid foundation stones for new hospitals and schools to be named after the queen. Prayer meetings were organised in temples and mosques across the country. Residents of Lahore argued over how best to erect a statue of Victoria. Two hundred Parsi priests packed into the confines of Bombay’s Wadia Atash Behram in order to deliver a special jashan prayer for the monarch. In Ajmer, dargah custodians pitched in to organise a large fair, while the Bene Israelis of Ahmedabad decided to collectively illuminate their houses. The Jains of Calcutta made what was perhaps the best use of an obligatory message of congratulation: they appealed to Victoria to ban all animal slaughter on her jubilee day. These memorials, darbars, festivals, and prayers were readily picked up by the British press, as well as by European papers in India, in order to reinforce the common belief that loyalty to British rule, alone, united India’s diverse and teeming multitudes.

But celebrations and flowery messages barely masked what was otherwise a dark year in Indian history. Famine had swept over much of the north and west, followed soon after by a major plague epidemic. These tragedies were compounded by the Raj’s relatively apathetic response to the famine and its imposition of draconian plague regulations. Leaders of the Indian National Congress, an organisation barely 12 years old, were at loggerheads as to how to balance declarations of loyalty with stern condemnation of British policy. At their December 1896 meeting in Calcutta, the Congress passed a feeble resolution congratulating the queen. This sent Henry M. Hyndman, the father of British socialism and an outspoken critic of British rule in India, into a fit of rage. ‘Congratulations for what?’ he asked his friend, Dadabhai Naoroji, in January 1897. ‘For having ruined India for two or three generations to come? It is pitiful.’

Hyndman’s relationship with Naoroji forms an important part of the story of India’s response to the jubilee. Naoroji was then in residence in London, where he had been agitating for Indian political reform. With increasingly horrific accounts of the famine and plague streaming in, Naoroji decided to throw in his lot with Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and launch a series of protests and public meetings across Britain. Both men agreed that a steady drain of wealth and resources by the British were the root causes of India’s poverty and misery. They had both spent the last several decades clamouring for more Indian representation in the government.

But now their campaign took a much more radical turn, employing language that did not spare the Kaiser-i-Hind. The silver jubilee, Hyndman told a mass meeting that he organised with Naoroji in February, should be celebrated in a manner befitting a monarch who had been ‘the Empress of Famine and the Queen of Black Death.’ Naoroji wrote directly to the queen in the same month, accusing the British of inflicting upon Indians “all the scourges of the world[:] war, pestilence, and famine.” Naoroji and Hyndman continued to hold rallies and demonstrations in the months leading up to the jubilee.

Platform for demonstration

More moderate voices in the Congress also decided to turn the jubilee into a platform for demonstration. G.K. Gokhale, Surendranath Banerjea, Dinsha Wacha, and Subramania Iyer — who had been called to London as witnesses for the Royal Commission on Indian Expenditure (Welby Commission) — launched their own speaking tour around England and Scotland. In May, M.G. Ranade informed Naoroji about a movement afoot to hold “a Congress meeting in London in connexion with the jubilee festivities.” A London Congress, Ranade hoped, would provide an opportunity for Indian political associations to present their petitions directly to the India Office. William Wedderburn, another close British ally of the Congress, urged Ranade to stir up ferment in India for major political reforms. “Unless some clear expression of Indian public opinion is placed before the British public,” he argued, “it will be assumed that a few KCSIs [Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India] &c to official favorites is all that the people of India desire.”

Ultimately, nothing came of the proposal for a London Congress. Naoroji and Hyndman’s joint campaign came to a grinding halt. Naoroji, it appears, got cold feet from Hyndman’s exhortations for Indians to rise up in open and violent rebellion against their British masters, and began distancing himself from the SDF. The defining jubilee moment for India happened not in London but in Poona, where several individuals were following a similar line of thought to Hyndman’s. On the night of 22 June, as carriages departed jubilee ceremonies held at Ganeshkhind, the governor of Bombay’s official Poona residence, two men leaped out of the dark and fatally shot the hated local plague commissioner, W.C. Rand, and a young British lieutenant, Charles Ayerst. The assailants were, of course, the Chapekar brothers, and their action produced shockwaves across the British Empire, completely drowning out, for the moment, the memorials, petitions, and protests of the Congress moderates.

Aside from bringing a bloody end to jubilee ceremonies in India, the Chapekar brothers helped bolster the prominence of an emerging band of extremist and revolutionary nationalists. B.G. Tilak, immediately suspected of complicity in the assassinations, shot to all-India fame in his ensuing trial for sedition. It was only after his sentencing in late 1897 that the honorific title of Lokmanya was bestowed upon him. Hyndman, who grew increasingly disillusioned with Naoroji and the moderates in the Congress, continued to call for revolution in India, defended Tilak in the press, and, in due time, linked up with one of Tilak’s young friends, Shyamji Krishna Varma, the founder of India House in London, the premier laboratory for Indian revolutionary activity. It was people like Hyndman, rather than moderate voices such as Wedderburn and A.O. Hume, who served as inspiration for a rising generation of radicals.

For India, therefore, Victoria’s diamond jubilee proved to be much more than an opportunity for restrained political protest, leave alone sycophantic memorials, deputations, and displays of loyalty. Instead, 1897 became an important turning point in the nationalist movement. The Poona assassinations raised the spectre of more extremist activity in disaffected regions. By the end of the year, Congress moderates had fully realised the potent threat that radicals — especially charismatic ones such as Tilak — posed to their dominance of the party. With little surprise, therefore, when the Amraoti Congress was held in December 1897, many Congress leaders tried to leverage the Lokmanya’s mass appeal through sympathetic resolutions and speeches. Victoria’s grand jubilee celebrations, it appears, were already a distant memory.

(Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Harvard University. Some of the material quoted here will be published in the forthcoming volume, The Grand Old Man of India: Selections from the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers (Oxford University Press), which he is co-editing with S.R. Mehrotra.)

Dadabhai Naoroji and the Naoroji Papers in Delhi

A flier for Naoroji dating from his parliamentary reelection campaign in Central Finsbury, London in 1895. Since his foreign name caused many twisted tongues among the British electorate, he was advised to simply go by "D. Naoroji." This still created difficulties, as Naoroji was regularly addressed as "Narejse," "Naorogi," and other permutations.

In future posts on this blog, I will feature information gleaned from one of the largest collections at the National Archives of India, the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers. Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), who was known as the “Grand Old Man of India,” was one of the earliest Indian nationalists, a man who began his political career before the Indian Mutiny and lived to mentor a young Mahatma Gandhi. In the course of over seven decades of involvement in Indian politics, Naoroji served in various positions in the governments of Bombay city and the Bombay Presidency; helped found the Indian National Congress, of which he was president three times; and, in 1892, became the first Indian elected to the British Parliament. More significant than this was the decades of agitation for political reform that Naoroji carried out in India and the United Kingdom, beginning with demands for greater Indian representation in the civil service of the British Indian government and ending with a call for a form of swaraj, or self-government. Naoroji, whose father was a professional Zoroastrian priest, was also intimately involved in Parsi community affairs from the 1850s through the time of his death.

For the last several months, I have been going through the Naoroji Papers in connection with research for my Ph.D. dissertation. In spite of their incredible breadth and scope, these papers have been largely neglected by scholars of Indian history. In this collection, we find letters from some of the most prominent early Indian nationalists–R.C. Dutt, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Pherozeshah Mehta, Surrendranath Banerjea, and M.G. Ranade–as well as a vast array of correspondence with local political leaders and organizations across the subcontinent. Naoroji received some of the earliest complaints from South African Indians about their mistreatment–by the 1890s, he was in regular communication with Gandhi and brought the issue before the British Parliament and the Colonial Office. As Naoroji spent decades in London, he became a well-known figure within British political circles and took part in an array of progressive causes, ranging from trade unionism to women’s suffrage. As time went on, he adopted many socialist political views and engaged in lengthy correspondence with Henry M. Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation of the United Kingdom.

Naoroji’s political career is only half of the story. Early in his life, he played an influential role in Parsi social and religious reform. Thanks, in large part, to Naoroji, the first attempts to educate Parsi girls were made in the 1850s and 1860s. Along with a prominent sethia (commercial elite), Manockjee Cursetjee, Naoroji also introduced the revolutionary concept of Parsi males and females dining together (traditionally, Parsi women would only eat until their menfolk had finished their meals). Once in England, Naoroji helped build the infrastructure of the tiny-but-growing Parsi community in London, helping establish the Zoroastrian Fund (now the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe) in 1861. By the 1890s, he was the recognized leader of the Parsi as well as Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom, mentoring Parsis and other Indians who had come to London and elsewhere to study, work, or simply travel. We find many such letters between Naoroji and Indian visitors and residents in the Naoroji Papers. Some asked Naoroji for his advice on what to study and how best to apply to institutions such as Cambridge or Oxford, others asked about more mundane matters such as setting up a bank account, and still others urgently telegraphed or wrote to him when in financial or legal trouble. Naoroji responded and attended to all of these requests, meeting with homesick or disoriented Indians, issuing loans, and, in at least one case, bailing an Indian out of jail in London after he was arrested for public drunkenness during new years day revels. He was president of the Zoroastrian Fund in London from its founding until Naoroji returned to India for good in 1907.

There are around 25,000 items in the Naoroji Papers, including individual letters, booklets, pamphlets, and newspaper cuttings. The majority of this collection is in English, while an uncatalogued portion is in Gujarati, but I have also found material in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi and Telegu or Kannada. Unfortunately, the collection is in extremely bad condition, suffering from multiple forms of damage. Proper historical preservation, unfortunately, has not been a strength in modern India. For decades, these papers were kept in cupboards and open rooms that facilitated and accelerated damage by weather and insects. Already by the 1930s and 1940s, just decades after Naoroji’s death, large portions of material were already found eaten up by worms and, in the words of one individual who surveyed them in 1943, emitting a “bad stink.” In 1968, the Papers were finally transferred to the National Archives of India, though unfortunately some damage appears to have occurred here as well. Under new directorship, the Archives is now attending to proper preservation of this valuable collection.

Along with Professor S.R. Mehrotra, who has spent decades studying Indian nationalists including Naoroji, and with the support of the National Archives, I am now helping bring out an edited selection of letters from the Papers titled the Dadabhai Naoroji Correspondence. This volume will be published by Oxford University Press in 2012 and you can read more about it on OUP’s website.

In the mean time, check back here for some interesting finds from the Naoroji Papers.

Dinyar Patel