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Derozio and the Hindu College

One of the main foundational principles of Hindu College was to “instruct sons of Hindoos in the European and Asiatic languages and science” and it stayed the course till its transformation into Presidency College in 1854. The appointment of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio as a teacher of English Literature and History marked a new chapter in the rich cultural history of this institution.

Son of Francis Derozio, he was born at Entally-Padmapukur in Kolkata on 10th April 1809. While a student of David Drummond’s school at Dhurmotalla (Dharmatala), he had his first lessons in superstition-free rational thinking, apart from the good grounding in history, philosophy and English literature. Drummond was a well known Scottish missionary famous for his free-thinking.
He quit education at the age of 14 and initially joined his father’s concern at Kolkata and later shifted to Bhagalpur. Inspired by the scenic beauty of the banks of the River Ganges, he started writing poetry. Some of these were published in Dr. Grant's India Gazette. His critical review of a book by Emmanuel Kant attracted the attention of the intelligentsia. In 1828, he went to Kolkata with the objective of publishing a book of poems. On learning that a faculty position was vacant at the newly established Hindu College, he applied for it and was selected. Fakir of Jhungeera is one of his most famous poetic creations.

It may be recalled that Raja Ram Mohan Roy Bahadur established the Brahma Sabha in 1828. This event produced a massive commotion and backlash within the orthodox Hindu society. Efforts began to scotch this religious revolt. It is in the perspective of this backdrop that Derozio unleashed his ideas that culminated in what was to become a social revolt.

He introduced the first generation of English educated students in this country to the ideas then in vogue in the West. Although he was a teacher of Class Four (the highest class was Class One), he attracted students of other classes also. He helped them with their studies even beyond the officially allocated class hours. Many of them went to his home and he entertained them as friends He encouraged free thinking and a questioning of orthodox Hindu customs and conventions on the basis of Judaic-Christian rationalism. He infused in his students the spirit of freedom, the yearning for knowledge and the passion to serve their native country.

Through his efforts, he created a sensation as a lecturer in Hindu College. His students were known as Derozians a.k.a. The “Young Bengal” group. He organized an Academic Association where topics such as free-will and fate, virtue and vice, patriotism ,arguments in favor of or against the existence of deity, the shams of idolatry and priest craft, were discussed. A mere glance at the topics would show the direction the wind blew at that time. In 1830, they published a magazine called Parthenon. Apart from articles criticizing Hindu practices, the students wrote on women’s emancipation and criticized many aspects of British rule. It was banned after publication of the first issue. The association survived till 1839.

A true poet at heart, he wrote about his students:

“Expanding like the petals of young flowers
I watch the gentle opening of your minds ... “

Due to his unorthodox take on society, culture and religion, and for “corrupting the youths of the Hindoos”, he was expelled as a faculty member from the college by a majority 6:1 vote on 25th April, 1831. He faced penury and starvation. In the following days, while answering to the question of whether he had undermined his students' belief in the deity, he wrote : “If it be wrong to speak at all upon such a subject ,I am guilty; for I am neither afraid nor ashamed to confess having stated the doubts of philosophers upon this head , because I have also stated the solution of those doubts. Is it forbidden anywhere to agree upon such a question? If so, it must be equally wrong to adduce an argument upon either side, or it consistent with and enlightened notion of truth to wed ourselves to only one view of so important a subject, resolving to close our eyes and ears against all impressions that oppose themselves to it?”

The removal of Derozio from the staff of Hindu College could not, however, suppress the influence this free thinking scholar had on his pupils. He died shortly after he was expelled (23rd December, 1831). Even before his death Derozio founded a daily paper - The East Indian. He voiced the affliction of the Anglo-Indian community through this publication and went ahead and sent in a petition to the Parliament, with a request to ameliorate the anguish of the Anglo-Indians, conforming to his fighting zeal. Two other instances may be cited proving the liberalistic ideals of Derozio. In one of his poems he welcomed the independence of Greece at the battle of Navarino; again, he responded heartily to the legislation forbidding sati daha (widow burning) strengthening the hands of Rammohan Roy, the notable social reformer. Derozio was an atheist but his ideas were also partly responsible for the conversion of upper caste "twice born" Hindus like Krishna Mohan Banerjee and Lal Behari Dey to Christianity. Most of his other students joined the Brahmo Samaj in later life or even formally remained part of Hindu society but they certainly were path breakers.

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