Ramtanu Lahiri (Bengali: রামতনু লাহিড়ী) (1813–1898) was a Young Bengal leader, a teacher and a social reformer. Peary Chand Mitra wrote about him, “There are few persons in whom the milk of kindness flows so abundantly. He was never wanting in appreciation of what was right, and in his sympathy with the advanced principles.” Sivanath Sastri’s Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Bangasamaj, published in 1903, was not only his biography but also an overview of Bengali society of the era, “a remarkable social document on the period of the Bengal Renaissance.”  It is still widely read and used as reference material for the period. An English version A History of Renaissance in Bengal - Ramtanu Lahiri: Brahman and Reformer, edited by Sir Roper Lethbridge, was published in London in 1907.
Ramtanu Lahiri was son of Ramakrishna Lahiri. They belonged to a deeply religious family attached to the dewans of the Nadia Raj. Some of them were also employed as dewans or occupied other high positions in the Raj. At that time, Krishnanagar was amongst the more enlightened towns of Bengal, and Kolkata had just started growing. His father, Ramakrishna Lahiri, was a person of limited means, earning a living in the service of the landed aristocracy and from some property he owned.
As per the traditions of the age, Ramtanu Lahiri attended the local pathsala and tol and learnt Arabic, Persian and some English. The environment of song, dance and drinks, in the palace, was not considered ideal for a child to grow up. His elder brother, Keshab Chandra Lahiri, took him to Kolkata at the age of 12. He taught him at home but desired to place the young boy in David Hare’s school.
In those days, there was such a mad rush for learning English and the opportunities were so limited that young boys used to run alongside David Hare’s palanquin, pleading “Me poor boy, have pity on me, me take in your school.” The number of aspirants were so many that David Hare could hardly do anything much.
Keshab Chandra Lahiri managed to line up Gour Mohan Vidyalankar, a person close to David Hare, to plead with him for the admission of Ramtanu Lahiri. He did accordingly and took the young boy to David Hare, but he refused to oblige. Then, Vidyalankar advised Ramtanu to run along David Hare’s palanquin, along with the other boys. The youngster did so for around two months, sometimes even without having any food in the morning. Ultimately, he won over David Hare with his determination. Ramtanu Lahiri was admitted as a free student in the school established by the School Society. The school later became famous as Hare School, and was known as Colutola Branch School for some time.
Young Ramtanu did not have a place to stay in Kolkata. His elder brother mostly lived in Krishnanagar. He crowded in with other boys in Vidyalankar’s house for some time and later found a place in a relative’s house. In 1828, Ramtanu Lahiri passed Entrance with flying colours, winning a grand scholarship of Rs. 14 per month, good enough in those days to manage a living in Kolkata. He joined Hindu College.
The most renowned name of Ramtanu Lahiri’s college days was Derozio. He used to publish poems and essays in Dr. Grant’s India Gazette. Then aged only nineteen years, he joined Hindu College as a teacher in 1828. Within a short period, Derozio became immensely popular amongst the students. They mobbed him in college and he invited them to their home. On one occasion, Ramtanu Lahiri went with some others to Derozio’s house. They were offered tea but Ramtanu Lahiri would not have it. It was against the traditions of the day to have food or drinks in the house of a Christian or Muslim.
Not only Derozio’s erudition and scholarship, but his liberal ways also had an immense impact on the students. For the first time, they were learning to question things. When Ramtanu Lahiri was in the third class (second year, as per today’s concept), the followers of Derozio published a monthly magazine named Athenium. One of the students, Madhab Chandra Mallick, wrote in it, “If there is anything we hate from the bottom of our heart, it is Hinduism.” Madhab Chandra Mallick was a friend of Ramtanu Lahiri and was later posted as a deputy collector in Krishnanagar.
The student-society was overwhelmed by Derozio. Sivanath Sastri quotes extensively from his biographer, Thomas Edwards:
- “Derozio acquired such an ascendancy over the minds of his pupils that they would not move even in their private concerns without his counsel and advice. On the other hand, he fostered their taste in literature; taught the evil effects of idolatry and superstition and so far formed their moral conceptions and feelings, as to place them completely above the antiquated ideas and aspirations of the age. Such was the force of his instructions, that the conduct of the students outside the College was most exemplary and gained them the applause of the outside world, not only in literary or a scientific point of view, but what was of still greater importance, they were all considered men of truth.”
In third class, Ramtanu Lahiri won a scholarship of Rs. 16 per month. He brought two of his brothers for education in Kolkata. That was not enough money for three persons to survive on. They had two square meals only and skipped refreshments in between. They went to school bare foot and did the cooking and all household work on their own.
Once when Ramtanu Lahiri was ill, David Hare came and treated him in his house in a dingy lane. Hare used to keep track of all his students. Those were also the days when Kolkata society was in turbulence about the formation of the Brahma Sabha by Raja Rammohun Roy in 1828. It was an age of change. The practice of suttee was banned in 1829. That led to enormous debates and petitions for and against it. In 1831, Derozio was forced to resign from Hindu College and he died soon afterwards at the age of only 22 years, but what a brilliant array of students he left behind: Krishna Mohan Banerjee, Ram Gopal Ghosh, Rasik Krishna Mallick, Sib Chandra Deb, Hara Chandra Ghosh, Peary Chand Mitra, Radhanath Sikdar and Ramtanu Lahiri, to name a few, all fired with the zeal to serve and change the county. In 1832, Krishna Mohan Banerjee, one of the Derozians converted to Christianity. From 1833 onwards, Indians were allowed to be deputy collectors and deputy magistrates, and some of the Derozians benefitted because of the relaxation.
Ramtanu Lahiri passed out in 1833 and joined Hindu College as a teacher. It may be recalled that the system of graduation had not been introduced till then. With a salary of Rs. 30 per month. he started living a life surrounded by relatives, many of whom came to Kolkata for education or other work.
Ramtanu Lahiri had already come under the influence of David Hare and Henry Vivian Derozio. Now it was his turn to be influenced by Thomas Babington Macaulay. Initially the English had sponsored classical education in India, based on Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, but as new ideas came from England, it was felt essential to introduce Indians to western education, particularly the sciences. There were strong protagonists on both sides. Indeed, the setting up of Hindu College in 1817 was a big step forward in the direction of western education.
Former students of Hindu College were strongly in favour of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s move for western education. They even went to the extent of supporting his theory, expounded in 1835, “I am quite ready to take oriental learning at the valuation of orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them, who could deny that that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” That was an age when India’s past was still to be fully realised.
Entire society was then in turmoil and Ramtanu Lahiri was going through all that. However, certain events in his personal life affected him seriously. First was the death of two of his brothers, one younger and the other elder. His elder brother had by then risen to the position of a sheristadar, a remarkable achievement in those days. The death of his elder brother brought on the entire responsibility of the family on to his shoulders. Second, two of his wives had died and he married a third time. Third, the death of David Hare in 1842. It was a tremendous shock for Ramtanu Lahiri. He revered him as his own father. Throughout his life, he never failed to gather his friends and pay respect to him at his grave on his death anniversary every year.
Krishnanagar College was opened in 1846. Capt. D.L.Richardson  was appointed principal and Ramtanu Lahiri was appointed the second teacher on a monthly salary of Rs. 100. As a teacher, Ramtanu Lahiri had picked up the qualities of Derozio. He could light up within his students the urge to acquire knowledge. While teaching he was always engrossed in the subject, trying to explain things in the widest possible manner. He used to mix freely with the students beyond the classroom and often took part in games with them.
In 1844, Maharaja Srish Chandra Roy had initiated steps for setting up a Brahmo Samaj at Krishnanagar. By the time, Ramtanu Lahiri went to Krishnanagar, it had already attracted both converts and strong opponents in the orthodox community. At that time a great debate was raging in the Brahmo Samaj as to whether to accept the infallibility of the Vedas or not. Tattwabodhini Patrika had also engaged in a bitter debate with the Christian missionaries and had launched a tirade against Christianity. While Ramtanu Lahiri was in general agreement with the Brahmo principles, he had some strong reservations on certain points.
In a letter to Rajnarayan Basu he wrote-
- “I cannot think much of the Vedantic movements here or elsewhere. The followers of Vedanta temporize. They do not believe that the religion is from God, but will not say so to their countrymen, who believe otherwise. Now, in my humble opinion, we should never preach doctrines as true, in which we have no faith ourselves. I know that the subversion of idolatry is a consummation devoutly to be wished for, but I do not desire it by employing wrong means. I do not allow the principle that means justify the end. Let us follow the right path assured that it will ultimately promote the welfare of mankind. It will never do otherwise.
- I wish to request the secretary of the Tottobodhini Sabha to discontinue sending me the Society’s paper (Patrika), as a person cannot subscribe to it, who is not a member of the Society… I fear also that there is a spirit of hostility entertained by the Society against Christianity which is not creditable. Our desire should be to see truth triumph. Let the votaries of all religions appeal to the reason of their fellow-creatures and let him who has truth on his side prevail.”
He did not join the Brahmo Samaj then but inspired the youth of Krishnanagar along the path of modernity. Some of his students later emerged as leaders of the new movement. One of them was Dinanath Mazumdar, a renowned Brahmo preacher. It was only when things improved in the Brahmo Samaj that Ramtanu Lahiri joined it.
Ramtanu Lahiri was possibly the first person in that society to discard his sacred thread. He is believed to have done it at Bardhaman in 1851. This daring act of his led to a huge uproar in orthodox society and he was socially boycotted for a long time. That, however, did not daunt him. Another movement that rocked society of the time was the debate for re-marriage of widows first raised by Ramgopal Ghosh and other Derozians in the Bengal Spectator from 1842 onwards, but it was possible that Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was behind the scene.
While Ramtanu Lahiri was moving from one place to another on transfer – Bardhaman, Uttarpara, Baraset, Rasapagla, Barisal - new developments were taking place in Kolkata. John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune established his girls’ school in 1849. Ramtanu Lahiri and other Derozians extended warm support to the enlightened journalism of Harish Chandra Mukherjee.
Ramtanu Lahiri returned to Krishnanagar College before retirement. Alfred Smith, principal of Krishnanagar College, wrote on his application for pension, “In parting with Baboo Ram Tanoo Lahiri I may be allowed to say that Government will lose the services of an educational officer, than whom [sic] no officer has discharged his public duties with greater fidelity, zeal and devotion, or has laboured more assiduously and successfully for the moral elevation of his pupils.” On retirement, Ramtanu Lahiri settled down in Krishnanagar but it could not be for long. He lived in Gobardanga for some time as guardian of the zemindar’s sons. When Keshub Chunder Sen established the Bharat Ashram in 1872, he moved in along with his family. He presided over the first day meeting of the All-India National Conference in Kolkata in 1883.
With several deaths in the family, Ramtanu Lahiri was somewhat heart broken. When he died, people of Kolkata gathered in large numbers to bid farewell to a saintly man.
A few lines from Max Müller will summarise his achievements:
- “The Brahminical thread which was retained by the members of the Brahma Samaj as late as 1861, was openly discarded by him as early as 1851. And we must remember that in those days such open apostasy was almost a question of life and death, and that Rammohun Roy was in danger of assassination in the very streets of Calcutta. It is true that European officials respected and supported Ramtonoo, but among his own countrymen he was despised and shunned. However, he continued his career, undisturbed by friend and foe… Later in life he was attracted to the new Brahmo Samaj and became a close friend of Keshub Chunder Sen… While cultivating his little garden he was found lost in devotion at the sight of full-blown rose and while singing a hymn in adoration of God, his whole countenance seemed to beam with heavenly light… When his end approached, his old friend Debendranath Tagore went to take leave of him, and when he left, he cried, ‘Now that the gates of heaven are open to you, and the Gods are waiting with their outstretched arms to receive you to the glorious region.’” 
One of the direct descendants of Ramtanu Lahiri, Sanat Lahiri, was the first Asian to be president of the International Public Relations Association in 1979. Public Relations Society of India periodically organises the Sanat Lahiri memorial lecture in his honour.
- Comment of Nitish Sengupta.
- Devendranath Tagore was also a student of Hindu College during the period but he was not attached to the group.
- Capt. D.L.Richardson taught English literature so well at Hindu College that students were led to believe that Shakespeare was the greatest poet.
- There is a second opinion that he did it at Krishnanagar.
- Extract from Auld Lang Synne quoted in Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Banga Samaj by Sivanath Sastri.
- Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Banga Samaj in Bengali by Sivanath Sastri
- History of the Bengali-speaking People by Nitish Sengupta
- Sansad Bangali Charitabhidhan (Biographical dictionary) in Bengali edited by Subodh Chandra Sengupta and Anjali Bose