Monday, 8 February 2021

Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917)

 Review of `NAOROJI Pioneer of Indian Nationalism` by Dinyar Patel                                               (Harvard University Press 2020ISBN 9780674238206 - 352 pp)

Like most South Asians in the diaspora of my generation, born during World War II, one had grown up hearing the name Dadabhai Naoroji (Naoroji), but only superficially as the first Indian to be elected to the British Parliament way back in the 1890s. This simple fact took on an historic significance, nearly a hundred years on, as the image of the immigrant communities in the UK began to change with the arrival in 1987 of a pioneering group of 4 non-white MPs: Keith Vaz, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant. But even then there was precious little generally known about Naoroji`s background and trajectory.

Dinyar Patel has filled that void admirably in this book.  It will be of great interest to students of economics and political science, and of Indo-British history.  It draws the reader into Naoroji`s huge hinterland in these and other respects. What comes across is his passionate commitment to the concept of (an) Indian nationhood within the parameters of British rule, then at the height of Empire, that came to dominate his life. In this he was driven by an abiding concern for the poverty-stricken state of his country under the Raj.  It was this that was to spearhead his political activism after first landing in Britain in 1855.  Over the next 52 years he divided his time between Britain and India, with increasingly longer spells in Britain as he consolidated his political credentials and gained wide name recognition in the public sphere and in the corridors of power.

Naoroji was born in 1825 in a native area of Bombay to Parsi parents who had moved there to escape rural poverty from their ancestral Gujarat, and received his early education at a local English medium school as a non-fee paying pupil. In May 1840, he was enrolled at the prestigious Elphinstone College, having been awarded a special scholarship on account of his proficiency in mathematics. He excelled at Elphinstone, which became his alma mater.

After finishing his studies in 1845, he was invited to teach there and following a series of rapid promotions ended up as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, `becoming the first-ever Indian to hold this rank at a British-administered institution of higher education` in India (p 272).  He also supervised a girls` school and was made a member of the Bombay Board of Education.

It was also during this period that his political thinking had begun to take shape, first publicly expressed at the inauguration of the Bombay Association in 1852 when he `suggested a link between faulty governance and poverty` (p 61), which he was to later articulate quite forcefully and with confidence.

But then came an abrupt change when he abandoned his promising academic career and departed Bombay for Britain in 1855 with a fellow Parsi to set up the first Indian commercial firm in Britain to trade in the growing cotton export market. He had applied for and been readily granted a two-year leave of absence from his professorial duties at Elphinstone, but he never returned to teach there. In 1856, however, he was appointed Professor of Gujarati at London University and thus re-entered the world of academia, combining it with business, having established his own Dadabhai Naoroji & Co around 1859, which alas did not do too well over the years and he had to close it down in 1881.

So what form did his political activism take?  Very soon after arriving in Britain in the mid-1850s, he joined certain societies (the Royal Asiatic Society and the London Ethnological Society, among others) `where he emerged as an academic and eventually popular authority on all matters subcontinental … [and] … helped create institutional space in the imperial capital for discussion of Indian affairs`. More importantly, in 1866 he founded the East India Association (EIA) - which brought together British Indian officials of the highest calibre (ex-Governors and the like) and leading Indian figures from across a broad spectrum of opinion and expertise in the law, journalism, education, and industry.  Its key function was to lobby MPs on Indian policy and be a cultural bureau and `clearinghouse for information on India, a resource for the public as well as Parliament` (p 127/8).

From here on, he picked up his theme of the linkage between British rule and Indian poverty, to develop and pursue it relentlessly over the next three decades under his generic `drain of wealth` theory of `thoughtless and pitiless action of … British policy … the pitiless eating of India`s substance in India, and the further pitiless drain to England` (p 9).  He argued that civil servants` salary and pension remittances to Britain, profound unfavourable trade balances, the cost of the military deployed to defend British possessions outside India, the siphoning off of substantial amounts of Indian tax revenues to imperial coffers and the like all contributed to this one-way traffic (p 62/63).

Naoroji presented papers, gave talks, engaged in discussion and correspondence with a whole range of high ranking government officials and MPs, appeared before Parliamentary committees, made representations to any number of other bodies and organisations, was asked to join in delegations and deputations concerned with matters Indian and much more.  

Fortunately, the author`s extensive and meticulous research has enabled him to produce a complete Timeline of Naoroji`s lifespan from birth to death that includes a list of his papers. Among these, on the drain of wealth theory specifically, were: `England`s Duties to India` at the first meeting of the EIA on 2 May 1867; `Wants and Means of India` at the Society of Arts in London on 27 June 1870; `Poverty of India, Part I` on 28 February 1876 and `Poverty of India, Part II` on 27 April 1876 both at the Bombay branch of the EIA. The list also contains a mention of `Poverty and Un-British Rule in India`, a compilation of Naoroji`s economic writings published in October 1901.

Naoroji`s Elphinstonian cohorts and others in the upper ranks of native Indian society had come to the conclusion that the administrators of the Raj were too inflexible and indifferent to the needs and interests of those over whom they ruled. In the absence of any platform for raising issues of governance and accountability, the Indians felt that they had to take their case direct to the British home public and policy makers for any meaningful change.  In this context, while the idea of Indian MPs in the British Parliament was nothing new, as we learn from Chapter 3 of the book (`Turning toward Westminster`), it was Naoroji who gave bold expression to it in his 1867 paper, `England`s Duties to India`, bemoaning `the almost total exclusion of the natives from a share and voice in the administration of their own country` (p 92), unlike the `rights of representation [enjoyed] by other colonized people in the French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires` (p 94).

This then was the prelude to Naoroji`s foray into politics proper, whose impact was to reverberate well into the next century. The book charts his path to becoming the first Indian MP in the British Parliament in great depth and detail. It had been a long and arduous journey, full of setbacks and challenges involving rival contenders from within his own Liberal Party as well as from Conservative opponents.  In one notorious incident, in November 1888, he was called a `black man` by none other than the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury.  Salisbury had stated that he did not believe that the UK electorate would vote for Naoroji. That racist slur elicited such widespread opprobrium, from high profile national figures such as William Gladstone and other enlightened folk, that the National Liberal Club (NLC) held a dinner in Naoroji`s honour as a response to the insult (pp 166/67).

He had joined the NLC (affiliated with the Liberal Party) in 1886, and it had become the focus of both his political and `India related activity ushering a steady stream of subcontinental visitors through its grand entrance hall … [he] having fully taken on the mantle of Indian emissary` (p 129).  He had actually first considered contesting a seat in the House of Commons in 1872, but it was Lalmohan Ghosh, a prominent Calcutta barrister, who became `the first-ever Indian to stand for Parliament`, twice nominated as a Liberal, though he was unsuccessful on both occasions (p 90).  Naoroji himself was chosen as the Liberal candidate for Holborn at the 1886 general election, which he lost, and eventually fought and won the 1892 election, albeit with a wafer thin majority and for one term (1892-95) only, as MP for the Central Finsbury constituency.  It had most certainly not been an easy ride: he had been subjected to all manner of dirty tricks, internal party strife and external distractions, which continued to mar his subsequent attempts to re-enter Parliament.

By then, however, Naoroji had acquired such stature that, not surprisingly, he was hailed by both Indians and Britons alike as the `Grand Old Man (GOM) of India`, a contemporary reference to William Gladstone (who had succeeded Lord Salisbury as Prime Minister) as the United Kingdom`s GOM (p 190). Even across the Atlantic, the New York `Review of Reviews` in its issue of October 1892, carried an imposing sketch depicting Naoroji as a colossus straddling England and India as the Voice of India in his new found role as a British MP (pictured at p 191).

In Parliament, he made alliances with like-minded MPs, Liberal and Irish, some of whom had served in India, and with one, William Caine, MP for East Bradford, `founded an Indian Parliamentary Committee in July 1893, which soon grew in size to a whopping 154 MPs` (p 197).  Chapter 6 of the book, `Member for India`, gives a fascinating insight into his many roles as such both in and outside Parliament.

But he was a great deal more than that: he had an equal parallel standing in India as a leader and as a founding member of the Indian National Congress in 1885.  He was thrice honoured to preside over the annual session of the Congress: 1886 (Calcutta), 1894 (Lahore) and 1906 (Calcutta again). In December 1893, he had received a heroic welcome at Bombay on his first return visit to India as an MP and all through his whistle-stop train journey to Lahore for the Congress session.  He was similarly feted in later years as well. He had also helped open the Congress`s London office, `which became another focus of activity from the late 1880s onward` (p 129).

He remained an influential player in the nationalist movement that was gathering momentum at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.  By this time he was also becoming markedly unsparing in his critical demand for Indians to be compensated for their past sufferings and to be recognised as worthy of equal status as subjects of the Empire.  In his last address to Congress at the 1906 Calcutta session (which was being held at a pivotal moment in the struggle for independence because of the partition of Bengal), he enunciated this as `Self-Government or Swaraj` on a par with that of the United Kingdom and the dominions of Canada and Australia.  It so happened that in August 1904 he had attended the International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam, in the company of the British radical Henry Hyndman, where he had railed against imperialism in like language and received critical acclaim.

There is much more that can only be mentioned in passing and not all of it either.  Bear this in mind: he was born in 1825, before Queen Victoria descended to the throne in 1837, and lived through all of her reign and beyond, until his death in Bombay in 1917. After first coming to Britain in 1855, he made many trips back and forth, when travel and communications between Britain and India took days and weeks at a time.  He lived a dual existence, with home and business, and political activities, spread across the two countries, with all that this entailed in practical and financial terms. He also had to struggle with frequent bouts of ill-health, family bereavement and other crises.

So what about his other activities?

Very early on, in 1859, he took up the case of the very first Indian candidate for the civil service, Rustomji Wadia, who was unceremoniously barred from taking the service entrance examination by the India Office on some spurious ground (p 61).  Thereafter, he persistently campaigned for a fundamental reform of the Indian Civil Service by removing barriers to the entry of Indians into the service. This was to culminate in a resolution that he, as an MP, cleverly managed to pass through a late night sitting of the House of Commons on June 2, 1893 with the help of a large number of sympathetic MPs, for simultaneous civil service examination to be held both in England and India.  However, it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory, for the government under Prime Minister Gladstone, no less, simply stonewalled the issue and let it slide into the long grass (p 214).

The breadth of Naoroji`s knowledge and interests was vast and varied.  For example, in his first few years in Britain, in the 1860s, he delivered papers to learned societies about his Parsi origin and Zoroastrian faith, and about `The European and Asiatic Races`, as part of what he must have seen as his wider mission to inform and educate the British public. These are also listed in the Timeline of all significant events and turning points in his life.   

In the early 1880s, it is possible that Karl Max and Naoroji may have met; at least a well-wisher had apprised Marx of Naoroji`s views on the drain of wealth from India, which were apparently echoed in a letter Marx wrote to the Russian economist Nicolai F. Danielson (p 84).

Naoroji had also taken an interest in the Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, and was thanked for a donation by its organiser, Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian, whom he assisted in searching for a parliamentary opening and, when that did not materialise, helped both Williams and another black activist, John Archer, win elections to London municipal councils the same year - perhaps `the best of all possible ripostes to Lord Salisbury`s "black man" jibe` (p 228/9)!

Naoroji also kept abreast with US politics and avidly read the New York Tribune and New York Sun to gauge American opinion and to pounce upon commentators who made ill-informed remarks about Indian affairs (p 229). In 1893-94,  moved by stirring testimony on the horrors of Jim Crow and lynch mob violence by Ida B Wells, an African-American civil rights activist touring Britain, Naoroji `joined a group of progressive MPs, journalists, and clerymen in founding an English Anti-Lynching Committee.  His name on the list of founders was duly noticed in an African-American newspaper in Philadelphia (p 228). 

We learn that Naoroji played an important role as a central hub of [British Indian] community life in the late Victorian age, `mentoring and supervising students, dispensing professional and educational advice, counselling on cultural adjustment issues,, extricating Indians from financial and legal difficulties, establishing and presiding over community-wide organizations, and facilitating a sense of national consciousness among Indians cast across the isles` (p 152/3).  He also functioned as the first point of contact for many Britons who consulted him on miscellaneous Indian matters.

Naoroji had made strong connections with campaigners for the Irish Home Rule, cultivated the working class vote, supported the Women`s Franchise League, the secularist freethinkers and other minority causes, all of which had enhanced his political base and appeal, leading to his election success in 1892. However, he lost his seat at the 1895 election (polling 2873 votes to his Conservative opponent`s 3588).  Thereafter, he missed the 1900 election due to illness, then contested the January 1906 election at North Lambeth as an independent Liberal but again he lost. 

That, however, was not the end of Naoroji as a political incarnate in Britain. In November of that year he accompanied Gandhi (who had first made contact with him in 1894 seeking guidance on his battles with the South African government and remained in close touch since) to a meeting with John Morley, Secretary of State for India, before sailing to India to preside over the Congress session at Calcutta in December.  Although he still harboured a wish to remain politically active, after a further year of poor health he finally left Britain in October 1907 to return to India for good.

On the Indian front, apart from politics, he had remained deeply involved in matters relating to education and social progress. We are told that he `possessed notably progressive views on female education [regarding] it as a fundamental pillar for establishing gender equality`. No doubt in this he had been influenced by his mother who, though illiterate herself, was `a staunch proponent of female education` and who had propelled him into schooling in the first place. Naoroji, though, had undergone an arranged marriage with Gulbai, who `was illiterate and showed little interest in being educated`, which explained why he did not appear to have an entirely happy marriage (p 39).  There are however  happier references to his children and grandchildren and their time in Britain and Europe.

During the 1870s he had done some poverty-related investigative work in the princely states of Gujarat and acted as diwan or chief minister to the ruler of Baroda, where he insisted on reforms of the judicial and administrative structures, but resigned after an unsavoury attempt by the ruler to poison the British Resident who had been opposed to Naoroji`s appointment.  He was subsequently elected as a member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation and in 1885 elevated to the Bombay Legislative Assembly.

There is so much packed into the book that no overview can do justice to the complex narrative of Naoroji`s long life and accomplishments, all graphically captured in this extraordinary biography.  The endorsements on the back cover of the book by distinguished academics and historians - Ramachandra Guha, Steve Beckett, Farrukh Dhondy and Sunil Khilnani – are an impressive testament alone to Dinyar Patel`s brilliant creation.  He is Assistant Professor of History at the SP Institute of Management Research in Mumbai and previously had taught in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina – see 

Apart from the Timeline, the book contains short sketches of key individuals, a note on sources, copious endnotes and a comprehensive index. In his note on sources, Patel recounts the many years of his underlying research and the problems encountered by him in accessing and handling original papers, most of them in a delicate state, in the National Archives of India and elsewhere. He has also generously acknowledged the contribution of earlier biographers - Rustom M Masani and two more recent ones - in adding to the body of knowledge about Naoroji.

And in his own thoughtful `Conclusion`, Patel reflects on Naoroji`s impact on the independence struggle  and states: `It is simply impossible to imagine how the nationalist movement would have developed without [Naoroji]` (p 263).   

In Naoroji, then, Patel has constructed a rounded portrait – on the basis of surviving records, traceable sources and a whole host of other documented material, all properly referenced – of a giant of a man, a true Pioneer of Indian Nationalism indeed; a hero and role-model not only to his contemporaries but also to future leaders like Gandhi and Jinnah, who had touched base with him, and worshiped him, and who later came into their own to complete the nationalist struggle.    

This is a timely publication, when so much of our current national discourse is concerned with a reappraisal  of the story of Empire. 

(c) 2021
Surrey, England



(a condensed version of this review appears on the LSE Review of Books site at