Last month, the British foreign minister and chancellor of the exchequer visited India. In a bid to charm their hosts they announced that a statue of Mahatma Gandhi would be erected outside the Houses of Parliament in London.
Indians like me met the proposal with a weary cynicism. Perhaps the offer was not unconnected to the fighter jets the visitors hoped to sell? As it happens, the idea had not found favour with a section of the British public as well. The Times of London reported that a certain Kusum Vadgama thought a statue of Gandhi in Westminster would be “unspeakable and absolutely unacceptable”, because — in her view — he treated women shamefully. Gandhi, she said, was “obsessed with sex” and “had a habit of sleeping naked with women”.
Rather than Gandhi, Vadgama suggested that a statue of Dadabhai Naoroji be placed in Parliament Square, since Naoroji was the first Indian member of the House of Commons, elected from Finsbury Park in 1892.
Kusum Vadgama is a doctor who has written two fine books on South Asians in Great Britain. Her condemnation of Gandhi, however, is extreme. Sleeping “naked with women” was not a “habit” with him. In the last year of his life, as communal riots erupted all over India, Gandhi thought it might have something to do with his own lack of moral purity. So he tested his celibacy afresh with two of his nieces.
The experiment was, admittedly, bizarre. However, it occurred only once, over several weeks in 1946-47, with the consent of those who participated. And we know about this experiment only because Gandhi led his life in the open, and two of his associates — Pyarelal and Nirmal Kumar Bose — published books about it.
Perhaps Gandhi used his authority to coerce the two young women into participating. Perhaps they were damaged by the experiment. Even so, against this one-off abuse of women’s rights one must set the Mahatma’s lifelong work for women’s emancipation. Gandhi campaigned against sati and child marriage. He urged women to shed the purdah and take to education. He encouraged women to participate in political movements in South Africa and India.
In the 1940s and 1950s, there were few (if any) women active in public life in the United Kingdom, the United States, France or Germany. By contrast, in the first few years of Independence, India had women governors of states, women cabinet ministers, women vice-chancellors, women ambassadors. Women like Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Anasuya and Mridula Sarabhai, Anis Kidwai and Hansa Mehta contributed substantially to the freedom movement and to nation-building. All, without exception, were inspired by Gandhi.
Gandhi did more to bring women into public life than any other 20th century politician — more than Mao, Lenin, Churchill or De Gaulle. Kusum Vadgama’s charge that he suppressed women therefore lacks substance. But I do find attractive her suggestion that Naoroji be honoured in a prominent place in London.
Dadabhai Naoroji is largely forgotten today. He is a subject of a forthcoming biography by the Harvard historian Dinyar Patel, which shall hopefully make his name — and contributions — known once more. Using a wide range of primary sources, Patel delineates Naoroji’s varied life as businessman, educator, patriot, politician, and philanthropist. When he was elected to the British Parliament in 1892, a Madras editor wrote “If India were a Republic and the Republic had the right to elect its own President, the man who by the unanimous voice of his countrymen would be elected its uncrowned king is Mr Dadabhai Naoroji. No Indian is more loved, more honored, more esteemed throughout the length and breadth of India than he”.
As Patel demonstrates, Naoroji was a progressive and pragmatic thinker who allied India’s demand for swaraj with a broader conception of universal rights. “Deeply involved in socialist, labourite, and anti-imperialist causes,” he “found common cause with British trade unionists, religious non-conformists, [and] pro-suffragists”. Naoroji was also a prolific writer whose most important book was Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, a pioneering analysis of the economic consequences of colonial rule.
Gandhi first met Naoroji when he was a law student in London. After he moved to South Africa, a portrait of the Parsi stalwart hung in his chambers. The young lawyer-activist often wrote to Naoroji for advice and guidance. In 1894, when he began to campaign for Indian rights in Natal, Gandhi wrote a long letter to his mentor in London. “The responsibility undertaken is quite out of proportion to my ability,” he told Naoroji. He was “inexperienced and young and therefore, quite liable to make mistakes”. He asked the Parsi stalwart for guidance, saying any advice would “be received as from a father to his child”.
For Gandhi, Dadabhai Naoroji represented “the highest ideal of the Indian patriot”. He wrote several pieces about Naoroji in his magazine, Indian Opinion. In November 1903 he saluted Naoroji on his 78th birthday; the Parsi veteran, he said, was “loved from the Hindukush to Cape Comorin and from Karachi to Calcutta as no other living man in India is loved”. Three years later, Indian Opinion carried birthday tributes to Naoroji in English and Hindi; the former under the prosaic title “The G[rand]O[ld]M[an] of India”, the latter under the evocative pun “Hind ké Dada”.
Naoroji uniquely contributed to public life in two countries, helping to deepen democracy in the United Kingdom and to nurture nationalism in India. A statue of him in Westminster would suitably commemorate the long (if not always harmonious) history of Asians in Britain. I think Gandhi would have approved.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_GuhaThe views expressed by the author are personal