circa 1905: Indian statesman and MP for Finsbury, Dadabhai Naoroji, (1825 - 1917).(Getty Images)
circa 1905: Indian statesman and MP for Finsbury, Dadabhai Naoroji, (1825 - 1917).(Getty Images)

The Grand Old Man of India and his unwavering legacy

Dinyar Patel’s new biography charts the life of Dadabhai Naoroji - the first Asian to sit in the House of Commons and a towering figure that represented anti-imperialism before the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi
By Navneet Vyasan | Hindustan Times, Mumbai
UPDATED ON AUG 05, 2020 11:31 PM IST

In his book Poverty and Unbritish Rule in India, one of the pioneers of Indian independence movement, Dadabhai Naoroji explained how steadily and clinically, the British were draining India’s wealth all the while poverty was visibly increasing in the country. He wrote: “The British rule caused only impoverishment in India with their knife of sugar. That is to say there is no oppression, it is all smooth and sweet, but it is a knife notwithstanding.”

Author Dinyar Patel, in his new work, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, decodes the life of the Grand Old Man of India who became Britain’s first Asian MP. Naoroji influenced numerous Indian leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale among others and yet, the country, at large remains oblivious of his contributions. Excerpts from an interview:

How did the idea of writing this book come about?

This book grew out of my PhD dissertation which I completed at Harvard University. While in graduate school, you spend the first two years reading the important scholarship in your field, and I was struck by how little has been written on Indian nationalism before Gandhi and the important nationalist leaders who helped launch the nationalist movement and the Congress. Indian history, in general, suffers from a paucity of good biographies, and many academic scholars have shied away from studying “elite” political leaders, although this scenario is rapidly (and thankfully) changing. Every year in the United States, UK, France, and other countries, so many biographies are churned out on important leaders -- why has the situation been so different here in India? Aside from Gandhi and Nehru, why can’t we have more books on Patel, Ambedkar, Azad, Gokhale, Ranade, Sarojini Naidu, or -- in this case -- Naoroji? In Naoroji’s case, the last good and comprehensive biography was written in 1939. It was high time for a new study.

You mention the instance when Naoroji irked the conservatives when he set out to open a school for girls. What was it, according to you, that invoked this strong sense of progressiveness in him and who were his influences?

At the outset, his mother was a strong influence. Manekbai Naoroji Dordi was widowed and illiterate, and yet she overcame quite incredible odds in order to raise Dadabhai Naoroji and give him a good education at what was probably Bombay’s best school at the time, the Central English School run by the Bombay Native Education Society.

His education also played a formative role. In the 1840s, Elphinstone College had a number of progressive, forward-minded professors -- both Britons and Indians. Among the Britons, many of these were young Irishmen or Scotsmen, and they tended to mix much more freely with their Indian students than their more reserved and older English counterparts. These professors introduced Naoroji and his fellow students to political, philosophical, and economic ideas that were on the cutting edge of thought in Europe, and many of these ideas had something to do with liberal reform. There already were many Indians who were advocating female education, but Naoroji was of the first generation in Bombay to translate those sentiments into deeds and establish a network of schools for them.

In the 1840s, Elphinstone College had a number of progressive, forward-minded professors -- both Britons and Indians. They tended to mix much more freely with their Indian students. These professors introduced Naoroji and his fellow students to political, philosophical, and economic ideas that were on the cutting edge of thought in Europe.

You also write about how important that first visit to England was…

I think it is at this moment that he really realizes the contrast between the utter poverty of India and the wealth of Western Europe. Naoroji made his first trip to the UK in 1855, and on the way he passed through Aden, Egypt, Malta, and France. In Aden and Egypt he was confronted with sights similar to what one would see in India: some modernization, like the building of railways in Egypt, but overwhelming impoverishment. Once he landed in Marseilles in France, and while taking a train north to Paris, he was stunned at how the average French people appeared so prosperous and how bountiful the land was, maintained through canals and forms of modern infrastructure. That comparison is key: How the average person in Britain or France was so well off in comparison to the average Indian, who was deeply impoverished if not already on the very cusp of starvation. And it is important to remember that the cities he lived in -- London and Liverpool -- were some of the most modern and prosperous places in the world at the time -- London was the biggest and richest city in the world. Being in London in the 1850s, one realized what a small, relatively poor place Bombay was in comparison.

At this stage of his life, Naoroji was involved in the cotton business, and it is through cotton that Naoroji gets another lesson in poverty versus plenty. Cotton was grown to a very large degree in India, and yet the profits of Indian cotton were squeezed out in Britain, where it was turned into cloth, and then sold back to Indians at a healthy further profit to British firms.

The cover of Patel’s new book
The cover of Patel’s new book
Once he landed in Marseilles he was stunned at how the average French appeared so prosperous and maintained through canals and forms of modern infrastructure. That comparison is key: How the average person in Britain or France was so well off in comparison to Indians, who were deeply impoverished if not already on the very cusp of starvation.

How important was his theory of “drain of wealth” in understanding the clinical British exploitation of India?

Extremely important. The drain theory explains precisely why colonialism was an economically exploitative force: it lays bare the rationale of enriching the mother country (Britain in this case) at the expense of the colony (India). It has been similarly applied in other colonial contexts, such as in west Africa or the Caribbean. Naoroji’s drain theory was complex and multifaceted, but a few things stand out. First, he explained how modern infrastructure such as railways and canals actually made India poorer. Infrastructure was built by British firms, which were guaranteed high rates of return, and thus pushed India further into debt and sucked capital out of the country. The railways sped up the extraction of natural resources or crops (like cotton) out of the countryside. Naoroji noted that the drain of wealth created an ever-worsening spiral of impoverishment: with every passing year, as more and more money was taken out of India, the average Indian became poorer and even less able to pay taxes or buy food. There comes a point where enough Indians are poor enough so that things like a drought or late monsoon turn into deadly famines. So this was perhaps the most devastating conclusion of the drain theory: that the British, by making India so poor, were also directly responsible for a spate of deadly famines in the late nineteenth century that killed millions.

Naoroji also talked about a “moral” drain of wealth: by employing Britons instead of Indians as experts, government officials, engineers, teachers, etc., you were denying Indians the experience to develop their talents and become leaders and experts themselves. That is ultimately one of the ingredients which contributes to Naoroji’s idea of swaraj: if Indians were actually in control of their own government, they could also gain the skills and experiences to improve their country.

Naoroji tried strenuously to recruit other Muslims to the organization and show how the Congress could represent the interests of all Indians. He would certainly have been opposed to the idea of a partition. We must remember that, prior to returning to India in the late 1930s, Jinnah had been called the “Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity” -- he was someone very much in the mould of Gokhale, championing communal unity and incremental political reform.

Dadabhai Naoroji influenced many young leaders through his progressive nationalist ideas, including Mohammed Ali Jinnah. How do you view the change – a young man listening Naoroji’s speech at the House of Commons from the visitor’s gallery to the formation of Muslim league and the two nation theory?

The two-nation theory and the Muslim League had absolutely nothing to do with Naoroji’s ideas. Naoroji argued throughout his life that a person was an Indian before he or she was a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. He was distraught by Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s opposition to the Congress and his argument that Muslims were a “nation” that were separate from other Indians. Naoroji tried strenuously to recruit other Muslims to the organization and show how the Congress could represent the interests of all Indians. Naoroji would certainly have been wholeheartedly opposed to the idea of a partition of India. We must remember that, prior to returning to India in the late 1930s, Jinnah had been called the “Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity” -- he was someone very much in the mould of Gokhale, championing communal unity and incremental political reform. It is in this early stage of Jinnah’s career -- and only in this stage -- where we can see some influence of Naoroji’s career and ideas.

I should mention that, while Jinnah claimed Naoroji to be an influence on his ideas, there is basically no reference to Jinnah in the Naoroji papers. I went through 15,000 of Naoroji’s papers, and I only found one passing reference to Jinnah -- nothing significant. Jinnah claimed that he knew Naoroji in London while a student and that he served as a secretary to Naoroji at the 1906 Congress. But Naoroji knew hundreds of Indian students in London, and he didn’t know Jinnah well enough for there to be any trail of correspondence. As for the 1906 Congress, there were many people working around Naoroji in a secretarial capacity, so it was not a unique distinction.

One can’t help but think that sometimes in India, leaders are owned by particular communities before they attain a respectful stature in the country. Do you feel that the dwindling Parsi population is the reason he does not enjoy as much popularity as others?

This is the other important reason for why Naoroji is so forgotten today. Parsis are numerically insignificant, although they still exert great economic and cultural influence. But, there’s simply no Parsi vote bank (outside of pockets of South Bombay, of course!), and there’s therefore little way to make political capital out of a Parsi political leader. This is a shame, because Naoroji was much more than just a Parsi leader: he can be seen as an emblem of the cosmopolitan culture that emerged in late 19th/early 20th century Bombay and made it into such a modern, successful city -- one where Indians of all backgrounds and walks of life could work together. So, at the very least, he deserves to be remembered as part of Mumbai’s civic heritage.

Within the Parsi community, Naoroji is of course quite a revered figure still, although few people know many of the details of his career. Yes -- I do think that, as Parsis diminished as a proportion of the population of Bombay/Mumbai, memory of Naoroji and other Parsi figures (Pherozeshah Mehta, for example) has diminished. Again, this is ironic, because both Naoroji and Mehta were very cosmopolitan political figures who played important roles in developing an Indian national identity out of particular communal identities. Some Parsi contemporaries even criticized Naoroji and Mehta for putting the interests of Indians (Hindus and Muslims, in their view) above those of their own community.

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