The grand old liberal
First Indian member of the British Parliament, first Indian professor at Elphinstone College, mathematician, natural philosopher, economist, and co-Founder of the Indian National Congress.
“Central Finsbury should be ashamed of itself at having publicly confessed that there was not in the whole of the Division an Englishman, Scotsman, Welshman or Irishman as worthy of their votes as this fire worshipper from Bombay”, thus spake the conservative and racist British press when Dadabhai Naoroji won the constituency for the liberal party in 1892. In contrast, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, an admirer of Naoroji said “ if we twenty eight crore of Indians were entitled to send one member to the British Parliament, there is no doubt that we would have elected Dadabhai Naoroji unanimously to grace the post”.
Dadabhai Naoroji, genteel and urbane, was born to a priestly Parsee family in 1825. As an Athornan (ordained priest), Naoroji was dedicated to his religious duties before he became active in public service. He founded the Rehnumai Mazdayasan Sabha that promoted the education and emancipation of Parsee women. He joined the Elphinstone College at a young age and upon graduation became the first Indian professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in the college at the age of 27. At the age of 30, Naoroji sailed for England to join the business firm of the Cama family and subsequently set up his own firm, Dadabhai Naoroji & Co. He established the East India Association in England to combat the European supremacy arguments of the London Ethnological Society.
Naoroji was the first Indian to bring attention to the drain of wealth from India to England. His book on the subject, titled Poverty & Un-British Rule in India, estimated that 200-300 million pounds was being lost to Britain. Naoroji’s term for this was vampirism: meaning that Britain was sucking the very blood out of its colony. He was scrupulously fair in assigning value to the contributions of Britain to India – railways for instance – but lamented the fact that the profits were being repatriated abroad. Naoroji gave six factors that caused this drain. The first was external rule. The second, that India did not draw immigrants even though expensive labour was imported from Britain. Third, all civil and army expenses of Britain were paid by India. Fourth, Free trade as a way to exploit India. Fifth, India was financing Britain’s territorial ambitions inside and outside and Sixth, major wage earners in India were Britons who repatriated this money when they left. He believed that a combination of these six factors resulted in draining wealth out of India.
There was little doubt that Naoroji was a nationalist. He said this in 1893 at an early Indian National Congress (INC) session in Lahore, “let us always remember that we are all children of our mother country. Indeed, I have never worked in any other spirit than that I am an Indian, and owe duty to my country and all my countrymen. Whether I am a Hindu, a Mohammedan, a Parsi, a Christian, or any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India; our nationality is Indian.”
Naoroji was one of the founders of the INC and was its president for three annual terms in – 1886, 1893 and 1906. Adopting the slogan of a more radical faction in the INC, Naoroji was the first INC President to ask for Swaraj. He did so in the following way, “we do not ask for favours. We want only justice. Instead of going into any further divisions or details of our right as British citizens, the whole matter can be comprised in only one word, self-government or Swaraj, like that of the united kingdoms or the colonies”. Under his presidentship of the Calcutta Congress in 1906 four resolutions were passed. These were, Swaraj, Boycott, Swadeshi and National Education.
The subsequent path chosen by the INC has relegated Naoroji’s contribution to the national cause to the background. Naoroji was not merely a liberal, he was also a nationalist. As a liberal, he used reason to make measured progress towards self-government. True, he did not enunciate a demand for full independence (Poorna Swaraj) but this was a concept that came into being only about 10 years after Naoroji had passed away. Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi considered Naoroji as a mentor. If a guru’s fame is related to the fame and accomplishment of his shishya’s then surely Naoroji must be counted amongst the great sons of India on whose shoulders her independence was achieved.
Gokahle said “If ever there is the divine in man, then it is in Dadabhai Naoroji”. Tall praise indeed.
This piece is a part of a series of essays on Liberal Nationalism.
Narayan Ramachandran is co-Founder and Fellow of the Takshashila Institution.