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What India’s first nationalist would think of the country today

If Dadabhai Naoroji were alive, he'd coax leaders to implement far-reaching economic reforms, says Dinyar Patel whose biography won the 2021 NIF book prize

Flyer from Naoroji's parliamentary campaign in 1895. Courtesy: Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India
Flyer from Naoroji's parliamentary campaign in 1895. Courtesy: Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India (Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India)

Dadabhai Naoroji is usually dispensed with in history textbooks as one of the co-founders of the Indian National Congress and the ‘Grand Old Man of India’. More significantly though—and what's mostly forgotten—he served as the first Indian MP in British Parliament, articulated the concerns of Indians and the injustice of imperialism on a global stage, established swaraj or self-rule as the objective of the nationalist movement, and inspired later nationalists like Gandhi, who would ultimately propel the freedom struggle. It’s all this and more that’s laid out in evocative detail in historian Dinyar Patel’s biography Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, which won the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize 2021 earlier this week. In an interview, Patel, an assistant professor of history at S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai, tells Lounge what the country’s first nationalist would think of the India of today.

What’s the significance of Naoroji today, more than 100 years after his death? 

It is quite an understatement to say that nationalism has been in the news for the past few years, both here in India and elsewhere. While today’s right-wing nationalism is starkly different from the original Indian nationalism, it is nevertheless instructive to explore historical origins and understand what motivated someone like Dadabhai Naoroji to be amongst the first generation of Indians known as “nationalists”. Naoroji was arguably India’s first prominent nationalist: he set the tenor for much of the nationalist movement, formulated many of its key ideologies, and played a critical role in establishing its infrastructure. 

Fundamentally, Naoroji’s politics were directed towards the relief of endemic poverty. While, today, India is a rich country in comparison to what it was in the 19th century, there is still a long way to go before most Indians enjoy a satisfactory standard of living, access to adequate government services, and decent livelihoods. These were the objectives Naoroji had in mind when he was politically active. If Naoroji were around today, I think that he—and members of his generation like Ranade—would coax leaders to implement much more far-reaching reform. Naoroji was, in many ways, a socialist, but he was someone who saw trade, industry, and free enterprise as parts of the solution to create a prosperous India. I think he would look askance about how much of the process of economic reforms have stalled over the last ten years.

Secondly, Naoroji is significant today because of his liberal credentials. He was a minority—a member of one of India's smallest minorities, the Parsis—who was recognized across the board as an Indian leader. He worked with Indians of all types of backgrounds and struggled for diversity within the Congress, especially for convincing Muslims to join. When Naoroji was elected to (the British) Parliament in 1892, many Britons criticized his suitability as an Indian leader, claiming that a minority could not have any claim to represent Indians. In response, Indians of various faiths staged mass demonstrations which showed that his background and minority status did not matter. I don't know if something similar would happen today.

Finally, Naoroji was an educationist. He began his career as a professor and made some of the earliest appeals for quality, state-supported universal education in India. Naoroji saw poverty and lack of education as working hand-in-hand to keep India far short of its potential. I think that the politicization of education today, and how it has continued to handicap India, would particularly sadden him.

Also read: Dinyar Patel wins 2021 NIF book prize

Naoroji is an interesting study in contrasts in a sense—he was a leader in the British Empire because he served as an MP but also one who resisted imperialism. Why did he enter Parliament when he was resisting imperialism, and what did he achieve there?

At first, it can seem utterly perplexing that an Indian nationalist would decide to contest election for the British Parliament, canvassing votes amongst residents in central London. But this was the logic of early Indian nationalism. India’s first nationalists realized that their chances of achieving significant reform in India were close to nil: the British Indian government was far too hostile and conservative. 

Thus, recourse to the British Parliament became the best of a bad series of options. It was a weapon of the weak, in the sense that, unlike in the British Indian government, the House of Commons included several MPs who were actually quite sympathetic towards India’s concerns. 

One of the most surprising things for me, while researching this project, was to discover the breadth and diversity of political leaders in Britain who were actually quite sympathetic towards particular objectives of Indian nationalism. Also, the British Parliament was the ultimate arbiter of Indian affairs, having oversight over the British Indian government. If you wanted to legislate change, you could do so (with a great degree of struggle, of course), here. This is precisely what Naoroji attempted to do while an MP: he tried to bring about reform of the Indian civil service first through legislation, and then through a resolution. It did not work, but it rattled many British leaders, who realized that Indians could use British institutions for their own purposes.

From our perspective today, there was a degree of naïveté in this political strategy, as well as early nationalists' faith in things like the average Briton's "sense of justice". By the end of his career, it was clear that Naoroji had become bitter and was questioning his faith in "British justice." This was because -- in relation to your question about what he achieved in Parliament -- he increasingly realized that his ideas and demands fell upon deaf ears. Instead of legislative activity, Naoroji began using the House of Commons as a pulpit to denounce aspects of British rule in India. 

Poster for a lecture and public meeting in London. Courtesy: Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India
Poster for a lecture and public meeting in London. Courtesy: Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India (Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India)

How did Naoroji's “radical economic ideas” and shape the resistance to imperialism in India and abroad?

The most radical and controversial of his ideas was the drain of wealth: the idea that Great Britain was directly siphoning off wealth and resources from India. It is an idea that continues to animate lively academic debate and discussion even today. He held that on average Britain siphoned off about 1/4 of India's revenues every year. Turning some of the ideas of John Stuart Mill on their head, he demonstrated how this drain led to India's desperate poverty: it robbed India of any capital necessary to bring about proper industry and commerce. Every year, by this logic, India grew poorer and poorer, spiraling into famine in the worst years. 

The idea earned him many enemies. But, more significantly, it facilitated alliances with other anti-imperialists and socialists. Karl Marx briefly dabbled with the idea of a drain of wealth. The drain theory was also a bridge between Indian nationalism and European socialism: leading socialists like Henry Hyndman took up the idea and applied it in their own critiques of capitalism. It even found its way to America: the American Progressive William Jennings Bryan cited the idea to warn against American imperialism in places like the Philippines.

Would it be accurate to say Naoroji mentored a number of later nationalists who are remembered better than he is? Why did this happen? 

Absolutely! He was revered as kind of a fatherly and grandfatherly figure by different generations of nationalists. He mentored so many of them: Gokhale, Gandhi, Pherozeshah Mehta, Romesh Chunder Dutt, and dozens of other nationalists whose names are not as prominent today. 

It is easy to understand why some of his mentees, like Gandhi, are better remembered today. In order to understand why Naoroji is so forgotten, we must remember that nationalism changed in fundamental ways by the 1920s (thanks to Gandhi, to a large degree). In Naoroji's day, advocating self-government for India was a radical idea. By the 1920s, that was not the case. In spite of some very radical impulses, Naoroji stuck to constitutionalist politics, which were deemed "mendicant" and were utterly discredited by the years after WWI. I think Tilak expressed it best: "The radicals of today are the moderates of tomorrow." Gandhi expressed something similar, that his generation of nationalists could reach higher because Naoroji and his generation had built the foundations of nationalism.

You’ve edited Naoroji’s correspondence, written academic papers, you teach history, you have a deep interest in the history of the Parsis and old Bombay... did all this come together in your interest in Naoroji? And now that you’ve written a biography, have you said everything there is to say about him?

I entered a PhD program at Harvard in 2007 with the intention of satisfying my interest in Parsi history. I’ve always been interested in Indian nationalism, on the one hand, and Parsi history, on the other. So, from that perspective, studying Naoroji was a natural fit. Once I arrived in the National Archives of India and discovered just how extensive Naoroji's papers are, I realized this would be a long-term project. There remains lots to say about Naoroji -- which I am addressing in articles and future book projects, as well as in perhaps some more edited volumes of his correspondence -- but I am moving onto other topics. My next book looks at early Indian nationalism in general, with a focus on global links. When I began dabbling in Indian history, my era of primary interest was the 1920s to the 1940s. I realized that you had to go further back in time to properly understand this era, and hence I've been stuck in the late 19th century for many years. But I would like to eventually write on more contemporary historical subjects.

Also read: A new life for the Grand Old Man of India

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