Book review – “Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism” by Dinyar Patel

This is a new biography of Dadabhai Naoroji by Dinyar Patel, who is a Professor at the University of South Carolina.

Before reading this, I knew little about Naoroji apart from him being the first Indian MP in the UK Parliament, but this biography enlightened me about his extraordinary life.

Born to a poor Parsi family, he became one of the early Indian nationalists – described by Gandhi as the ‘ father of the nation’, he was an pioneer of education for girls, a brilliant propagandist , Prime Minster of a princely state, Westminster MP, developed the ‘drain theory’ of how the British were impoverishing India – and on top of all of that a keen Freemason.

He was sent by his mother (his father died when he was four) to the English school of the ‘Bombay Native Education Society’, followed by Elphinstone College – the first institute for Higher Education in India . He became Professor of Maths there at the age of 27 and at 30 left India for London to establish the first Indian commercial firm in London. He then became Professor of Gujarati at University College and the leading Indian figure in the UK, lecturing and working to bring the attention of influential people to the poverty in India (India was seen in the UK as a rich country). One way he did this – much to the discomfort of India Office officials – was to use their own statistics (often showing they were demonstrably incorrect) and make speeches against them. He also developed the first calculation of Indian GDP per head.

In 1873 he had the opportunity to put theory into practice when he was appointed Diwan (Prime Minster) of the princely state of Baroda, though he was not a success in this role – the biography puts this down to the machinations of the British Resident and the unwillingness of the ruler to make real reforms.

Back in London, Naoroji made connections between India and the situation in Ireland and of women, making contacts with Irish MPs and with supporters of women’s suffrage. He was a networker of genius – his letter of introduction to Morley, the Liberal Chief Whip, was from Florence Nightingale, and in the 1880s he started planning on how he could enter the Commons to make the case for India there. In 1886 he stood as Liberal candidate in Holborn – leading to Lord Salisbury describing him as ‘a black man’ – something which generated widespread outrage, which Naoroji turned to good effect to promote himself within the Liberal Party – he received 3,800 messages of support after Salisbury’s comments.

In 1888 he got adopted at candidate for Finsbury Central – a notoriously divided local party. He topped the poll to be selected as candidate after three separate votes from the General Committee. This, however, was not the end of it as there was immediate opposition to his candidature, though after a huge amount of manoeuvring he won through. One thing which struck me was how closely the contest was followed in India and how much support he got -including finance from wealthy Indians including various enlightened Princes – one of whom paid for 20 carriages to take his supporters to vote. A familiar touch is that in the election voters were ‘inundated with leaflets and pamphlets’.

Once elected (with a majority of five) he became the ‘member for India’. When he returned to India he was greeted with huge crowds of support – which was important as it was claimed in London that, being a Parsi, he could not speak for India’s Hindu and Muslim population. He lost his seat in 1895 but stood again at the age of 81 in North Lambeth and in the same year presided over the Calcutta Congress at which he supported the radical Swadeshi movement to only use products made in India. His last decade was less active and he died in 1917

I have only given a summary of some of the achievements of this remarkable man and I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a fuller picture.

The book is called “Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism” by Dinyar Patel, and is published by Harvard University Press.

* Simon McGrath is a Councillor in Wimbledon and a directly elected member of the Federal Board.

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9 Comments

  • Why is it an American who is writing about him? Is he not regarded as a good Liberal of the past?

  • Somebody didn’t do his reading or research too carefully: According to Wikipedia he stood in the 1906 election in North Lambeth as London Liberal and Radical Union candidate coming third to Horatio Myer the official Liberal who won.
    Before someone else mentions it he acquired the nickname of Mr Narrow Majority.

  • Simon McGrath 23rd Jun '20 - 9:28pm

    @N Hunter – I am afraid I don’t understand your point ?

    @john Payne – indeed as I say in the article he stood when he was 81 – that as in North lambeth in 1906

  • Wonderful. I shall look out for this book at Kinokuniya.

  • Oop! I just wanted to know why an American was writing the book.

  • Now that I know more about this chap should he not be used as an influence to attract Relevant voters?

  • Simon, I apologise for my inference. However, I did find your rather long unpunctuated sentence slightly difficult to read.
    It has been suggested to me that Naoroji was involved in setting up the first steel works in India and was related to the Tata family. Is that mentioned in the book?

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