The Grand Old Man who sparked a flame

Dadabhai Naoroji, 26 July 1892

Today the prospect looms of lights being switched off at Port Talbot steelworks in Wales. This will be another nail in the coffin for the British steel industry triggered primarily by Chinese economic policy. Almost 150 years ago, an eloquent exposé of British economic exploitation was articulated by an Indian intellectual and reformer. An articulation that would shake the moral foundation for empire.

Sajid Javid, Business Secretary had to cut short his Australian holiday to deal with the steel crisis

Dadabhai Naoroji was Britain’s first Asian MP. He was socially conscious overachiever who shone a light on British misrule of India at the height of its Victorian pomp. His first jabs were thrown in 1867 when he wrote the paper ‘England’s duties to India’ which highlighted that India’s high-value exports had been systematically disbanded by the British and any subsequent trade surplus’s funded British military campaigns, such as the Afghan campaigns (often using largely Indian troops). Naoroji’s work on this was known as the ‘Drain theory’ and it’s echoes would be found in the socialist policies followed by the post-independence Government, which remained suspicious of laissez-fare trade practices, remembering that such policy deprived the Indian people during British rule.

‘No taxation, without representation’ was the rallying cry that led to the American Revolution, led for English settlers (invaders) of the now United States in the 1750’s. However, this unjust situation had been replicated in extremis for Indians under British rule. Indians payed vast amounts of tax to the British, much of which left Indian shores, but had no say in how these funds were spent. There was no Indian representative in Parliament, or voice in the government of India. For Naoroji this injustice must have been a prime motivator for his drive to seek election in Britain and provide a voice for the ignored.

Dadabhai Naoroji was born into a poor Parsi family in Mumbai and raised by his widowed mother. He would go on to become a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the prestigious Elphinstone College, start his own cotton trading company and launch the East India Association - predecessor to the Indian National Congress. Perhaps most remarkably he was elected to become MP of Finsbury Central as a member of the Liberal Party. This achievement, was made all the more commendable given the widespread prejudices of the time. Even the Conservative Prime-Minister at the time of Naoroji’s election campaign in 1888, fired the first racist shot when he exhorted;

‘however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt that we have got to that point when a British constituency will take a black man to represent them’.

Despite such blinkered opposition, from both the Conservative opposition, and even those within his one Liberal Party, Naoroji won the election for the constituency of Finsbury Central by five votes. He went on to represent his constituents faithfully and sponsored a number of progressive bills, particularly those advancing womens rights and Irish Home Rule. With regard to the equitable trade and finance for India, Naoroji’s exhausting promulgation led to the formation of the Royal Commission on Indian Finance. The fruits borne of this Commission were limited, but that it was formed at all was an achievement- it led many to be exposed to views from outside the establishment and chipped away at the British moral justifications for foreign rule.

Plaque commemorating Dadabhai Naoroji in

Rozina Visram in her book, ‘Asians in Britain, 400 years of history’ states that;

“Although critical of certain aspects of British policy, Naoroji was no radical. His nationalism, like that of the early Congressmen, was ‘moderate’. His criticism was not that British rule was was alien, but that it was ‘un-British.”

Visram is right. If Naoroji actively sought acceptance into the British establishment in order to further Indian’s aims then, by these actions, he sanctioned that the British system and its notions of ‘fair-play’. She does go onto suggest that this faith in the system may have thinned in Naoroji’s mind towards the end of his career, culminating in 1904 at the International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam, Naoroji was clear that further rights as British ‘citizens’ was not enough, but that direction must be Swaraj — broadly ‘self-rule’.

If this is the case then Naoroji’s legacy was profound. He raised the consciousness and spirits of Indians everywhere, competing and winning ‘away from home’ in parliamentary debates and making a principled stand for this countrymen and constituents. His sharp economic analysis would be carried forward by the Indian National Congress, when, due to sustained pressure, the British in 1930 would overturn many of the guilty policies.

Who would Dadabhai, the Grand old man of India, have wanted to carry this flame forwards? I will suggest that his reference to ‘Swaraj’ in 1904, and obvious disillusionment with working within the system, meant that he may have favoured campaigners who felt no such compulsion. Men for whom Swaraj should be sought by any means necessary. Men such as Veer Savarkar, and Bal ‘Lokmanya’ Tilak — who roused that ‘Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it.’

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