Dinyar Patel's book, Naoroji, fills a gap in major historical scholarship

Dinyar Patel's account of Naoroji’s life and times is based on detailed documents, most of which Patel discovered and was therefore the first to read and use.
The Naoroji in the title refers to Dadabhai Naoroji who lived a long (1825 to 1917) and distinguished life. Naoroji was his father’s name; the family name was Dordi, which was occasionally used. He was born into poverty and lost his father when he was only four years old. His mother decided that adversity notwithstanding, her only son should receive an education. Dadabhai was outstanding as a student — in school as well as in Elphinstone College. He was also a remarkable teacher. But in his lifetime he became famous, as the “pioneer of Indian nationalism” and a sharp critic of British rule in India. It is a pity that a man of such talents and achievements has not been the subject of a serious biography. Historical scholarship has been so preoccupied with the later nationalists — Gandhi, Patel, Nehru, Bose et al — that it has neglected, or been indifferent to, the individual who started it all.

Dinyar Patel’s book removes a major lacuna. His account of Naoroji’s life and times is based on detailed documents, most of which Patel discovered and was therefore the first to read and use. It is difficult to think of any other biography in recent times (except Ramachandra Guha on Gandhi) that is so steeped in archival documentation. Before Patel’s pioneering book on a pioneer, what one knew about Naoroji emerged from his published writings. Thus, one knew about Naoroji, the scholar, the critic and the polemicist but not Naoroji, the man. Patel does an admirable (as a practitioner of the art of biography writing, I am tempted to say enviable) job of presenting to his readers a full and rounded picture of Naoroji. The register of the book is a trifle celebratory but that can be pardoned in an author who has spent so many years pursuing his subject across dusty records in various archives. I cannot see Patel’s book being surpassed in the sheer scale of his documentary coverage and empirical detail.

Dadabhai Naoroji flanked by A O Hume (left) and William Wedderburn, fellow founders of the Indian National Congress
Dadabhai left Bombay — Patel provides a fascinating account of the intellectual ambience of Bombay in the 1830s and 1840s — in 1855 for London to start “what was reputed to be the first mercantile firm in Great Britain”. His plan was to set up shop in London and Liverpool and to “stake out a portion of the Indian textile trade that had hitherto been controlled entirely by Englishmen”. He was moderately successful as a businessman but the apogee of his career in Britain came in 1892 when he became the first Indian to be elected to the House of Commons from the Central Finsbury constituency in London. He won the election by a narrow margin of five votes but it was a historic victory. Only a few years before, Patel informs us, Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister, had described Dadabhai, with characteristic upper class racist disdain, as a “black man” who was unworthy of an Englishman’s vote. That Dadabhai won against such odds speaks volumes for the affection and confidence he had gained from the voters of Central Finsbury. Dadabhai’s election meant that the problems and grievances of 300 million Indians ruled by the British had marked an entry into the corridors of power in Westminster. Dadabhai’s interventions and speeches in the House of Commons would be radically different from the occasions when people like Edmund Burke thundered in Parliament about the misdeeds of someone like Warren Hastings. Now, members of the House of Commons and the educated British public were hearing about the sufferings of Indians from someone who had seen the suffering first hand and had experienced it himself.

Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism; Author: Dinyar Patel; Publisher: Harvard/HarperCollins; Price: Rs 699; Pages: 320
A significant point that Patel makes (and this is not common knowledge) is that the question of India’s poverty had been of concern to Dadabhai from a very early age. Aboard the ship on his first voyage out, he had wished “that God instils in the subjects and leaders of my dear country the enthusiasm to try to make it as prosperous as France”. In London, as he pondered the question of India’s poverty, he came to the conclusion that there was a direct causal link between the policies that the British pursued in India and the poverty of India. He wrote, “So far as my enquiries go at present, the conclusion I draw is, that wherever the East India Company acquired territory, impoverishment followed their steps.” His future and further researches would only fortify this conclusion and lead him to the idea that there was poverty in India because there was a “drain of wealth” from India to Britain. The phrase “drain of wealth” would be Dadabhai’s contribution to the Indian nationalist lexicon.

For analytical and narrative purposes, Patel sees Dadabhai’s life in three phases. The first phase was one of theorisation; the second saw the attempt to apply these theories on Indian poverty in the domain of the legislative; and the third and last phase was marked by protest against British rule and agitation for self-government. But the theme that was common to all three phases was “an abiding concern about Indian poverty”.

In the historiography of Indian nationalism Dadabhai is pigeon-holed as a moderate. Patel shows that his views evolved and were not frozen into the mode of mendicancy and petitioning that informed the early years of Indian nationalism. As early as 1906 in his presidential address to the Congress in Calcutta, Dadabhai gave a clear call for swaraj. He emphasised that this “self-government” should be “like that of the United Kingdom or the Colonies”. Patel correctly points to the vagueness embedded in the statement since the United Kingdom and the colonies did not quite govern themselves in the same way. Speaking in 1906, he endorsed in their own languages of our British rights and how to exercise and enjoy them” (italics mine). The year 1906 was one year away from the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising of 1857; perhaps bearing this in mind, Dadabhai urged the Congress not to be drawn to violent methods and to stay on the tracks of constitutional methods. There was a departure from the moderate position in the call for swaraj but there was a reiteration of moderate methods.

As a parting provocation I would like to draw attention to the phrase “our British rights” in the passage just quoted. Did Indians ever have the same rights that were guaranteed to the British? The title of Dadabhai’s best-known book, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, remains somewhat problematic. It is a pity that Patel does not discuss this. Did Dadabhai believe that if British rule in India was genuinely British — if it ever could be that, given that Britain was a conquering and a colonising power in India — poverty in India would be eradicated? Did British rule in Britain give all Britons equal rights? The franchise was extended to all men till 1918 and all women did not get the vote till 1928. What did Dadabhai mean by “our British rights”? Did the grand old man of Indian nationalism harbour somewhere the illusion of Albion-Just?

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