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A new life for the great old man of India

by Admin

Dadabhai Naoroji came on the afternoon of the 3rd day. December 1893 from London to Bombay (now Mumbai). About half a million people took to the streets to welcome him. More than a year ago, in July 1892, Naoroji became the first Asian to be elected to the British Parliament. He was in India to chair a session of the Indian National Congress in Lahore. This will be the second of his three seats as President of Congress.

On his way to Lahore, Naoroji went around the world with a pipe. His first stop was Pune. During a public meeting, the nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak Naoroji summoned a great teacher of the new political religion in India, a man who had overcome old divisions. At the session of Congress, Naoroji said: Whether I am Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Christian or any other religion, I am first and foremost an Indian. Our country is India, our nationality is India.

By Diñar Patel, Harvard University Press, 368 pages, <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.

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Naoroji, pioneer of Indian nationalism: Diñar Patel, Harvard University Press, 368 pages, ₹699.

The historian Diñar Patel has written a wonderful biography of the first Indian political leader of modern times, with a truly national heritage. It follows many of the transitions in the life of the protagonist, from the young reformer from Parcy to Bombay before the First War of Independence in 1857, through the ruthless criticism of colonial economic policy and the lonely struggle for India’s cause in the heart of Imperial London, to the radicalisation of his later years. One of the photographs in the biography is a snapshot of Naoraia at the Socialist Congress in Amsterdam in 1904 with Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky.

Later in life he felt some frustration when the Indian nationalist movement split into two camps, one moderate and the other extremist, which led to chaos at the Congress meeting in Surat in 1907. Patel notes that the moderate camp found Naoroji too radical, while the radical leaders found him too moderate.

Some of Naoroji’s features shine in the book. First, his attachment to factual arguments, as was to be expected from a man whose first love was mathematics, was a common trait of national leaders at the time of his predecessor, Gandhi, and he introduced an internal voting policy. Secondly, the deep thinking that led to the famous dispute about how British rule had exhausted India’s wealth, a dispute that subsequently lost some of its bite thanks to the work of modern economic historians who painted a more nuanced picture of why India became an economically backward country. Thirdly, his ability to form coalitions to promote his political campaigns, either with progressive businessmen in Bombay in the 1850s, with Indian monarchs after the 1870s, or with Irish activists for self-government during his parliamentary campaign. Fourth, his continued interest in greater freedom for women ranges from the establishment of six girls’ schools in Bombay in collaboration with reformers in Maharasht to the support he has received from Emmeline Punkhurst and Florence Nightingale in his London campaigns.

Some of the best parts of Naoroji’s new biography are chapters on her campaign for the election of the British Parliament. The comparison with the previous standard biography of Naoroji, written by R.P. Masani in 1939, is telling. Of the 22 chapters of the former biography, only two are devoted to the parliamentary election campaign. Almost a third of Patel’s new biography is devoted to Naoroja’s political activities in London, which led to her victory in Central Finland in 1892.

Patel shows in detail how Naoroji received the support of great representatives of the Liberal Party such as William Gladstone and Lord Ripon, his alliance with the activists of the Irish Autonomous Authority, his growing identification with the problems of the working class. The main initiator of his victory in Parliament was Behramji Malabari, who organised the political and financial support to India. One of the interesting points in the book is that, since the British have placed Bombay under their control by means of a royal charter rather than military conquest, Malabari has argued that the citizens of Bombay have the same rights of parliamentary representation as British citizens. Under a Royal Charter of 1699, the islands were recognised as part of the Royal House of East Greenwich. Moreover, Patel tacitly omitted an urban legend that Mohammed Ali Jinnah led the Naoroji campaign in the centre of Finsbury. He’s not in the book.

Political biographies have gone out of fashion among scientists in recent decades. Patel did a good job by writing a very thorough biography of a man who has largely been forgotten, with the exception of a nickname book which stated that he was a great old man of India. Many other interesting characters end up in Naorochi’s story, from the Bombay polyathlete Balshastri Jambekar to the official Bengali intellectual R.K. Dutt. Their stories need to be told, too.

But if there is one person who deserves a biography more than others, it is a brilliant radical Parsi, Madame Bhikaji Kama, who knew Naoroji well in London, was the guardian of her granddaughter in Paris, stood close to the revolutionaries in the House of India, and raised the first flag of independent India at the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart in 1907. His biography is waiting to be written.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is a member of the Academic Council of the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics.

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