Pioneer of Indian Nationalism

Dadabhai Naoroji was called the “father of the nation,” by Mahatma Gandhi, a title that today, is reserved for himself. He was an Indian political leader, merchant, scholar, and a writer. He is renowned for his work in the Indian National Congress, of which he was one of the founding members and thrice its president (1886, 1893, 1906). Dadabhai’s political career evolved as the activist who formulated the “drain of wealth” theory, which held the British Raj responsible for India’s crippling poverty and devastating famines. He challenged the conventional wisdom holding that colonialism was beneficial for Indian subjects. He entered the British Parliament as a Liberal Party Member in 1892-1895 and worked to institute political reforms regarding administration of India. He refused to take the oath on the Bible as he was Zoroastrian, so was allowed to take the oath of office in the name of God on his copy of the Khordeh Avesta. During his time, he put his efforts towards improving the situation in India. He had a very clear vision and was an effective communicator.

Naoroji (4 September 1825 – 30 June 1917) was born into a Gujarati-speaking Parsi Zoroastrian family. He started his career as Dewan (Minister) to the Maharaja of Baroda in 1874. Being an ordained priest, he founded Rahnumai Mazdayasan Sabha in 1851 to restore the Zoroastrian religion to its original purity and simplicity. In 1854, he also founded a Gujarati fortnightly publication, the Rast Goftar (The Truth Teller), to clarify Zoroastrian concepts and promote Parsi social reforms. He also published another newspaper called “The Voice of India.” In 1855, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Elphinstone College in Bombay, becoming the first Indian to hold such an academic position. He travelled to London in 1855 to become a partner in Cama & Co, the first Indian company to be established in Britain. Within three years, he had resigned on ethical grounds. In 1859, he established his own cotton trading company, Dadabhai Naoroji & Co. Later, he became Professor of Gujarati in University College London.

In 1865, Naoroji directed and launched the London Indian Society, the purpose of which was to discuss Indian political, social, and literary subjects. In 1867 he helped to establish the East India Association, one of the predecessor organisations of the Indian National Congress with the aim of putting across the Indian point of view before the British public. The Association was instrumental in counter-acting the propaganda by the Ethnological Society of London which, in its session in 1866, had tried to prove the inferiority of the Asians to the Europeans.

Naoroji published a book, Poverty and un-British Rule in India in 1901. This is a very detailed scholarly book of some 700 pages, a digitised copy of which can be downloaded from Internet. It contains various submissions he made to the British government in India and in UK.

In the introduction to the book, clarifying the scope and objectives he writes:

“The title of the book is ” POVERTY AND UN-BRITISH RULE IN INDIA,” i.e., the present system of government is destructive and despotic to the Indians and un-British and suicidal to Britain. On the other hand, a truly British course can and will certainly be vastly beneficent both to Britain and India. Before dealing with the above evil qualities of the present system of government I would first give a very brief sketch of the benefits which India has derived from British connection, and of the immense importance of India to Britain for Britain’s own greatness and prosperity.”

These are very powerful words. He wrote them in 1901 when the British Empire was supreme. He indeed, was a very fearless man. Among the benefits to India, he lists removal of the Sati custom, introduction of English education, and maintenance of law and order. The last two items, he cited were necessary for the existence of the British rule in India.

The immense importance of India to Britain’s empire, to its greatness and its prosperity: He quotes Lord Curzon, before he went out to India as Viceroy, “India was the pivot of our Empire. If this Empire lost any other part of its dominion we could survive, but if we lost India, the sun of our Empire would be set ” (Times, 3/12/1898). How accurate the predictions of Lord Curzon came out to be!!

Destructive and despotic to Indians: citing the letters of 1766 from the Court of Directors, he writes that the beginning of the connection between Britain and India was based on greed and oppression. Every Englishman throughout the country exercised his power to the oppression of the helpless Natives. Quoting Montgomery Martin, after examining the records in the India House of the survey made in 1807-1814 of the condition of some provinces of Bengal and Behar, said in 1835 in his “Eastern India”: “It is impossible to avoid remarking two facts as peculiarly striking. First the richness of the country surveyed, and second, the poverty of its inhabitants. …. The annual drain of £3,000,000 on British India has amounted in thirty years, at 12%, compound interest to the enormous sum of £723,900,000.” These figures pertain to the period around 1835. The British rule lasted until 1947, that also included the two World Wars which were fought by the Indian soldiers and were fully funded by Indian money. It is very hard to estimate the total drain on India.

Naoroji gives exhaustive details through his work in economics to prove that Britain was draining enormous amount of money out of India. Shashi Tharoor puts the estimate of drain to $45 trillion; whereas recent research by economist Utsa Patnaik (Columbia University Press) claims that amount to cover the period 1765-1938. That does not include World War II. Hence, it would be much more than that amount.

Another reason he quotes is the use of British people in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), who were paid high salaries and perks. They would take all their savings with them back to England. There was gross discrimination in recruiting the local Indians into the service. Quoting Mr Frederick J. Shore of Bengal Civil Service about the condition of people in 1837, “But the halcyon days of India are over; she has been drained of a large proportion of wealth she once possessed, and her energies have been cramped by a sordid system of misrule to which the interests of millions have been sacrificed for the benefits of the few.”

Un-British and suicidal to Britain: For being un-British, he quotes Lord Lytton (Viceroy of India) who, in his dispatch of 2nd May 1878 said: “No sooner was the Act (1833) passed then the government began to devise means for practically evading the fulfilment of it.” And why is it suicidal to Britain, he quotes Sir John Malcolm: “if we exclude the Natives from every station of high rank and honourable ambition… we only prepare elements that will hasten the destruction of our Empire. The moral evil to us does not thus stand alone.”

Naoroji argued that true British rule of fair play and justice would vastly benefit both Britain and India. England can become far richer by dealing justly and honourably with India, and thereby England will not only be a blessing to India and to itself.

                                            Vijai Singhal