Dadabhai Naoroji: One of the founders of Congress and an Indian voice that reverberated in British parliament

Indian independence movement has a number of unsung heroes whose contribution outweighs the space they have been able to occupy within the minds of the Indian public. There is one person among that category who was the first Indian to be a British MP. Dadabhai Naoroji was the first to raise the issue of colonial exploitation of the Indian subcontinent within the colonial chambers of the British parliament. He was elected to the House of Commons from Finsbury Central.

Early Life

Born to a Gujarati speaking Parsi family, Naoroji grew up to be a deeply religious man. He was born on 4th September 1825 and educated in the prestigious Elphinstone Institute School. Patronised by the Maharaja of Baroda, Dadabhai started his career as a Dewan (Minister) to the Maharaja in 1874.

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As mentioned earlier, Dadabhai was a deeply religious man and worked tirelessly to promote Zoroastrian customs and social norms. He founded a Gujarati fortnightly publication “Rast Goftar” to promote the same in 1854.

Prior to his induction in Public life as the Prime Minister of Baroda, and a member of the legislative council of Mumbai (1885-88), he was appointed a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at the Elphinstone College in Bombay.

The Colonial Citizen and many firsts

Dadabhai has been in many ways the first Indian voice which found an audience in the British society. His appointment as the professor of the Elphinstone College was also the first of its kind. He was the first Indian who held such an academic position. He travelled to London in the year 1855 to become a partner in a company called ‘Cama & Co’. Here too he did something which was unprecedented at that point in time. This company opened a Liverpool location, becoming the first Indian company to be established in Britain. Dadabhai would resign within the next three years and open his own trading company ‘Dadabhai Naoroji & Co.’

In 1861, he set up Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe along with Muncherjee Hormusji cama. From then on he devoted a considerable amount of his time in setting up and presiding over institutions for propagating the Indian viewpoint.

Colonial Indian experience and Institution builder

In 1865, Dadabhai Naoroji set up of the ‘London Indian Society’ with the purpose of discussing Indian political, social and literary issues and subjects. He was also instrumental in setting up the ‘East India Association’. The East India Association played a major role in counter-reacting to the propaganda promoted by the ‘Ethnological Society of London’, which in 1866 tried to promote inferiority of Asians to the Europeans.

Naoroji was also a member of the Indian National Association founded by Surendranath Bannerjee in Calcutta. Naoroji is considered to be one of the three founders of Indian National Congress. His and Banerjee’s association both merged into the newly created Indian National Congress with the same objectives and Naoroji was elected its president in 1886.

He was subsequently elected INC’s president for two more times, in 1893 and 1906. Naoroji gained considerable influence both in Britain and colonial India by this time.

British parliament & Colonial policy of draining India

Naoroji ran for British public office in 1886 for the first time but he was unsuccessful. However, in his second attempt in 1892, he managed to win from Finsbury, London with a meagre margin of five votes. This turn of events made him the first Indian to be elected in the British parliament.

He raised issues related to the ‘Indian situation’ in the British parliament. He was particularly vocal about the British colonial fiscal policies and its adverse effects on the Indian populous. He was the first to put up a substantive number of the losses faced by the Indian masses.

He became widely known for his unfavourable opinions of the British fiscal policies in India. Naoroji was also appointed as a member to the Royal Commission on Indian expenditure for the year 1895.

Naoroji was the first man to state to the British that their preconceived notion of internal factors being the reason for poverty in India is at best flawed. He blamed the colonial forces for draining the wealth and prosperity out of the country. In his book ‘Poverty and Un-British rule In India’, he states that roughly 200-300 million pounds are being drained from India every year.

Naoroji’s six points on ‘The Drain Theory’

  • External rule and administration in India.
  • Funds and labour needed for economic development was brought in by immigrants but India did not draw immigrants.
  • All the civil administration and army expenses of Britain were paid by India.
  • India was bearing the burden of territory building both inside and outside India.
  • India was further exploited by opening the country to free trade.
  • Major earners in India during British rule were foreigners. The money they earned was never invested in India to buy anything. Moreover, they left India with that money.

He not only attributed these factors to the draining of India, he also countered the colonial idea that India should pay tributes for all the infrastructure Britain has brought to the sub-continent. Naoroji argued with the example of the railways. The railway is considered to be one of the greatest services brought to the sub-continent by the British but Naoroji argued that revenue generated from such services was being taken away from India.

He argued this type of drain was experienced in different ways as well, for instance, British workers earning wages that were not equal with the work that they have done in India, or trade that undervalued India’s goods and overvalued outside goods. Englishmen were encouraged to take on high paying jobs in India, and the British government allowed them to take a portion of their income back to Britain. Furthermore, the East India Company was purchasing Indian goods with money drained from India to export to Britain, which was a way that the opening up of free trade allowed India to be exploited.

It was Naoroji who first talked about the colonial exploitation of Indian sub-continent. Dadabhai Naoroji deserves far greater space in the minds of the Indian public, a true nationalist who advocated for Indians and criticized British policies in the British parliament. He is rightly called ‘the great old man of India’ and on this independence day let’s give this ‘old man’ a tribute he deserves.

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