‘Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism’ review: The Grand Old Man who fought against colonial exploitation

A biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, an early nationalist, evaluates a rich legacy, contribution to the freedom struggle and his role in modern Indian politics

Updated - September 13, 2020 12:28 pm IST

Published - September 12, 2020 04:09 pm IST

The idea of nationalism and its evolution in British India, undoubtedly, is among the most contested ideas in India’s contemporary political discourse. New political realities seek to overthrow long-held hegemony of the political forces who defined the ‘system’.

From pages of history

Against this backdrop, Dinyar Patel’s biography, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism is both timely and instructive in revisiting the contribution of the early nationalists as much as those by the ‘Grand Old Man of India’.

The book is not another exposition on the role of the Indian National Congress (INC) — an organisation of which Dadabhai Naoroji was a founding member — but about his remarkable individual life and those of his contemporaries who helped shaped the nationalistic movement in the late 19th and the turn of the 20th century.

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From setting up educational institutions for girls in mid-19th century Bombay to expounding the drain of wealth theory about how Britain impoverished her colonies to winning a parliamentary seat in Britain before finally calling for ‘Self Government under British Paramountcy’, the life of Dadabhai Naoroji is any historian’s delight.

His subsequent treatise Poverty and Un-British Rule provided a definitive theoretical framework to understand the exploitative nature of colonial rule.

Even before the age of 30, Naoroji had been appointed a professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Elphinstone College in Bombay.

He had been actively associated with reformist movements, both within the Parsi community as well outside and extensively collaborated with the Bombay ‘shetias’ (wealthy businessmen) to set up reformist organisations.

His collaboration with Kharshedji Nasarvanji Cama, an energetic ‘shetia’ without any formal education, led to the setting up of the Gujarati paper Rast Goftar (Truth Teller) besides knowledge dissemination societies to fight orthodoxy and superstition.

Dadabhai Naoroji also set up the Parsi Lekhak Mandli (Parsi writers’ forum) and a founding member of the Parsi Natak Mandli (Dramatic Society) that set the stage for the great tradition of Parsi theatre.

“Dadabhai Naoroji is a seminal figure in the history of modern India, Victorian Britain and the British Empire.... And yet Naoroji remains strangely forgotten today. In India, many people recognise the Grand Old Man as an important nationalist leader but few can pin down why he was important,” says the author, who teaches History at the University of South Carolina.

Key figure

The author acknowledges that the book is an attempt to ‘restore’ the centrality of Dadabhai Naoroji to the development of modern India politics.

“Gandhi summed up Naoroji’s career by anointing him as the father of the nation and a Mahatma — titles that in India today are reserved for Gandhi,” notes the author.

The story of a Parsi boy, whose family had fallen into hard times and was raised by his widowed mother, fighting the odds to become a member of the British Parliament, is now being retold to shed new light on India's early nationalist experiments that “harnessed technology, international alliances and financial networks across two continents.”

The author notes that Naoroji's contribution got “pronouncedly dimmed in public consciousness, overshadowed by the legacies of those nationalist leaders who finally delivered on the promise of swaraj for India.”

Rich in detail and references, the book is an important contribution in understanding how India’s nationalistic politics evolved from being defined by “strictly constitutional, agitation and forbearance” in the late 19th century to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation post 1920.

Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism ; Dinyar Patel, Harvard University Press/HarperCollins, ₹699.

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