Remembering the Grand Old Man of India

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Dadabhai Naoroji gave the Indian freedom struggle its 'Aha!' moment. The Indian Brexit was a product of his theories.

Dadabhai Naoroji was the original Brexiteer. Except, the union he wanted out of was Britain’s. Speaking before the East India Association (a predecessor of the Indian National Congress) in 1870, he pointed out how India sends £30 million to the United Kingdom every year. Sounds familiar?

Dadabhai was affectionately known as the Grand Old Man of India. He is most famous for his drain of wealth theory, which amongst other points, showed how £30 million and 200 million rupees were siphoned out of India by the British state. As Dadabhai pointed out, even the Mughals had not looted on this scale.

Whether we live or die, £30 millions worth of produce must be annually carried away from this country with the regularity of seasons.

His speeches could be long and filled with numbers and statistics. But he also knew how to make his point concisely. He listed six factors as to why British rule harmed India:

  • India was a colonial economy governed by remote controls
  • India was not like the other colonies, into which labour and capital flowed freely
  • The costs of maintaining the British Raj and its army were staggering
  • India bore the burden of Empire building for the British
  • Free trade was a euphemism for colonial exploitation, where only the colonizers benefitted from the situation
  • Taxes, instead of going to the people, were funneled outside the country

With a keen eye, Dadabhai studied the causes of poverty and famine in India. He presented the logic behind decolonization. And for this, later freedom fighters gave him reverence. Mahatma Gandhi, latter dubbed ‘Father of the Nation’, once wrote a letter to Dadabhai stating:

The Indians look up to you as children to the father. Such is really the feeling here.

Well-educated and erudite, Dadabhai was also well-placed to make his case to the British government. On July 26, 1892, he became the first Asian member of the British House of Commons (the Lower House of the UK Parliament). His election caused rumblings – Lord Salisbury said that the electorate would not accept a ‘black man’ as an MP. But Dadabhai won the election by a margin of three, and had the support of figures like Florence Nightingale.

He lost his seat in the 1896 elections. But by then, he had already helped found a greater political voice; the Indian National Congress. In 1906, he became the first early nationalist to present an outright call for Swaraj – freedom.

Much like the £350 million figure often cited by Brexiteers, Dadabhai’s Drain of Wealth theory gave an ideological impetus for the Indian freedom struggle. The betterment of the Indian people was foremost in his mind. Though he retired from public life in 1907, he took up Annie Besant’s offer to serve as president of the Home Rule League in 1915 – even though he was 90, and ailing. He died two years later.

Often, we remember historical figures for the one or two ideas they had that travelled. But Dadabhai had many. He was born to a poor Parsi family. He worked his way up through college at Elphinstone Institute – becoming its first Indian full-time professor. As a member of the Students Literary and Scientific Society, he advocated for women’s education. In 1851, he founded Rast Goftar (Truth Teller), a Gujarati fortnightly that served as a progressive journal on the duties of citizenship.

In 1855, he left academia for mercantilism – and helped form a firm that was the first Indian company to operate in Britain. He spent some years in commerce; forming his own company in 1859 with the help of other Parsi entrepreneurs like Jamshedji Palanji Kapadia and Pestanji Ratanji Colah.

Dadabhai’s first book was on the Parsis, titled “The Manners and Customs of the Parsees”. An ambitious work, Dadabhai was also aware of the dangers of ethnographic generalisations, when he wrote:

If I say that the Parsees use tables, knives and forks, [etc] for taking their dinners, it would be true with regard to one portion, and entirely untrue with regard to another.

He made an impressive effort to explain Parsi traditions and the Zoroastrian faith. This would not leave him – when he was made to swear his oath in the British Parliament, he refused to do so on a Bible. He pulled a copy of the Zoroastrian Avesta from his pocket, and vowed upon that instead.

He was also a Freemason, an organisation whose only religious criteria was that the aspirant believed in a higher power. Dadabhai attended sessions at the Freemason lodge in Mumbai, which also counted to its ranks Motilal Nehru, Swami Vivekananda and many Governors of Bombay. This record from a July 1870 edition of ‘The Freemason” mentions Dadabhai. Following a discussion on the Persian Freemason community, Dadabhai is supposed to have “referred to the great antiquity of mysteries among the old Persians.”

With A.O. Hume and Annie Besant as theosophists (Hume is believed to have founded the Indian National Congress on the prompting of voices from the Himalayas) and Dadabhai a Freemason, conspiracy theorists have ample material for a grand unifying theory on India’s early nationalists and their mystical ways. But the Freemasons were but a footnote in Dadabhai’s life.

Ultimately, all Dadabhai wanted was an Indian Brexit and the betterment of the Indian people. But his Brexit was only a means to eliminate poverty. As he said:

Be united, persevere, and achieve self-Government, so that the millions now perishing by poverty, famine, and plague may be saved, and India may once more occupy her proud position of yore among the greatest and civilized nations of the world

The British may have left, but poverty still remains. Dadabhai’s theory explained poverty under British rule. But what theory explains its persistence under independent India? Dadabhai’s 192nd birth anniversary was on September 4, 2017. Two centuries have passed, and we still want for a theorist of his calibre.

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