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The Grand Old Man of India

The amazing story of Dadabhai Naoroji may not be known to many, but, says Peter Gruner, a new book seeks to remedy that

14 January, 2021 — By Peter Gruner

Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892

NAOROJI Street in Finsbury – where a two-bedroom flat costs up to a million pounds – was named after a late great 19th century Indian political campaigner who today few people have ever heard of.

But a new book, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism by Professor Dinyar Patel, will change that. It reveals the story of the businessman-academic from Bombay (now Mumbai) who travelled to London to protest about British imperialism ruining his country of birth.

Unknown, and with few supporters when he arrived in Islington, Naoroji was met by racial slurs and huge opposition. Yet he pushed on and eventually became Liberal MP for Central Finsbury in 1892. He was also, importantly, the first Asian ever to be elected to Parliament.

It’s a story of extraordinary achievement. Dadabhai Naoroji beat the constituency’s sitting Conservative MP Frederick Penton, whose family were well-known for developing the area’s housing at nearby Pentonville.

At a time when British colonialism was being celebrated for supposedly bringing wealth to many poor countries, he accused it of “draining” India’s economy to such an extent that many were starving.

Among those flinging slurs was none other than prime minister of the time, Lord Salisbury, who declared Naoroji to be a “black man” unworthy of an Englishman’s vote. But the remark, rather than turn people away from Naoroji, actually made voters more sympathetic.

He included among his British supporters Irish nationalists seeking home-rule, Suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst and even Florence Nightingale. Naoroji also inspired Mahatma Gandhi, who in an effort to gain independence, was famous for launching non-violent civil disobedience against the British. Both died before independence was introduced in 1947.

Finsbury in the 19th century had a sordid reputation for crime, poverty and overcrowding. There was a large population of skilled artisans, but it was also a hotbed of radicalism. In the 1840s, Clerkenwell had been a major epicentre of Chartism, the working-class movement for parliamentary reform.

Speaking this week Professor Patel, who is based in Mumbai, said: “When I first started walking through Finsbury and Islington as part of my research I was struck by how very pleasant and quiet it was. Finsbury is one of many areas in central London that is, today, far less populated than it was 100-150 years ago. I think that Naoroji would be at home in today’s Finsbury or Islington: a diverse place that retains its progressive political edge.”

In his book Professor Patel explains that Naoroji took the opportunity to speak out on jingoism and the many social problems evident in Victorian Britain. “Problems that rendered hypocritical any claims of Western moral and civilizational superiority,” he writes. “He spoke of the extreme poverty in the cities, the abundance of illicit activities in London, corruption in politics, the duplicitous dealings of merchants, soaring crime rates, and rampant marital infidelity.”

Naoroji placed great faith in the conscience of the average Briton. “We Indian people believe,” he often stated before British audiences, “that, although John Bull is a little thick-headed, once we can penetrate through his head into his brain that a certain thing is right and proper to be done, you may be quite sure that it will be done.”

When Naoroji retired he decided to return to India. He was “The Grand Old Man of India” and he died at the age of 91.

To celebrate the launch of the book, City University held an online conference with Professor Patel. The university’s Professor of International Politics, Inderjeet Parmar, said he hopes more students will study the life of Naoroji.

“Naoroji’s is a remarkable story and one that is largely forgotten. There is so much to be learned about British society and politics, India, the empire, and the rise of the voices and movements of the colonised. In short, Naoroji’s is a story of the making of the modern world with all its twists and turns, and ambiguities.”

Professor Parmar believes that local Islington schools, working with libraries and universities, can help teach children about these important parts of the country’s history.

Islington Museum contains a collection of photos and information.

  • Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism. By Dinyar Patel, Harvard University Press, £28.95

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