“Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism” by Dinyar Patel

Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892 (via Wikimedia Commons) Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 19th century, long before Barack Obama’s election as the President of the United States in the face of jokes about the possibility of a black man living in the White House, the British mocked another “black man” who dared to stand in elections to be elected to the House of Commons in England. Dinyar Patel’s Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism is a biography of that “black man”. Straightforward in style, and well-detailed in approaches to a life as it intersected with multiple, complex movements, places, ideologies, Naoroji addresses the vacuum in the pre-Gandhian political history of modern India. It is a much-needed intervention in acknowledgment of the contribution of Indian freedom fighters before there were Indian freedom fighters.

Modern Indian history, as school students and non-scholars know it, is biased towards recording the history of people who delivered on the promise of independence: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah emerge as protagonists of the numerous revolutionary movements that led to independence. Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), hailed as “the Grand Old Man of India” by Gandhi himself (who turned to Naoroji for advice regarding his agitation in South Africa), is remembered for his “economic drain theory”. Patel’s book takes this passing reference or tokenistic mention of the great polymath and provides a larger context to the story before and after he formulated and presented his theory through lectures, pamphlets, and publications.

Naoroji’s drain theory argued that, contrary to conventional “wisdom” that the British rule was beneficial for India, the British looted India through taxes and drained all of India’s wealth into England instead of investing it back into the country. While this exploitative logic of colonization seems obvious now, it was not so obvious in 19th century England. The first phase of Naoroji’s career (1860s-1885) was dedicated to proving it through statistics, systematically challenging the official figures and reports prepared by the bureaucrats of the Raj. Patel’s narrative delves into Naoroji’s life to help the readers appreciate the patience and the scholarship that went into the making of the theory.


Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism,  Dinyar Patel (Harvard University Press, May 2020)
Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism,
Dinyar Patel (Harvard University Press, May 2020)

The book does not stop there though. It takes the readers beyond the theory to allow them to appreciate the political strategy that Naoroji used it for. Of all the different ways that the British drained the wealth from India, Naoroji emphasized the role of the civil service. He argued that by keeping the administrative posts to themselves, the British were depriving the Indians of the opportunities to gain experience in governance. It constituted a “moral drain” as well because British officers would retire and return to England, along with the salaries and the administrative experience. Pre-British rulers had become Indians: their wealth stayed in India; they appointed Indian ministers and officers. He then argued that the solution to India’s poverty was Indianization of the civil service—a step towards self-government, and then independence. The book brings the expert strategist in him alive:


In an interview for the London-based Pearson’s Weekly, Naoroji dismissed speculation that he had in mind anything more ambitious than civil service reform. “Home rule is scarcely the word; we don’t want anything in the least like what the Irish want,” he affirmed. His interviewer shot back: “Come, Mr. Naoroji, do you mean to say that the end and object of all political agitation in India is to get a handful of young men into the Civil Service!” Naoroji’s reply must have confirmed the reporter’s suspicions, “Ah no,” he stated, “it means a great deal more than you recognize.”


Patel also details Naoroji’s election campaigns of the 1880s (from Holborn) and 1892 from Central Finsbury as a candidate of the Liberal Party. There are many ups and downs in the story of his eligibility to run for a seat: one being the ingenious idea of making use of the clause that Bombay was virtually a part of the royal manor of East Greenwich because it was given to King Charles II as dowry by the Portuguese in early 1660s, but the most effective being his media campaign both in India and in England to the effect that he was the representative of India. Eventually, he won the seat from Central Finsbury to the House of Commons and used it to get a resolution passed for the reforms in the civil service. Nothing came out of it though: it did not become a law. But that is beside the point. Patel describes how he found champions not just from all communities in India who looked up to him as their father (yes, he was the Father of the Nation before Gandhi) but also from different groups in England itself: the working classes and the Socialists, the suffragists, the women, intellectuals of all kinds, the Irish people, and so on. Patel writes about the support Naoroji got from everyone: for instance, the rich women gave their carriages so that people could go to the polling booths to vote.

Naoroji was his father’s name but it “stuck”. One of the Urdu poets punned on it to talk about the “naoroz”, the new era. It would be difficult to list all the discoveries that readers will make about Indian politics and Victorian and Georgian England in Patel’s book. Readers interested in these subjects must turn to the book to know about Naoroji’s connections with the who’s who of that era (like Max Muller) to Naoroji’s contribution to the political economic theory of the time (vis-à-vis Karl Marx and JS Mill).

Biographies can all too easily go off-track by becoming distracted by style or tangential matters, but Dinyar Patel keeps Naoroji the focus, so the book is recommended for keeping it simple.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.