Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917) – one of the makers of modern India- passed away on June 30, 1917. His death centenary is an apt occasion to revisit his legacy. Two features of his long and distinguished career stand out prominently a) sustained advocacy of Indian cause abroad and b) use of statistics to shape public discourse. He was the first Indian to be elected to the House of Commons (1892). He formulated the famous drain-of-wealth theory, which became India’s cornerstone argument against the British rule. In his late years, he was the first to give expression to the demand for Swaraj from platform of Indian National Congress (1906). He served the cause of India’s political emancipation for six decades.
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in a poor Parsi family, he began his career as a teacher of mathematics and natural philosophy at Elphinstone Institute (later Elphinstone College). He was the first Indian to become a full professor. As a member of the Students Literary and Scientific Society formed in the Institute, he acted as a pioneer of women’s education. He was an active member of the Bombay Association (1852), the first association in the western India to consider political issues. Its meetings were held in the hall of the Institute. In 1851, he founded Rast Goftar (Truth Teller), a Gujarati fortnightly with a Persian name. It was a progressive journal educating readers on duties of citizenship.
In 1855, he resigned from his professorial job; and relocated to Britain to set up a mercantile firm. The company he founded in partnership with Muncherji Hormmusji and Kharshedji Rustamji Cama was the first Indian firm to operate in Britain. Through this commercial venture, Dadabhai had hoped to make Britain confident about Indian entrepreneurship. But having a fastidious sense of ethics, he could not long survive in that commercial environment. In 1859, he opened his own mercantile firm in London viz. Dadabhai Naoroji & Co in partnership with Jamshedji Palanji Kapadia and Pestanji Ratanji Colah. He established it beyond doubt that ethical values and business acumen could co-exist. He wanted Indian businessmen to learn from the methods and devices of their British counterparts.
But politics was his true calling. In 1867, he founded the East Indian Association. It was a political advocacy group for India having both British and Indians on its membership roll. It was the first political organization with members from different provinces of India. Two young law students viz. W.C. Bonnerji (1844-1906) and Pherozeshah M. Mehta (1845-1915) became his disciples. In their mature years both served as the President of Indian National Congress (estd.1885).
Dadabhai read the paper ‘England’s Duties to India’ before a pre-dominantly British audience at East India Association on May 2, 1867. It was in that paper he accused of Britain siphoning off wealth from India. An extract reads-
“In the shape of “home charges” alone there has been a transfer of about 100 millions of pounds sterling, exclusive of interest on public debt, from the wealth of India to that of England since 1829, during the last thirty-six years only. The total territorial charges in India since 1829 have been about 820 millions. Supposing that out of the latter sum only one-eighth represents the sum remitted to England by Europeans in Government service for maintenance of relatives and families, for education of children, for savings made at the time of retiring, the sums expended by them for purchases of English articles for their own consumption, and also sums paid in India for Government stores of English produce and manufacturers- there is then another 100 millions added to the wealth of England”.
Where from he got those statistics in the paper? These were based on Parliamentary Returns of Indian Accounts. He also relied upon the Second Customs Report, 1858. His speeches were tinged with such mathematical data. But he knew that audience could lose patience with figures. But a reader can revisit them as often he/she wants. Thus his essays were laced with heavy statistics. His speeches were lucid.
Dadabhai turned price rise, wages, taxation, tariff, rents, lending rates, agricultural output, industrial production data, import & export figures and currency exchange rates into political talking points. He tried to establish that British rule had led to economic ruination of India. It had steeply increased the poverty. He argued that such a malevolent policy militated against British principles themselves. Therefore, he named his magnum opus ‘Poverty and Un-British Rule in India’ (1901).
Dadabhai himself was not satisfied with the method of collection of statistics by the provincial governments. In the paper titled ‘Poverty of India’, read before the Bombay Branch of East Indian Association of 1876, he pointed at statistical fallacies and means to improve them. He went into nitty-gritty of acreage, crop production, prices, domestic consumption pattern, imports and exports. It requires a great deal of imagination, thorough collection of figures and meticulous data crunching to establish how British rule was impoverishing India. Dadabahi was actually laying down the path for future leaders. The opinion of a lawmaker with grasp over figures, as much over facts, carries greater credibility.
The other important legacy of Dadabhai was advocacy of India’s cause abroad. He did it through the East Indian Association. He then espoused the Indian cause in the British Parliament. He was the first Indian to be elected to the House of Commons. He represented the Central Finsbury constituency as a candidate of Liberal party between 1892 and 1895. He twice served as the President of Indian National Congress (1886 and 1893) besides representing India at International Congress of Social Democrats at Amsterdam in 1905. He permanently returned to India from Britain in 1908 at the ripe age of 83. He passed away in Bombay on June 30, 1917 leaving a weighty bequest of experience and achievements behind.
*The writer is an independent researcher and columnist based in New Delhi. The views expressed herein are his personal.