Sacha Ismail reviews Dinyar Patel’s Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism (Harvard University Press, 2020)
In the summer of 1893 Indian nationalist leader Dadabhai Naoroji, then living in Britain, returned to India for the conference of the Indian National Congress, of which he had been and would shortly be re-elected President. Greeted by vast multi-religious and multi-ethnic crowds as he travelled across northern India, he arrived in Lahore for the congress to cries of “Long live Dadabhai Naoroji!” – and “Long live Central Finsbury!”
In 1892 Naoroji had caused huge excitement and controversy by being elected to the UK Parliament from that North London constituency. (After his five-vote margin of victory, the British press played on his name, calling him “Narrow Majority”.)
Indian historian Dinyar Patel’s biography of Naoroji is a genuinely exceptional book: information-packed, thoughtful, extremely well-written and entertaining. It makes clear Naoroji should be regarded as a central figure in both Indian and UK history in general, but also an important figure specifically for the labour movement and socialist left. Publicising this history seems all the more important because Naoroji's legacy stands so sharply opposed to modern right-wing and Hindu-chauvinist Indian nationalism.
When Naoroji was selected as the Liberal candidate for Central Finsbury, Patel explains, he got strong support from the party’s radical rank-and-file supporters, most of them working-class, in this longstanding stronghold of the left. But important Liberal power-brokers opposed his candidacy, in part on racial grounds, and manoeuvred to have him replaced.
A few years earlier the Tory prime minister, Lord Salisbury, had publicly attacked Naoroji, suggesting in a speech that British voters would not and should not elect a “black man”. The Liberals benefited from the outcry, but that did not mean the Liberal leadership was uniformly enthusiastic about actually having an Indian MP.
Naoroji triumphed over the machine-politicians and got elected because of strong links with and support from the wider left beyond the Liberal Party, including Irish nationalists, women's rights activists and socialists, whose agendas he largely supported.
By then he was 66. He had been a well-known figure in British politics for years; a central one in the UK’s Indian diaspora for decades; and central in many aspects of India’s national awakening for decades more. Increasingly he would become known and respected transnationally.
Only in Parliament for three years, Naoroji remained active and continued to move to the left long afterwards (he died in 1917 aged 91). He organised and made propaganda not only for the Indian struggle, but a range of battles against oppression – including struggles for women's rights and for black (African) rights.
In 1892 Naoroji had already developed connections with organised socialist groups in the UK, particularly the Social Democratic Federation, and with a wide range of labour movement organisations and activists. It is noteworthy he was elected the same year as the first three Independent Labour MPs; and he made connections with John Burns and Keir Hardie. His links with Western Labour movements deepened, and a few years later he participated in the Second International in its pre-First World War heyday, taking part in the debates on India at its 1904 congress.
In many respects Naoroji was a forerunner of 1920s revolutionary socialist MP Shapurji Saklatvala.
Both were known as the “Member for India”. Both were from India's Parsi community, the small religious-ethnic minority descended from Zoroastrian refugees from the Islamic takeover of Iran. British imperialists and Parsi conservatives in India attacked the idea Naoroji could lead an Indian national struggle whose supporters and leaders were predominantly Hindu and Muslim. Saklatvala's Parsi background was attacked in a similar way. Both worked to build a cross-community, anti-sectarian Indian national movement and, in the case of Saklatvala, workers' movement.
I was pleased to read that Naoroji worked with John Archer, the black activist who would become mayor of Battersea and for a time a key ally of Saklatvala. Naoroji helped Archer first become a councillor in 1906.
In so far as Naoroji was a socialist – he surely was, by the 20th century – Saklatvala was one of a much more radical and consistent stripe. This is particularly the case as regards working-class struggles in India, which do not appear to have been much of a focus for Naoroji (there were a lot more of them twenty five years later). But the main difference that struck me was in their approaches to the Indian national struggle itself.
From the start of his political life Saklatvala aggressively promoted complete Indian independence and the break-up of the British empire. As late as Naoroji's attendance at the Socialist International in 1904 and for some time afterwards, he advocated “self-government under British paramountcy”.
For a long time, in fact, Naoroji did not advocate what we would understand as self-rule for India at all. As an MP his main campaign was for reforms to open the Indian civil service up to Indians, which he saw as the key to ending what he called the “drain of wealth” from India to the UK and thus alleviating Indian poverty.
Unlike Saklatvala, he initially conceived - or at least presented - the election of an Indian MP as a good first step in the development of representation for India within the empire, rather than a platform and lever for the empire’s destruction. His experience of advocating Indian rights in Parliament – under a Liberal government – disillusioned and radicalised him. That process continued until he came to advocate more-or-less full independence for India, from 1906.
In so far as Naoroji hesitated earlier on about connections with the UK socialist left, it seems to have been its radical positions on Indian independence and tactics to win it, not its wider social radicalism, that gave him pause.
In Naoroji's last years, many Indian leaders began to outstrip him in nationalist militancy, his advanced views on social questions notwithstanding. Many were sceptical of his continued emphasis on electing Indians to the UK Parliament. (In the 1895 election in which Naoroji lost his seat, another Indian MP was elected, in Bethnal Green North East – but Mancherjee Bhownaggree was a pro-empire Tory.)
In the last phase of his activity as an Indian nationalist leader, Naoroji maintained complex and carefully-balanced relationships with activists in both its moderate wing and its growing radical one. Among the many stories Patel’s Naoroji tells is that of the birth, rise and rising ambition of the Indian freedom struggle.