On 6th July 1892, he did the impossible. Dadabhai Naoroji, won a hard-fought election, by a whisker, to become the first non-white to be elected to the British Parliament. For a poor Parsi boy to make that journey, from Mumbai to London during the late 19th century would have been difficult enough, but for a trader in a London office to hold up the flag for the Rights of Indians, battle biases and get elected to the British Parliament, from a London constituency, at a time when Empire was at its greatest was nothing short of audacious. This was of course just the start, for the man who became famous as a mentor to the old guard of the freedom struggle, earning Naoroji the title of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’.
Dadabhai Naoroji became the first non-white to be elected to the British Parliament
Naoroji was born into a poor Parsi priestly family in Bombay (Mumbai) on 4th September 1825. His father died when he was just four and his mother brought him up in genteel poverty. He joined Elphinstone Institute School (Now Elphinstone College) and excelled in studies. He first left for England in 1855, to manage the London branch of Cama & Co, the first Indian company to have an office in London. He did well and in time he started his own cotton trade company under the name of Dadabhai Naoroji & Co. Interestingly while managing his various businesses, he was also a Gujarati professor at the University College, London between 1856 and 1865.
Naoroji was born into a poor Parsi priestly family in Bombay
During his days in London, Dadabhai Naoroji took a keen interest in studying the economic impact of the British rule in India. He was among the first to actually study this. In 1867, he propounded his much-quoted Economic Drain Theory where he pointed out that a quarter of India’s economic revenues were being expropriated by Britain and hence India was being economically bled dry. According to Naoroji’s famous paper, between 1814 and 1845, 350 million pounds sterling was drained out from India to England.
The more Dadabhai Naoroji studied, the more he realised the need to get India’s voice heard. While in London, he established the London Indian Society and then the East Indian Association which spoke out for the rights of Indians in the British Empire.
The more Dadabhai Naoroji studied, the more he realised the need to get India’s voice heard
In 1885, he was one of the founder members of the Indian National Congress, which was formed to give an even bigger platform to Indians in the British Empire. Dadabhai Naoroji and members of the Indian National Congress were of the view that Indians should participate in British political institutions and raise the voice of Indians in it. The same year Naoroji also decided to take the battle to London where elections were due. Writing in 1885 he was of the point of view that “It is in Parliament (London) that our chief battle has to be fought.” He was convinced that he should stand for elections to the British House of Commons and left India for London. He was accepted as a candidate for the Liberal Party from Holbourn constituency for the 1886 election but suffered a defeat, polling 1950 votes against his opponents 3651 votes.
This did not dampen Naoroji’s spirit. Nor did the public’s racist criticism. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury had made a public statement saying that an English constituency was not ready to elect a ‘Black Man’. Contrary to expectations, all this only made Naoroji’s resolve stronger.
His supporters put pressure on the Liberal Party to let him fight the 1892 elections as well. This time he stood from the Central Finsbury constituency in London, which was a working-class area and generally considered sympathetic to the plight of Indian workers.
A large number of Indians and British alike campaigned for Naoroji. A big financial supporter was Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda. Another Indian, who put his heart and soul into making this election a success was a student named Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was studying in London at the time. Notes Bengali leader Chittaranjan Das also worked very hard for Dadabhai’s election victory.
It was not just Indians but the locals who pitched in too. One of the most prominent of Naoroji’s supporters was the famous Florence Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale was an old associate of Dadabhai and felt that he was the best man to be the voice of Indians in the British Parliament. She had openly supported him during the 1886 election bid and had used all her contacts in the Liberal Party to get him to stand for elections again. She lent great support during the campaign.
With all the efforts of British and Indian friends and supporters, Dadabhai finally won the election by a thin margin of just 3 votes. He became the first non-white and the first Asian member of the House of Commons. He represented his constituency very well and remained loyal to the principles and manifesto of the Liberal Party. He raised a variety of issues in the British Parliament such as suffragette, the civil rights situation in India, condition of Indian labourers in South Africa among others. In 1894, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Naoroji "The Indians look up to you as children to the father. Such is really the feeling here."
In 1895 and 1907, Dadabhai made two more unsuccessful attempts at winning elections. After that, he decided to retire to India. It’s here that he mentored the next generation of leaders, along with contemporaries like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jinnah held him in great regard.
Dadabhai Naoroji passed away in his home at Versova in Mumbai on 30th June 1917 at a ripe old age of 92.
DID YOU KNOW
In Versova, Mumbai there is an area known as ‘Seven Bungalows’ named after the original group of seven bungalows in this stretch. One of these seven bungalows belonged to Dadabhai Naoroji. He breathed his last here.
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