In 1892, when he became the first Indian elected to the British House of Commons, Dadabhai Naoroji expressed rosy optimism about how India’s various political demands could be achieved through Parliament. By 1895, however – when he lost his reelection bid – he was no longer so sanguine.
This was well reflected in his more radicalised political discourse. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Naoroji was openly calling for Indian self- government, placing all other components of the nationalist programme behind this single demand. Only self-government, he declared, could stop the drain of wealth through the elimination of a European-dominated civil service and the creation of a representative and accountable administration that would serve Indian interests rather than those of the British.
In June 1903, for example, he upbraided Romesh Chunder Dutt for dwelling on comparatively minor issues instead, such as land revenue reform. Such issues, Naoroji argued, drew “a red herring across the real evil at the bottom”. Moreover, Naoroji repudiated his earlier views that major public works investment would alleviate the country’s woes.
Once India rallied behind self-government and realised that the drain was the ultimate cause of its miseries, “the British will have either to leave precipitately, or be destroyed in India, or if they see the danger of the disaster in good time and apply the remedy, to save the Empire by putting an end to the Drain”.
Such language disturbed the moderate standard-bearers in the Indian National Congress, who also saw self-government as something possible only in the distant future. At the same time, Naoroji became the object of criticism from a new wing of so-called extremist nationalists, men who took issue with moderate political techniques – techniques that Naoroji still advocated – as well as Naoroji’s insistence on qualifying Indian self-government as being “under British Paramountcy” (his reluctance to talk about a future for India outside of the British Empire similarly caused a stir at the 1904 Socialist Congress).
As Bengal reeled from Lord Curzon’s partition of the province in 1905, Bal Gangadhar Tilak pleaded with Naoroji to see the futility of petitioning and resolution drafting and instead throw support behind the Swadeshi boycott movement and “national education’; furthermore, he questioned the Congress’ focus on work in Great Britain, pointing out the limited concessions that India had won in the past from Westminster.
Other radicals issued much sharper denunciations. In the pages of the Indian Sociologist, Shyamji Krishnavarma charged Naoroji with gross inconsistency – condemning British rule, on the one hand, while maintaining a belief in British justice and fair-mindedness, on the other – and pronounced his political career “a sad failure”. As Naoroji entered the eighth decade of his life, he increasingly found himself somewhere in between the moderate and radical streams of Indian nationalism.
In many ways, the year 1906 was a culmination of Naoroji’s political career. He waged a final parliamentary campaign in North Lambeth in London – standing as an independent candidate in favour of a Labour programme – and lost. He cheered the appointment of John Morley as secretary of state for India – echoing moderate nationalist hopes of a new enlightened era at the India Office – and then recoiled as Morley announced in Parliament that he saw no prospect for Indian self-government in the foreseeable future.
Finally, as divisions in the Congress between the moderates and the extremists widened and threatened to cause an irreparable split, Naoroji, as the only leader amenable to both camps, received frantic requests to preside over the organisation’s Calcutta session in December 1906.
That November, just days after accompanying Mohandas K Gandhi and other representatives of the Transvaal Indians to meetings at the India Office and Colonial Office, the 81-year-old political veteran sailed eastward in order to take up the Congress presidency for the third time.
It was here that Naoroji – although too frail to read out his own speech – publicly established self-government or Swaraj, as he deliberately termed it, as the Congress’s central and ultimate goal. “Self-government is the only and chief remedy,” he declared. “In self-government lies our hope, strength and greatness.” Responding to the prevarications of both Morley and the Congress moderates, Naoroji dismissed the idea that India still had to undergo a significant degree of political maturation before Great Britain could endow it with the privilege of responsible institutions.
Instead, he framed self-government as a question of rights – affirming that Indians were “British citizens” entitled to “claim all British citizens’ rights”. He also declared self-government to be an appropriate form of reparation for the injustice and economic depredation that India had suffered under the Raj.
But how could such rights be achieved? Here, Naoroji confronted the thorny issue of nationalist methods. While praising the swadeshi movement in Bengal, Naoroji nevertheless urged delegates to persist in petitioning and other forms of constitutional agitation. These methods, he acknowledged, had reaped India many failures and frustrations.
“Since my early efforts,” Naoroji stated, “I must say that I have felt so many disappointments as would be sufficient to break any heart and lead one to despair and, I am afraid, to rebel.”
Yet, he urged the Congress to retain faith in the new Liberal ministry in London and resist temptations to adopt extralegal tactics. Naoroji’s address was unique in the sense that it elicited praise and criticism from both moderates and radicals: the Jam-e-Jamshed of Bombay, for example, shuddered at the thought of Indian self-government, while the Bengali daily Sandhya found Naoroji’s definition of Swaraj too timid. Tilak and his allies, meanwhile, expressed measured satisfaction with Naoroji’s performance. The Kesari only took issue with his continued faith in British justice, asserting that “if he had spent the last few years in India, he would have come to a different conclusion altogether”.
The Calcutta Congress was Naoroji’s last major political undertaking. Returning to London in early 1907, after a hectic few weeks in India, Naoroji’s health collapsed and he spent the next several months in convalescence. By August, he had resolved to retire from public life and return to India for good. George Birdwood, a Conservative hand at the India Office who was nevertheless one of Naoroji’s oldest and warmest friends, approved of the decision, declaring that “it is in India you should die. That will give the necessary dramatic unity to your life”.
Naoroji sailed into Bombay harbour one last time on 7 November 1907, too sick and enfeebled to comply with the requests for a public welcome. Instead, he retreated to a seaside bungalow in the then-faraway village of Versova where he commenced a quiet retired life interspersed with fits of activity.
After years of speaking on Indian economic matters, Naoroji was faced with the dire state of his own finances, something that caused him great distress and occasional bouts of worsened health. While refusing to comment on Congress politics, Naoroji occasionally issued public statements that continued to put moderates and radicals on edge.
In January 1912, he expressed gratification to King George V and Queen Mary for visiting India, but implored Indians to respond to the visit by pushing more strongly for self-government. In September 1915, shortly after his 90th birthday, Naoroji caused consternation among Bombay moderates by accepting the presidency of Annie Besant’s new Home Rule League.
After a full life of nearly 92 years, Dadabhai Naoroji passed away on 30 June 1917. He left behind a maturing political organisation with machinery on two continents, a nationalist ideology that centred on India’s impoverishment and emphasised self-government as the only means of resolution, and a generation of Indians drawn into nationalist activity.
Writing in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi declared Naoroji to be both “the author of nationalism” and “the Father of the Nation”. “Had not the Grand Old Man of India prepared the soil,” concluded Gandhi, “our young men could not have even spoken about Home Rule.”
Excerpted with permission from the Introduction to Dadabhai Naoroji: Selected Private Papers, edited by SR Mehrotra and Dinyar Patel, Oxford University Press.