March 10 marks the 200th birth anniversary of one of the most influential figures to emerge from western India during the 19th century, one who played an outsized role in the political life of colonial Bombay and went on to contribute significantly to the emergence of the nationalist movement. But though he was hailed as “Tribune of the People” and “one of India’s greatest sons” when he died in 1885, Navrozji Fardunji (or Nowrozjee Furdoonjee), is hardly remembered by India today.
Born into a relatively prosperous Parsi family in Bharuch in Gujarat, a young Navrozji proved to be an unusually bright student and was sent to Bombay. Here, he was enrolled in a school run by the city’s Native Education Society, which provided free education to deserving Indian pupils. Its schools became a launch pad for Navrozji and a generation of reform-minded Indians, collectively known as “Young Bombay.”
Navrozji’s intellect and talent soon caught the attention of Alexander Burnes, the British explorer and political officer who had shortly before achieved fame for a daring expedition through Central Asia and Persia. In 1837, Burnes recruited the 19-year-old Parsi as a secretary and translator for a new diplomatic mission to Kabul, then at the epicentre of
“The Great Game” between Britain and Russia – a period of economic and political competition between the empires for influence over Central Asia.
His time in Afghanistan, however, was cut short when he learned of the death of his father. Navrozji petitioned Burnes for leave and trekked back overland to Bombay. His father’s death, ironically, probably saved Navrozji’s life – by 1839, the Great Game tensions had devolved into the first Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in of the bloodiest defeats ever suffered by the British. Burnes and his colleagues were killed in 1841 by an Afghan mob.
Having returned to Bombay, Navrozji took up a relatively safer vocation: that of a teacher. He was appointed assistant professor at Elphinstone College, where, alongside the brilliant Maharashtrian polymath Bal Gangadhar Shashtri Jambhekar, he educated many future leaders of Bombay.
Their pupils included Bhau Daji Lad, Dadabhai Naoroji, Sorabji Shapurji Bengallee, and Vishwanath Narayan Mandlik. Navrozji became a trusted mentor to these students as they initiated Young Bombay’s program of religious and social reform in the late 1840s and 1850s.
Aside from working closely with Dadabhai Naoroji on matters of Parsi religious reform, Navrozji engaged with a broad spectrum of Elphinstone graduates in promoting female education among various communities in Bombay. The idea that young Indian girls deserved an education was, at this time, a dangerous proposition: Navrozji and others regularly received threats from irate Indian fathers who balked at the suggestion of sending their daughters to school. The Bombay government, furthermore, offered little financial support for setting up and running girls’ schools.
But persistence paid off. By 1858, Navrozji was in charge of a successful network of Parsi girls’ schools in the city, managed and financed by an energetic troupe of Indian volunteers and philanthropists, which operated in tandem with a growing number of schools for Gujarati and Maharashtrian girls.
Throughout his life, he remained a staunch advocate of public education in India, criticising the British for making government-aided schools unaffordable for poor Indians. When, in 1880, the Indian Education Commission spoke about reducing the already paltry government support for Indian schools, Navrozji warned its members of “disastrous consequences” that would jeopardise efforts “to qualify the Natives for self-government.”
Laying the grounds
Broaching the topic of self-government in 1880, especially before a panel of British government officials, required a degree of pluck. Navrozji, however, had never worried about taking controversial positions in political matters. In 1852, he was a visible force behind the Bombay Association, where the shetia elite and young reformers joined hands to form the city’s first political organisation.
Navrozji, along with Bhau Daji Lad, led the radical wing of the Association, which drafted a petition to the British Parliament in relation to the renewal of the East India Company’s charter in 1854. Their petition demanded an ambitious set of political reforms, including Indian representation in the British Parliament as well as local councils and the broad appointments of Indians to the civil service. While the petition was criticised by more conservative members of the Bombay Association, it anticipated much of the agenda that the Indian National Congress would put forward more than three decades later.
Navrozji was particularly vocal about the need for Indian representatives in the British Parliament. In 1874, he collaborated with a prominent British supporter of Indian political reform, John Dickinson, on a proposal to create eight seats for India in the House of Commons, pointing out that the French, Portuguese, and Spanish already allowed some colonial representation in their legislatures.
In Bombay’s municipal corporation and town council, Navrozji set the tone for strident Indian political activism, something later taken up by the likes of Pherozeshah Mehta. “His energy, his fluency, and his example have done more than any thing else to make the Municipal Corporation of Bombay the first representative body in India,” the Times of India observed.
Increasingly, however, Navrozji became consumed with one issue: poverty. In the 1870s, along with Dadabhai Naoroji and members of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, he began to push for immediate and wide-ranging political form to address India’s glaring impoverishment. In a letter to British Prime Minister William Gladstone in 1871, (republished in the Times of India’s February 14, 1871 edition under the heading “Mr Nowrojjee to the Premier”, he condemned the “deplorable” results of British rule, saying:
“The people are burdened with heavy taxes; India is impoverished by the drain of its wealth to the governing country; the people are denied an honorable career by being shut out from all the higher offices in the public service of their country, and no adequate efforts are made to rescue the people from ignorance, improve their condition and increase the produce and develop the resources of the country.”
Such language quickly earned Navrozji many enemies within the British Indian establishment. In 1876, an astonished Bombay Gazette reviewed Navrozji’s thoughts on Indian poverty and accused him, along with Dadabhai Naoroji, of promulgating “the extraordinary doctrine that the British Government of this country was an unmitigated curse.” He caused additional consternation in Simla and Calcutta by publicly speaking out against racist British attitudes towards Indians, documenting officials’ practice of exacting forced labour from peasants in western India and characterising the administration of justice in the country as “bad and reprehensible.”
Navrozji passed away in Bombay in September 1885, just a few months shy of the first meeting of the Indian National Congress in December. News of his death apparently “spread like wildfire” through the city’s streets, and the Bombay Municipal Corporation suspended its session as a token of respect.
By 1930, however, he was already becoming an obscure figure in public memory. GA Natesan, the liberal politician and publisher from Madras, noted that year that Navrozji’s “solid but unpretentious work received due recognition in his own day, but, like all such work, is apt to be superseded and forgotten by the very people who benefited most by it” (from Natesan’s Famous Parsis, 1930).
Today, a short lane behind the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba is named after Navrozji Fardunji. You will likely encounter a dusty portrait of him in one of Mumbai’s old institutions or libraries. He deserves better than this. Mumbai would benefit from more meaningful remembrance of one of its most spirited public leaders and his legacy of reform and fearless activism.
Dinyar Patel is Assistant Professor, Modern South Asia at the Department of History, University of South Carolina