Naoroji’s association with Josephine Butler appears to have facilitated further involvement with women’s rights activities in Britain. By the 1890s, for example, he was serving as a vice president of two major feminist associations, the Women’s Progressive Society, a socialist organisation that targeted parliamentary candidates opposed to women’s suffrage, and the International Women’s Union, which had members in the United States and Europe as well as in India, Persia, Brazil, and Japan.
Naoroji also had a long-standing association with the Women’s Franchise League, which was led by some of the most prominent suffragists of the late Victorian era, including Elizabeth Clarke Wolstenholme Elmy, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Ursula Bright. He was a member of the league’s council and was regularly sought by Elmy and Bright to speak in public.
In 1890, for example, he delivered a lecture on the condition of Indian women at a major conference organised by the league, the International Conference on the Position of Women in All Countries, held at Westminster Town Hall. A draft programme for this conference lists Naoroji, remarkably, alongside Rukhmabai, the Indian child bride who had kicked up a legal storm in Bombay after refusing to cohabit with her husband, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the American suffragist, as distinguished attendees.
By the early 1890s, therefore, Naoroji was part of a broad network of feminist leaders and organisations – one that embraced women’s activists and prominent sympathisers from across the world.
But what advantages, precisely, did the prospective candidate derive from his association with people who still did not possess the vote?
First, just as Butler relied on Naoroji for access to Indian leaders during the anti-CD Acts agitation, Naoroji benefited from feminists’ access to prominent radical Liberals and major public opinion makers. Ursula Bright, for instance, was the wife of a sitting MP, Joseph Bright, and the sister-in-law of John Bright. Mynie and Tina Bell – the widow and daughter, respectively, of Naoroji’s old ally in the cause of princely state autonomy, Evans Bell, and ardent suffragists in their own right – inducted Naoroji into their wide circle of activist and freethinker friends, which included George Jacob Holyoake, leader of the secularist movement, who later gave public support to Naoroji during his Central Finsbury campaign.
And in early 1888, as Naoroji stepped up his efforts to find a suitable constituency, Butler helped reintroduce Naoroji to TP O’Connor, the Irish MP and journalist. Naoroji profited from this important connection between a feminist and an Irish leader. O’Connor, Butler recounted, subsequently declared to her that “we must get Mr Naoroji into Parliament.” Disenfranchised women, therefore, were vital facilitators in Naoroji’s efforts to cobble together support from a variety of constituencies that did possess the vote.
Second, Naoroji found feminists to be especially receptive to the cause of Indian political reform.
The lack of the vote, the absence of absolute legal rights, and the utter nonexistence of any form of representation no doubt played a major role in fostering empathy and a sense of common cause between the two movements. Surviving correspondence indicates that Naoroji very deliberately tried to provoke interest in India among his feminist contacts.
In December 1886, for example, he began sending his papers and essays to Josephine Butler. Butler was greatly moved by the issues of Indian poverty and misgovernance, comparing the situation to that in Ireland. She quickly promised to write letters to the Liverpool Daily Post, Newcastle Leader, and other Liberal papers, advocating immediate reforms for India.
Significantly, Butler also began querying Naoroji on touchy historical subjects – such as the “morality” of the British conquest of India and the chief reasons for the Mutiny of 1857 – indicating that Naoroji helped nudge along her growing skepticism about imperialism. A little over a year later, Butler was still writing to Naoroji about her journalistic activities – this time her attempts to counsel the influential editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William T Stead, to be more sympathetic toward Indian political matters.
Historians have argued that when it came to Indian social reform, British feminists’ activities were shot through with colonial and social Darwinist prejudices.
They were, in their own ways, the handmaidens of empire. But Naoroji’s correspondence helps us see matters slightly differently. While certain prejudices were no doubt evident, it is quite clear that many women’s rights activists were also motivated by a deep sense of injustice, whether that injustice was found at home or in Britain’s imperial domains, and were not solely bound by imperial considerations.
Butler, for example, adopted and espoused Naoroji’s equation between the rights of British women and the rights of Indians, suggesting an almost universal struggle for justice. She saw Naoroji’s political career as a reflection of this struggle:
“It has long been very much on my heart that you should gain a seat in Parliament, and I should like to add my little word of testimony to others which you have received in regard to the confidence we have in you. It is not so much as a mere Liberal that I hope for your election, but because you are one of the most uncompromising friends of womanhood. You have already upheld the necessity of equal law for men and women, and your moving appeals on several occasions at our meetings have sunk deeply into our hearts. We have at this moment more than ever painfully the interests of your country women and our fellow-subjects in India on our hearts and I hope that our efforts may result before long in a greater measure of legal justice for the women of India. Your clear insight into all that is false and unequal in our British laws regarding women has not been, to my mind, surpassed in any instance, even of our own countrymen experienced in these matters.”
By pursuing a politics of empathy, premised on a shared sense of injustice, Naoroji won allies among diverse constituencies and placed India within the ranks of the leading progressive causes in late Victorian Britain. Consequently, in the years after Holborn, he helped promote a surge of interest in Indian political affairs among Britons. Finally, and importantly, as Butler’s comments indicate, he also won some valuable, well-connected friends who were eager to see Naoroji elected to Parliament during the next general election.
During the 1880s, with the expansion of the franchise and the birth of mass politics, Great Britain passed through an especially fruitful moment of reformist activity, one in which various progressive causes overlapped and converged. Within this convergence lay great opportunities for an Indian leader to build political alliances.
Dadabhai Naoroji’s allies, after all, included the old guard of anti-slavery activists, men like Frederick W Chesson, who now turned their attention to Indian reform; longtime India reformers, such as Evans Bell, who were involved in the secularist movement; secularists, most notably George Jacob Holyoake, who moved in suffragist circles; and suffragists, especially Josephine Butler, who possessed Irish home ruler contacts. Henry Hyndman appeared to know everyone.
The 1880s were, furthermore, a moment of many firsts in Westminster – a direct consequence of the parliamentary reforms of 1884. TP O’Connor’s election in 1885 made him the first-ever Irish Catholic MP returned by an English constituency. The first openly socialist MP, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, took his seat in the Commons in 1888. Charles Bradlaugh, an avowed atheist, became the first individual to sit in Parliament without taking a religious oath.
An Indian candidate was still a far more unexpected figure than an Irish Catholic, socialist, or atheist, but electors appeared open to new possibilities. Congress leaders in the subcontinent, who closely monitored political developments among their colonial masters, were savvy enough to recognise these shifting dynamics. And they were shrewd enough to see the potential for advancing a reformist Indian agenda through these expanding networks among progressive causes.
Thus by the late 1880s, Naoroji, and his views on Indian politics, had become quite well known within British activist circles and among the political elite.
But something much more significant was happening: Naoroji was developing popular recognition among the British public. His name – albeit frequently and creatively misspelled – appeared with more regularity in the columns of British newspapers; his pamphlets and writings circulated widely and gained greater readership; his speaking invitations increasingly emanated from locations far removed from the imperial capital.
Even the Times grudgingly admitted that Naoroji was now a “well-known” personality. But it was none other than Lord Salis-bury, the Conservative prime minister, who truly illustrated the extent to which the Indian leader had shot to national prominence. At noon on November 29, 1888, Salisbury began addressing a large audience that had assembled in Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange. In the course of a long and rambling speech, the prime minister, accomplished in the art of making verbal gaffes, alluded to the 1886 contest in Holborn:
“Colonel Duncan was opposed to a black man (laughter), and, however great the progress of mankind has been and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet got to that point where a British constituency will elect a black man to represent them. (Laughter.) Of course, you will understand that I am speaking roughly and using language in its ordinary colloquial sense, because I imagine the colour is not exactly black; but at all events he was a man of another race who was very unlikely to represent an English community.”
Thus transpired the “black man incident,” which kicked off a furious storm of protest in Britain and India. Through this jibe, Salisbury did not simply acknowledge public recognition of Naoroji, but inadvertently did the Parsi politician a tremendous favour by greatly enhancing it.
In the days and weeks that followed, the prime minister and the so-called black man were splashed across the pages of newspapers and journals from Dublin to Calcutta. The Pall Mall Gazette expressed shock and dismay, recommending that Salisbury lather his tongue with Pears soap; the Weekly Dispatch joined several other broadsheets in finding Naoroji utterly unworthy of the insult; the Daily News fretted over how this would deepen Indian grievances about British rule; and Punch had a grand time satirising the fallout.
Far too many column-inches of print were spent debating whether the Parsi candidate was, in fact, lighter in complexion than the swarthy prime minister. Regardless, the black man incident achieved something for which Naoroji had long struggled: truly wide-ranging, favourable, and sympathetic press coverage. From faraway Bombay, Behramji Malabari marvelled at how “our adversaries are often our best friends.”
Critically, many newspapers wondered how the black man incident would impact Naoroji’s chances at the next general election. And it was the Freeman’s Journal, the home ruler periodical in which Michael Davitt had suggested Naoroji’s nomination for an Irish seat, which made the boldest prediction. “One result of Lord Salisbury’s insulting taunt is that Mr Naoroji is almost certain to be returned to Parliament at the next general election,” the paper declared. “This, indeed, is the only real reparation that can be made to the Indian people.” Amid similarly encouraging pronouncements from friends and allies, Naoroji now set course for a new campaign in a new constituency, Central Finsbury.
Excerpted with permission from Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, Dinyar Patel, Harvard University Press.