Some days ago, members of parliament at Westminster in London organized a special meeting to honour the memory of the first Indian to have been elected to the House of Commons. It was not an open event, yet the queue outside wound around the building long enough for a café owner to step out and enquire what it was that had attracted so much enthusiasm. When I explained, he looked terribly interested himself in the proceedings and asked, “Oh, is the MP upstairs?" Alas, I had to tell him, the man we were celebrating had died 100 years before, which meant he fell in a very different category of “upstairs". And he had died not in London, where he once represented his voters, but far away in Mumbai, in one of the seven houses that lend the suburb of Saat Bangla in Versova its picturesque name. The café manager looked vaguely sheepish while the rest of us made our way into the building, walking past V.R. Rao’s portrait of the man we were there to commemorate: Dadabhai Naoroji.
Naoroji was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress but he was also convinced that it was “in Parliament (in Britain) that our chief battle has to be fought". And so, in 1886, he presented himself as a candidate in the general election. Despite endorsements from the likes of Florence Nightingale, he was demolished. Lord Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister, declared that the English were not prepared to have a “black man" as their representative, only to regret those words. For the consequence was that his statement was published in newspapers around the country and Naoroji became an object of massive interest overnight—including in discussions around precisely how “black" this pale-skinned man exactly was. By 1892, he had a real shot at winning, and the people of Finsbury Central did not disappoint—he carried the day with a dazzling majority of three. When his un-black rival demanded a recount, the tally went up; Naoroji had actually won not by three but by a margin of five votes. Delighted either way, he served not only as the voice of Finsbury Central in parliament but also as president of the local football club. And both in the House of Commons and outside, he lent his energies to causes as diverse as the women’s suffrage movement and, of course, Indian self-rule.
A number of people frowned. Some called him Dadabhai Narrow-Majority, which was only marginally better than “Mr Nowraggie". But the old man didn’t mind. On the contrary, his shattering of the glass ceiling was conclusive enough for two more Indians to also enter the House of Commons in the coming years. He himself lost the next election in 1895, but made up for it by conveying his message in his seminal Poverty And UnBritish Rule In India, lambasting the Raj for its unashamed leeching of Indian wealth for British aggrandizement. The book was a milestone, and remains his most memorable intellectual contribution to the freedom struggle. And it did not surprise too many people that he had earned himself this distinction: When still in his teens at Elphinstone College (then, Institution) in Mumbai, Naoroji was labelled by a professor, a little sentimentally, “The Promise of India". Personally, though, he didn’t let such things go to his head. “Prosperity has not elated me and I hope adversity will not (depress) me," he wrote to a friend, “so long as I can feel I am living a life of duty."
Naoroji was born in British Bombay in 1825 in modest circumstances. He was a bright student, and an 1845 effort to go to university in England was only thwarted because one of his sponsors feared this prodigy might be tempted to become a Christian. So Naoroji began to teach mathematics and natural philosophy at Elphinstone College, till in 1855 he became the first Indian to be appointed a professor at that institution. It was a short-lived career, for by now he had decided to go into commerce—he moved to England and eventually set up a cotton import business. Just to cement one foot firmly in the intellectual space in any case, he also accepted a professorship at University College London. His subject: Gujarati. In the course of time he would set up the still-thriving Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, as well as the East India Association (which later merged with the Congress party), and emerge as one of the most distinguished ambassadors for India in the seat of empire.
Naoroji was also a most sympathetic interlocutor for Indians lost in this alien country. Many were the students who wrote to him for advice, and many too were the parents who frantically sought his assistance in preventing their beloved male offspring from getting ensnared by the fearsome, emancipated women of the West. In 1888, one young man wrote to him asking for guidance on life in England, “which shall be received as from a father to his child". His name was Mohandas Gandhi, and many years later he would remember Naoroji as “the G.O.M." (Grand Old Man) who made life easier for so many Indians with his sheer warmth and friendship. Indeed, Naoroji deserves much credit for going out of his way for others: Among the 30,000 documents that comprise his private papers, between notes sent by his plumber and an 1894 eye-glass prescription, are numerous letters in Gujarati, Marathi, even Persian and French, to strangers seeking his esteemed attention. That is, assuming everyone understood what he was saying, for, as a friend wrote with a hint of annoyance, “your handwriting is rather hard to read".
By the time Naoroji died, aged 93, he had enjoyed a most fascinating career. This included a stint as chief minister to a maharaja of Baroda who was accused of trying to murder the British resident at court with arsenic and crushed diamonds; luckily, Naoroji had already resigned by the time of the scandal. He had run newspapers, participated in great public debates on India’s future, and, significantly, set on its eventful course the Congress party that would serve as the vehicle of Indian nationalism in the years to come. And so it was that when he died, among the richly deserved tributes paid was one reminding everybody that while the man himself had departed, the idea he stood for would be enshrined forever in the destiny of the country he loved.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.