Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), aside from being the first Asian to sit in the House of Commons, was also the most important leader in India before Mahatma Gandhi, as well as being anti-racist and anti-imperialist of global significance.
Now, more than ever, amidst various global crises, he deserves to be remembered.
His life is a stirring testament to the power of progressive politics – and how the determined pursuit of such politics can bring light into even the darkest chapters of history.
Naoroji was born into relative poverty in Bombay. He was an early beneficiary of a novel experiment – free public schooling – and believed that public service was the best way to repay his moral debts for his education.
From an early age, he championed progressive causes that were deeply unpopular.
In the late 1840s, he opened schools for Indian girls, earning the wrath of orthodox Indian men. But he had a knack of persevering and turning the tide of opinion.
Within five years, girls’ schools in Bombay were brimming with pupils. Naoroji responded by setting the bar higher, making an early demand for gender equality. Indians, he argued, would one day “understand that woman had as much right to exercise and enjoy all the rights, privileges, and duties of this world as a man.”
In 1855, Naoroji made his first visit to Great Britain.
He was utterly stunned by the wealth and prosperity he saw and began reflecting on why his own country remained so impoverished.
Thus began two decades of path-breaking economic analysis whereby Naoroji challenged one of the most sacred shibboleths of the British Empire: the idea that imperialism brought prosperity to colonial subjects.