Born in Mumbai in 1825 in a Gujarati-speaking Parsi family, Naoroji was educated at Elphinstone Institute School before pursuing a career as an intellectual and campaigner for Indian causes. At a time when the East India Company was ruling British India, Naoroji was laying the foundation of India’s contemporary freedom struggle, establishing India’s first political association, the Bombay Association, in 1852. In 1855 he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. The first Indian to be given an academic appointment, he was called ‘The Promise of India’ by another professor at the institution. Shortly after he travelled to London to join the first Indian business firm of the mercantile Cama family, opening a Liverpool location for Cama & Co, the first Indian company to be established in Britain. However, within three years he had resigned on ethical grounds and by 1859 had established his own cotton trading company, Dadabhai Naoroji & Co. Alongside this he was also made Professor of Gujarati at University College London (1856-65).
In 1867 he went on to help establish the East India Association which aimed to combat prevailing views of the Asians as inferior and put the Indian point of view before the British public. The organisation eventually merged with the Indian National Association in 1885, becoming the Indian National Congress – the main nationalist party that campaigned for Indian independence from British rule, later the party of Gandhi and still a prominent party in Indian politics today. Meanwhile, in 1874, having returned to India, Naoroji had started his public life as the Dewan (minister) to the Maharaja of Barado and later was a member of the of the Legislative Council of Mumbai.
During Naoroji’s lifetime, the Indian population accounted for over four fifths of the British Empire, but its 250 million people were unrepresented in British Parliament. Continuing his political involvement, Naoroji relocated to Britain once again and stood several times for election to the House of Commons, facing considerable racism each time. His 1886 bid as Liberal Party candidate for the strongly Conservative Holborn seat in London was unsuccessful and following his defeat, Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, remarked that an English constituency was not ready to elect a ‘black man’. The statement gave Naoroji notoriety and popular satirical magazine Punch referred to it in a cartoon depicting Naoroji as Othello and Salisbury as the ‘Doge of Westminster’.
Known as the ‘Grand Old Man of India’, Naoroji became a well-known public figure, gaining the support of Florence Nightingale and suffrage campaigners. In 1892 he was eventually elected as the Liberal candidate for the strongly working-class marginal seat of Central Finsbury in the Clerkenwell (now part of the London Borough of Islington) and joined Gladstone’s government.
‘If we twenty croce of Indians were entitled to send only one member to the British parliament, there is no doubt that we would have elected Dadabhai Naoroji unanimously to grace that post.’ - Bal Gangadhar Tilak
Naoroji was the first Asian to be a British MP, notwithstanding Anglo-Indian MP David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, who was elected as a Radical-Liberal to the seat of Sudbury in Suffolk in 1841 but disenfranchised for corruption in 1842 (Parliament overturned the result citing ‘gross, systematic and extensive bribery’ during the election campaign, and he and the other Member for the Sudbury division lost their seats). As he was not a Christian, Naoroji refused to take the oath of office on the Bible, but was allowed to take the oath in the name of God on his copy of the Khordeh Avesta (the Zoroastrian religious text).
During his time in the House of Commons Naoroji devoted his time towards improving the situation in India and campaigned for Indian independence. However he also supported votes for women, pensions for the elderly, Irish home role and the abolition of the House of Lords. He was assisted in duties as an MP by Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the future Muslim nationalist and founder of Pakistan. Although Naoroji lost his seat in the General Election of 1895 when the Conservatives won back power, he continued to campaign to the end of his life, being elected president of the Indian National Congress for a third time in 1906. A staunch moderate within the congress, he was a mentor to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi.
‘The Indians look up to you as children to the father. Such is really the feeling here.’- Mahatma Gandhi
Dadabhai Naoroji died in Mumbai on 30 June 1917.