In the 19th century, European imperialism colonised most of the African and Asian countries and was perhaps at its zenith regarding its success as a blessing of God. The political power and domination over colonies created a sense of pride and arrogance among European nations to condescend the colonised nations as backward and uncivilised.
The imperialist policies were supported by European intellectuals who provided theories for its justification. It was during this period that the racist theory was circulated among the European societies with the assertion that the white race was endowed with special qualities by nature, and hence was believed to be superior and they had a moral right to rule over the inferior races of African and Asian countries. When Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, was published in 1859, his theory of evolution was misinterpreted by the racists as social Darwinism and they popularised the idea of hegemony of the white race over non-white nations.
In 1863, John Crawfurd (d.1868), the president of Ethnological Society of London delivered a lecture which was attended by the top intellectuals of the city. The objective of his lecture was to justify the rule of the white races in the colonies on the basis of their superiority in knowledge of technology and culture.
Dadabhai Naoroji was one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, the first British Asian MP to be elected in 1892 and Mr Jinnah’s mentor and confidant
Among the audience sat Dadabhai Naoroji, an Indian, who was greatly disturbed by the logic of racial superiority of the whites and decided to respond to the lecture. In the same hall, before the same audience, Naoroji logically rejected the argument of John Crawfurd and presented his views that there was no difference among different races while each had the potential and the energy to survive against the odds and expressed its creativity in order to accomplish its design. Therefore, it was wrong to believe that the white races had special qualities and character. Every race had its merits and demerits.
The audience appreciated his lecture and Naoroji emerged as a political figure in London. He decided to take part in politics and joined the Liberal party. He contested for the general elections but did not win the first time; however, in 1892 he contested from the constituency of Finsbury Park and this time won the elections to become the first Indian member of the British Parliament. During his election campaign, Lord Salsbury (prominent conservative statesman and thrice prime minister) had famously referred to him as a black man in one of his remarks in regard to the elections and the constituency of Finsbury. Incidently, being a Parsi, Naoroji was not dark but fairly pale. The remarks went in his favour and his supporters rejected the prime minister’s comments for being racist. In the House of Commons, Naoroji presented the issues of the subcontinent before the House and also supported the Irish cause.
Naoroji was well-educated and understood the impact of colonialism in the subcontinent. In 1901, his book Poverty and un-British Rule in India presented the drain theory explaining how every year the British took away from £30 to £40 million from India and consequently reduced it to poverty. His argument was that many invaders had plundered India’s wealth in the past. However, after their departure, the damage and loss was eventually recovered by the Indians and the wounds inflicted by the invaders would heal with the passage of time. This indicated the energy and potential of the people of the subcontinent. On the other hand, invaders who settled in India kept its wealth within the country. But in case of the British rule, the Indian resources were drained constantly to Britain, leaving the Indian wounds unhealed. As a result, India was not getting any benefits but facing losses becoming poor and backward. His thesis provided a base for the anti-colonial movement in the subcontinent.
Dadabhai was among the founding members of the Indian National Congress and became its president in 1886. He inspired the young generation of Indian politicians including Bal Gangadhar Tilak (d.1920), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (d.1915) and Mohammad Ali Jinnah (d.1948). He died in 1917, leaving a rich political and intellectual heritage in the politics of India which laid the foundation for the want of freedom from the British rule. He was moderate and believed to have adopted constitutional ways and means to struggle for freedom. He belonged to the European-educated generation who had studied European politics and learnt how to use it against the colonial power and how to adjust in the changing environment in order to become a progressive and modern country.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 28th, 2016