Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), whose death centenary falls today, was an iconic figure of the pre-Gandhi era in the freedom movement. He was thrice the President of Indian National Congress – in 1886 (Calcutta), 1893 (Lahore) and 1906 (Calcutta). In 1892, Dadabhai became the first Asian to get elected to the House of Commons of the British Parliament.

Popularly known as the “Grand Old Man of India”, Dadabhai Naoroji was born in Mumbai (then Bombay) on 4 September 1825 in a Parsi family with a prominent lineage of Zoroastrian priests. The young Naoroji was therefore brought up to take on his father’s profession of conducting rites and rituals for the Parsi community. However, destiny ordained otherwise.

His father, Naoroji Palanji Dordi died when Naoroji was only four years old. His mother, Maneckbai enrolled him in a free school run by the Bombay Education Society. In 1840 Naoroji received a scholarship for the prestigious Elphinstone College where he was awarded the most promising pupil certificate. But Naoroji’s work extended beyond the classroom. He played an active role in bringing out new journals and establishing an organisation aimed at growth and development of ‘Young Bombay’, a new generation of students exposed to modern ideas and keen to challenge traditions and orthodoxies. He was the first Indian to be appointed professor of Elphinstone College and took keen interest to spread women’s education.

In 1855, Naoroji left Bombay aboard the steamer Madras for London as a business partner of the famous Cama firm. In 1859 he set up his own business trading house in London, Dadabhai Naoroji & Co. but as he started taking interest in political issues his business collapsed by the middle of 1866. From 1856 to 1866 he also held the post of Professor of Gujarati in the University College, London and laboured hard for the spread of education amongst the Indian community.

In 1866, Dadabhai Naoroji founded in London the East Indian Association for propagating the cause of India. Amongst the British and Indian nationals who joined the association was Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee who later became the first President of the INC. The Bombay branch of the East India Association started in 1869 with eminent persons like William Wedderburm, Pherozeshah Mehta, Mahadev Govind Ranade and Rama Krishna Gopal as its members. Wedderburn and Mehta were to later become the 5th and 6th Presidents of INC respectively. The main thrust of the Association was agitation through constitutional means.

On his return to India Dadabhai Naoroji formed another association, the Bombay Presidency Association which with the Indian National Conference started by Surendranath Banerjee in Calcutta in 1883 became the precursor of the Indian National Congress. Little wonder, after his death, Dadabhai Naoroji was referred to as the “Father of the Nation” by Gandhiji and as “Father of the Indian National Congress” by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru.

Though not successful in his first attempt to enter British Parliament, Naoroji was elected to the House of Commons in 1892 as a representative of the Liberal party. He won by a thin majority of five votes, dubbed a ‘Dadabhai Narrow-Majority.’ Earlier, in 1886, he had presided over the second session of the INC in Calcutta.

As the first Indian elected to Parliament, Dadabhai made headlines across India and Britain. The British media commented on the election’s significance in consolidating goodwill between Britain and India, and called it an ‘interesting and almost romantic event’. So popular had Naoroji become in both Britain and India that he was called back from London to preside over the 9th session of the INC in 1893 at Lahore. He was greeted by massive crowds wherever he went in India. Bombay, Pune, Surat, Ahmedabad, Ajmer, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Aligarh, Allahabad were some of the places visited by Naoroji before he reached Lahore to preside over the session.

In his address he proposed Indianization of the bureaucracy, separation of powers of the executive and judiciary and greater representation of Indians in the House of Commons. Above all, Naoroji repeated what he had been propagating in England: ‘the all-encompassing issue of Indian poverty is due the unnatural and suicidal system of administration.’ During his stay in Britain in the 1860s, Naoroji’s most significant contribution was his work on Indian poverty and the drain of wealth India suffered under British imperialism. Around one-fourth of India’s revenues went out of the country and added to the resources of England.

Great Britain had over the course of a century amassed more than £1.6 billion from its Indian empire. He calculated that the annual drain from India was nearly £33 million which included £4 million for the Army and civil services. India therefore, Naoroji highlighted, was being ‘continually bled’ by its imperial masters. He concluded his address at Lahore with inspiring words: “Let us remember that we are all children of our mother country. Indeed I have never worked in any other spirit than that I am an Indian, and owe duty to my country and all my countrymen. Whether I am a Hindu, a Mohammedan, a Parsi, a Christian, or any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India; our nationality is Indian.”

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Naoroji was openly calling for self-government which according to him was the only option to stop the drain of wealth through the creation of a civil service dominated by Indians. The year 1906 was a virtual culmination of Dadabhai’s political career. When the chasm between Moderates and Extremists in the Congress widened, the ‘Grand Old Man of India’ was prevailed upon by both groups to return from England to India to preside over the Calcutta session of the INC in December 1906. Dadabhai’s balanced address to the delegates elicited more praise than criticism from both the Moderates and Extremists.

While declaring self government or Swaraj as the ultimate goal of the Congress, he urged delegates to persist in petitioning and other forms of constitutional agitation. The most prominent leader to express satisfaction with Dadabhai’s address was Lokmanya Tilak who, however, disagreed with his faith in British justice. A few months before the Congress session on 21st September 1906, Tilak had written to Naoroji to see the futility of petitioning and throw his weight behind the Swadeshi Movement. As he entered the mid eighties of his life, Dadabhai found himself somewhere in between the moderate and extremist streams of the freedom movement.

Two years before he died, to the surprise of his friends and admirers Dadabhai accepted the presidentship of Annie Beasant’s new Home Rule League. The ‘Grand Old Man of India’ died on 30 June 1917 at the ripe old age of 92 having spent over five decades in national service.

It may be apt to conclude with what Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru spoke while unveiling a portrait of Lokmanya Tilak in the central hall of Parliament on 28 July 1956: “…We have, to my right here, the picture of Dadabhai Naoroji in a sense the Father of Indian National Congress. We may perhaps, in our youthful arrogance, think that some of these leaders of old were very Moderate, and that we are braver because we shout more. But every person who can recapture the picture of old India and of conditions, that prevailed, will realise that a man like Dadabhai was, in those condition, a revolutionary figure… I do not know what other portraits subsequently will be put up in this Hall, but I can imagine no two worthier portraits than the two we have, those of Dadabhai Naoroji and Lokmanya.”

The writer, an ex Army officer, is a former member of the National Commission of Minorities and a political analyst.