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Remembering Dadabhai Naoroji on the Hundredth Anniversary of his Death

On 30 June 2017, many Indians will observe the hundredth death anniversary of Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), an important figure in India’s struggle for independence from British colonialism and the first Indian to be elected to the British Parliament. Naoroji was a Parsi, a member of the tiny Zoroastrian community of India that today numbers only 60,000 in that country. Nevertheless, in the course of his five decades of political work, Naoroji played a vital role in uniting members of India’s diverse religious and ethnic communities into a movement for political reform and colonial emancipation.

Article by Dr. Dinyar Patel, Assistant Professor of History, University of South Carolina, and Chair, Research and Preservation Committee, FEZANA.

Dadabhai_Naoroji_1889In 1825, when Naoroji was born in Bombay (today’s Mumbai), the British had been a colonial power in India for over eighty years, causing famine and economic disruption in many parts of the country. Naoroji was, himself, born in relative poverty: his parents migrated from southern Gujarat as its local textile economy collapsed. Through his academic performance, however, Naoroji managed to secure scholarships for attending Bombay’s best educational institutions. At the age of 28, he became the first Indian appointed as a full professor in a British-administered college, teaching mathematics and physics. He also began adopting extremely progressive positions on various social issues. At a time when most women in India lacked any form of education, he established some of the first schools in Bombay for girls. Naoroji also criticized the British government for not doing more to educate its Indian subjects.

By the late 1860s, Naoroji became deeply concerned about another matter: India’s worsening impoverishment under British rule. During the second half of the nineteenth century, India experienced an unusually devastating spate of famines that killed, by the most conservative estimates, over 28 million people.[1] While British authorities blamed these catastrophes on natural disasters alone, Naoroji pointed to another cause. He argued that there was a deliberate “drain of wealth” in India, whereby British policies were siphoning capital out of the country and thereby pushing Indian subjects to the brink of starvation. Collecting and tabulating a wide range of economic statistics—while also disproving the rosier statistics compiled by British officials—Naoroji calculated that the average Indian was, by the 1880s, too poor to buy enough food for a mere subsistence diet. Under British rule, he declared, India had become “the poorest country in the world.”[2]

Naoroji’s “drain theory” caused a great stir in both India and Great Britain: it provided concrete proof of colonialism’s devastating effects upon India, rubbishing British claims of benevolent imperial rule. His writings influenced a generation of Indian and British thinkers, including several prominent British socialists. In time, Naoroji’s writings reached a wider audience across Europe and North America, becoming important resources for incipient anti-imperial movements. For example, William Jennings Bryan, the American Progressive leader, cited Naoroji’s drain theory to explain why he opposed American annexation of the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Having laid out his economic critique of British colonialism, Naoroji forayed into politics. In 1885, he helped found the Indian National Congress, the political party that eventually led India to independence in 1947. Naoroji strove to make the Congress as inclusive as possible. As president of the organization in 1893, for example, he famously stated that, “Whether I am a Hindu, a Muhammadan [Muslim], a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian.”[3]

But Naoroji did not just limit his political activity to India. Recognizing that imperial policy was formulated in London, he decided that the best way to influence this policy was to put pressure on the system from the inside. In 1886, he stood for election to the British Parliament as a member of the Liberal Party.[4] Although he lost the election, he generated widespread support among progressively-minded Britons, including suffragists, Irish nationalists, labor leaders, and socialists—individuals who lent their support for India’s political aspirations.

A few years later, in 1892, Naoroji stood for election once more, this time from the constituency of Central Finsbury in London. It was a grueling fight: Naoroji’s opposition lobbed racial barbs at the Indian candidate, while the Conservative prime minister of Great Britain, Lord Salisbury, urged voters not to send a “black man” to Parliament. In the end, Naoroji won the election—by a mere five votes (he earned the sobriquet “Dadabhai Narrow-majority”). Regardless, his victory generated headlines around the world, especially in India. When he returned to India in 1893, crowds in Bombay, Delhi, Allahabad, Lahore, and elsewhere celebrated him as a national hero.

Naoroji’s reception in the British Parliament, however, was much more frosty. He continued to face racist opposition. His pleas for Indian reforms fell upon deaf ears, and his efforts to legislate change garnered little support. In 1895, he lost his reelection bid. Disillusioned with parliamentary politics, Naoroji became more radical, pronouncing British policy in India as “evil” and “a curse,” especially in light of a new spate of famines afflicting the country.[5] In 1906, serving as president of the Indian National Congress once more, he declared that the time had come for Indians to work towards achieving swaraj or self-government. There could be no more time lost on incremental political reforms. Self-government, he stated, was the only way to stop the devastating drain of wealth that had crippled India.

Naoroji retired from politics the following year, at the age of eighty. He left behind a Congress party organization that, in spite of significant internal divisions, was growing more robust and politically confident. His analysis of Indian poverty, claiming that British imperialism was inherently exploitative, became a central tenet in India’s struggle for independence. In addition, he mentored and influenced a new generation of Indian leaders that finally brought an end to the colonial regime. One such leader was Mahatma Gandhi, who had received Naoroji’s assistance while campaigning for the rights of Indians in South Africa. A few months after Naoroji’s death, Gandhi summarized his legacy: “Dadabhai’s flawless and uninterrupted service to the country, his impartiality, his spotless character, will always furnish India with an ideal to follow.”[6]

Further Reading

Masani, Rustom P. Dadabhai Naoroji: The Grand Old Man of India. London: G. Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1939.

Mehrotra, S.R. and Dinyar Patel. Dadabhai Naoroji: Selected Private Papers. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Naoroji, Dadabhai. Poverty and UnBritish Rule in India. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1901.

Patwardhan, R.P., ed. Dadabhai Naoroji Correspondence, parts I & II. New Delhi: Allied, 1977.

[1] These estimates were for the years 1854 to 1901. William Digby, ‘Prosperous’ British India (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1901), pp. 129-30.

[2] “Famine in India: Address by Mr. Dadabhai Naoroji,” India, 1 March 1901, p. 103.

[3] Speeches and Writings of Dadabhai Naoroji, ed. G.A. Natesan (Madras: G.A. Natestan & Co., 1917), p. 59.

[4] Due to the lack of clearly-defined policies on citizenship, it was possible, in those days, for a British colonial subject to stand for a seat in a British constituency, and several Indians did so from the 1880s onward.

[5] Private correspondence, Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India, New Delhi.

[6] Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 14 (Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1965), p. 61.

FEZANA’s 30th Annual General Meeting: A Report

FEZANA just concluded its 30th annual general meeting (AGM), hosted by the Zoroastrian Association of Houston (ZAH). Homi D. Gandhi, President of FEZANA, inaugurated the AGM on April 28th, 2017 and welcomed all member associations, past presidents, committee chairs, and Zarathushtis attending in the audience. The meeting was attended by all five of the current… Continue Reading

Zerbanoo Gifford: An Uncensored Life, USA Book Tour

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FEZANA Unveils New Logo in Celebration of its 30-Year Anniversary

Winning design by Vancouver-based graphic artist, Zara Contractor, selected for accentuating elements of air, earth, fire and water and strong Zoroastrian identity. Burr Ridge, Illinois, May 1, 2017– FEZANA (, the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, today unveiled a new logo to commemorate its 30-year anniversary. The winning logo, designed by graphic artist,… Continue Reading

FEZANA Scholarships Application Cycle 2017 Opens

FEZANA is happy to announce that the application cycle for the FEZANA scholarships for 2017 is open. FEZANA Offers the following Scholarships ACADEMIC Scholarships Mehraban and Morvorid Kheradi Endowment Scholarship for Academic Excellence: The FEZANA  Scholar FEZANA 25th Anniversary Endowment  Scholarship For Academic Excellence Morvarid Guiv Endowment Scholarships Purvez and Aban  Rustomji Endowment Scholarship Banoobai… Continue Reading

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The Power of Finding Your Voice : Parisa Khosravi

Parisa Khosravi was one of the leading international journalists at CNN where she spent many years bringing news from all over the world. She has been one of the pioneering Zarathushtis in North America in the field of TV journalism. Ms. Khosravi served as the Senior Vice President of Global Relations for CNN Worldwide and… Continue Reading

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Celebrating Navroz with our Neighbors and Friends

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Needs Assessment for Zarathushti Seniors in North America

FEZANA recently conducted a Needs Assessment for Zarathushti seniors in North America. Topics included health, emotional and social well being, financial and functional aspects such as transportation and technology use. Seniors (including individuals over 55+) were solicited to understand their preferences regarding retirement residences and more. The research highlighted best practices from a number of… Continue Reading

FEZANA 29th AGM Successfully Ends in Novi, Michigan

The 29th Annual General Meeting of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America was held over Friday 29th April to Sunday May 01, 2016. The AGM was hosted by the Zoroastrian Association of Michigan and held at the Holiday Inn Farmington Hills in Novi, Michigan. Nearly 100 delegates representing the various FEZANA Member Associations,… Continue Reading

White House Honours Kayhan Irani as Champion of Change

A truly proud achievement by an amazingly talented artist, writer and theater personality Kayhan Irani She has been selected as one of the 10 Champions of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art & Storytelling and will be going to the White House !!! Kayhan Irani is also a FEZANA Award winner having won… Continue Reading

Chaiye Hame Zarthoshti: English Version by ZAOM Kids

At the 29th Annual General Meeting of FEZANA, the hosts Zoroastrian Association of Michigan hosted a Gala Event. The performance by the kids of ZAOM was part of the entertainment segment. A completely new English version of Chaiye Hame Zarthoshti, the classic Zoroastrian song. If you would like to know more about the origins of… Continue Reading

Academic Scholarship Applications for 2016-2017 are now open


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FEZANA Condems Attacks in Brussels, Belgium

The Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America condemns the latest act of mass murder committed for murky political reasons, though no reason can justify such cruel acts. Again, innocent people were targeted at random, this time in Brussels, Belgium. The outrage there, it must be noted, has come quickly on the heels of similar… Continue Reading

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Registration for 15th Zoroastrian Games Opens

ZAC Chicago Announces Early Bird Registration to open Jan. 25, 2016 (Z Games 2016) will officially open this Monday, Jan. 25; the four-day, six-sport, intensely competitive event takes place June 30 to July 4, on the campus of Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois, approximately 25 minutes from downtown Chicago. Promoting sportsmanship, unity and togetherness, Z… Continue Reading

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Notice for FEZANA Annual General Meeting 2016

Hosted by Zoroastrian Association of Michigan (ZAOM), the 2016 FEZANA AGM will be held in Farmington Hills, Michigan from Friday, April 29 to Sunday May 1, 2016. On Friday afternoon, there will be a Pre-AGM session starting at 2pm. Please plan to attend if your schedule permits. World Zoroastrian Chamber of Commerce (WZCC) will have… Continue Reading

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FEZANA represents a diverse and growing Zarathushti community in North America.

Guided by the blessings of AHURA MAZDA and the teachings of our Prophet Zarathushtra; the association was founded in 1987 It serves as the coordinating body for 27 Zoroastrian Associations in the United States and Canada.

The activities of FEZANA are conducted in a spirit of mutual respect, co-operation and unity amongst all Member associations, and with due regard for the principles of GOODNESS, TRUTH, REASON, BENEVOLENCE, IMPLICIT TRUST and CHARITY towards all Mankind.

:+: Baname Khoda Kshnothro Ahura Mazda