In future posts on this blog, I will feature information gleaned from one of the largest collections at the National Archives of India, the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers. Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), who was known as the “Grand Old Man of India,” was one of the earliest Indian nationalists, a man who began his political career before the Indian Mutiny and lived to mentor a young Mahatma Gandhi. In the course of over seven decades of involvement in Indian politics, Naoroji served in various positions in the governments of Bombay city and the Bombay Presidency; helped found the Indian National Congress, of which he was president three times; and, in 1892, became the first Indian elected to the British Parliament. More significant than this was the decades of agitation for political reform that Naoroji carried out in India and the United Kingdom, beginning with demands for greater Indian representation in the civil service of the British Indian government and ending with a call for a form of swaraj, or self-government. Naoroji, whose father was a professional Zoroastrian priest, was also intimately involved in Parsi community affairs from the 1850s through the time of his death.
For the last several months, I have been going through the Naoroji Papers in connection with research for my Ph.D. dissertation. In spite of their incredible breadth and scope, these papers have been largely neglected by scholars of Indian history. In this collection, we find letters from some of the most prominent early Indian nationalists–R.C. Dutt, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Pherozeshah Mehta, Surrendranath Banerjea, and M.G. Ranade–as well as a vast array of correspondence with local political leaders and organizations across the subcontinent. Naoroji received some of the earliest complaints from South African Indians about their mistreatment–by the 1890s, he was in regular communication with Gandhi and brought the issue before the British Parliament and the Colonial Office. As Naoroji spent decades in London, he became a well-known figure within British political circles and took part in an array of progressive causes, ranging from trade unionism to women’s suffrage. As time went on, he adopted many socialist political views and engaged in lengthy correspondence with Henry M. Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation of the United Kingdom.
Naoroji’s political career is only half of the story. Early in his life, he played an influential role in Parsi social and religious reform. Thanks, in large part, to Naoroji, the first attempts to educate Parsi girls were made in the 1850s and 1860s. Along with a prominent sethia (commercial elite), Manockjee Cursetjee, Naoroji also introduced the revolutionary concept of Parsi males and females dining together (traditionally, Parsi women would only eat until their menfolk had finished their meals). Once in England, Naoroji helped build the infrastructure of the tiny-but-growing Parsi community in London, helping establish the Zoroastrian Fund (now the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe) in 1861. By the 1890s, he was the recognized leader of the Parsi as well as Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom, mentoring Parsis and other Indians who had come to London and elsewhere to study, work, or simply travel. We find many such letters between Naoroji and Indian visitors and residents in the Naoroji Papers. Some asked Naoroji for his advice on what to study and how best to apply to institutions such as Cambridge or Oxford, others asked about more mundane matters such as setting up a bank account, and still others urgently telegraphed or wrote to him when in financial or legal trouble. Naoroji responded and attended to all of these requests, meeting with homesick or disoriented Indians, issuing loans, and, in at least one case, bailing an Indian out of jail in London after he was arrested for public drunkenness during new years day revels. He was president of the Zoroastrian Fund in London from its founding until Naoroji returned to India for good in 1907.
There are around 25,000 items in the Naoroji Papers, including individual letters, booklets, pamphlets, and newspaper cuttings. The majority of this collection is in English, while an uncatalogued portion is in Gujarati, but I have also found material in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi and Telegu or Kannada. Unfortunately, the collection is in extremely bad condition, suffering from multiple forms of damage. Proper historical preservation, unfortunately, has not been a strength in modern India. For decades, these papers were kept in cupboards and open rooms that facilitated and accelerated damage by weather and insects. Already by the 1930s and 1940s, just decades after Naoroji’s death, large portions of material were already found eaten up by worms and, in the words of one individual who surveyed them in 1943, emitting a “bad stink.” In 1968, the Papers were finally transferred to the National Archives of India, though unfortunately some damage appears to have occurred here as well. Under new directorship, the Archives is now attending to proper preservation of this valuable collection.
Along with Professor S.R. Mehrotra, who has spent decades studying Indian nationalists including Naoroji, and with the support of the National Archives, I am now helping bring out an edited selection of letters from the Papers titled the Dadabhai Naoroji Correspondence. This volume will be published by Oxford University Press in 2012 and you can read more about it on OUP’s website.
In the mean time, check back here for some interesting finds from the Naoroji Papers.
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