The ‘Grand Old Man of India’: The history of Britain’s first Asian MP in Finsbury Central
PUBLISHED: 16:07 20 November 2020 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 November 2020
Walk down Naoroji Street in Clerkenwell and you are unlikely to appreciate the historical significance of the figure for whom it is named.
Largely forgotten today, Dadabhai Naoroji served the former constituency of Finsbury Central as Britain’s first Asian MP and inspired a generation of radicals in India and across the world.
To Professor Inderjeet Parmar, a politics academic at City, University of London in Finsbury, this “Grand Old Man of India” deserves more recognition than an Islington side-road and a plaque on the wall of Finsbury Town Hall.
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Professor Parmar said: “Naoroji’s is a remarkable story and one that is largely forgotten.
“Naoroji ventured into the imperial lion’s den, brought the struggle for justice and dignity to the very core of the Raj.”
Born into relative poverty in what was Bombay, now Mumbai, Naoroji made his name running a school for girls before coming to the UK.
When he arrived in 1855, Naoroji felt compelled to challenge the way British rule drained economic wealth from India, keeping the country poor.
He believed India had to demand political change from within Westminster, and as a colonial subject he could stand for Parliament.
But without British-Indian communities to build on, and after losing his first campaign in Holborn in 1866, Naoroji realised he would need a popular movement to win a seat in the Commons.
He turned his sights to Finsbury Central, a working class constituency lined with small workshops and home to many nurses and printers.
It was also a diverse immigrant neighbourhood, containing a large Irish community and Jewish refugees who had escaped the pogroms in Russia.
Despite the manoeuvring of local liberals to sink his candidacy, Naoroji was able to build an anti-imperial coalition through alliance with suffragists, trade unions and Irish home-rulers.
Thousands of working people gathered on Clerkenwell Green to hear him speak and endorse him as the legitimate candidate.
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“He forged a coalition of people who were struggling in their lives and fighting for their rights,” said Professor Parmar.
Naoroji won by a tight five votes, and served Finsbury Central as a Liberal MP from 1892 to 1895.
In the House of Commons, at the heart of the British Empire, Naoroji campaigned for free education and the extension of the Factory Acts – a law aimed at improving working conditions, health and safety, wages, the rights of women and child workers.
While he lost his battle for re-election, he continued to influence the world of politics.
Professor Parmar said: “He was quite a major figure, not just in Parliament, but in radical politics across Europe.”
He was known to, and possibly influenced, socialists like Karl Marx and Rosa Luxembourg, and would provide a theoretical and practical example for the growing Indian independence movement.
Despite this legacy, his is one of the many forgotten chapters of British colonial history.
Professor Parmar hopes people will revisit the fascinating life of Naoroji and learn from his example.
He said: “When popular struggles like Black Lives Matter break out, people start looking at the past and deeper structures of inequality, which live on into the present.
“Not only can you bring things down, you can find little things in history which illuminate so many interesting things about the British Empire at that time.”
He says that while Naoroji should be better commemorated, a statue is the wrong way to do it.
“Once you start talking about a statute, you’re talking about very long time posts and very expensive, and it becomes an issue in itself as opposed to what it is actually representative of,” he added.
Professor Parmar believes that local schools, working with libraries and universities, can help teach children about these important parts of the country’s history.
He said: “There is so much to be learned about British society and politics, India, the empire, and the rise of the voices and movements of the colonised.
“In short, Naoroji’s is a story of the making of the modern world, with all its twists and turns and ambiguities.”
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