Patel is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches courses on modern South Asia, the Indian nationalist movement, and the British Empire. In addition to Naoroji, his research interests include the city of Bombay/Mumbai and the Parsi Zoroastrian community.
This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: My guest is Dinyar Patel. He is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at the SP Jain Institute of Management & Research and a research affiliate at the Mittal Institute at Harvard University. His latest book, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, is an excellent biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, a foundational figure in the building of modern-day India.
With the Indian nationalist movement as a backdrop, in this book Dinyar details the many phases in Naoroji’s political career: first as an activist holding the British Raj accountable for the drain of wealth from India. Then as a politician in London, contesting elections to the House of Commons, and in his final years, as an elderly statesman guiding the Indian National Congress into a new phase of demanding self-governance in India.
I had a chance to speak with Dinyar about the trajectory of Indian nationalism, the ideas that influenced Naoroji, the difference between Naoroji and his contemporaries like fellow parsi and British MP Mancherjee Bhownagree, Naoroji’s correspondence with radical socialist Henry Hyndman, Dinyar’s intellectual and professional journey, and much more.
Dinyar, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show.
DINYAR PATEL: Thank you very much, Shruti, for having me here. It’s a pleasure to be here.
RAJAGOPALAN: One major theme of the book is that [Dadabhai] Naoroji is the origin of what eventually became the Indian nationalist movement. The way I read the book is in one sense he is because he’s the first to represent the Indian cause as a member of Parliament in London. In another sense, for a bulk of his career he’s in favor of British rule, by and large—of course, with major changes in the civil service, better local governance, more rule of locals by locals, which, in hindsight, seem a little weak given the way the nationalist movement took off post-1930 with Purna Swaraj and things like that.
Naoroji also supported princely states, which was quite antithetical to the later parts of the Indian nationalist movement. Can you talk a little bit about how you think about Indian nationalism in the 19th century before the idea of India even existed and why Naoroji is the origin point of the Indian nationalist movement?
PATEL: Those are great questions to get the conversation started. What you talked about earlier, this idea of Naoroji being the first nationalist but, at the same time, not necessarily being the very first nationalist, it is a central tension in the book. Naoroji was the first person to really popularly articulate a lot of the ideas, especially economic nationalist ideas like the drain of wealth. He was one of the first to set up the Indian National Congress. He was the first to take the idea of swaraj [self-government] and put it in the Indian National Congress as an agenda, but of course, he was working with ideas and concepts that had been developed by others also.
The first few chapters of my book talk a little bit about some of his intellectual influences. He came from a particular intellectual stream in Bombay, where ideas of reform were already being articulated by people who were Western-educated as well as people who were not Western-educated, people who were talking about things in Marathi or Gujarati. So, he got quite a hybrid education, education that was given to him by British schoolteachers and professors but also by professors who were Indian and school seniors who were Indian and who were developing ideas like the drain as well. So there are lots of different inputs to his particular thought, but he is the one who institutionalizes a lot of these ideas and parts and puts it together into something like what we now call Indian nationalism.
The other thing you were talking about, this idea of loyalism, is a very tricky question. Whenever you read anything by, say, someone like Naoroji or Allan Octavian Hume or [Gopal Krishna ] Gokhale or Pherozeshah Mehta, it does strike you as being a little odd because they’re talking about themselves being loyal to British rule. Oftentimes, there’s a lot of praise or good words that are given for the queen. Sometimes, it can get a little irritating reading that in hindsight. So, it’s a delicate question to ask, were these people nationalists or loyalists?
Ultimately, we have to understand that at least in the late 19th and early 20th century, until that idea of really comes to the forefront, they weren’t necessarily diametrically opposed to one another. You could talk about yourself being loyal to British rule but at the same time be a nationalist. There’s a particular moment in 1911 when Naoroji is very old, he talks about how the king and queen are coming to India for the durbar of 1911, and he says the best way to welcome the king and queen is to demand swaraj, which struck me as being this very odd moment. What is he talking about?
Ultimately, I think one way that we can understand this— Well, I guess two ways — First, when we’re seated in the perspective of the late 19th century, any form of complete independence for India seems like a completely remote possibility. People thought the British Empire would be around for hundreds of years. It was another Roman Empire that could last for millennia, so any idea of a complete separation from the British Empire was almost unthinkable. It was so difficult to understand how that could be done.
The second idea is understanding what British rule meant to these particular individuals. So ultimately, towards the end of his life, what Naoroji thought about when he thought of British rule and the British Empire in general was some sort of loose connection with Great Britain, be it through economic relations, some loose cultural relations. It’s very similar to what later becomes this idea of a commonwealth. There’s some loose fraternity of nations, but it was not necessarily a top-down colonial relationship, and it certainly wasn’t exploitative. I think that’s one way which we can begin to understand this main difference.
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s really interesting. I want to probe a little further here. It seems to me that Naoroji and Gokhale and Mehta, all the nationalists of his generation, they were thinking about nationalism on a particular kind of principle, which is better governance, right? That there is something morally wrong with not allowing people agency in their own lives and not allowing people any choice or control over their economic destiny.
What we think of as nationalism post-1930 and especially post-partition, it is more geographical. So, it becomes a territorial kind of nationalism. Now, if we think about nationalism post-2014 with the rise of the BJP and the influence of the BJP in Parliament and also some of the policies that have come about—like the National Register of Citizens and things like that—now it is not just territorial. It is also ethnic. It is also religious.
We use the word nationalism to describe all these different themes. So how do you think about that? Did you wonder about the choice of the word nationalism at all? Naoroji is really better described as a good governor than as a nationalist.
PATEL: India really has developed a double meaning for nationalism. We talk about nationalism in terms of the independence struggle or at least the struggle against colonialism. Then again, this later phenomenon of religiously defined nationalism. Again, they have very little in common aside from the name. Surely, of course, there was a religious stream and there was a religious element in nationalism earlier on, but what we have right now, of course, is almost diametrically opposed to many of the ideas and concepts that— Leave alone Naoroji’s generation, people in Gandhi’s generation, Nehru’s generation were talking about. So in many ways, it is an accident of the same word being used.
That’s not to say, at the same time, that there were certain typical nationalist ideas expressed in the ideas of people like Naoroji. You’re right. He talked a lot about the need for some form of good governance, but at the same time, he was very specific in saying that good governance is no substitute for self-government. It was better to have a bad self-government than to have a government that was supposedly good, but foreign.
The British Raj prided itself on being supposedly this form of good government that was very cheap and light and flexible. Naoroji said no, this is completely wrong. First of all, it’s costing a huge amount, and it’s impoverishing the country. Second of all, he said, no matter whether it’s good or not corrupt, it does not substitute for the fact that it is foreign at the end of the day.
So that was one main caveat, I think, all to this good governance argument. The other argument was this idea that at this stage, at the late 19th century, what you’re talking about, this idea of India developing at the same time is really important to understanding how nationalism develops also. They’re trying to make a nation out of this group of people who for centuries have had some commonalities through culture, religion, language, etc., but of course, this is very different from what they want to create out of it.
So in this sense, vehicles like the Congress are important because people like Naoroji or Hume very specifically say, “Look, in the Congress, here is an opportunity for people to act—from different parts of the country, who might not necessarily understand one another—to actually get together and understand the commonalities that they have.”
So in many senses, it is still a nation-building process that’s taking place in this very early era. Ultimately, they do confront those prejudices that still haunt us. Communalism, caste-based prejudices, ideas of regional and linguistic differences. They’re tackling a lot of the same problems that still, unfortunately, are not dealt with properly in modern Indian society.
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s really interesting that you point it out. In this sense, Naoroji is not the first or the only of his kind. You can, in one sense, even trace this back to, say, Ram Mohun Roy.
PATEL: Of course.
RAJAGOPALAN: He has a presence in England. He ever considered running for a seat in the British Parliament. He spoke about the misrule of the East India Company, though it was not yet under the crown, and he was even hailed as India’s unofficial MP in the British Parliament, right? Jeremy Bentham supports his run as an MP. So there are many, many themes.
In that sense, there is a pretty direct line of people starting from both within Indian, which is people like Ram Mohun Roy and also outside of India like Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham, who think the kind of misrule of East India Company is truly appalling and just needs to disappear. So I see your point about it not just being good governance. In one sense, the British Crown is an improvement over East India Company. It’s really about self-governance. It’s about agency. It’s about controlling one’s destiny.
Naoroji’s Run for British Parliament
I want to go back to one very big theme in the book, which is Naoroji’s run for Parliament. He contested three times. He was successful once. It really dominates a big part of the book. There are other themes, but first, I want to start with, why is it that Naoroji became this hero and India’s representative in the British Parliament, but at the same time you have someone like [Mancherjee] Bhownagree, who was another Indian who was elected just a little bit after Naoroji to the British Parliament. He had a much longer run. I believe it was 10 or 11 years, whereas Naoroji was just three years.
He’s never mentioned. I never heard about him in history books while growing up in India. He doesn’t feature anywhere in the nationalist movement. Is it because he’s a conservative? Is it something about personalities? Is it the way they view representation of India and Indians in Parliament? What is this big difference between these two contemporaries who are in Parliament at the same time?
PATEL: A lot of that has to do with bad blood between both Naoroji and Bhownagree and also Bhownagree and the Congress. I have good news on that front in the sense that there’s a scholar at the University of Louisville in Kentucky called John McLeod, and he is writing a book on Bhownagree.
Bhownagree actually supported Naoroji during his first parliamentary run but eventually finds Bhownagree too radical, if you will, and is encouraged by several conservative members of Parliament and conservative activists to run and be a rival to Naoroji. Eventually he doesn’t get to be a rival to Naoroji because Naoroji loses election anyway.
From that point onward, the Congress establishment is really against him. Every nationalist in India within the Congress pillories Bhownagree, which is unfortunate. Bhownagree definitely, of course, is a dyed in the wool Loyalist and believes very strongly and very sincerely in British rule. So on those grounds, there were differences between someone like Naoroji and Bhownagree, but at the same time, he is still doing some constructive stuff for India. He’s talking about the need to industrialize India. Mahatma Gandhi leans on him to a great degree in the South African struggle to the point where Gandhi actually defends Bhownagree because his effigy was actually being burned in College Square in Calcutta around the time of the Bengal Partition. And Gandhi says, “No, he’s actually helping us in some way. So let’s not go a bit too far.”
So you’re right. In some cases, nationalism has put a certain tint to understanding people like Bhownagree as well as others who were in Great Britain at the time, other Indians, who were not necessarily Congress figures but did, in their own way, play a role in evolving India’s political fortunes. There were many others who operated within and without the Congress establishment who either tried to stand for Parliament or tried to lobby the British government. Naoroji’s story shouldn’t blind us to those people also. There’s a lot more stuff that’s waiting to be explored out in detail.
Naoroji the Liberal
RAJAGOPALAN: To me, it seems like what you’re saying is in one sense, history is written by the victors, and the Indian National Congress had this outsize influence, of course, on the Indian nationalist movement and for curriculum, especially for a generation like mine, for the next 60-70 years, and that’s the reason he’s written out of history. I think Gandhi even wrote, when Bhownagree was defeated in 1906, that it deprives the South African movement of the greatest champion in the House of Commons, but that version of history is just disappeared.
You said that both of them are loyalists, right? Now Bhownagree is a Conservative. Naoroji is a Liberal in a few senses. One, he is standing on the Liberal Party platform. He’s in [William] Gladstone’s Liberal Party, not even just any Liberal Party. So in that sense he’s a true-blue Liberal in a British sense, but he also stitches together a really bizarre coalition when one thinks about his three attempts to contest elections and become a member of Parliament.
There’s everyone from radical socialists to Fabian socialists. There are women in the suffrage movement. There are people who are thinking about Irish home rule and just workers and unions who have just got some kind of ability to vote and voice their opinion. It’s a really strange coalition of people, and Naoroji seems to be a little bit of all of these different movements in one person, right?
He does really seem to be a socialist sometimes when he’s talking to a socialist audience, especially when he’s giving those lectures at the SDF evening monthly lectures in cities like Liverpool and Manchester. So how do you really pin down Naoroji as a Liberal? We can very easily pin down Bhownagree as a Conservative. So what is that litmus test, if one must use the term, that tells us that Naoroji is the first Liberal in British India?
PATEL: I don’t necessarily think that he was the first Liberal in British India. If we take the word liberal in a very expansive form, then of course Ram Mohun Roy crops up, and between Ram Mohun Roy and Naoroji there are dozens of other figures who are operating in some sort of liberal framework, but in relation to the uppercase Liberal Party, I think the way to answer your question is that Naoroji’s views and his political ideas really evolve over time.
So in, say, the 1860s and 1870s, he’s approaching a type of liberalism that’s quite similar to, say, the type of liberalism that Gladstone embodies. This idea of expanding the electorate, reforms, democratizing, and that fit into a larger reformist picture that included India but also places like Ireland and colonial self-government as well and this whole idea of imperial citizenship and whether that should be extended. By the 1890s, he clearly grows quite disenchanted with the central Liberal ambit, if you will. This is around the time that the classical Liberal Party starts to fall apart, after Gladstone’s death. There’s no coincidence there.
The reason why he grows disillusioned is because a lot of the socialist influence, a lot of the labor influence that he was around, really starts to pique more of his interest. He realizes that these people are also much more interested in India. There were certain middle-of-the-road Liberals who were interested in India, but the really radical Liberals—the radical Liberals from the generation of, say, John Bright, onward and upward through the early Labourites and the early socialists through [Henry Mayers] Hyndman and eventually onto the founders of the Labour Party— These are the people who took the idea of injustice somewhere as injustice anywhere, to give a bit of a retrospective analysis on that.
So they could see the similarities between oppression in India and oppression of the working class in Great Britain or the oppression of Irish people in Ireland, and Naoroji quickly picks up on that. As you talk about this, this strange patchwork between emancipatory movements, ranging from women—women’s rights to vote—to the Irish, to socialists, and including people like temperance advocates— Some of the biggest, staunchest supporters of Indian rights and freedoms in this era are people who are in the temperance movement, which is something that is obscured in our modern historical understandings.
There was this broad emancipatory coalition, if you will, that’s coalescing at this time. That also, importantly, made it much easier for someone like Naoroji to argue about why India mattered to the average Briton who was voting for Parliament and who ultimately could affect policy in India. He could say, “Look, you as a laborer living in Lancashire or living in the East End in London, you know what it means to face oppression and to face the pitfalls of a capitalist system. Well, we’re facing the exact same thing in India, and your sympathy would mean a lot to us because you know what it means to be in a position of being disadvantaged.”
British Socialists and Indian Nationalists
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s interesting you say this. I was reading B. K. Nehru’s short memoir of his time at the LSE [London School of Economics]. It’s in a book called My LSE, which is a collection of essays from the alums of the LSE. The socialists were interested in the Indian independence movement. Anyone who was interested in the Indian independence movement immediately became socialist, and that’s how he became socialist. So it was sort of like, ‘They were part of our cause, and they are the people we hung out with. Those are the professors whose lectures we attended, and then there is this natural coalition.’
Naoroji’s Intellectual Influences
This conversation would not be complete unless we understand the intellectual ideas that influenced Naoroji. We don’t know what Naoroji wrote, but do you have a sense of who he read? If one reads C. A. Bayly, especially his book Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire, he talks about how the first generation of Indian Liberals really appropriated some of these concepts of rights and governance from [John] Locke and [Adam] Smith and [Jeremy] Bentham, and it became part of the discourse by early 19th century.
Even in Indian newspapers sometimes, they were discussing [John] Locke and [Adam] Smith. Can you talk a little bit more about, not necessarily just Liberals, but who were the thinkers who influenced Naoroji? In one sense, we know [Edmund] Burke because he’s one of the first people to really hack away at the drain theory, specifically about East India Company, but who are some of the other thinkers that influenced Naoroji?
PATEL: During his early life, there are two streams of thought that influence him. One is the intellectual tradition that is passed down to him at school and at college. A lot of his professors were Scotsmen or Irishmen, and a lot of them transmitted ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment to Naoroji and his fellow classmates. So there was dissemination of the ideas of Adam Smith and such at this point in time. Certain ideas of reform and rationalist thought were emphasized, the importance of mathematics. You can see, out of that, the growth of the empirical flavor of Naoroji’s own research in economics in India. That was one strain at this early part of his life.
The other strain was harder to track down. It was a certain stream of intellectual thought within indigenous circles in India. So it was common understandings, common accounts, of impoverishment under British rule. It was the common understanding that British rule was causing the indigenous textile industry to break down, and this was vocalized just a generation before Naoroji was in Elphinstone by a group of primarily Maharashtrian students who were quite radical in their outlook.
The scholar from University of Mumbai, J. V. Naik, who passed away last year, has written a little bit about these individuals. They very forcibly talked about something kind of like a drain, an early variant of the drain, and talked about British rule being bad and being an agent of impoverishment. Naoroji inculcated these ideas. He talked about these individuals having a secret society in Bombay when he was a youth, and Naoroji actually attended those meetings of the secret society. That was the second strain.
The other element I’ll just mention. Once Naoroji starts to go to Great Britain for a long period of time, starting in 1855, and he starts to spend decades of his life there, he’s drawn into the intellectual currents of London and Liverpool in the 1860s and 1870s. Through this, he meets many of the intellectual titans of the era. He inculcates the ideas of people like John Stuart Mill. So you’ll find Mill’s ideas on political economy scattered throughout Naoroji’s writings.
Some scholars have talked about the influence of people like [Friedrich] List. I found no evidence for any communication between Liszt and Naoroji or any evidence that Naoroji read List. We know Ranade imbibed some of his ideas, but it was hard to track down the influence of others like List in Naoroji’s political and economic views.
What is the influence of William Gladstone? In one sense, as someone who is a politician, and it’s very clear from your book that Naoroji is a politician— And I mean that only in the very best way. He is someone who is trying to build consensus. So in that sense, Gladstone is obviously very important because he is the prime minister of the party platform that Naoroji wants to embrace. Gladstone, in general, has an outsize influence on the Liberal Party at that time. But intellectually, not just politically, what was the influence of Gladstone?
When I read the history of classical liberalism, I feel like Gladstone’s death is one major structural break in how liberal ideas were coming to India. When the Liberal Party collapsed and when Gladstone died—the two happened within a decade of one another—that’s when things really went wrong because there was no real counter to the Conservative Party and its extractive policies, other than the socialists who came later. And therefore, Labour embraced the Indian freedom movement. So I think of William Gladstone as a very important political influence. How important was he as an intellectual influence?
PATEL: I think there’s an important reason for why Naoroji was called the Grand Old Man of India because Gladstone was referred to as the Grand Old Man. You see Naoroji being referred to as almost like an Indian Gladstone in a lot of the contemporary media reports of that era. So the two, at least in India, were compared quite closely. In Britain, that was a different story, of course.
But yeah, you’re right. I do think that Gladstone’s emphasis on building a consensus, finding some sort of middle ground, was very, very influential, not just for Naoroji, but for Indian politics in general. The Congress really begins as a consensus-building project. There are certain regulations put in the Congress by people like Hume saying that the Congress can only discuss issues where everyone agrees that those issues should be discussed. These are fine-tuned as the Congress develops.
The other element for where Gladstone plays a really prominent role in terms of influencing Indian nationalists is his support for Irish home rule. When Gladstone risks his political reputation and also the reputation of the Liberals and their electoral success— The Liberal Party, is, in a sense, bitterly divided over Irish home rule. That really strikes a chord with Indian nationalists. That shows that here is a person who is willing to face even electoral defeat for the principle of giving an oppressed people a measure of the political rights that they deserve.
So that, again, really makes Naoroji at least a strong proponent of the Gladstonian liberalism that’s evident there in the late 1880s and 1890s. It really builds up his esteem in India as well.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s interesting you mention the Irish home rule issue because that’s another space where, after the Liberal Party collapsed, that cause was taken over by the radical socialists and the Fabian socialists. Eventually, it’s the socialists who have a big impact on Irish independence and the Irish Constitution and so on.
Then it’s the same thing that mirrors itself in India. In fact, when you read papers of the Constituent Assembly Debates, India borrowed Directive Principles of State Policy from the Irish Constitution. Those things didn’t exist in liberal constitutions before that. So the parallels between the two—I won’t say freedom movements, but initially self-rule movements and then after that freedom movements—and the parallels between India and Ireland and how the torch was passed from the Liberal Party to a very unlikely radical socialist movement, you see that playing out in both countries, and that’s quite interesting.
Naoroji Contesting Elections
Now, I want to talk a little bit about the biggest chunk of the book—Naoroji’s contesting for the British Parliament House of Commons seat three times. They’re three different seats, and all three play out quite differently. Can you talk a little bit about that? Over those 15 years, what happens to Naoroji, how he changes? What is really going on in his life? I want to hear that directly from you even though it’s the bulk of the book because I think it’s really interesting how that plays out.
PATEL: The first time that Naoroji stands for Parliament is in 1886, and it takes place in Holborn. Naoroji calls this electoral campaign a forlorn hope. He knew he was going to lose. Holborn was very conservative; the incumbent was very popular. But he saw it as a way to get his name known. He saw it as a way to get his foot in the door.
So he runs. The candidacy that he has in Holborn, first of all, is extremely brief. It’s about a week. Elections in that period were very different from those in our era. Since he knew he was going to lose, he uses that as an educational experience. He talks to various members of political constituencies in Great Britain. So he’s talking to everyone from John Bright to Michael Davitt, who was an Irish home ruler, to, again, emerging socialists—people like Hyndman.
He does well for a Liberal in Holborn. He obviously loses, but he does a decent amount. He really learns from this experience that, when you’re campaigning for the British Parliament, regardless of the fact of whether you are, say, an Indian or an Irish or whoever you are, you have to campaign on local issues as well. You have to know the local lay of the land, sympathize with the local people.
So that’s a lesson that he took to his second parliamentary campaign in Central Finsbury, which started in 1888 and went for a gruelingly long four years. Central Finsbury was very different from Holborn in the sense that Finsbury was quite liberal. It was socialist; it was radical. It had a strong radical tradition to it, but at the same time, it was hopelessly divided. The Liberal constituency there was hopelessly divided, and that’s one of the reasons why Naoroji has such a difficult time getting elected. One group of people is intrinsically opposed to him for many different reasons. Again, he campaigns on a lot of local issues. He meets, say, the local watchmaker. The watchmaking industry in Central Finsbury was very—
RAJAGOPALAN: The jewelers, the goldsmiths.
PATEL: Exactly. So you find out more than you ever wanted to know about the economic makeup of these particular geographic regions of London when you do research because you realize who he was in touch with, exactly who you’re talking about. The goldsmiths, the watchmakers.
RAJAGOPALAN: There is something lovely that came out of that entire discussion. In one sense, it seems a little bit odd that Naoroji is actually representing 200 million people, but that’s not the point because he still needs to win the local support of the union workers and the watchmakers and the jewelers and so on. On the other hand, it also shows you the kind of person Naoroji really is, that if you are to represent a group of people, then you really must make an effort to represent them. You can’t just ride on this larger issue of India or Ireland or something else.
In that sense, I feel like Naoroji is a true politician. He’s a true consensus builder. I feel like, at least from the discussion in the book, it’s the Central Finsbury election which makes a politician out of him because in the first case, in Holborn, he gets the party ticket really easily. He goes door to door for a couple of weeks, he loses, and he’s done. In the second case, most of the opposition for him comes from within the party, and there is a lot of drama over who is the Liberal candidate. It’s really him trying to get support from the people, if you will. Really, his constituents are the ones who are supporting him, which leads him to win.
I found this lovely bit by George Bernard Shaw. In one of his pamphlets in 1892, he congratulates Dadabhai Naoroji on winning by three votes. At the time, they thought he had won by three votes, which you later point out at the recount is five. He congratulates the Clerkenwell branch of the SDF, which is the Social Democratic Federation, which sensibly threw off its allegiance to the Central Council and went Fabian.
The entire passage is really lovely. It’s a couple of pages. It’s very George Bernard Shaw in its style, but it also tells you that Naoroji really managed to connect with the people he was representing in a way that one doesn’t imagine.
It seems now that it really started with Naoroji, and in particular Naoroji’s very long correspondence with Henry Hyndman. It goes for almost three decades. So a couple of questions about that correspondence. I’m switching to a different book you’ve written at this point. This is your edited volume of Naoroji’s correspondence with various people. This is co-edited with S.R. Mehrotra.
What we see in the correspondence with Hyndman is— I can only read Hyndman’s letters. I don’t see Naoroji’s responses, so I just want to preface that for the listeners. It goes on from 1878 to 1906. Some of it is logistical and organizational. It talks about Naoroji’s various efforts to pull together a coalition or where to give a lecture and so on. Hyndman is constantly almost haranguing—it seems to me because I’m only reading one-half of the conversation—Naoroji that he’s not radical enough. He’s too much of a Liberal. He believes too much in the British, Westminster-Whitehall governance system and really needs to take a bigger leap into true-blue socialism.
You have a reference in your book that Hyndman even passed on Naoroji’s book to Karl Marx, who then referenced the drain in India. So there’s this sense that over 30 years, Hyndman is really pushing Naoroji towards more radical socialism, and Naoroji never really gets there in his economics. In his economics, he’s almost entirely a market-embracing economist. He hates extractive policies. He doesn’t like mercantilism of the British Empire. But he’s not really moving towards any complete redistribution or taking land and expropriating land. He’s quite against those themes.
So what do you make of this relationship? Were they just allies because they had the same cause but Naoroji was never converted so he was a bit of a politician? They just get together for a single cause? Or is there an evolution which I have missed because one can’t read Naoroji’s correspondence in the volume?
PATEL: Hyndman was probably the favorite person who I encountered in the papers. There are very few individuals you encounter in an archive where you’ll read a letter from, say, 120-130 years ago and you can feel the person’s presence. Hyndman was one of them. He was an absolutely fascinating figure. What you mention, the fact that Hyndman’s letters survive but Naoroji’s letters don’t, that is a tragedy. Naoroji’s responses would have been in Hyndman’s collection, and Hyndman’s collection got lost some time after he died in the 1920s. One of the challenges of this project was trying to reconstruct what Naoroji said when we don’t know what he said—his responses are lost.
Again, I think their relationship evolves in different ways. Hyndman is an interesting character because he comes from a Tory family. Before he’s a socialist, he himself considers him more of a Conservative in upbringing. He even talks to [Benjamin] Disraeli towards the end of Disraeli’s career in Parliament. It’s really his encounter with the writings of people like Marx, which change him to a more socialist perspective.
At the very beginning of the relationship between Naoroji and Hyndman, from the late 1870s onward, it’s Naoroji giving ideas to Hyndman. It’s Naoroji, in a sense, radicalizing—if I can use radicalize in quite a broad sense of the term—Hyndman’s views on economic injustice and, in turn, colonial rule and even proto-socialism. So it’s Naoroji providing Hyndman with ideas of the drain of wealth, and it’s through Hyndman, as you said, that people like Marx briefly talk about the idea of a drain of wealth.
But you’re right. As Hyndman becomes more radical, Hyndman realizes that Naoroji probably is not keeping up. Naoroji is also radicalizing to a certain degree, and, in some senses Naoroji actually rejects certain classical liberal principles of economics. So you talk about land distribution— Naoroji was actually involved in an association that propagated land distribution of some sense. He was against the idea of primogeniture and passing down land rights and certain things like that. He certainly did embrace certain socialist ideas, and his support for ideas like unions and workers’ rights fed on that element of socialist thought which he embraced.
You’re right. By the second half of the 1890s, Hyndman starts to feel that Naoroji is changing his views, but he’s not changing fast enough. He probably coaxes and cajoles Naoroji to the extent that he does because he realizes that Naoroji can really be this bridge towards a more radical political movement in India. He’s the best hope. Hyndman was very dismissive of other Indians involved in nationalist activity, people like Romesh Chandar Dutt—even to a certain extent people like Gokhale. He looks at what they’re writing, and he’s saying, “They’re too Loyalist. What are they doing?” You can see the anger in his letter, and he sees Naoroji as that one hope that can make Indian nationalism truly radical in its potential.
Ultimately, he grows a bit disillusioned with Naoroji, and he embraces people like Shyamji Krishna Varma, and eventually people like Tilak, and eventually those Indians go to America. So there is a bit of a split, but the two still keep in touch for the duration of their life. They work on a whole variety of other stuff, even though they have these personal differences.
You’re right. It’s tempting to ask oneself: If Naoroji had embraced more of the ideas that Hyndman had advocated, how different would Indian nationalism be? Would the moderate/radical split have happened earlier than it did eventually?
Consensus Builder and Indian National Congress
RAJAGOPALAN: The way we read it in the history books is someone went from India and stood for elections and represented the Indian cause. And he got into the House of Commons, but that’s really not how it plays out, and that’s really not who Naoroji is at his core. He’s really a Democrat. He really is a politician. He’s a consensus builder, a coalition builder, and I find that very interesting about him, especially when we think about the connection to the Indian National Congress.
The Indian National Congress, as you pointed out, starts out as a liberal party or a liberal group of people who believe in moderate reform. At least that’s how they are dubbed. The group gets this label. Then over a period of time, it becomes an umbrella party for a broader group, and eventually it’s a tent pole. It includes pretty much everyone. By the time you get to the Constituent Assembly of India in 1947, you have Hindu nationalists in Indian National Congress. You have Fabian socialists, you have Soviet socialists, you have Gandhian socialists.
Is this really coming from Naoroji and his view as a consensus builder? He’s the one who gets Annie Besant more involved in National Congress in a way. She was rejected as a radical before that. So is this really his influence, or is this just the way any nationalist movement grows? You need to include more people if you want to be successful, and then that’s how it goes.
PATEL: Naoroji definitely played a role, but he wasn’t the only person. You’re right. He really put a lot of emphasis on consensus building, but the person who played an even bigger role, was, of course, Allan Octavian Hume. He begins the Congress by calling it “the germ of a native or Indian Parliament.” You’re right. By the end of the Congress’s existence as a free independence party, that’s really what it is. As you said, it’s got everyone under a large umbrella. It was the classic big-tent party. That consensus building element was definitely there.
Again, I think that generation, people like Hume or Naoroji, eventually people like Gokhale, Mehta, others, they really realized when you’re talking about Indian nationalist interests, you’re talking from a position of absolute weakness. No one in the British Indian government is going to really listen to you or heed your opinion. Maybe a few people in Great Britain will be sympathetic to you, but that doesn’t really help you at the end of the day. The vast majority of your countrymen and countrywomen are desperately poor and cannot do anything about it. You have to have every possible friend that you could possibly have, which is why the Congress becomes such a broad base movement from the very get-go.
A classic misconception is that the Congress was this small, elitist debating club for its first 20 years. To a certain degree, that’s true, especially in comparison to the Gandhian Congress, but in another respect, it’s very false. From its very start, the Congress is attracting people from all walks of life. I’ve been going through some Congress reports recently, and it’s quite fascinating to see by the late 1880s, people like Allan Octavian Hume are claiming that 5 million are participating in Congress elections. Five million people.
It’s huge, and as he points out, that’s actually bigger than the number of people who are voting for the British Parliament at the time, which was 3 million. That element of incorporating some sort of popular sentiment and incorporating the people. It was not all people by any sense of the imagination. Clearly people in Naoroji and Humes’s generation did not think about ballots. They did not think about lower caste people. That’s something we can definitely criticize them for, but they were doing more than any other party or constituency had done prior to this era because, again, they knew they had to get as many people on board in order to have any chance of getting some sort of reform or change in the way India was governed.
I’ll just mention, very briefly, you were talking about how Naoroji had to really campaign with everyone on the ground to get election in Central Finsbury. When I was doing my research, I came across several letters that were written by people who voted for him, and I would just think to myself: Since Naoroji won by five votes, I’d find maybe 10 letters. If any one of those particular individuals who wrote a letter had not shown up for the election, Naoroji could have lost.
So it just shows how closely he had to be in touch with people on the ground. In one or two cases, people actually write and say, “I was out of town and I came back in town to vote for you.” So again, if those people had stayed out of town, history would have been very different.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yeah. When you win by five votes, every vote counts, right?
PATEL: Absolutely, yeah.
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to switch gears a little bit now, Dinyar, and move on to parts or themes which emerge from the book. The book ends with Naoroji’s life.
The first major question I had was: within the book, the Indian National Congress, both the origins and its development are sort of in the background, but it’s not the main story in the book. Is that because Naoroji was just not present in India and everything was happening long distance? Is that the reason for that choice? Or was it that there were more important members like Hume, like Mehta, and others who were really present on the ground, who were running things day to day? Or is it some other third reason, that this is just not about the story of the Indian National Congress, and you went a different way?
PATEL: It’s a little bit of everything. First of all, you’re right. Since Naoroji was not in India— He was definitely a part of the Congress, an integral part of the Congress. He, Hume, and [William] Wedderburn were considered the three main figures in the Congress, but the irony was that during different stages of their career, they weren’t in India. They were out of the country.
So a lot of the day-to day-stuff is going on under the care of people on the ground, people like Mehta or Surendranath Banerjee or Hume or other individuals operating in different parts of the country. That’s a certain part of the reason of why the Congress is not so much there in the book.
The other part of the reason is a lot of what Naoroji was doing in terms of the Congress was integrally linked to his parliamentary activity. He was the link between British politics and Indian politics. So therefore, that aspect of the Congress gets much more attention. He was a member of this thing called the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, which he really tried to develop as the head of the Congress, the part of the organization that really would be in touch with the people who were actually changing things on the ground in Parliament.
So as a result, we get less information or less perspective on what is happening at Indian National Congress sessions all throughout India. There’s even an attempt in the 1890s to have an Indian National Congress session in London to bridge this geographical gap. So the Congress in this period is not India-specific. It’s thought of as being something that would have its arms throughout the subcontinent, but also have a huge presence in Great Britain.
Also, there were ideas of some sort of representation or some presence elsewhere. It’s no mistake that people like Naoroji reach out to people in America at this time. They don’t establish a Congress branch there as yet, but they try to get people involved in knowing about the Congress and knowing about Indian nationalism in other countries as well. I hope that answers the question to a certain degree.
RAJAGOPALAN: It does. It is hard to give one reason for anything. If it weren’t messy and entangled, then it wouldn’t be interesting. In one sense, despite all the other achievements of Naoroji: His attempt to represent people of India in the British Parliament, his attempt to be a bridge between the people in the colonies and the British people as individuals, trying to connect these different groups who never met at the time, who never wrote to each other at the time, when newspapers came a few weeks to late. It seems like that’s what he was doing day to day, but in a bizarre sense, his biggest legacy is the Indian National Congress, which he was not that involved in in a hands on way. What do you make of that and what do you think he would make of that, that that ends up being the long-lasting legacy?
PATEL: Again, you talked about how history is written by the victors. I think that’s, to a certain degree, true. It’s one reason why I think, up until recently, Naoroji’s legacy in Great Britain, in terms of his being . . . It’s debatable as to whether he was the first Indian or not, but I would argue that he was the first Indian elected to Parliament. Previous individuals didn’t identify as being Indian. There’s a reason why that legacy is forgotten until the Asian community in Great Britain starts to get politically powerful, and then he’s rediscovered.
The other aspect is, again, the bulk of Naoroji’s work with the Congress was through London, through this British Committee. That is ultimately dissolved by Gandhi in 1920 or 1919. So with that, that whole legacy gets put into the background historically. Ultimately, even though Naoroji was rarely there when the Congress met, he was there at the right times. He was there at the first meeting, he was there at the second meeting, he was there again in 1893, and he was there again in 1906, the last Congress meeting that he attends.
RAJAGOPALAN: And that’s the legendary presidential address that he gives, which moved towards swaraj or home rule, right? That 1906 presidential address is quoted over and over again as the beginning of nationalism in India very often.
PATEL: The beginning of the idea of swaraj being intrinsically linked to the Congress. Again, Naoroji was not the first person to talk about swaraj or use that term, but he was the first person to make it the goal of the Congress, officially.
RAJAGOPALAN: You talked about how the committee he was involved in in London was dissolved post Gandhi’s presence in India. Would you say, in one sense, that the real heir to Naoroji is someone like Krishna Menon? Because Krishna Menon also made very similar decisions. He spent a bulk of his career living in London; he started the India League; he was constantly in touch with people like William Beveridge, trying to get Indian students admission at the LSE.
When you look at that correspondence, some of it is so mundane. In the book, you talk about how Naoroji is solving family conflicts and husbands leaving wives. Sometimes you look at Krishna Menon’s correspondence, and it’s like, “Oh, this person studied at this place. They’re going to be arriving by this ship on such-and-such date. Please give them an audience and give them a seat.” Some of it is really mundane.
Some of the papers of Krishna Menon with someone like George Lansbury . . . the big bridge between the India Office, the Labour Party, and the Indian nationalist movement is Krishna Menon. So would you say he’s one political heir of Naoroji? He tries to build consensus diplomatically—he’s more about Whitehall than Westminster—but he’s trying to engage in a very similar project, it seems.
PATEL: Absolutely. I’ve yet to read Jairam Ramesh’s book on Krishna Menon, but we were in touch. He had the same opinion after he read my book. He’s a much quicker reader than I am, evidently, but he said, “After I read your book, I realized the similarities between him and Krishna Menon.” And the little that I know about Krishna Menon, I think it’s quite obvious that Krishna Menon was following in that same tradition of reaching out to people on the ground in Great Britain, socialists, people on the left, getting allies, doing work for the Congress that involved a more international presence.
The other interesting thing is that I think many other people can claim to have contributed to that legacy, even people like Gandhi and Nehru. They went to Great Britain. They ultimately had to. Tilak had to go to London. Lala Lajpat Rai had to go to America, and he forged global links there.
Recently, I wrote a paper on a person called J. J. Singh, who was an Indian nationalist in New York—I think you recognize him—in the 1940s. He’s doing the exact same thing in New York in the 1940s that Naoroji was doing in London in the 1890s and early 1900s: talking to labor leaders, talking to socialists, talking to minorities. So it’s quite apparent that this is a pattern that is . . . Maybe it doesn’t fully unfold in a similar manner that Naoroji’s career unfolded, but many people reduplicated that effort in their own particular geographical and temporal frames as well.
RAJAGOPALAN: Would you make a very sharp distinction between those in the freedom or nationalist movement who were present in India and those who were present abroad? Do you think there is a big divergence there in how they think about things? Or do you think it’s just a matter of how the chips fell at the time that some people ended up in London and some people ended up studying law or some people ended up going to South Africa? That’s just how it happened.
PATEL: I think, again, at this stage, people are moving so much that it really depends at the particular time. Again, Hume is a good example. Hume is there in India up until 1894. Again, he is the central node of the Congress. He is doing a bulk of the work and contributing a bulk of the finances for the Congress, but after he goes in 1894 back to Great Britain and he retires in Great Britain, he’s still in the Congress. He’s just playing a different role.
So it really depended on where people were and when they were at those particular locations. Wedderburn would go back and forward. Sometimes he’d be in London, sometimes in India. Gokhale was someone who, again, went back and forth between London and Bombay and Pune. It really shows you that a different Congress existed at this point in time, where the British component was as important, if not more important, than the Indian component in terms of the importance of its political work.
By Krishna Menon’s time, this of course has flipped completely. India is now the center of Indian political activity, as it should have been all along. Krishna Menon is playing a role, but he knows people in India are calling the shots.
RAJAGOPALAN: Some of it is political, right? The 1919 reforms have happened by then. In the later years, you’ve even had the Government of India Act, 1935. So there’s also that impetus for why the location changes even politically and why representation matters differently between those who are in India and those who are abroad.
In terms of the intellectual heir of Naoroji, do you think there is anyone who came after him? Politically, we know a lot of people eventually got very involved in the Indian National Congress and the Indian nationalist movement even outside the Congress. Intellectually, are there too many people at the time who are speaking multiple languages, who are reading everything from Adam Smith and Burke and engaging with Karl Marx to talking to the feminist movement, talking to the temperance movement, the theosophical movement? He seems to have this really broad intellectual range. Who is that person after Naoroji in India?
PATEL: It’s really difficult to say. It’s an interesting question. That topic of who was Naoroji’s heir was something that was debated in the decades thereafter. Gokhale, to a certain degree, was someone who Naoroji saw as being someone who would take the torch of the Congress movement forward, but even Naoroji thought that Gokhale was too moderate by 1905, 1906. Gokhale actually was being prodded and pushed by Naoroji to become more radical just as Hyndman was prodding and pushing Naoroji to become more radical.
I ended the book by talking about this interesting conversation that took place between Gandhi and R. P. Masani, who was the first biographer of Naoroji and the father of Minoo Masani. Masani and Gandhi are coming back from London in 1931, and the roundtable Congress has just failed, and Masani asks Gandhi, “Do you think people nowadays are just too hard on Naoroji’s generation? Do you think they just classify them as being too moderate? Do you think what they were doing was right?” Being more moderate, being not as extreme or unconstitutional as Gandhi was. And Gandhi said, “Yes, they were right at that point in time, but I think that if Naoroji were still alive, he would realize that my methods are right now, are right at the current moment.”
Which goes back to something I tried to bring up in the book. Naoroji was someone who always evolved his ideas and his political perspectives. So someone like R. C. Dutt saw a lot in common with Naoroji’s ideas from the 1870s, but Naoroji at the same time tells Dutt explicitly, “I’ve moved on from the 1870s,” in a series of correspondence that he has with him in 1903. “Now I’ve discarded my views, and likewise, I’d like to tell you that the views that I held . . . I’ve moved on. These are my views now, and I would strongly encourage you to adopt those.”
So it’s really hard to pin down one person. Different people take on different parts of his legacy. Gandhi probably comes the closest to representing this figure who was in touch with everyone. Of course, in many ways, he greatly exceeds Naoroji in terms of his ability to be in touch with anyone and everyone.
Naoroji and the Parsis
RAJAGOPALAN: The last question I have about Naoroji before moving on to other things is, Naoroji is deified in the Parsi community, probably rightfully so. It is very similar to, say, Tagore in the Bengali community or something like that. How difficult is it to write a book about someone like Naoroji when you yourself belong to that community? Are you really nervous about saying anything negative? Do you have to be extremely careful? Can you be a historian, or are there other identities that interfere with the writing of a biography like this? Did you struggle at all?
PATEL: It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. You’re right. One wonders how a topic like this would be received within one’s own community. Ultimately, one thing that helped me is that I’m technically American. I grew up in the US. So I was not as intrinsically linked to what was going on here within, say, the community here in Bombay. I hadn’t been reared in that particular tradition of revering these particular people.
So I guess that allowed a degree of objectivity, but ultimately, you realize that what people know within one’s own community is the very topmost layer. There’s a sense of obligation that one needs to dig further. I think, again, if you’re a good historian or a good political scientist or a good anthropologist, you learn how to try to identify your own biases and make sure that they don’t creep in. I tried. I can’t say I necessarily succeeded or not, but I tried to check the certain sense of maybe talking a bit too much about the Parsis or sensing some feeling of Parsi importance at this particular stage of time, which is, of course, something that a lot of Parsis love to talk about. We were so important at one point in time in Indian nationalism.
RAJAGOPALAN: You bring up the point about the Parsi community being so important in Indian nationalist movement, but also beyond. I would say right from Naoroji to Nani Palkhivala, so I’m really talking about Emergency, post-Emergency, Palkhivala hacking away at the issues of taxation.
Many people believe that the involvement of the Parsi community in politics, actively, either through the judiciary or as political commentators or sometimes directly, like Naoroji in terms of contesting elections . . . it starts with Naoroji and ends with Palkhivala. Now we see a sort of dissonance between the community which was so involved in the nation-building process with what’s going on today in politics or contemporary discourse.
One question is, what do you make of that? Do you think that’s a correct assessment of how the community feels? Second, why do you think that happened?
PATEL: I think that’s accurate in the sense that, yes, in the community, there’s a sense that we once were very prominent and very involved in politics, and now we’re really nowhere. That directly links to what a lot of Parsis say in terms of how people like Naoroji or Mehta are kind of forgotten in the nationalist pantheon.
I don’t necessarily see the sense of diminished Parsi involvement as being a bad thing, in the sense that the reason why Parsis were so important at a particular moment in time was because they, or we, had a definite advantage in terms of access to education and wealth and, again, access to resources that would have enabled some form of leadership or involvement in professional activities, commercial activities. We were highly educated in comparison with the rest of the country, and quite naturally, there was some disproportionate influence exerted by Parsis vis-à-vis other communities. It was not any sense of some innate difference that the Parsis had, that they were somehow more qualified. I think that’s utter nonsense. It’s just we were richer, we were better educated, we had access to greater resources, and quite naturally, we were overrepresented.
As things have changed in India, as more people have got educated, as that wealth has distributed somewhat, I think it’s only right and proper and natural for the influence of certain groups like the Parsis to diminish over time. Ultimately, we are only 60,000 people in India. Why should we have any sort of special importance?
Dinyar Patel’s Intellectual Journey
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m just curious about your intellectual journey. So, how did you decide to become a historian?
PATEL: I’d always been interested in history from a pretty young age. But when I went to college, I did international relations as my major because I thought, as I guess everyone thinks, what will you do with history? What is the marketability of that particular discipline? So even though I did a major in IR in college, I found myself, throughout my college career, gravitating more and more towards history courses.
So ultimately, I did graduate with an IR degree, but only barely. My thesis was a historical topic. I wrote about the construction of the city of Delhi, which had really nothing to do with IR in a modern sense and everything to do with history, and somehow, I got away with it. I worked for a few years in Washington, DC, in a political consulting group. I really didn’t like it, and so I decided quite quickly that, what the heck, I’m going to go ahead and apply for a history PhD program. But I didn’t think that I would become an academic. I thought that I would go back into the policy world thereafter, but as you well know, when you are in a PhD program or any long-term academic program, you get sucked into the process. You have limited agency. So eventually, I did become an academic, even though I didn’t intend to be so from the start.
RAJAGOPALAN: And the interest in South Asian history comes from your own family background and ties to India? Or was it something else that piqued that interest?
PATEL: I think to a large degree. Talking to a lot of people in my grandparents’ generation, about their memories of what they went through. They lived through World War II, the Bengal Famine. I had a lot of family members in Kolkata, and of course the first few decades of independent India.
So that really got me interested, and starting in college, I started coming to India annually for long periods of time and studying more about the history and culture. So it was natural that I gravitated toward it. While I was in college, I began studying China, and I realized very quickly that I was terrible at Chinese language, so that impelled me to study different areas, and eventually, India was the place that really gripped my imagination.
RAJAGOPALAN: I know that you grew up in the United States and you’re American, but you were also born and raised in a Parsi family and you have strong ties to the community. I believe you learned how to read Gujarati to work on the Naoroji project—Ancient Gujarati even, right? So what has been your intellectual journey up to this point?
PATEL: I should say I learned Gujarati very badly. I can read it, but I oftentimes need the help of a dictionary or someone else to really understand what’s going on. Unfortunately, when you grow up as an American, you grow up monolingual, and that’s something that has been a bit of a challenge.
I came to grad school knowing that I wanted to do something that touched on Indian nationalism and the Parsi community. So Naoroji quite quickly . . . I recognized Naoroji was a topic that fit both criteria very well. I should mention, also, that this book grew out of my PhD dissertation from grad school.
The thing was . . . Again, when you are in grad school, you’re inculcated with a certain idea of what a dissertation should be and what your graduate school education should be like. So I remember people telling me, “Do not do biography. Try not to do something popular.” I remember one of my cohort members specifically saying, “Your first book must be a boring book. It must be this dry text that no one will read.” I thought then, and I still think today, that that’s awful. That particular person was absolutely right. If you want to be successful in academia still, you need to write a boring book—obviously, that’s rigorously researched, but something that’s not going to appeal to a lot of people.
RAJAGOPALAN: As historians, you need to first pick a time period, then you need to pick a region, and then you need to pick a narrative. Then you get as specific as you can. Those are the three pillars of academic historical research, and you violated all of them in a sense.
PATEL: And have paid a little bit of the price consequently. I came to my PhD program not having gone to an MA program, so I guess, automatically, I was less trained to fit into that slot. I didn’t think that would be a good use of what, eventually, was eight years of my time.
So I decided, why not do something on this? From studying South Asian history through my second year, I realized very quickly that there were very few biographies, there was very little good work that was produced recently on early Indian nationalism. There was a lot of stuff that was done in the 1970s, but since then, people have discarded it. They thought it was not fashionable to talk about these particular individuals. One person in grad school told me that I was “fetishizing an individual,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Those were the dominant attitudes, and luckily for myself, I guess I should say, I met enough other people outside of my particular cohort in grad school who encouraged me and who felt the same way. So again, in this sense, Ramachandra Guha has been a very important mentor to me. He supported me from the very start of this particular project. I met other people who have continued to be friend and colleagues in academia, or even outside of academia, who have been much more open to exploring these particular people and ideas or moments that have been avoided by traditional historians. It’s satisfying to see that the conversation has changed.
RAJAGOPALAN: Then, the obvious question: Why did you write the book? What made you choose Naoroji? What is special or interesting about him that you violated all the rules of academia and chose to do a biography, and on this particular individual?
PATEL: Again, I think it really needed to be done. The last really good book on Naoroji. Stuff has been written, but the last really good book on Naoroji was published in 1939, in terms of being a comprehensive biography.
RAJAGOPALAN: This was [Sir RP] Masani.
PATEL: [Sir RP] Masani, exactly. Naoroji is such an important individual, not just in terms, again, of Indian history, but in terms of British history, in terms of imperial history, and in terms of global anticolonialism. People are talking about him in America. People are talking about him in places like Cyprus. I saw letters in his papers from people who were in Romania, other parts of the world, Canada.
So he’s someone who is talked about all over the world, during and after his life. So he was begging for a proper study. So it seemed only right and proper to really invest the time I had in grad school in this big, weighty topic that was waiting for a modern study.
So you’re right. I did violate some of the rules. I’ve probably paid some of the consequences, but I don’t regret having done it. I think more people need to investigate these individuals who really need to be rediscovered. Not just Naoroji; others like Mehta, Gokhale. People from later generations of Indian nationalism—Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay people like that. They’re waiting for proper studies, and they deserve it.
Patel’s Writing Process
RAJAGOPALAN: How easy or difficult was it for you to convert your dissertation into the book? I’m asking, especially keeping in mind some graduate students who might be listening to this. And what kind of choices did you have to make?
PATEL: It was much easier of a process turning the dissertation into a book than I imagined. I must definitely credit Harvard University Press for that. It was really quite a seamless process and a very enjoyable process, working on converting the dissertation into a book. I also need to credit my advisers for really having trained me in a way that made the dissertation easy to convert to something like a book.
The one piece of advice I would definitely give to graduate students or people who are just beginning to turn their dissertation into a book is, try not to make your book or your dissertation perfect. It’s never going to be that way. The best way to start writing is just to write. You’re never going to get a perfect document. If you strive for that, your book will never be produced.
So just start writing. Get ideas on the page. They will reform themselves as time goes along. The colleagues I had at my university in South Carolina, when I was teaching at the University of South Carolina, many of them correctly advised me when I was in my second year of working there that “You need to start working on turning your dissertation into a book.” I was thinking to myself, “I’ll let the parts develop. I’ll take my time,” and they really pushed me to realize that’s not going to happen. You need to get the ball rolling.
So again, the last credit I should give is to them, fellow historians in my department at my old university in South Carolina. Again, we are writers at the end of the day, and ultimately, we must write, and nothing we produce is ever going to be perfect. I find errors all the time in the book that I’ve produced, but it’s the best we can do. And ultimately, the best thing to do is just write, get the thing done, and move on to whatever next steps has in store for you.
RAJAGOPALAN: So what’s your writing process like?
PATEL: I am definitely not a very disciplined writer. A lot of the dissertation I wrote pretty much under the gun. As I said, I spent eight years in graduate school, and I had an enjoyable time. I spent three years between India and Great Britain researching but also meeting interesting people.
So I left writing to the very end, which was a bad idea. So in the span of about six terrible months, I wrote the great majority of my dissertation, which eventually, again, got turned into the book. So I wrote under a great deal of pressure, and I definitely do not advise anyone else doing that. It’s not a fun process.
I’ve tried to be a little bit more diligent since, but ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can write anywhere. You just have to put your mind to it. I’m stuck in an apartment in Mumbai because of the lockdown, and ultimately, the conditions might not be conducive towards writing all the time, but you still have to write. You ultimately have to force yourself and make the best of your situation, be it bad internet or be it lack of access to resources, and just write, at the end of the day.
RAJAGOPALAN: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have rituals to get going?
PATEL: Caffeine is definitely very important. I won’t minimize that importance. When I was writing my dissertation, I had at least three or four cups of tea a day, which I know is not much in comparison to others, but for me did the trick.
I would usually write in two shifts. I would write in the morning up to lunch. After lunch, I’d get into a post-lunch coma, if you will. So I was never very productive. Usually, I’d try to exercise and then write again until dinner. So I’d do two shifts, and I still, to this day, conform to that particular model. Again, there are days when you will just not be able to write properly, and ultimately, you’ve got to learn to deal with it and do other stuff. Read, answer emails, attend to other stuff in life.
I think music is important. For a chunk of time, I was writing at places in Delhi or elsewhere in India where there was a lot of noise from the outside. So music helped drown it out—oftentimes very upbeat music.
I discovered in my first year of graduate school . . . I mostly listen to classical music now while I’m writing, but I wrote a lot of papers in my first year of graduate school listening to Persian pop. I can’t understand a single word of Persian for the most part, except for the commonalities between Hindi and Persian, but it had a certain beat and rhythm that kind of got you working. So I think anything that has that, at least in my case, helps me write a lot, keeps me awake and gets the thoughts flowing.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yeah. It gets you in a groove. What are you reading at the moment?
PATEL: I’m also a very slow reader. I’m definitely not one of those people who can read multiple books at the same time. One of my advisers was Sven Beckert, and he wrote this book, Empire of Cotton, which I had read in parts and, due to the lockdown, I’m finally being able to finish what I’ve read at different points in time. So it’s nice to finally be able to finish that.
I recently read Prashant Kidambi’s book on cricket, Cricket Country. Cricket is something I know nothing about, again, being an American. I’ve been taken to some cricket matches, and it’s Greek and Latin to me, but that book is written in such a way that even someone who does not know cricket is able to understand cricket. So those are two recent books that I’ve read. I have several other things on my bookshelf: Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, some books on business history.
The other genre that I’ve been reading of is travel. Since we can’t travel right now, reading certain travelogues has been helpful.
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re torturing yourself.
PATEL: In a way, yeah. I was supposed to go to Uzbekistan just as the lockdown happened. So instead, I read Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, which is of his travels in Iran and Afghanistan. That helps get your mind off those particular things.
Otherwise, the other thing that I’m reading is just related to my research. I just finished reading several hundred pages of Allan Octavian Hume’s writings and reports, which is, again, not for the general reader. It’s not very exciting by itself, but it’s important material to go through.
RAJAGOPALAN: What are you working on right now?
PATEL: The next book which I’m trying to work on, which again, is evolving in different ways since we’re all locked down and the archives are not open anymore, is a broader history of liberal nationalism, looking both at key individuals and key ideas in nationalism before Gandhi.
So I wrote one chapter on this individual called Lalmohan Ghosh, who was the first Indian to ever stand for the British Parliament, not Naoroji.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. He was the first to contest but not win.
PATEL: Right, and in many ways, he’s much more radical than Naoroji. He’s coming from a different milieu. He’s Bengali. He is very close to John Bright. He is talking at a much more radical stream of thought. Currently, I’m writing a chapter on Allan Octavian Hume and how he conceptualized the Congress and how the Congress was actually quite popular in its early years. About how it really tried to get average ryots, average cultivators in the organization to hit back at this idea of the Congress being an elite debating club. I want to explore more people like Pherozeshah Mehta and Ranade, but also some of the ideas like the idea of education in early Indian nationalism, because ultimately . . .
RAJAGOPALAN: Such a big theme. Women’s education, education of the masses. It’s such a big theme in the nationalist movement early on, even in Naoroji and all his contemporaries.
PATEL: Absolutely, yeah, and it’s shot through early Indian nationalism. Most major Indian nationalists were themselves teachers or professors like Ranade and Gokhale, or their educational experience was very formative, and they ultimately had a stake in an educational institution. Tilak, of course, had a stake in educational institutions as well. It’s impossible to understand early Indian nationalism without understanding this project of education and what that meant.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m really excited to read more about all these forgotten characters from the early Indian nationalist movement. So I’m looking forward to that project of yours. One last question before I let you go, and this is really the most important given COVID and the lockdown: what are you binge-watching right now?
PATEL: Well, my wife and I did watch Indian Matchmaking recently, which I will admit, I thought was a fictional satire until the second episode. It hit me rather suddenly that it was not. A little bit of historical series also—we watched Downton Abbey. But also some shows on food. Again, since we can’t really go out and eat food from the outside, a few series on eating in certain cities. That tends to whet the appetite and hopefully encourage travel once all of this is over.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Thank you so much for writing the book.
PATEL: Thank you very much, Shruti.