Five Lessons from India’s First Professor

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We know him as the Grand Old Man of India.

We know him as the Founder of the Indian National Congress.

We know him as the first Indian to be elected to the British House of Commons.

But here’s another facet to this tall leader who wore multiple hats.

Dadabhai Naoroji, was amongst many things, also a teacher and an educational reformer. And was in fact the first Indian to be made Full Professor in an Indian University. So this 5th September, a throw-back and tribute to a great man and teacher.

Beyond School-book History 

If you’ve laboured through the dry-as-bone narrative in high-school History text books, you’d have learnt that the Congress had two factions. The Moderates and the Extremists. The former were pacifists, believing in the goodness of the British Empire while the latter were activists ready to die and kill for freedom.

Dadabhai Naoroji’s name appears in the list of Moderates. But almost never can a binary such as this, do complete justice to a story or a person.  So let’s begin by taking off those filters so we can really appreciate the subject more fully.

Also, children are often bored to learn History because it is served to them as a set of facts, almost as if the information is the end in itself. In my endeavour to make History more relevant and meaningful to my younger readers, I’d like you to take from the story of this pioneer, five key life-lessons, which I hope to embed into the story I am about to narrate.

While we all know Naoroji as the Founder of the Congress, he was a teacher before he became anything else. He taught Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Elphinstone College in Bombay where he had previously been a student – the first Indian to get the honour of being appointed as a Full Professor in an Indian University. 

(In ancient Universities like Nalanda and Taxila, several Indians served as Acharyas and Gurus. The term ‘first Indian Professor’ is in the context of modern-day universities and the post of full Professors therein) 

So let’s dive into the five lessons Naoroji’s life holds out for us today.  

1. Take that Big Leap!

In 1886, Naoroji decided to take a break from his professorial duties at Elpinstone College and go to England, believing that the efforts of the Congress would not bear any fruit unless someone could work on bolstering their demands in England.

It was a long shot, but by going to England, he hoped to address English audiences on the condition of Indians and muster up public opinion in favour of reforms in India.

It would do well to remember that Naoroji was born in 1825 i.e. at a time before the First War of Freedom or the Revolt of 1857 took place. The idea of India was fluid and vague in his time. The sub-continent was a patchwork of princely states and provinces of British India. with no real thread of commonality between the different areas. Naoroji’s thoughts are made more commendable when seen in light of this background.

And unlike many Parsis of the British era, Naoroji did not come from a wealthy background. His father had died when he was young and he belonged to a family of priests, while he himself was a professor of reasonable means.

However, he believed in his cause and was determined to work towards creating a voice for the Indian people in England. And so, turning to royals and friends for assistance to raise money, he made the big leap and sailed for England. 

2. Put Academic Training to good use 

Once in England, Naoroji began to slowly understand how the wealth of India was being drained and taken to England through taxes and other medium. While he spoke outwardly of the benevolent nature of the Empire, he was quite scathing about British rule in his private letters. And this discovery led him to one of the most significant works of his time.

With his academic background and training in mathematics, Naoroji put his mastery over statistics and data to use by then putting down all his observations about the impact of British Rule in his famous work ‘Poverty and Un-British Rule in India.’ It was one of the earliest attempts in bringing India’s extreme poverty to the notice of the British public and the world at large. 

Naoroji’s Book was the first systematic attempt to study the impact of Empire upon India

At a time when it was believed that the Empire was a benevolent force, bringing progress and prosperity to its colonies, this work which contained a detailed study of the amount of money going out of India into England through various means, with figures, statistics, percentages and more, was an eye-opener. The idea he proposed came to be known as the Drain Theory and in his view, the biggest drain was being caused by the expenses of the Indian Civil Service.

“Why should India have to remit $12,000,000 a year to this country? If India is to be regenerated by England, India must wake up to pay the price. England, on its part also, should act justly towards India.”

Dadabhai Naoroji was the first Indian to study the data and make an estimate of what Empire was costing India

Along with raising a flag on the economic problem, Naoroji also simultaneously took up other causes such as getting Indians to replace foreign officials in the Civil Services and holding the civil service examination in India (in those days, the exam was held only in England making it virtually impossible for Indians to take the exam). He also campaigned for other reforms, making the argument that Britain being such a benevolent and reformed society, cannot be so Un-British to its subjects in India. These views he held would also gradually change over time.

3. Take the Bull by its Horns!

Often great achievers are set apart from ordinary beings by the bold decisions they make. To undertake something most others would dismiss as impossible.

After a few years in England, urged by the desire to influence Westminster from within, Naoroji decided to run for the House of Commons, something no Indian had succeeded in doing before (Naoroji was not the first Indian to run for British Parliament. A leader named Lalmohan Ghosh had tried before him, but had lost the election.)

The odds were stacked up against him. Many were outraged that a ‘black’ man could stand for elections to the House of Commons. He was up against a formidable racial challenge. Besides, he was a foreigner and many believed he had no right to represent British people. He is told to quit, even by his friends.

One of the many people to take a dig against Naoroji in his election campaign was British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, who referred to Naoroji as a black man. As we all know, a large number of Parsis are very fair-skinned and in a quirky twist, it turned out that Naoroji was in fact fairer that Lord Salisbury!!

As it turned out, Naoroji lost the election, even though he had given it his best.

Dadabhai Naoroji, oil on canvas, a portrait by M.F. Pithawala
(credit Naoroji : Pioneer of Indian Nationalism by Dinyar Patel)

4. Never Give Up!

Naoroji had lost the election by a fair margin. Given there were several voices jeering and mocking him already, and given he was past 60, he could very well have given up and returned to India.

But he is not called the Grand Old Man of India for nothing. He decided to stay on and persist. In an era of crawling transport and communication, he traveled to different places, held meetings, gave speeches, wrote letters and built a sustained campaign, gradually winning support. He reached out to various groups – women, supporters of the Irish Home Rule, labour etc. It is said he nursed his constituency for nearly four years.

The next elections took place in July 1892. Naoroji was 67 years old. And this time he emerged triumphant, winning by the skin of his teeth. When the results were out, Naoroji had won by three votes! (later found to be five) And he became the very first Indian to achieve the distinction of being elected to the British House of Commons. Once elected, he pushed for various reforms in India, including for the holding of Civil Service Examinations in India.

When news of his victory reached India, people were jubilant. And when he himself returned to Bombay a year later to preside over the Lahore Session of the Congress, he was welcomed like a rock-star!

This singular act of Naoroji to take the storm head-on, inspired two young men from Gujarat who would go on to leave their indelible mark on Indian History – Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Dadabhai Naoroji lived for nearly 92 years and spent nearly five decades of his life fighting for Indian rights. When he was born in 1825, the British East India Company had just recently extinguished Maratha authority, once an existential threat to English ambitions in the subcontinent. By the time of his death in 1917, India was only three decades away from independence.

Naoroji : Pioneer of Indian Nationalism
Dinyar Patel

5. Let Personal Setbacks not hold you back.

And for the last in the list of five lessons I’ll settle for now – never let personal losses and setbacks hold you back.

Naoroji lost his father when he was three years old.

Fate would later snatch away his only son in the prime of his youth in 1893.

He’d live long years, away from his country and family in cold and damp London, with few friends and awful food, toiling in pursuit of a dream most people told him was impossible. But he never let these disadvantages hold him back.

Apart from all these achievements, he’d go on to become President of the Congress thrice and play a key role in steering the path of the party.  As the years rolled on, he realized however that foreign power was not as benevolent as he first thought it to be and turned quite radical, even comparing the conditions of Indians to that of slaves in America – which also tells us he was willing to correct his position and change with the times, despite his seniority in age and stature.  

And finally, the one key lesson for everyone who cherishes an India of plurality and diversity – I find it wonderful that the man who first rose to champion the cause of India, the man who would later become mentor to Gokhale and Tilak, Gandhi and Jinnah – that man belonged to a community that was and continues to remain, one of the smallest minorities in India!

Being a minority did not stop Naoroji from feeling at home in India. Nor did it stop India from embracing him as one of her own!


The Seen and the Unseen is one of my favourite podcast shows where the host Amit Verma interviews authors of various books, drawn from History, Political Science and Economics. Above is the link to the episode I heard on Dadabhai Navoroji that inspired this post and below is the link to the book by Dinyar Patel, the author he interviews in the show. Do check them out.

Dinyar Patel’s extensive PhD research on Naoroji, now a book.


  • Carl Dantas
    September 5, 2020 - 11:46 am ·

    Very enlightening facts about the role that Dadabai Naoroji played.
    Many thanks, well written.

  • Ginza George
    September 5, 2020 - 9:51 pm ·

    Wow Mallika! At 42 I guess my schooling has just commenced and today you taught me a bit on Naoroji. I will sure go ahead n listen to Amit’s podcast n tap other sources too. Happy teacher’s day ❤

    • mallikaravikumar
      October 1, 2020 - 11:26 pm ·

      Thank you Ginza. We all keep learning…I also learnt a lot about Naoroji only recently through these resources 🙂

  • Gaurav
    September 6, 2020 - 11:31 am ·

    Thanks for a really interesting presentation of a slice of Indian history..Articles like these would make history lovable to a lot of students?

    • mallikaravikumar
      October 1, 2020 - 11:26 pm ·

      Thank you so much for your comments. Your words are like music to my ears…as making history interesting for children is my goal 🙂