RGS Guildford courtyard with students

South Asian Heritage Month – visiting Lecturer, Dr Vikram Visana

To mark South Asian Heritage Month, the English Department was delighted to welcome Dr Vikram Visana to deliver a lecture and participate in a panel discussion on the life of Dadabhai Naoroji, who in 1892 became Britain’s first Indian Member of Parliament when he was elected to the constituency of Finsbury Central for the Liberal Party. Naoroji was also one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress and he holds a particular significance in the English curriculum at the RGS as he appears as a character in one of our key GCSE set texts, The Empress by the playwright Tanika Gupta. The History Department also focuses on this seminal figure in British-Indian relations through their A Level students’ coursework concerning the impact of the British Empire in India.

Dr Visana is a Lecturer in Political Theory within the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester and he has written extensively on aspects of Naoroji’s life, such as his activism in Bombay, his path to becoming an MP in Victorian England and ultimately, his efforts to help India achieve autonomous rule, or Swaraj. His monograph, Uncivil Liberalism: Labour, Capital and Commercial Society in Dadabhai Naoroji’s Political Thought, was also shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s 2023 Gladstone Book Prize.

The lecture was an opportunity for the audience of students and parents to learn more about Naoroji’s achievements and economic theories. For example, Dr Visana discussed Naoroji’s newspaper publications as part of the “Young Bombay” movement and his entrepreneurial business ventures carried out to fund philanthropic endeavours such as expanding educational provision for girls across Bombay. Dr Visana then moved on to a comprehensive examination of Naoroji’s criticisms of the British Empire for operating a capitalist monopoly, which was directly resulting in the exploitation and impoverishment of India. Naoroji’s chief target for opprobrium was the colonial civil service, which he believed was draining India of its wealth through the exorbitant salaries and pensions it offered its white British employees. Naoroji postulated that this money, raised through the high taxes enforced upon Indians, was never circulated back into the Indian economy but was rather repatriated to Britain, a concept he developed into his famous “Drain Theory”. It is through being elected an MP that Naoroji sought to effect civil service reform by arguing persistently for Indians to be employed as administrators, in the belief that the money they earned would remain in the subcontinent.

Following the lecture, Eddie Wilson and Henry Hebburn from the Fourth Form and James Paterson and Will Peasey from the Lower Sixth comprised a student panel to question Dr Visana in greater depth on topics not limited to Naoroji, but also Indian nationalism during the British Empire more generally, including other notable figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Henry’s line of questioning centred on the importance of Naoroji’s Parsi community, while James asked Dr Visana to elaborate on the parallels Naoroji drew with the Irish Home Rule movement and the fight for women’s suffrage. James also initiated a discussion on Gandhi’s protests against the racial prejudice suffered by Indian indentured workers in South Africa. In preparation for the event, Will’s primary area of research had been Naoroji’s economic theories, which led to a detailed response from Dr Visana on which figures had proven most influential in the creation of the “Drain Theory”. Finally, as The Empress describes very little of Naoroji’s life once he returns to India in the wake of becoming disillusioned with the British political establishment, Eddie enquired further into the period of sustained agitation for Swaraj that characterised Naoroji’s twilight years.

Though only an MP for one term, Naoroji had a lasting impact on the Indian nationalist movement in the country’s struggle for independence and the evening was a fitting way for our school to commemorate his contributions to the development of modern South Asia.