Towards Economic Democracy: Market Domination and Popular Sovereignty in Colonial India

Tejas Parasher

My dissertation examines the rise of group-based legislative representation as a response to structural economic inequality in colonial India. Tracing demands for participation in law-making bodies between 1880 and 1950, I reconstruct how representative government was seen as a response to the particular problems of colonial capitalism. I underline how critiques of free markets and liberal political economy informed a discourse of representative government that was shared by a number of Indian political thinkers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


The Social Sciences Division Research Grant (Orin Williams Fund) generously allowed me to spend Summer 2017 at the British Library and the UK National Archives in London, doing archival research for Chapter 2 of my dissertation. In Chapter 2 (“Dadabhai Naoroji and the Theory of ‘Living Representation’”), I focus on the economist Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917). Naoroji was a co-founder of the Indian National Congress (INC)—the main nationalist organization of the Indian independence movement—an elected MP in the British Parliament (1891-94), one of the first South Asian writers to engage with Marxist and modern socialist thought, and, most influentially, the first figure in colonial India to demand parliamentary representation and legislative self-determination. I show how Naoroji’s thinking about representative government grew out of his earlier work on colonial political economy. What Naoroji called swaraj (legislative self-rule) was an attempt to give economically subordinated communities in India greater control over the market.


Archival research was absolutely critical in allowing me to access many of Naoroji’s unpublished writings and to reconstruct the history of his engagement with the British government. At the British Library and National Archives, I focused on collecting Naoroji’s correspondence with the India Office between 1879 and 1904, his pamphlets and campaign publications as an MP in London in the early 1890s, and finally some speeches and writings from his return to India in 1905. In addition, I also looked at British government documents (from the India Office as well as the House of Commons) regarding the 1861 Indian Councils Act, the 1870 Government of India Act, and the 1892 Councils Reform Bill—three key pieces of legislation during Naoroji’s political career. Two particularly important archival documents I was able to collect were Naoroji’s letters to the India Office regarding elections after the 1892 Reform Bill, and drafts of his speech to the Congress in Calcutta formally demanding swaraj (self-rule) for India.


These archives allowed me to see how Naoroji’s theory of self-rule grew out of a concern with financial control during the 1870s and 1880s. Naoroji’s correspondence from the two decades made clear that he saw local legislative bodies as the best way for Indians to gain a voice within the global economy. This was motivated by dissatisfaction with the imperial legislative council’s lawmaking on taxation and trade relations in India, especially following a series of famines in central India in the mid-1870s. In tracing how Naoroji transformed these arguments into a demand for full national determination in the early 1900s, I was able to better understand how his vision of legislative sovereignty emerged as a discourse of economic self-rule.


The documents I collected during Summer 2017 allowed me to complete a draft of Chapter 2 over the past academic year. I will also use some of the archival material in Chapter 1, which I plan to start drafting during Summer 2018.