To mark South Asian Heritage Month, here’s a profile of Shapurji Saklatvala, a pioneering British Parliamentarian of Indian birth. Prepare to be enlightened about The Man, The Myth, The Marxist.
This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
When it comes to your first Parliament address most new members refrain from any hint of overindulgence. As Shapurji Saklatvala stood before the chamber in November 1922 he’d already decided to buck with customary tradition. Taking the opportunity to lambast the government at considerable length for social inequalities with even the King targeted for an ambivalence towards the inhumanity of Empire. As maiden speeches go it packed a punch. Over the course of this blog they’ll be plenty of his fantastic speeches or as I’ve called them THE SAKLATVALA OPINION.
The Tata’s and Me
Historically many prominent socialists have come from privileged backgrounds, this was the case with Shapurji Saklatvala. Born in Bombay in 1874 his family were of Parsi origin with hereditary links to the Tata Industries dynasty. Working for the conglomerate as an engineer he travelled around India witnessing scenes of extreme poverty that would fuel his ideological beliefs.
He was introduced to the nationalist cause by his uncle Jamsetji Tata a founder member of the Indian National Congress. By the turn of the century Saklatvala’s rigorous campaigning for Home Rule caught the attention of the colonial authorities. These events and Saklatvala’s ill health led to a family decision for him move to Britain. A new beginning in more ways than one.
THE SAKLATVALA OPINION: 23/11/1922 – MILL WORKERS OF BENGAL & DUNDEE
Over 74 jute mills have been erected in Bengal by British millers and capitalists who had got the capital produced with the hard toil of the workers of Dundee, with the result that to-day we have shut up shop in Dundee and our workers in Bengal are working at from 14s. to 38s. a month and producing for the owners dividends of from 150 per cent, to 400 per cent.? Out of the 124 coal companies in my country, India, I know that 102 have been opened out by British capitalists who have taken capital abroad for these enterprises. If these are the root causes of private enterprise, may we ask our friends not to sit down and not to wait until the great calamity overtakes this country altogether.
(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1922/nov/23/debate-on-the-address#S5CV0159P0_19221123_HOC_89)
From Matlock with Love
Before embracing the Labour movement Shapurji Saklatvala found love in the unlikely setting of Matlock’s Smedley Hydro. After a bout of malaria, he’d gone to recuperate in their therapeutic waters. Local lass Sally Marsh worked there as a waitress in the dining room where her future husband liked to take his meals and a connection was made between the pair.
Their daughter Sehri wrote in Saklatvala’s biography that he pursued her mother ‘with the same dogged obstinacy which he sought iron ore in Indian jungles’. In the summer of 1907, they married following a year’s courtship. Initially based in the north of England they relocated to London as Saklatvala had ambitions to make his name in the world of politics.
THE SAKLATVALA OPINION: 09/05/1923 – WORKERS RIGHTS (PEOPLE OF COLOUR)
Mr Saklatvala asked the Minister of Labour whether he is aware of the attempt of the Elder Dempster Company to reduce the wages of their coloured shore workers in Liverpool from £6 to £5 10s. monthly, when the standard now for British workers is £9 10s. per month; and, in view of the menace to the standard of life of the British seamen and shore workers by the employment of such underpaid labour, will he take immediate steps to see that fair wages are paid to all classes of its employees by this firm of Government contractors.
Two men also of Parsi lineage had the distinction of being the first two active Parliamentarians of Indian descent. These were Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Bhownagree who represented the Liberals & Conservative’s respectively. There is no record of Saklatvala and Naorjoi ever meeting but Bhownagree and his younger contemporary were known to sometimes clash over the elder statesman’s rigid establishment views.
Married life and the increasing monetary pressures of a growing family meant Saklatvala couldn’t fully immerse into the whirlpool of various political circles upon moving to the capital. Despite joining the Independent Labour Party in 1909 it would be a frustratingly prolonged period before he started to make the transition from valued grassroots member to a genuine Parliamentary contender.
THE SAKLATVALA OPINION: 17/11/1922 –IRISH FREE STATE CONSTITUTION
I was present at the last great Labour Conference in Ireland; I attended its sittings in Dublin and I saw there written down in black and white and heard proclaimed from the platform— A plague on both your houses"— on both parties, both the pro-Treaty and the anti-Treaty party. I have heard it declared that Irish Labour, well organised, is determined to work for a worker' republic. These are the views which are being expressed, and the Labour party in Ireland is bound to come into its. own, however much hon. Members may jeer or laugh. The Republicans are there; it is no use denying that they are there in very large numbers
The 1917 Russian Revolution left the Independent Labour Party with an identity crisis. The hierarchy led by Ramsey McDonald maintained a moderate stance while large sections of their membership were converted to the radicalisation of Lenin’s programme. Saklatvala fell into the latter camp joining a band of unapologetic Bolsheviks fronted by the likes of George Lansbury.
Battersea was now London’s hotbed for socialism becoming the epicentre for the burgeoning Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Saklatvala was drawn to the district building relationships with John Archer (Britain’s first Black Mayor) and activist, Charlotte Despard. Inevitably he joined the CPGB attracted by their earnest anti-imperialist manifesto. Under Archer’s mentorship his public speaking skills were remodelled as an electoral candidacy became reality.
THE SAKLATVALA OPINION: 13/7/1925 – INTERNATIONAL COMMUNISM
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I ask the indulgence of the House while I make a brief personal explanation in regard to a sentence in my speech last Thursday night. It is due not only to me and my party, but to the House, and for a correct understanding of the functions and purposes of debate in this House by my Indian friends. When I said in the course of my speech that I held myself responsible for, and that I am at the bottom of many of the Communist manifestoes and the Communist propaganda in India, I beg to explain that I unequivocally, unreservedly, and without reservation associate myself with, and endorse such manifestoes, resolutions, and propagandist literature as are openly and officially propagated by the Communist party of Great Britain.
(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1925/jul/13/personal-explanation#S5CV0186P0_19250713_HOC_277 )
Sack of Banana’s
As canvassing began for the 1922 General Election, Saklatvala had entered the dictionary of South London rhyming slang with the phrase ‘Sack of Banana’s’. At this juncture you could still hold a dual membership for the Independent Labour Party and their vociferous Communist cousins. Saklatvala’s star quality was undeniable gaining selection to stand for the North Battersea constituency under the auspice of ‘Labour’s United Front’.
There was a fear that his campaign suffered from over-hype, but this proved unfounded with a solid victory attained by a comfortable three-thousand majority. In an era of unstable minority governments Saklatvala lost and won back his seat over a turbulent two-year spell. Notably the November 1924 re-election was achieved as an unequivocal CPGB representative.
THE SAKLATVALA OPINION: 28/2/1923 – HOUSING SHORTAGES
I wish to bring to the notice of the substitute for the Minister of Health an urgent matter concerning the housing problem. I am specially requested by the borough council of Battersea to urge upon the Minister to give it sympathetic consideration and not to set it aside on grounds of party feeling. It is not only a question of the shortage of houses and the delay in erecting new houses, but of a most acute problem which has arisen of rendering existing houses useless by the landlords sheltering behind certain imperfections in the law. In accordance with Section 28 of the Housing and Town Planning Act, 1918, while the municipal authorities are empowered to put in repair certain houses, they are left in a position of great doubt as to ultimately recovering the sums of money spent on such repairs.
*There is no online version of this debate
Public Enemy No 1
Secret Service operatives had been building a file on Saklatvala for decades going back to when he organised Indian self-governance meetings at Caxton Hall. As his infamy grew intrigue seemed to follow his every move including a much-publicised trip to Moscow. When the General Strike exploded in May 1926 all eyes were on him. He agreed to give a speech at a Hyde Park rally praising the striking miners for ‘rising against their oppressors’.
His daughter Sehri recalled, Special Branch responded by arresting him in the rarefied atmosphere of their billiard room. A two-month sentence for sedition followed. A master of self-promotion on leaving Wormwood Scrubs he went straight to Westminster to deliver a defiant statement aimed at his critics.
THE SAKLATVALA OPINION: 25/6/1926 – JUST OUT OF JAIL
I hope the House will pardon me for any slips on this occasion, because I have only just returned to this House from a semi-Socialistic institution in which I have been taken care of on a much better scale than the poor miners. I also beg at this juncture to express my gratitude for the many considerations which have been shown to me, and also for the happy impressions I carry away of some of the bright sides of British character in regard to the treatment meted out to me by British prison officials, which I have reason to admire.
Adversaries from all parties were quick to assume that Indian affairs took precedence for Saklatvala over national issues hence the somewhat derogatory nickname ‘MP for India’. After years of enforced absence, he toured his home country in January 1927. When addressing India’s Communist Party, he dismissed the latest proposed ‘Roundtable Conferences’ to great fanfare. Less successful was an audience with Gandhi as they disagreed over the blueprint for ultimate dominion status.
Unsatisfactorily upon returning to England he found his passport revoked by an unrepentant Foreign Office just as the Simon Commission was formed to re-evaluate constitutional reforms back in his native land. The chosen all-white delegation wasn’t to Saklatvala’s liking for which he was supported by the indomitable Ellen Wilkinson.
THE SAKLATVALA OPINION: 17/06/1927 – THE SIMON COMMISSION
If Great Britain wants to rule India, she must take up the position that her own Monarch, her own Parliament, her own Cabinet, her own administrative machinery cannot afford to remain constitutional for five minutes and govern the country and affairs of another people. It is no use preaching common-sense and constitutionalism in respect of the people of India, when not only are you not constitutional, but you dare not be constitutional and you cannot afford to be constitutional. Just as this country would not allow Chinamen or Germans to write a constitution for this country, it is equally absurd for this country to appoint a Committee to write a constitution for the people of India, on whatever basis.
(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1927/jun/17/india-office#S5CV0207P0_19270617_HOC_30 )
A New Decade
Commentators noted that if Saklatvala had left the CPGB he may have been elevated to Minister for India by a Labour Government. His tenure as a Parliamentarian ended at the 1929 General Election. Dirty tricks with a xenophobic undertone saw opponents claim he was on a secret mission promoting Indian trade at the expense of unemployed workers. To undermine Saklatvala’s ‘man of the people’ persona a rumour circulated of a newly purchased marble fountain in his garden.
Even with the support of old comrade under Willie Gallacher he came a soul-destroying last place in the Shettleston, Glasgow by-election at the beginning of the new decade. Parliament’s loss would be the media’s gain as Saklatvala turned his hand to freelance journalism.
THE SAKLATVALA OPINION: 06/02/1929 – ON T.E LAWRENCE (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA)
Mr Saklatvala asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether the British Government received any representations from the Afghan Government prior to the temporary abdication of King Amanulla, protesting against the activities of Colonel Lawrence in Afghan affairs; and did the Foreign Office take any measures, either directly, through the Government of India, or through the Air Council, to recall Colonel Lawrence from his post in India?
Sir A Chamberlain No, Sir. His Majesty's Government received no representations from the Afghan Government. Colonel Lawrence was serving as an aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force, but in view of the deliberate misrepresentations of his presence on the North Western Frontier which were appearing in certain newspapers, and of the embarrassment which these misrepresentations were causing to His Majesty's Minister at Kabul, it was decided that it would be well to transfer Colonel Lawrence to another post and the Air Ministry accordingly arranged for his transfer out of India.
Mr Saklatvala In reference to the first part of the question, is there no truth in the report that the Foreign Office officials of King Amanulla did communicate with the British Minister to the effect that the King was greatly distressed by reading the report of Colonel Lawrence's attempt; and, arising out of the answer to the latter part of the question, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the mysterious way in which Colonel Lawrence returned, has given currency to the report that the real Colonel Lawrence is still there, and that somebody else has been brought here?
(Read the debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1929/feb/06/colonel-lawrence#S5CV0224P0_19290206_HOC_27 )
Road to Independence
International diplomacy was an increasingly fraught affair but Saklatvala stood up to be counted joining the Executive Committee of The League Against Imperialism alongside pacifist James Maxton. As a leading figure of the London branch of the National Indian Congress he encountered Jawahralal Nehru. Saklatvala was encouraged by Nehru’s demands for positive action believing in his roadmap for Indian Independence.
Saklatvala died suddenly in January 1936 just days after attending a CPGB bazaar at Shoreditch Town Hall. At his funeral attendees sung The Internationale with gusto and he was buried at a Parsi plot in Surrey. When the Spanish Civil War erupted later that year a Communist brigade was named in his honour.
Which I’m sure he would have loved.
Comrade Sak – Shapurji Saklatvala MP, A Political Biography by Marc Wadsworth
The Fifth Commandment – Biography of Shapurji Saklatvala by Sehri Saklatvala
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol 48 – Shapurji Saklatvala biography written by Mike Squires
Rise & Fall of the British Communist Party by Francis Beckett
Good Old Cause – British Communism 1920-1991 by Willie Thompson
Hansard, Parliamentary Debates