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Shapurji Saklatvala: The British MP who was ‘the most important Indian nationalist’ outside India

The third Indian to be elected to the British Parliament, his support for the independence movement would get him labelled the unofficial ‘Member for India’.

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Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery

In November 1905, a ship docked at London, which was the centre of an Empire that was witnessing a growing independence movement in its most valuable colony – India. On board was S Saklatvala, a member of the influential Tata family, fresh from Bombay and in Blightly ostensibly to run the family’s ventures there.

Article by Aditya Iyer | Scroll

Instead, Shapurji Saklatvala would become the third-ever Indian to be elected to the British Parliament and would use his position as MP to so vehemently agitate on behalf of the nationalist movement that a 1925 issue of the Daily Graphic would refer to him as the unofficial “Member for India”. And when “Comrade Sak” died in 1936, Jawaharlal Nehru would call him the most important nationalist figure outside of the country.

Focused on service

Saklatvala was born on March 29, 1874, in Bombay. His father, Dorabji, was a wealthy cotton merchant and his mother, Jerbai, was the younger sister of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the founder of the Tata Group, who had immense influence on his nephew’s politics.

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Jamsetji Tata with cousin RD Tata (centre) and sons Ratan Tata (standing) and Dorab Tata (right). Photo credit: Tata.com

The first signs that Saklatvala would not follow the family tradition of working in the business was in 1896, when, as a 22-year-old volunteer, he worked alongside Waldemar Haffkine to help treat victims of an outbreak of bubonic plague in Bombay’s slums.

His daughter, Sehri Saklatvala, maintains this had a profound effect on his personal politics. “What he saw in those years of the bubonic plague must have remained always in his mind,” she writes in The Fifth Commandment, her biography of her father’s life. “It was to those victims of circumstance that he dedicated his life.”

Saklatvala then spent several years working for the Tatas. Though highly competent, his outspoken views on home rule soon attracted the attention of the colonial authorities and the ire of JN Tata’s son, Dorabji, whose antipathy towards his cousin had festered during their childhood.

By 1905, Saklatvala had fallen seriously ill with malaria. With the Raj increasingly concerned over his ardent nationalism, Dorabji saw the perfect opportunity to send his hated cousin far away from Bombay.

So it was that Saklatvala boarded a ship bound for Britain where, after receiving treatment for his illness, he was to assume charge of the Tata offices in Manchester.

A new start

During his convalescence, Saklatvala stayed at Smedley’s Hydro, a health spa at Matlock, a working-class Derbyshire town. It was here that he met Sally Marsh, a hotel waitress he would eventually marry in 1907. Meeting Marsh was a pivotal moment for Saklatvala, not just personally but also politically. Through her, Saklatvala was granted his first intimate view of working-class life in Britain.

He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1909, and, 12 years later, joined the Communist Party. Saklatvala moved his family to a spacious house in Highgate, a mere stone’s throw away from the cemetery where his hero, Karl Marx, is buried.

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An undated newspaper cutting showing the Indian MP with his wife, Sarah Marsh, who hailed from a working class background. Together they had five children – two sons and three daughters. Photo courtesy: British Library.

Saklatvala was endorsed by Labour as the Battersea North candidate in 1921 as part of a seat-sharing deal. He won in November 1922, becoming the third-ever Indian to be elected to the House of Commons as well as one of the few Communist MPs. (According to the local paper, his working-class supporters were so buoyed by their electoral triumph that they exclaimed they would storm heaven next.) He would lose the seat the following year, before regaining it in 1924 and serving as an MP for a further five years.

The new MP opened his maiden speech in Parliament – to audible gasps – with the words, “No Britisher would for a moment tolerate a constitution for Great Britain if it were written outside of Great Britain by people who were not British.”

His duty, Saklatvala felt, was not to speak on local matters but those of the Empire, and he used his position to wage a one-man campaign in Parliament, fearlessly attacking motions and legislation designed to secure control over India in the face of the growing threat of the nationalist movement as well as to fight for workers’ rights in Britain.

Saklatvala never met the first Indian MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, but he was acquainted with the second, Sir Mancherji Bhownagree. All three men, coincidentally, belonged to the Bombay Parsi community.

An Anglicised empire loyalist and member of the Conservative Party, Bhownagree regarded Naoroji as a dangerous radical, and Saklatvala as being even worse – a radical Communist.

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An advertisement for Shapurji Saklatvala’s 1931 election campaign. Image courtesy: British Library.

Back to his roots

While Bhownagree was condemned as being a British stooge – one of the nicknames contemptuously bestowed upon him by Congress leaders was “Bow-and-Agree” – Saklatvala, despite his Communist ideology, was a symbol of nationalist pride, fighting the good fight in the very heart of the Empire.

So it’s not surprising that when Saklatvala returned to Bombay on January 14, 1917, to begin a year-long tour of India, he was welcomed by a cheering crowd. His first act was to place all the garlands he had been presented at the statue of Dadabhai Naoroji near Flora Fountain.

The British, however, were not so warm. After a flurry of frantic telegrams from the Viceroy to Lord Birkenhead, the Secretary of State for India, a decision was made – Saklatvala would be allowed to proceed with his tour of the country, but he would not receive an official welcome by the Raj.

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A 1922 campaign ad for Shapurji Saklatvala. He would win that year, being elected as MP of Battersea North, a working-class area in South London. Image courtesy: Battersea Archives.

Was Saklatvala a nationalist? The short answer is yes – he relentlessly campaigned for Independence and supported the new generation of leaders like Nehru. But he differed in how he thought India should pursue its goals, believing that a state which did not achieve Independence through Communism would never truly liberate its poor and workers.

He was especially critical of Mahatma Gandhi whose nationalism, underpinned as it was by spiritualism and a distrust of industrialisation, was exactly the opposite of what he believed in.

“Dear Comrade Gandhi,” wrote Saklatvala in 1927. “You are preparing the country not for mass civil disobedience but for servile obedience and for a belief that there are superior persons on earth and Mahatmas in this life at a time when in this country the white man’s prestige is already a dangerous obstacle in our way.”

Gandhi responded by acknowledging that, while his sincerity was “transparent”, Saklatvala’s opinions of his khadi movement and thoughts on industrialisation were “misguided”. “We do stand at opposite poles,” Gandhi concluded.

Fighting the good fight

A self-described “Tilakite extremist”, Saklatvala chose a Congress mass rally in Ahmedabad to criticise the route the party was taking. “Awake your peasantry from slumber,” he urged those present. “You will never get freedom if you do not work with the village folk.”

He left India after meeting Gandhi in Nagpur, parting with the Mahatma on cordial terms, and stating that India’s best chance for freedom lay with the Congress party.

The British were horrified. Concerned by his speeches and any potential Communist activity in their most valuable colony, he was deemed a security risk and was banned from returning to his homeland. Saklatvala would never see India again.

By 1929, perhaps as a consequence of his refusal to discuss his constituency, Saklatvala had lost his seat, though he continued to be an important figure in the fight for Independence.

He hosted the leader of the Self-Respect Movement, Periyar, when the latter came to Britain in 1932, and even had a curious run-in with VK Krishna Menon, after the latter polled more votes than him in a 1934 London borough election.

Saklatvala died on January 16, 1936, in London after suffering a heart attack. He was cremated, and his ashes were buried next to those of his parents and JN Tata in Brookwood Cemetery on a plot of land owned by the Anglo-Parsi community.

Marc Wadsworth, author of the biography Comrade Sak, writes that Saklatvala was a precursor to “the future generations of migrants… who have tried to forge for themselves a role in shaping their own destiny in Britain whilst at the same time remaining concerned with the fate of their country of origin.” In Britain, he is remembered as a titan of the Communist movement – their main hall in London, located a few streets away from Ambedkar Hall, is named after him.

Whether his legacy is remembered in India, the country which he spent all of his life fighting for and whose freedom he would never witness, is another story altogether.