Although the celebrated Communist MP from the 1920s, Shapurji Saklatvala (`Sak’ to many) was not a foundation member of the Communist Party, he joined it within months of its establishment, after the ILP’s Annual Conference had rejected a move to affiliate to the Communist International. He remained a loyal and active member of the Communist Party until his death in 1936.
Left: Sak in 1922
He was actually the third Indian Member (MP) of the British Parliament, after fellow Parsi Dadabhai Naoroji, a Liberal, and the Conservative, Mancherjee Bhownagree.
Saklatvala was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, on March 28, 1874 the son of a merchant. Sak worked for his wealthy uncle’s firm, Tata Industries, but suffered from poor health and in October 1905 he was sent to England for medical treatment. Saklatvala became involved in left-wing politics and in 1907 he joined the SDF. Two years later he left to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and remained an active member and valued speaker across the country for the next decade.
Saklatvala was adopted as the parliamentary candidate for Battersea North by the Battersea Labour Party and Trades Council, in June 1921. He had just resigned from the Independent Labour Party, and had joined the Communist Party. At that time it was possible to be both a member of the Communist Party and the Labour Party at the same time. There were no bans on joint membership until 1925. Shapurji Saklatvala was elected the Labour MP for Battersea North at the General Election in 1922. He lost his seat a year later, but was re-elected, this time as a Communist, at the December 1923 election. He represented the South London constituency for five years until defeated by a Labour candidate in 1929.
Throughout all three of Saklatvala’s election campaigns, when he was the candidate of the Battersea Trades Council, the press was vitriolic in its attack on his revolutionary politics. During the 1923 campaign, Hogbin, Saklatvala’s opponent, fed information to the press –which enthusiastically followed his line – that there were `foreign gangs’ operating in the constituency, with the supposed aim of breaking up Hogbin’s meetings. Hogbin referred to a gang of `Irish rebels’, including `twenty gunmen’ and another of “continental and Russian communists".
But it is profoundly significant that for five years, from Saklatvala’s initial adoption until 1926, there was no challenge to his candidacy from within the local Labour movement. When a challenge did come, it was in response to national influences, and not local politics, and had nothing whatsoever to do with Saklatvala’s racial origin.
Right: an election poster from 1924
Although initially the local `coloured’ activist John Archer and Saklatvala worked together in the Battersea Labour Party and Trades Council, when the split came over the admissibility of communists, they were on different sides. Archer supported the Communists’ expulsion, and when an official Trades and Labour Council was established in July 1926, became the first secretary of the North Battersea Divisional Labour Party. He campaigned against the old Trades Council and championed Saklatvala’s Labour rival at the 1929 General Election. “Although Saklatvala and Archer were non whites operating in an overwhelmingly white Labour movement, their careers in the 1920s illustrate that politics and not race was the determining factor when it came to allegiances.”
Saklatvala faced many other pressures. His secretary, Reg Bishop, in an obituary in the Daily Worker wrote: "For the first year or two after his election as the MP for Battersea North, there were many who tried to get him to break from the Communist Party. The Under Secretaryship of State for India was the smallest of inducements held out if he would only be more orthodox in his politics".
During 1926 Saklatvala was a strong supporter of the miners. After one speech made in Hyde Park he urged the army not to fire on the strikers. Saklatvala was arrested and found guilty of sedition was sentenced to two months in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.
For its continued support for Saklatvala, the Battersea Labour Party and Trades Council was disaffiliated in 1926, and a few months later a new Labour Party and Trades Council was established. There was rivalry between the two organisations for a period, but by the time of the 1929 General Election the old Trades Council existed in name only. In 1927 Stephen Sanders, a long time activist in the Battersea Labour movement, was adopted as the official Labour candidate, and this effectively signalled the end of Saklatvala’s success. He lost the seat in 1929, and his vote declined even further at the election of 1931. By the time of the next General Election in 1935, in line with the Communist Party’s new strategy he urged his supporters in the constituency to vote Labour.
Saklatvala’s socialism came about as a direct result of his opposition to colonialism. He settled in Britain from India in 1905 at the age of 30 having left India, in part, because of his brushes with the British authorities. In 1909, at Manchester, where he was working as a departmental manager for Tata’s, he joined the Independent Labour Party. From then onwards Saklatvala was to spend much of his time in pursuit of his two main concerns — socialism and anti colonialism. Although his socialist ideas, under the impact of the Russian Revolution, underwent a radical transformation, his approach to colonial freedom remained consistent. That is he constantly sought to build a united front between the workers of Britain and the forces for liberation in the colonies.
This approach can be seen in one of the first Labour movement organisations to concern itself with anti-imperialism, the Workers Welfare League of India. The league was established by Saklatvala in 1917. Saklatvala was the first secretary of the League’s Indian Committee.
A number of national Trade Unions were affiliated to it, as were numerous trade union branches. At a time when support for colonialism was strong, even amongst organised sections of the working class, the Workers Welfare League of India, strongly influenced by Saklatvala’s united front approach, made some headway in breaking down barriers between the British and Indian Labour movements.
The League Against Imperialism, which was not solely concerned with British colonialism, was another body that Saklatvala was to play a prominent role in. Formed in 1927, the League drew together many of the national liberation movements. At its founding Congress in Brussels in February 1927, there were 175 delegates from 37 countries. Saklatvala’s commitment to the League led to a brief legal arrest. In a message to the founding congress of the Communist Party of India in 1925, Saklatvala had made clear his own, and the British Party’s commitment to the building of a broad anti-colonial alliance, as the way to win self determination. In pursuit of this, he then made a widely publicised visit to India, in 1927, which lasted three months and was so successful that, on his return, the British Government denied him any future access to the country of his birth. During the visit he was given the freedom of a number of Indian cities, and granted an official welcome by the Madras and Calcutta City authorities. He met and entered into a dialogue with Gandhi, later published as a pamphlet by the British Party, entitled, `Is India Different?’
Below: Sak speaks to a 1933 anti-fascist rally
Saklatvala also made contact with Communist groups that had recently been established. He also met Phil Spratt and George Allison, both members of the British Communist Party, sent work under cover to help organise the Indian trade union movement. Soon after Saklatvala’s visit Allison was deported back to England. In 1928 he was replaced by Ben Bradley, two years after the visit Bradley, Spratt and thirty one other active trade unionists were arrested. There were tried at Meerut in front of an English civil servant, and after four years deliberation, the prisoners were given sentences of between three years, and transportation for life. The Meerut Conspiracy Trial received wide publicity, and because of the indignation it aroused, the sentences were later reduced, and some of the prisoners released. When Ben Bradley, whose ten year sentence was commuted, returned to England in 1933, he was met at Victoria Station by Saklatvala on behalf of the Communist Party. Continuing to play a high profile role for the Party, Shapurji Saklatvala died in 1936.
Below: Sak addresses a 1934 Trafalgar Sq. rally
Sources: Sehri Saklatvala `The Fifth Commandment the biography of Shapurji Saklatvala by his daughter’ ; Mark Wadsworth `Comrade Sak’; Shapurji Saklatvala and the Fight against Racism and Imperialism 1921-28