Surat Alley was the British representative of the All-India Seamen’s Federation (AISF), who led a wave of strikes in 1939 and 1940 in British ports of Indian seafarers, when, despite repeated jailings, mass desertions by Indian, Chinese, Caribbean, and African seafarers on British ships followed, constituting about a third of the wartime merchant fleet. Ships registered in South Africa, Burma and Australia were also affected. The British Board of Trade, worried over similar demands from white seamen, had got the shipowners to withdraw their offer, creating massive confusion for months. 310 Indian sailors had been jailed before the men’s demands were met following negotiations with Alley.
Little has emerged about his early life in India but some describe him as a Bengali and former seamen. Cuttack in Orissa is said to It is likely that he arrived in Britain some time in the early or mid 1930s, and it is known that he married a white woman called Sarah (Sally) Reder, with whom he lived first in London’s East End and later in Glasgow.
While Alley was involved in an extraordinary range of activities and organisations, his struggle for equality for Indian seamen was perhaps his greatest political contribution when in Britain. He held a number of posts in different organisations all of which aimed for the betterment of pay and employment conditions. He was Secretary of the Colonial Seamen’s Association, formed in 1935 by black, South Asian and Chinese seamen in reaction to the racist British Shipping (Assistance) Act.
Organising meetings and rallies, Alley distributed leaflets, and listened to the seamen’s grievances. When the leader of his union in India called off the strikes, having reached an agreement with the authorities, Alley cooperated with this decision but continued to campaign for the release of members from prison and their subsequent re-employment, lobbying the Home Secretary and calling on the TUC for support. Alley gained a reputation among government officials as an agitator and trouble-maker, in spite of their partial reliance on him to negotiate with lascars.
In the early 1940s, Alley wrote pamphlets and issued memos on the appalling conditions of Indian seamen’s hostels in Britain, their lack of compensation and pay when injured during the war, and the insufficiency of their wages. In 1941 he sent his memo titled ‘Indian Seamen in the Merchant Navy’ to the Shipping Federation, the Indian High Commissioner, the Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Labour and National Service, urging their intervention.
But the authorities repeatedly stonewalled him, claiming intervention could only come from India. In September 1943, when the All-India Seamen’s Federation was starting to disintegrate, Alley launched the All-India Seamen’s Centre, which was soon merged with the India Seamen’s Union. The inaugural meeting, held at British Council House, Liverpool, was attended by ninety seamen and other South Asians, as well as spokesmen from the National Union of Seamen, the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and several other organisations.
By 1944 the AISC had branches in London, Glasgow and Liverpool. Alley worked hard, disseminating information in Urdu and Bengali as well as English, and urging seamen to join in order to better protect their rights and interests. His years of activism did see some small successes, although these were generally credited by the authorities to the ship-owners rather than to Alley himself.
Surat Alley’s political interests extended much wider. He was Honorary Secretary of the Hindustani Social Club, an organisation committed to the social welfare of working-class Indians in Britain as well as to raising their consciousness of the struggle for Indian independence. In this capacity, he helped to put on a charity performance by Ram Gopal and his troupe at the Vaudeville Theatre in December 1939.
Alley was also general secretary of the Oriental Film Artistes’ Union, working with Ben Bradley (see separate entry) to extend the work of the African and Asian Film Artistes’ Union which preceded it. He was involved with Swaraj House, formed in 1942 as a break-away group from the Committee of Indian Congressmen in Great Britain because of the pro-Japanese stance of some. Its purpose was to provide a space where Indians would be able to meet freely and exchange frankly political ideas. It offered its premises to all Indians, in particular students, professionals, businessmen, workers, and seamen. The reading room had newspapers from India and Britain as well as a library on India. It actively organised lectures, discussions and study circles on India and international affairs.
In 1943 Alley helped to set up the Federation of Indian Associations in Great Britain which brought together the middle-class members of Swaraj House with the working-class members of the Indian Workers’ Association.
Surveillance reports suggest he was an associate of the revolutionary Udham Singh. Shortly after Singh’s arrest in 1940, Alley’s lodgings were searched. Not just confining himself to Indian organizations, Alley was also an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, helping them to gain access to the Indian working classes, and worked as an ARP warden in the Second World War.
An MI5 report on him read thus, the reference to Carritt, is Bill Carritt (see separate entry).
Surat Ali in recent months has continued his activities on behalf of Indian seamen and his Oriental Film Artistes’ Union, but is very seriously hampered in both respects by war conditions. Over the UDHAM SINGH case he has established many contacts with the Sikh community in England. He now attends on CARRITT for instructions and pay and appears to have been promoted to more difficult country in his Party activities; for instance, he was sent by CARRITT to speak at the opening of the ‘INDIA EXHIBITION’ when this moved from Cambridge to Oxford (incidentally it was very poorly attended there). He addressed the FEDIND in April, spoke at an Empire Day meeting, and one or two other major Party fixtures. Latterly he has been advised to do no open Party work lest he be arrested, and to burn his papers and remove his Communist books to safe addresses. He has been specially zealous in endeavouring to work up Poplar Communist activities to the same level already reached by Stepney, and by way of encouragement was recently made Propaganda Secretary for Poplar. He is also a regular attendant at meetings of the Colonial Committee of the CPGB.
It is probable that he was born in 1907 and died in 1964.
Sources: Various editions of the Daily Worker; National Archives, Indian Communist Activities in London’, dated 29 July 1940.