Shapurji Saklatvala: Britain’s First Communist MP

Shapurji Saklatvala (Image: The Illustrated London News/ Public Domain)
The first communist in the British Parliament was an Indian Parsi from a powerful family of industrialists.

Who knows how history might have played out if Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had replied ‘yes’ to a letter from a revolutionary Parsi communist. In 1927, new leaders were emerging within the ambit of the Indian freedom struggle – Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and Shapurji Saklatvala.

All three had differing views with Gandhi, who was then acknowledged as the Mahatma or ‘Great Soul’. He held the pulse of the masses – a particularly important demographic for the communists. In a fervent series of letters to Gandhi, Saklatvala tried to sway Gandhi to the communist cause. The two had more in common than one would think, as Saklatvala wryly recognized in his opening line:

We are both erratic enough to permit each other to be rude in order to freely express oneself correctly, instead of getting lost in artificiality of phraseology.

Published in 1927, “Is India Different? The Class Struggle in India – Correspondence on the Indian Labour Movement and Modern Conditions,” shows the to and fro that existed between Gandhi and the firebrand Parsi communist; a clash of both words and minds. It is curious that both at different points enjoyed the same patron – the industrialist Tata family.

When Gandhi was fighting for the Indian cause in South Africa, he received a cheque from Ratanji Tata for Rs. 25,000. Saklatvala, on the other hand, was the nephew of J.N. Tata, considered the Father of Indian industry.

Saklatvala initially worked on behalf of the Tatas, exploring India for natural resources. His work helped form the basis of the Tata’s Iron and Steelworks in India (which ironically, are embroiled in an insurgency against Maoist rebels). Following this, he worked in plague hospitals in Bombay. He grew outspoken.

His anti-empire stance was embarrassing for the Tatas – who had close ties with the government. He was dispatched to London, where he soon became a part of the worker’s struggles there. He broke with British liberalism and joined the Social Democratic Front (SDF), then the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and finally, in 1921, the Communist Party. Throughout, he remained a member of Labour.

Battersea was then the hub of radical politics in London. It had a strong Irish population and a powerful working class demographic. In 1922, Saklatvala became an unlikely addition to the Labour Party, running for a seat in North Battersea. That year, he became the first communist to win a seat in the British parliament – though he would contest re-elections the next year and the next. When he won again in 1924, it was on a Communist Party ticket.

His causes were twofold – worker’s rights and Indian emancipation from Britain. He saw the potential for a larger communist movement. This made him a dangerous figure in the eyes of the government. In 1925, his Visa was rejected to visit the United States. Two years later, Britain revoked his passport so he would not be able to visit India either. In 1926, he lost his seat when he was arrested for sedition; on account of a speech he had delivered in Hyde Park.

Politics had been turbulent for Shapurji. But ideas still had the potential to travel. And so, he wrote to Gandhi in the hopes of winning him over to the communists. There was much that he disapproved of in Gandhi’s methods – the Khadi movement being among them – and he made that clear in his letter. He appealed to Gandhi to stop the masses from adulating him so, where they would touch his feet and then their eyes. Shapurji called such ‘touchability’ worse than untouchability.

Gandhi expressed his disapproval of the communist movement in the past, calling it a violent shortcut to success. Saklatvala deeply wished to change his opinion – on both labour and the role of industry.

Yes, when I have cast my eyes on you, I am not going to take any point-blank refusal from you… I should like you to get up one morning as from a dream and to say, ‘Yes,’ and many of us can soon be put together in a good team, and set about putting an end to so many deplorable conditions of life in India, about which none of us has any doubt.

Gandhi’s reply was equally critical, long and to-the-point. An excerpt read:

‘Comrade’ Saklatvala is dreadfully in earnest. His sincerity is transparent. His sacrifices are great. His passion for the poor is unquestioned… But in spite of all my desire to say ‘Yes’ to his appeal, I must say ‘No’ if I am to return sincerity or if I am to act according to my faith.

Gandhi disapproved of the machine-led industrialisation that Saklatvala was supportive of, though in the name of the people. It is curious that both Gandhi and Saklatvala belonged to merchant communities – they both had an intuitive understanding of industry and markets but held opposing views that were outside of the prevailing economic theory.

Saklatvala was a significant figure in the history of communism. During his time in Parliament, he balanced concern for both British and Indian workers. But as one of only two communists in parliament, he was rather powerless. A British M.P, Rennie Smith, noted, “the House tends to empty when Saklatvala speaks.”

Saklatvala was useful to the Communist Party; he represented their opposition to imperialism and to capitalism. But they were also embarrassed by his decision to induct his children into the Parsi faith via the traditional Zoroastrian Navjot rituals.

In the 1934, he visited the Soviet Union and was deeply impressed. But he never lived to see Indian independence. He died in 1936, prompting tributes to pour in from across the world. He was commended for his work to “bring the sufferings of the Indian toilers before the attention of the British Labour movement; Nehru called him a brave and intrepid soldier of freedom. During the Spanish Civil War, the Saklatvala Battalion of British Communist volunteers bore his name.

Saklatvala was driven by a deep desire to change what he saw. As he said:

At every stage of life here I saw the hand of Parliament and Parliamentary law grinding down humanity, scoffing at the rights of masses, rewarding and protecting the strong, bullying and robbing the weak, scorning the manhood and womanhood of my country as a subject race.

He believed that communism was the way forward to achieve his goals. However, powerful figures did not see eye to eye with his methods. History would indeed have played out differently had Gandhi began his reply with a ‘Yes’.


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