An Indian Communist in Britain

Print edition : November 21, 1998

Comrade Sak: A Political Biography by Marc Wadsworth; Peepal Tree; 9.99.

BETWEEN its formation in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its effective disappearance in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) only ever had four elected Members of Parliament. This book is a sympathetic biography of the most unconventional of this quartet of Communists.

Shapurji Saklatvala was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1874 as a minor member of the Tata dynasty, the pioneers of Indian capitalism and who now run India's largest industrial conglomerate. After a Jesuit education, Saklatvala was taken into the family business, exploring for minerals in the remote parts of Bihar and Orissa. Three years on he became seriously ill with malaria and returned to Bombay. There, his increasingly outspoken views on home rule for India led his irritated family to take the opportunity to ship him off to England to recuperate.

By 1907, he was a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation. In 1909, he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He returned to India in 1912 to manage the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay for the family, but the assignment did not last. Within the year, he was exiled back to England in order to ensure that his nationalist views did not endanger the family's business interests.

Saklatvala threw himself into the activities of the City of London branch of the ILP where anti-colonialism was the order of the day, a view not always shared at the time across the Labour Movement. It was there that he gained a national reputation in Britain as a speaker and made the contacts that were to result in his candidature for the North Battersea constituency.

Battersea had a radical reputation. In 1913 it had elected John Archer as Britain's first black Mayor and it was Archer who promoted him for the Labour candidacy for the 1922 general elections despite the fact that Saklatvala had added the newly formed CPGB to his membership portfolio. Even in the face of overt racism coupled with a series of 'red scares', he won in 1922 by over 2,000 votes. But he lost in 1923 by less than 200 votes and finally won again in 1924 by more than 500 votes. Each time he stood as a Labour candidate who was also a member of the Communist Party.

It was during this period that the variable geometry of Left coalitions promoting Labour candidates became increasingly polarised into the Labour and Communist parties as the former resisted infiltration and the latter provoked expulsion. After the 1924 conference of the Labour Party imposed a ban on dual membership in the two parties, Saklatvala survived the ban merely because there was no time to remove him before the general elections. Once in Parliament, he acted occasionally as his own and more often as the CPGB's man.

Saklatvala was more the member for India than for Battersea, constantly castigating the Government for the cruelties of an Empire on which the sun never set and the blood never dried. After one tour of India, where he rowed with Gandhi, he was banned from returning. He was banned from the United States also and the Special Branch kept a careful watch over him. He dutifully followed the CPGB into the political wasteland of its Social Fascist period and let himself be publicly censured by the party for allowing his five children to be initiated into Zoroastrianism.

After his defeat in 1929 he tried, increasingly forlornly, to get back into the House of Commons, even into the local Council. He came fourth and last (behind a Scottish Nationalist) in a byelection in Glasgow Shettleston in 1930. His final campaign saw him reduced to the 14th place with a pitiful tally of 106 votes in a campaign for St. Pancras Council. He died in 1936, and the party named a brigade in the Spanish Civil war after him.

Marc Wadsworth has helped reclaim from history an important role model for today's black community. He deserves thanks. Comrade Sak shows how an Indian Parsi and a Communist had to face and overcome racism, prejudice and misunderstanding from those whose ideologies should have guaranteed them free of, at least, the first two.

Saklatvala never held any senior office in the CPGB. It was said that this was due either to his connections with the wealthy Tata family or to his religious beliefs, or to either his independence of mind or his lack of Marxist-Leninist theory. However, considering that the CPGB's weekly paper The Communist headlined a story 'Outcry Against the Black Horror' in 1922 about the French using black troops to occupy the Rhineland, one begins to wonder if other forces were not at play that are still with us today.

Glyn Ford is the Member of the European Parliament from Greater Manchester East.

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