The "MP for India"

Submitted by AWL on 23 September, 2020 - 9:13 Author: Sacha Ismail
Nationalist demonstration in India, 1920s

This is part four of a series. For the other articles, see here.
Buy our pamphlet on Saklatvala here.

"I pay homage to the British spirit of hypocritical statesmanship... We are debating here as if the [viciously repressive] Bengal ordinances were never promulgated, as if the shooting of Bombay operatives during the cotton strike had never taken place, as if a great strike of thousands of railway workers is not even now going on in the Punjab, with men starving … as if a great controversy is not raging, not only with the people of India but with people all over the world, whether British Imperialism, whatever its past history, is at all permissible to exist now… Is there a single British man or woman today… who would tolerate for one day a power so despotic and arbitrary as the crown, under the imperial system, is insisting upon enjoying in India?"

– Saklatvala in the UK Parliament, 1925

Struggle against the colonial imperialisms which dominated during Shapurji Saklatvala's lifetime, and in particular against the British Empire and its rule in India, was at the heart of his work – including as an MP. Not for nothing was the Member for Battersea North attacked as the "Member for India".

Saklatvala was the only MP who came from one of the empire's "coloured" subject peoples (though from a well-off background within it). He made his name in the British labour movement as a militant advocate of anti-imperialism; and he was selected in Battersea not despite but because of that. Becoming popular among many working people in the UK and India (and elsewhere), he used his unique position to try to "pull the two working-class brotherhoods together".

Anti-imperialism and socialism

Leading members of Saklatvala's family were moderate nationalists with links to the British Liberal hierarchy (others were more conservative and straightforwardly supported the empire). According to Communist Reg Bishop, Saklatvala's secretary as an MP, a "furious argument" with Liberal Secretary of State for India John Morley – a long-standing critic of imperialism nonetheless overseeing extensive repression – was instrumental in him leaving the "Liberal mausoleum" and joining the socialist movement.

As a result of his anti-colonialism, before the First World War Saklatvala was already subject to state surveillance, which would later intensify.

In 1911, he worked with a group of British and Indian trade unionists seeking links to support workers' struggles in India. He wrote to leaders in the Labour Party and the TUC; the responses were disappointing and disillusioning. The project fizzled out, but prefigured the later Workers' Welfare League of India in which Saklatvala was an organiser.

The rising British labour movement was in a vague way hostile to imperialism; the first Labour Representation Committee manifesto, in 1900, had called for "legislative independence for all parts of the empire". As the response to Saklatvala's 1911 appeal showed, this did not represent a committed or active priority, even when posed in simple trade union terms. Some more radical socialists were sharper and more committed, but far from all.

After joining the Independent Labour Party in 1909, Saklatvala spoke at many meetings about India and anti-colonial struggles. His ILP branch, City of London, became known as a champion of colonial liberation movements, including in Africa.

At his first ILP conference, in 1918, Saklatvala appealed to the delegates to be "more definite in their internationalism", and successfully moved a motion for Indian independence and links with the Indian National Congress.

The Russian revolution had a big impact. In a letter to Arthur Field, Workers' Welfare League of India activist and anti-imperialist collaborator in the ILP and then the CP, he described the milieu of labour activists who supported World War 1 as "rotten". The revolution inspired and re-energised him, as it did many thousands of socialists in Britain.

Saklatvala was impressed by the Bolsheviks' more-than-verbal commitment to socialism and internationalism – strongly in line with his view, expressed in the ILP's Labour Leader, that internationalism was not "not a secondary and remote stage of evolutionary development, but… a primary and unneglectable factor" in socialism's success.

He was struck by the parallels between Russia and India. From then on he would refer to this repeatedly, contrasting the Russian revolutionaries' emancipation and uplift of "Asiatic" peasants with the repressive policies of the British Empire.


Internationalist activism was a key part of how Saklatvala first made links with the labour movement in Battersea. In addition to Arthur Field, local Labour treasurer and London Trades Council secretary Duncan Carmichael was also active in the Workers' Welfare League.

Battersea's labour movement had a well-established anti-imperialist tradition, rooted in part in a large population of Irish-background workers. In 1913 it elected the first black mayor in London, pan-Africanist John Archer, of Irish and Barbadian descent.

Archer became a friend and ally of Saklatvala's, championed his selection in Battersea North, and ran his three successful election campaigns. He arranged for him to speak on colonialism at the 1921 Pan-African Congress in London. (Later, as Labour drove out the CP, the two fell out, and Archer ran the 1929 campaign which ejected Saklatvala from Parliament.)

Saklatvala's election literature referred extensively to his background and his anti-imperialism. The main leaflet for his first election (1922) included statements from K S Bhat of the Workers' Welfare League ("unity of interest between Labour in India and Labour in Britain"), from Duncan Carmichael ("your election… would be a message of hope and encouragement to the awakening masses of our fellow workers in the East") and from the founding conference of the All-India Trade Union Congress in 1920. Even Labour leader J R Clynes managed an insipid statement about Saklatvala working to improve "the economic conditions of our fellow subjects in India".

Saklatvala raised funds not only from the Battersea labour movement but supporters in India. Shortly after his selection, he attended a meeting of Indians in London, pledging to represent their interests in Parliament too.

Straightforward racism seems to have played relatively little role (openly at least) in the rightwing agitation against him. On rare occasions of anything like it, it caused uproar among his - almost entirely white - local supporters. The core line of attack against Saklatvala was anti-Communism, which stressed his opposition to Britain's "constitution" – including the empire. His foreignness was thus more or less directly invoked.

Although racism was very widespread, in a situation where the UK's black and brown population was small it was not widely used as a political weapon. Loyalty to the empire was.

As an MP Saklatvala supported struggles by ethnic minority workers in Britain, including against discrimination; and fought to end the "colour bars" in restaurants and dancehalls which he learned were operating in several cities. But there is no doubt he saw anti-imperialism as his focus.

Labour and empire

The Labour Party for which Saklatvala became an MP in 1922 was moving to the right on imperialism, as it prepared to administer the British state.

Labour spokespeople and activists, even on the left, had tended to positively advocate self-government only for India, Egypt and Ireland, with a view or implication that Britain's African colonies among others were not ready for it. There was widespread anti-black racism in the labour movement, reflected in post-war agitation around black troops from France's colonies in the occupied Rhineland. Such material was occasionally reproduced by the Communist Party.

The main spectrum of left opinion on India during the war was distinctly reformist, with Dominion Status inside the empire presented as the most radical option. Labour leaders encouraged the Indian national movement to work within the very limited system of representation conceded by the 1919 Government of India Act, despite continuing repression. The same year as the Act British forces massacred hundreds of civilians in Amritsar.

Saklatvala embodied and contributed to the rise of a radically different viewpoint, advocating universal decolonisation – including complete independence for India – and mass mobilisation to win it. "Of course", he would write later, in a 1926 pamphlet, "socialism means the destruction of the British Empire". At the same time, he was an active campaigner for reforms short of a socialist India - and even short of independence.

Although he was sometimes consulted by the Labour leadership on colonial issues, even his more limited proposals would be ignored.

The 1922 Labour manifesto committed to the "independence of Egypt and self-government for India"; it combined support for "efforts" towards a united Ireland with effective immediate support for the British-imposed peace treaty of 1921, which blocked a fully independent Irish republic and partitioned the island. Its manifesto in 1923, when it won office for the first time, said nothing about the colonies. This was no accident. The Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald not only preserved the British Empire, but failed to make even minimal changes in its administration. It continued and even stepped up the repression against India's growing nationalist and workers' movements.

The claim to be committed to non-violence, commented Leon Trotsky in Where is Britain Going? (1925), "in no way prevents MacDonald from strutting round India and Egypt in the sacred footsteps of the great Christian, Curzon [former Viceroy of India and Tory Foreign Secretary]. MacDonald as a Christian recoils from violence 'with horror'; as prime minister he applies all the methods of capitalist oppression, and hands over the instruments of force to his Conservative successor intact."

Saklatvala lost his seat for a year in 1923, so was out of Parliament during the first Labour government. Nonetheless, MacDonald et al's failure to implement even reforms in the empire was at the heart of his increasing alienation from the Labour Party. In 1924 he returned to Parliament as a Communist, but with the push to force CPers out of Labour, he was no longer even formally consulted by the Labour leaders.

In 1922-3, when Saklatvala was a Labour MP and concerned not to unnecessarily antagonise the leadership, he was nonetheless vocal in Parliament about imperialism. He stressed that he was "no narrow nationalist". He intervened not just on India, but also China and African countries. He was extremely active against the 1921 Irish Treaty, the partition of Ireland, and repression of Irish republican activists in Britain; and he visited Ireland a number of times. After 1924 his anti-imperialism became more outspoken still.

Indian and British workers

Many of the immediate reforms Saklatvala demanded for India were focused on workers' rights.

From 1918 he was central to the Workers' Welfare League of India, founded by British and Indian labour activists the year before. In 1918, when the Montagu-Chelmsford report on the government of India was published, the League pointed out its indifference to appalling labour conditions there. It submitted proposals, including the right to vote for all Indians, a mass education program, a government-led drive to push up wages, and radical changes to labour laws. It lobbied (unsuccessfully) for trade unionists to be included on the committees preparing what would become the Government of India Bill.

Running through the WWLI campaign was the idea that the rights and living standards workers in India should be lifted to match those of workers in Britain. This would become be a very important theme for Saklatvala.

Until 1927, the WWLI was officially recognised as the British voice of the All-India Trade Union Congress. Addressing the Scottish TUC in 1923, Saklatvala sought to link the struggles of jute workers in the competing factories of Bengal and Scotland. He argued that:

"...unless there was a uniform standard of wages in the Jute Industries of Bengal and Dundee, the black worker terrorised in Bengal would deprive the Scottish worker and his children of the necessities of life.… There must be unions of human beings in the trade without geographical barriers. [Delegates should] understand that International Trade Unionism was not the ultimate development, but the first essential."

He spoke at workers' meetings in Dundee, calling for "trade unionism without race or colour consideration".

The Labour MP for Dundee, Edmund Morel, demonstrated how far behind Saklatvala the bulk of the labour movement stood by denouncing his proposals as "communist propaganda". Morel had been central to the racist campaign about black French troops in Germany.

In 1925, in the parliamentary speech quoted at the start of this article, Saklatvala developed the idea about international workers' standards:

"You had your struggles, and we have ours.... you are talking in contradictory terms... If you decide to go to India and revolutionise the lives of the Eastern people [through industrialisation], you do not talk of castes, you do not talk of Hindu and Mohammedan ideas, or of the depressed classes. When it is your intention to start cotton factories, jute factories, steel works, engineering works, post offices, railways and telegraphs, you do not say, 'We cannot do it, because India is cut up by caste, or because of Hindu and Mohammedan hatreds, or because there are depressed classes.' With just the same ease... with which you start these machines for grinding human life and freedom here, you start factories, mines, railroads and dockyards there. Nothing stands in your way then."

British capitalists used every excuse imaginable to justify not improving wages and conditions in India – just as, even without colonialism, multinationals do in lower-wage countries today.

Saklatvala stressed that, for British workers, supporting workers in India was a matter of solidarity and self-interest. If Indian workers were not pulled up to the British level, the development of industry in India would begin to "tell its tale" on the rights of workers in Britain too.

Thus, even as Indian and British capitalists manoeuvred against each other, "the mill workers in India and the mill workers of Lancashire will both gain an advantage by standing together, fighting together, working for a common standard of life, demanding the same standard of wages and the same form of franchise, liberty and freedom" (speech in Parliament, 1927).

The WWLI gained significant support in the British labour movement, including not only – for a while – links with the TUC, but a range of active affiliations, including the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and dozens of trades councils and union branches. It brought working-class activists in Britain news of a post-war wave of workers' struggles in India.

As he developed widespread connections on the British left, Saklatvala also made links with Indian worker-activists and nationalists linked to Indian workers' struggles. Many now became leaders in India's accelerating labour movement. His friend Diwan Chaman Lall was first general secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress.

Saklatvala was attacked in the House of Commons for alleged hypocrisy, given that his family were large employers in India. He replied: "The Parsi capitalist class is just as abominable and as much to be avoided as the class to which the Honourable Member and his friends belong in this country."

Part five, with more on Saklatvala, India and colonialism, here

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