Shapurji Saklatvala, Sak to those who knew him, was briefly the Labour MP and then the Communist MP for Battersea North in South west London in the 1920s
He was a remarkable individual. Born into the wealthiest family in India he came to Britain in 1905. Originally for a short stay but upon meeting his future wife, who was English, he made Britain his home.
Already a supporter of the Indian National Congress upon his arrival he gradually became influenced by socialist writers and speakers and joined both the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation. After the outbreak of the First World War he became an increasingly active member of the ILP.
His involvement brought him to national prominence. Influenced by the Russian Revolution he moved to the left.
In 1921 he was adopted as the Labour candidate for Battersea. There were no bans on Communist party members being members of the Labour party. Sak had joined the CPGB soon after the ILP’s refusal to affiliate to the Communist International in March 1921.
At the 1922 General Election he was elected as the Labour MP for Battersea North. Defeated at another election the same year he was re-elected at a third election in 1924. This time who was returned as a Communist MP although backed by the left leaning local Labour party and trades council. There were still no bans on CP members being members of the Labour party. This did not come into force until 1925.
He remained Battersea’s MP until defeated by a Labour candidate at the 1929 election. By this time communists could no longer be members of the Labour party.
Unlike many Labour MPs Sak involved himself in the extra parliamentary struggle. Arrested in 1926 during the General Strike on his realise he addressed mass meetings all over the country. He was a fantastic orator and one of the CPs leading and popular speakers.
While an MP, he visited India in 1927 and met with Gandhi. Both men agreed over India’s freedom from British rule but disagreed how this was to be achieved. While there Sak meet many Indian communists and laid the basis for the cotton workers strike in Meerut, which lead to the famous Meerut Conspiracy Trial.
Through his political life Sak was active in India’s liberation movement. Through organisation like the Workers Welfare League of India which raised awareness amongst British workers about India’s plight, through to the Indian National Congress of which he was a London member. He wrote pamphlets about India, contributed to Commissions on India’s welfare and was regarded by some in the right wing media as India’s MP in parliament.
He was knowledgable on India and had it not been for his commitment to the Communist party his secretary during his time in parliament believes that he could have become Labour’s spokesperson for the colonies. High office indeed.
Sak’s life does blow rather a hole in the argument of many commentators of CPGH history. They all argue, with some honourable exceptions that British communists were dictated to by Moscow through the Communist International. This is particularly so with the adoption of the Class against Class policy from 1929-35.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sak was advocating such a policy from 1925 onwards. His experiences of Labour in power and its lack of support for the Labour movement, and India, led him to write a letter to the party’s Executive Committee three years before Class against Class, urging them to change the party’s policy in exactly the direction advocated by the Class against Class strategists.
After his election defeat in 1929 Sak stood as Communist candidate again in Battersea, but also in Shettleston in Glasgow at a bye election.
He spoke at a whole number of meetings in support of the party’s new daily paper, the Daily Worker, launched in 1930.
In 1934 he visited the Soviet Union and was very impressed with the Union’s eastern republics which were Muslin. He spoke at meetings about the progress they had made under Soviet rule on his return. It was on his visit that he suffered a heart attack.
He survived another two years and died in January 1936.
Harry Pollitt, the party leader led the oration at Sak’s cremation in Golders Green Crematorium.
Apart from his political life Sak was a devoted family man. He met his English wife in Derbyshire soon after his arrival here. They married and had five children. Living most of their life near Parliament Hill Fields in London.
As Harry Pollitt said at his funeral, “He will live again in work to come”
Author: Mike Squires