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Shapurji Saklatvala: The Communist in the Tata family

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

Shapurji Dorabji Saklatvala, (March, 1874-January,1936), was an Indian-born British politician and trade unionist. He was the son of Dorabji Saklatvala and Jerbai, youngest daughter of Nusserwanji Tata.

Saklatvala moved to London in the late 1905 and became involved in socialist and labor movements. He joined the Independent Labour Party and later the Communist Party of Great Britain. Saklatvala, was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Battersea North in the 1922 general election, one of the few people of Indian origin to be elected to the British Parliament. During his time in Parliament, Saklatvala campaigned for workers' rights, social justice, and Indian independence.

The lesser-known fact about him is that he’s one of the founding members of Tata Steel. It was Dorabji Tata and Shahpurji, along with surveyor C.M. Weld who undertook the responsibility for creating a steel plant in the lands of River Subarnarekha and Kharkhai. Had it not been for him, his determinantion and obstinacy, that Dorabji found troublesome, there is a very little chance that Tata Steel, as we see it now, would have been achieved. Or as his daughter, Sehri said, " certainly would have been much delayed" . But a very less credit has been given to Shahpurji for his dedication and efforts for creating the largest industry of India.

Here is an excerpt from the book "The Zoroastrian Diaspora", written by John Hinnells:

'He [Jamsetji] turned the young Shapurji against his own father and favoured him to the extent that his own son [Dorabji] was jealous, something which caused Saklatvalla problems later on. He studied at the Catholic St. Xaviers’ College… In the early years of the twentieth century he and some friends worked with a bacteriologist, Prof. Vladimir Haffkine, immunizing Bombay’s poor against bubonic plague. Haffkine had left Russia to escape Tsarist surveillance, and it is reasonable to suppose that his socialist views influenced Saklatvalla. After this experience he spent time depressed in a sanatorium. He joined Tatas in 1901, and in 1902 began prospecting for iron and coal in Central India with Dorabji Tata and an American... He pursued this quest further than either of the Tatas did, sometimes to the detriment of his own health in the jungles and swamps … and to his own future career disadvantage because of Dorabji’s increasing jealousy. More than any of his colleagues he lived among, and worked with, the labourers, presumably out of his growing socialist convictions, but certainly to their reinforcement'

In 1905, Saklatvala's health deteriorated significantly due to malaria. This is when, Dorabji seized the ideal moment to send his despised cousin away from Bombay.

An excerpt from the book ‘The Fifth Commandment’, written by Sehri Saklatvala, daughter of Shapurji, reads:

“But, although Father had contributed in large measure to the foundations of the company, he was not given any position in T.I.S.C.O. by Dorabji. Instead, he was appointed to investigate irregularities that were suspected in the running of the Taj Mahal Hotel. He must have been hurt by this slight but never complained about it to anyone; unless, perhaps, he confided in his father with whom the family was staying in Bombay.”

Then, Saklatvala sent on a ship with Dorabji Saklatvala and his wife, destined for Britain, where he would seek medical treatment for his illness. But it was largely to get him away

from the Tata family buisness in Bombay and Jamshedpur.

Upon his arrival in England in 1905, Saklatvala stayed at Smedley’s Hydro, a health spa at Matlock, a working-class Derbyshire town. It was here that he met Sally Marsh, a hotel waitress he would eventually marry in 1907. Meeting Marsh was a pivotal moment for Saklatvala, not just personally but also politically. Through her, Saklatvala was granted his first intimate view of working-class life in Britain.

In the year 1909, he was convinced to join the National Liberal Club. However, after a few months immersed in its environment, he became disillusioned and made the decision to part ways with the Liberal Party permanently.

Political Campaign
Shapurji Saklatvala's Political Campaign 1931. Image Courtesy: The British Library

After a span of 12 years, Saklatvala made the decision to join the Communist Party. As part of this transition, he relocated his family to a residence in Highgate, conveniently located near the cemetery where his admired figure, Karl Marx, rests in eternal peace.

Harry Pollitt, Former General Secretary of Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) wrote In Memoriam—Comrade Shapurji Saklatvala

'By 1910, he had emerged as one of the most dedicated participants within the Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.). Within the I.L.P., he consistently fought against the influence of MacDonald and Snowden, seeking to counter their impact.

The great revolution in Russia in 1917 made a tremendous impression upon Shapurji Saklatvala and he became one of the foremost in popularizing its historic significance, and a leader in the People’s Russian Information Bureau.

He also took an active part in the Left-wing group inside the I.L.P. Which in 1919 began the political struggle for the I.L.P. to join the Communist International.

He came to the Communist Party in 1921 with other members of the I.L.P. and became at once a great force inside the Communist Party. Also, of course, this step of Saklatvala’s had a tremendous significance throughout the Indian nationalist and revolutionary movements.

In 1922, although a Communist, he was elected Labor Member for North Battersea. He lost his seat in 1923, but regained it in 1924.

In 1929, he was faced with Labor opposition and was defeated.

In September, 1925, Saklatvala was to go to the United States as a member of the British Delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Conference, but Mr. Kellogg, the Secretary of State, revoked his visa on the grounds that the United States did not admit revolutionaries.

For his activities during the general strike in May, 1926, he was given two months in jail.

In 1927, Saklatvala went to India and was given a reception by the masses wherever he went, such as falls to the lot of few men to get. From India he wanted to go to Egypt, but was refused permission to do so, and on his return to England, the government revoked his permit to visit India again.

He—an Indian of whom all India was proud—was denied access to his own country.

Even the Labor government of 1929-31 refused to remove this outrageous ban on one whose life was dedicated to the cause of his people and the freedom of his country.

In 1934, Saklatvala again visited the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and was enthusiastically welcomed by the workers in Leningrad and Moscow.

But the proudest moments of his life, he recently told me, were those he spent in Turkestan, Kazakstan and Trans-Caucasia, where for weeks he was enthusiastically greeted by the toiling masses freed from the yoke of tsarism by the great proletarian revolution in Russia.

He saw the new industry, new collective agriculture, new culture and life, that free peoples can develop when once communism has given them their independence and emancipation.

“Oh, Harry, what my people could do in India,” he said, “if only they were as free as my comrades in these autonomous republics of the U.S.S.R.”

This experience seemed to give even Comrade Saklatvala a new and greater energy and impulse in all his later work.

He went with renewed enthusiasm into the struggle for Indian freedom and independence, for solidarity between British and Indian workers, and for unity among all those organizations in India that fight against British imperialism.

On the very day of his death he carried on this work. I know that all Thursday, and to within two hours of death claiming him he had been patiently trying to bring about unity between two groups of Indian comrades in London.

Shapurji Saklatvala was a symbol of the unity of the toiling masses of India and of the British working class against imperialism. In the Soviet Union, in the land of the freed nations, he felt that he was in his fatherland.'

Saklatvala's unwavering dedication to his political causes took a heavy toll on his personal life. His political opponents resorted to false accusations, portraying him as a practitioner of "terrorist tactics" and someone who suppressed freedom of speech. Regular police raids on his home and interference with his correspondence by secret services became routine. His ability to engage in political activities was significantly restricted when the Foreign Office barred him from visiting Egypt, America, Belgium, and India.

In 1926, following a speech he delivered in Hyde Park at the beginning of the General Strike, Saklatvala found himself imprisoned. He received a two-month sentence for sedition after urging soldiers not to break the strike. Soon after his release from Wormwood Scrubs prison, he resumed his tireless advocacy by embarking on a tour, delivering speeches at solidarity meetings across the country.

Saklatvala saw the impact of colonialism not solely through its effects on the colonized but on the ability of workers in Britain to act. His presence did much to bolster the nascent labor and anti-colonial movement in an extremely successful speaking tour around India as an MP in 1927. He condemned British rule in India as the lynchpin of “our people’s perpetual starvation, ignorance, physical deterioration and social backwardness.”

"British rule in India means a standing curb on Egypt, Iraq, Persia, and Afghanistan. British rule in India means an overpowering militarism by the British that compels the rest of the world to weigh itself down under the cursed burden of armaments. British rule in India mean the continual menace to the wages, to the work, and the living standard of the British masses, and an actual frustration of their trade union rights and socialist aims."

Despite numerous temptations and offers to moderate his political stance, including an opportunity to serve as the Under-Secretary for India, Saklatvala adamantly refused to abandon his communist ideals. Unlike many politicians driven by personal ambition, he remained steadfast.

His son, Beram wrote:

"Nothing but death could end his courage and determination in the cause of humanity. Nothing but such determination could conquer death.....His work lives on"

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