Shapurji Saklatvala

28 Mar 1874
16 Jan 1936
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Shapurji Dorabji Saklatvala (1874–1936) was a British politician of Indian Parsi heritage. In 1922 Saklatvala became the third ethnic Indian elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, following Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Bhownagree. He also was among the few members of the Communist Party of Great Britain to serve as a Member of Parliament.

Shapurji Saklatvala was born 28 March 1874 in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, the son of a merchant, Dorabji Saklatvala, and his wife Jerbai, a sister of Jamsetji (aka J.N.) Tata, the owner of India’s largest commercial and industrial empire. He was educated at St. Xavier’s School in Bombay before moving to St. Xavier’s College for his collegiate education.

He worked briefly as an iron and coal prospector for Jamsetji Tatasuccessfully unearthing iron ore and coal deposits in the states of Bihar and Orissa. His health suffered with malaria which led to his moving to England in 1905 to convalesce and run Tata’s Manchester office.He later joined Lincoln’s Inn, although he left before qualifying as a barrister

Saklatvala was a committed socialist and first joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Manchester in 1909.

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia of November 1917 was an inspiration to Saklatvala and following the establishment of the Communist International in 1919 he became active in attempting to affiliate the ILP with that new organisation. Saklatvala joined with Emile Burns, R. Palme Dutt, J. Walton Newbold, Helen Crawfurd, and others as part of an organised faction called the Left Wing Group of the ILP which was dedicated to this effort. When the affiliation drive by Saklatvala and the ILP’s left wing ended in failure in the party’s March 1921 national conference, Saklatvala left the organisation with the others in the Left Wing Group to join the new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

He attended the 2nd Pan-African Congress held in Paris in 1921 as a delegate of the CPGB.

In the October 1922 general election the Communist Party of Great Britain launched its first electoral campaign, putting forward candidates in six constituencies.Saklatvala ran in the Battersea North district of London, one of two Communists to receive the official endorsement of the Labour Party – which was in effect an umbrella organisation which included affiliated political parties like the ILP as well as representatives of various trade unions. Saklatvala won election in North Battersea, receiving 11,311 votes – topping his nearest rival by more than 2,000 votes.Also elected running as a Communist, without official Labour Party support, was J. Walton Newbold, capturing a plurality of the vote in Motherwell.

Saklatvala was accepted into the Labour Party’s parliamentary caucus but while Newbold applied for the same he was rejected.This did not stop Saklatvala and Newbold from joint activity, however, and the pair attempted to raise the demands of the unemployed and the cause of cheap housing and lower rents whenever possible.Newbold wound up being suspended from the House in May 1923 over his actions with respect to the Curzon ultimatum during the French occupation of the Ruhr.

The November 1923 general election saw the CPGB putting forward 9 of its members as candidates, including Shapurji Saklatvala in Battersea North, where he was unanimously adopted as the nominee of the Battersea Labour Party.Although not all the Communist candidates were endorsed by the Labour Party, they all were the recipients of support from local Labour activists. Despite modest gains for Labour in the election overall, the results of the election returned the Conservatives as the largest party in the House of Commons (although their number of seats fell from 346 to 259). All Communist candidates were defeated in the 1923 election, however, including Saklatvala in Battersea North.

The 1924 general election came in the wake of the so-called Zinoviev letter and saw the Conservatives increase their vote by more than 2 million to win the election.The Labour Party saw a net loss of 42 seats despite contesting more constituencies than ever before.In Battersea North, Saklatvala ran without formal Labour Party endorsement for the first time, but still managed to win election by a slim margin of 544 votes, the only one of 8 CPGB candidates elected.

Saklatvala was arrested during the 1926 General Strike following a speech he made in support of striking coal miners and was jailed for two months on charge of sedition.

He was active in the League Against Imperialism from the time of its formation in 1927.

Sklatvala’s parliamentary career was effectively ended when he lost his seat in the 1929 general election.He ran again in 1930 in a by-election in Glasgow Shettleston without success, and mounted a final losing campaign in the 1931 general election in Battersea.

In 1934 he visited the Soviet Union to tour the Union’s Far Eastern republics, whose governance he compared favourably to that in British India. During that tour he suffered a heart attack but recovered.

During the 1935 general election Saklatvala was active in the electoral campaigns of Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher.

Saklatvala married, on 14 August 1907, an English woman, Sarah Elizabeth Marsh (born 1888), whom he met when she was working as a hotel waitress while staying at Matlock, Derbyshire. The couple had three sons and two daughters. He was once censured by the non-religious CPGB for holding Parsi initiation ceremonies for some of his children at Caxton Hall, Westminster, which he defended on the grounds it was to ensure benefit from a family trust fund.

His son Kaikhoshro Shapurji Saklatvala served with the British Air Transport Auxiliary organisation in World War II as a pilot (Second Officer). He flew most frontline aircraft types including Mosquitos, Spitfires and Lancasters.

Shapurji Saklatvala died, from another heart attack, on 16 January 1936 at his London home, 2 St Albans Villas, Highgate Road.He was 61 years old at the time of his death and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.His remains were later buried on 21 January at the Parsi burial ground in Brookwood Cemetery, Woking.

In January 1937, British, Irish and Dominion volunteers in the International Brigades were formed into an English-speaking battalion, that was formally named after Saklatvala. However the name never caught on and it was normally known as the “British Battalion”.

Communist Party of Great Britain(Marxist–Leninist)’s hall is named after Shapurji Saklatvala. Saklatvala Hall is located in Southall, London. The hall is used for CPGB-ML’s meetings and celebrations.

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