Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol.19, January 1937, No. 1
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
A year ago—on January 16, 1936—the British and Indian Labour movements lost one of whom each had equal cause to be proud—Shapurji Saklatvala.
Saklatvala held a unique position in the hearts of all who toil in Britain and in India. In the cause of Indian liberation and the emancipation of the working-class he was untiring. He was only 62 when he died—prematurely burned out by a life of incomparable devotion and service.
Sak was born in the purple. His mother was a Tata, the sister of the founder of the great Indian firm of that name—India’s greatest industrial undertaking. In his early days he worked for the family firm and it appeared that his future would be that of the millionaire business man. But that was not Sak’s idea at all. From his earliest days he espoused the cause of Indian freedom, and with such vigour that the British authorities suggested to Tata’s that a change of climate would be good for him.
So to London he was sent in 1905, a fierce young Radical, to work in the London office of the firm. His family made him a member of the National Liberal Club—what better place to tame him? All went well for a week or so until Sak met Lord Morley—“Honest John”—a professed friend of India. Sak met the great man with enthusiasm, but was horrified when he found that his idea of friendship was to keep India tied to the imperialist chariot. For hours the verbal combat waged, and it ended with Sak banging the club doors behind it, never to enter them again except many years later as a visitor.
Sak found quickly that it was only in the Labour movement that he could realise his aspiration of working for Indian freedom and so, when he had only been a few months in England, he joined the Independent Labour Party. Here he continued to work, always on the Left, until the Russian Revolution which inspired him to redoubled energy. Inside the I.L.P. Sak worked to win that Party for Communism and the Third International. After the Southport Conference in 1920 turned down affiliation to the Third by the typically devious MacDonald manoeuvre of forming the Vienna International Committee, Sak left the I.L.P. at the head of a group of determined revolutionaries.
Into the Communist Party he came and here his tremendous energies and great capacity were quickly realised.
Whilst everyone recognised Sak’s energy, his loyalty and his wonderful oratorical powers, there was a tendency to think that these summed up all his qualities. But there was much more to the man than that. Allied to these great qualities were a quick-moving brain, a subtle intelligence and a tremendous fund of knowledge on all sorts of subjects.
On many a subject he differed strongly from the majority of his comrades—all views held by Shapurji Saklatvala were strongly held. He would argue by the hour, by the day, by the week, for his point of view. But once a decision was taken, Sak would carry it out, be the consequences what they may.
In 1922 he was elected to Parliament as Labour member for Battersea North, more than doubling the Labour vote at the previous election. In 1923 he lost the seat, although his vote went still higher, owing to the uniting of Liberal-Tory strength in the constituency. In 1924 Sak was back again in the House, but this time the Labour Whip was withdrawn from him.
In Parliament he waged an uncompromising fight for working-class principles, and for the freedom of all colonial peoples. When the General Strike came in 1926, the ruling class showed in what respect they held Saklatvala. On May 2 he was arrested—the first of all the thousands of General Strike arrests, and charged in connection with a speech he had made in Hyde Park on May Day. The Bow Street magistrate wanted to bind him over. Sak refused to be bound over. “In circumstances such as those existing to-day,” he told the court, “I shall refuse to be silenced except by force majeure.”
So to jail he went. But even in jail Sak couldn’t be silenced. Hardly a day passed but he managed to smuggle out of jail messages of encouragement to the miners, advice for the conduct of the struggle and so forth.
His imprisonment finished his connections with the firm of Tata. For long they had been trying to shut his mouth as a price of maintaining his job as manager of the London buying department for textile machinery. But Sak refused to be bought by Tata’s—years before he had refused to hold a pennyworth of stock in the family concern, to be anything more than a salaried employee.
For a year previously, emissaries of the Labour Party had been pointing out to him the political career awaiting him if he dropped the Communist Party and became just a Labour man. Under-Secretary for India in the next Labour administration was the least inducement that was offered him. But neither place nor wealth could shift him from his granite loyalty.
In 1927 Sak went to India, and from one end of the country to the other his tour was a triumphal progress, so much so that, when he returned to England, the Government refused him permission ever to visit his homeland again, a decision which, to its eternal shame, the 1929 Labour Government upheld.
After Sak lost his Parliamentary seat in 1929 it meant no diminution in his strenuous political exertions. Up and down the country he went, doing propaganda meetings—there was no more popular speaker in Britain, writing innumerable articles for the British and Indian press, waging a battle against all those who would sell the pass.
In 1934 Sak paid a third visit to the Soviet Union, travelling extensively in Soviet Asia. And how his experiences thrilled him. He saw what it was possible to make of Asia and Asiatic peoples under Socialism and contrasted it with the squalor and illiteracy of his native India under British rule.
Sak’s loyalty to the Communist Party and the working-class movement was never better illustrated than in the last General Election when—having withdrawn from Battersea in the cause of unity, he used up every ounce of his invincible energy in Rhondda and West Fife, working for my return and that of Harry Pollitt.
I have never seen more unfeigned joy than Sak’s when he knew that our Party had won a victory in West Fife. At the victory meeting held in Shoreditch Town Hall when I came to London for the opening of Parliament, Sak made a speech which I shall never forget. It was a fine, ungrudging tribute to the Party, an expression of joy that we had once more got a voice in Parliament.
Shapurji Saklatvala was a truly great man, whose tremendous abilities would have made him an enormous asset to the Socialist Britain and to the free India which he never lived to see.
It is customary to speak well of the dead. But no words of praise spoken about Saklatvala could exaggerate his tremendous qualities.
Sak died in harness a year ago, but his memory lives on and the work which he did is being carried on and is bearing fruit. Those of us who are carrying on can feel proud if we win the same confidence and trust that all who knew him placed in Sak.