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Shapurji Saklatvala

One of the first MPs of Indian heritage, Shapurji Saklatvala (1874–1936) was an agitator for change, which ultimately led to his surveillance by the Security Service.

Image caption

© National Portrait Gallery, London CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Early life and family

Shapurji Saklatvala was born in India in 1874, the son of a merchant. His maternal uncle founded what is today the Tata group – a multinational conglomerate. Saklatvala worked for the company for part of his career, and first moved to England to run the Manchester office. After moving to England, he married Sarah Marsh, who came from a Derbyshire family, and they went on to have five children.

Photograph of a South Asian man wearing a suit and a white woman in traditional South Asian dress

Shapurji Saklatvala and his wife Sarah Saklatvala in 1922 © National Portrait Gallery, London CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

His return in the 1921 Census lists his occupation as ‘office manager’, living with his wife and children; it appears they had a few visitors to their home, too.

Shapurji Saklatvala’s 1921 Census record

Shapurji Saklatvala’s 1921 Census record

Parliament and surveillance

Saklatvala’s involvement in British politics began a few years later when he joined the Independent Labour Party’s Manchester branch. He was influenced by the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism, which ultimately led him to leave the party for the Communist Party of Great Britain when it was founded in 1920.

He stood for parliament, and was endorsed by Labour, in the October 1922 general election, winning the Battersea North seat. While he lost the seat in the election the following year, he then reclaimed it and remained an MP until 1929.

Black and white head and shoulders photograph of Shapurji Saklatvala

Shapurji Saklatvala in 1922, the year he won his first seat in Parliament © National Portrait Gallery, London CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Like many other communists – and suspected communists – Saklatvala was watched closely by the Security Service. Communism was feared by many, especially the establishment, after witnessing the change in power and upheaval experienced as a result of the revolution in Russia.

The detailed surveillance carried out by the British state provides an enormous amount of detail about Saklatvala's life and associations. Though our records on him only offer the state’s perspective, they are nevertheless a valuable insight into a man who agitated for change throughout the 1920s.

Front cover of an official file

The Security Service file on Saklatvala from 1921 to 1932, during which time he was elected as an MP. Catalogue reference: KV 2/614.

Security Service files on Shapurji Saklatvala

‘An act of sedition’

From the records that we hold we know that Saklatvala was vocal on issues such as Indian and Irish independence, as well as decolonisation more generally. He was involved in many of the key political moments of the 1920s, for example he attended the 1921 Pan-African Congress.

Most notably, Saklatvala was arrested in 1926 during the General Strike for giving a speech in support of miners. This speech was considered an act of sedition and after discussions about whether it would be legal to arrest an MP while the House of Commons was sitting, he was arrested at home on 3 May 1926.

Prison sentence

On Thursday 6 May 1926 at Bow Street Police Court, Chief Magistrate Sir Justice Chartres Biron made his decision on the case:

As proved (I have read it carefully through) I have no doubt in my mind, and no reasonable man could have any doubt, that this is a seditious speech, calculated to promote public disorder […] I shall therefore bind you over to keep the Peace and be of good behaviour for twelve months, and require you to find two sureties in £250 each, or go to prison for two months

Sir Justice Chartres Biron

Saklatvala said that it was impossible for him to comply and find sureties and therefore was sent to prison. Throughout his time in Wormwood Scrubs prison he tried to carry on his political work. He arranged for House of Commons debates to be sent to him and quoted precedence that would allow him to be released a day early and attend the House.

Like so many people during the 1920s, Shapurji Saklatvala agitated for change and for causes close to his heart. Whilst not everyone in society was in a position of influence as he was, many were vocal and demanded reform.

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