By the 19th century, colonialism had brought many changes to the lives of people in India, leading to the founding of political associations that fought for equality and social justice. Asian activists in Britain also joined in the struggle to influence public opinion and parliament. They campaigned for Indian independence, but also supported broader national and international concerns. Participating in key political struggles, such as votes for women, education and healthcare, they fought against discrimination and inequality.
Elected Liberal MP for Finsbury in 1892, Dadabhai Naoroji was the first Indian nationalist politician to win a seat in parliament, despite Lord Salisbury’s jibe that the British people would not accept a ‘black man’ as an MP. Naoroji’s election provoked mixed reactions: some saw it as ‘an odd choice for an English constituency’; others considered an Indian voice to be ‘extremely valuable and useful’. Public figures including Labour politician Keir Hardy and Florence Nightingale endorsed him.
Naoroji was considered a model MP. He supported the Liberal party programme of free education, public housing and Home Rule for Ireland. He championed women’s suffrage organisations and campaigned for ‘justice for India’, informing public opinion of the nature of British rule. In his book Poverty of India he argued that British policy ‘drained’ India of £30-40 million every year, causing widespread poverty in India, and so questioning the claim, that British rule was beneficial. Naoroji and the early Nationalists campaigned to reform the system of government.
Naoroji lost his seat when the Liberals were defeated in 1895. In the same year, Mancherjee Bhownaggree was elected Conservative MP for Bethnal Green.
Suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, was a prominent suffragette and member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She campaigned for votes for women nationally and locally in Kingston and Richmond, where she regularly spoke at branch meetings. On 18 November 1910, known as ‘Black Friday’, together with Emmeline Pankhurst, Sophia led a 400-strong demonstration to parliament. Clashes broke out between the police and protesters and over 150 women were physically assaulted.
Sophia took part in many publicity campaigns and was often seen selling the newspaper The Suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace where she actually lived. She and her sisters were given free use of Faraday House on the grounds of the palace. This was because, once ‘robbed’ of his kingdom and exiled, Sophia’s father Duleep Singh was ‘paid off’ with a pension, and this grace and favour house for his daughters was part of the settlement.
Sophia’s activities raised concerns in some quarters as seen from the letter above to Lord Crewe, which asks ‘if anything could be done to stop her’ and whether the King should consider evicting her from her lodging.
Sophia also belonged to the Women’s Tax Resistance League, whose slogan was ‘No Vote, No Tax’. Her refusal to pay taxes led to her prosecution several times, and some of her valuable possessions, such as a diamond ring, pearl necklace and gold bangle were impounded. In addition to her Suffragette activity, during World War I she organised collections for Indian soldiers fighting on the Western Front. She also donated money towards the Lascar Club in the East End of London.
Sophia was not the only Indian suffragette. Other Indian women too campaigned for the right to vote. For instance, a small delegation took part in the 1911 coronation procession of 60,000 suffragettes.
Communist MP, Shapurji Saklatvala
Shapurji Saklatvala was the third Asian to be elected to parliament. Born in 1874, he arrived in Britain to work as a manager in Manchester for his maternal uncle, the pioneering industrialist, J N Tata. However, his observations of the poverty and labour conditions of the working classes, both in India and Britain, led him into radical politics. In 1921, he joined the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain. Saklatvala saw the interests of the British and Indian working classes to be interdependent. An active trade unionist, he campaigned against capitalism and colonialism to improve labour conditions in Britain and India.
In 1922, he was elected MP for Battersea, a working-class constituency, with a majority of 2,000. Popular among his voters, he was re-elected on a CPGB ticket in 1924, the only communist to succeed. A powerful speaker, he addressed meetings all over Britain, championing workers’ rights during the depression years. He was hounded, though, for his communist sympathies. In 1926, during the general strike, he was imprisoned for giving a speech in Hyde Park. In and out of parliament, he also campaigned for Indian independence. Saklatvala lost his seat in 1929 as Battersea electors felt he had lost touch with their aspirations.
Gandhi in Britain campaigning for independence
Newsreel film reporting the arrival of Gandhi in Britain, 14 September 1931. Copyright British Pathé.
The end of World War I began a new phase in the anti-colonial struggle. The 1919 Amritsar massacre and the repression that followed shattered Indian faith in British justice and any hope for change. Under the leadership of Gandhi, the Indian campaign for freedom was transformed into a mass movement. Indians abandoned cooperation, and large-scale civil disobedience campaigns took place. This led to Britain calling a series of round table conferences on the future status of India.
In 1931, Gandhi attended the Second Round Table Conference in London. Having studied law in London in the 1890s, he had subsequently practiced as a lawyer in South Africa where he supported the Indian community’s struggle for basic rights. His legal training and experience proved an asset in the Conference negotiations. Gandhi was treated like a celebrity and met many of Britain’s political and social elite, as illustrated in the photograph and cartoon shown here.
The conference was a failure, but Gandhi captured the public imagination and was mobbed by enthusiastic crowds in Britain, particularly in the East End of London and by mill workers in Lancashire. He also met with actor Charlie Chaplin. Gandhi was not simply a political leader and a staunch campaigner against colonialism. He preached Satyagraha, a movement of non-violent civil disobedience, which he used as a tool against the British in his bid for Indian freedom. Today, many all over the world still practice Gandhi’s strategy in their struggles.
Newsreel film showing crowds cheering for Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin in the East End of London, 24 September 1931. Copyright British Pathé.
Indian Workers’ Association
Asian working-class settlers, mainly labourers, factory workers, pedlars and sailors, also campaigned for equal rights as British citizens. The Indian Workers’ Association was founded in Coventry in 1937. A social welfare organisation fighting for better working and living standards, it also lobbied for Indian independence.
In their bid to improve conditions of labour for their members, they established links with the British Labour Movement. Some middle-class Indians also joined. Based in the Midlands, the Association had branches in many industrial towns. By 1947, splits and factions among its members led to its decline, but with the coming of a new generation of migrants from the subcontinent, the IWA was once again revived and today there are still branches in many British towns.
Krishna Menon, India League Secretary and Labour Politician
Krishna Menon, Asian Labour Politician
Born in 1896, V K Krishna Menon came to Britain in 1924 to study at the London School of Economics. During his long residence in the UK, he devoted his time and energy primarily to two social and political causes: Indian independence and the poverty in the London borough of St Pancras. A member of the Labour Party since his student days, he was elected Councillor for St Pancras in 1934. He became so popular that he was re-elected with increased majority at each subsequent election, voluntarily resigning in 1947 to become independent India’s first high commissioner in Britain.
During his 14 years as a councillor, Menon worked with enthusiasm to improve living conditions for the people of Camden. He served on all major committees, but is particularly known for his work to extend the library service, including introducing a mobile library. His passion for education saw him set up lectures for children and a Book Week. Menon's activism widely affected British arts culture. In 1937, he co-founded the non-fiction Pelican series with Penguin publisher Allen Lane, making the writings of prominent thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Bernard Shaw and H G Wells affordable to the general public. His legacy to the cultural life of Camden – The Festival of Arts – continues today.
As Secretary of the India League, Menon was an energetic campaigner and publicist for Indian independence and against colonialism and fascism. Under his leadership, the India League became a large movement with branches all over Britain. Many MPs and British members of the public supported it. Menon, a qualified barrister, found time to defend lascar sailors often without fee.
In 1955, he was honoured with the Freedom of the Borough for his services to Camden. After his death the Council erected a special plaque outside his house in his memory.