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Book review: The tale of the four Indian pioneers in British Parliament

27th May 2022
Book review: The tale of the four Indian pioneers in British Parliament

An Indian in the House: The Lives and Times of the Four Trailblazers Who First Brought India to the British Parliament by Mohamed Sheikh, 2019 pp 351, Mereo Books, Hardback. £25

When Mohamed Sheikh was appointed as a peer in 2006, he became the first Muslim Conservative peer in the House of Lords in modern times. The life baron has since written an intriguing book about the first four Indians to achieve parliamentary office in the United Kingdom — three of them as MPs, all for different parties, and one from the upper house who became a Cabinet Minister.

The period is also particularly interesting, during the late 19th century and early 20th century. This is when, suffice to say, India was controlled and exploited as part of the British Empire. It was, as Lord Sheikh says when its people were not considered fit to have a say in the running of their own country, let alone to be given any political power.

The names of those who changed all that were Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917), who became a Liberal MP for Finsbury Central between 1892 and 1895, Mancherjee Bhownaggree (1851–1933), a fellow Parsi who became a Conservative MP for Bethnal Green between 1895 and 1906; in 1897 he was knighted during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations; Shapurji Saklatvala (1874–1936), who became one of a few Communist MPs between 1922 and 1923; he was elected in Battersea North; and Satyendra Sinha (1863–1928), who became a peer in 1919 and was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for India.

After Lord Sinha, there have been no other hereditary peers of Indian origin.
Saklatvala was a passionate socialist, driven throughout his life by his anger at the social injustice he saw, both in India and in Britain, writes Lord Sheikh.

Yet Shapurji Saklatvala was born into one of India’s leading industrial families. His uncle was Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, whose surname you may recognise—he was, of course, Sir J N Tata, the founder of the Tata Empire.

The 360-page book, which includes a glossary, bibliography, and index, is divided into four self-contained parts, one for each of the four pioneers with overlapping lives. Despite having such contrasting personalities, they are also seen to have much in common. Each is described as sharing a passion for their country as well as being highly motivated and fiercely intelligent with a strong sense of justice and equity.

Although the author, Lord Sheikh, was born in Kenya himself and brought up in Uganda, his parents originated from the sub-continent of India. Proceeds from the book are donated to St. Christopher’s Hospice in London.

Hamed Chapman

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