The House of Commons today is more representative of the British public than it once was – yet the average MP is still white and male. Progress towards greater representation by Black, Asian and female members sometimes seems painfully slow.
So it comes as something of a shock to realize that there were Indian MPs as long ago as the tail end of the nineteenth century. One of these trailblazers, Sir Manchergee Merwanjee Bhownaggree, landed the Bethnal Green seat in 1895. But Bhownaggree wasn’t universally loved by his fellow Indians, earning himself the sneering soubriquet of ‘Bow and Agree’.
There was a trio of Indian MPs in the Commons during the last half century of Empire, and they neatly represented the whole of the parliamentary spectrum. Dadabhai Naoroji represented the Liberal Party in Finsbury Central between 1892 and 1895, and the firebrand Shapurji Saklatvala who represented Battersea North for Labour (while being a paid-up member of the Communist Party) during the 1920s.
The trio of Parsis MPs
All three were Parsis, members of the Zoroastrian religion founded by Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in Persia in the 7th century BC. This faith, devised in what is now Iran, is based on the idea of life being a continuous struggle between lightness and dark, good and evil. But each of the three MPs was radically different from his fellows.
Bhownaggree had been born in Bombay on 15 August, 1851. It was a privileged childhood, lived under the British Raj. His merchant father sent his son to Elphinstone College and then to the University of Bombay. The young graduate became a journalist before replacing his father as the head of the Bombay State Agency in 1872, then becoming the Judicial Councillor of Bhavnager.
Bhownaggree and East India Company
But his thoughts had always leaned to Britain and its influence on India. As a student he had won a prize for a dissertation on the East India Company, which he subsequently worked up into a book. In 1877 he translated Queen Victoria’s Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands into Gujarati, and dedicated the book to the Prince of Wales. It seems a bizarre piece of work to modern eyes, yet many Indians were fascinated by Britain and the far-distant Queen of England (and Empress of India).
In 1882 he moved to London to train as a barrister, spending the next few years shuttling between London, India and Iran. He busily lobbied in England for the Indian State of Bhavnagar and ran into his first controversy, with fellow Anglo-Indians claiming the young lawyer was living in style in London on funds raised from the impoverished state.
But if he was making enemies among fellow Indians, he was earning establishment honours. The young Bhownaggree was created Companion of the Indian Empire in 1886, while Iran awarded him the Order of the Lion and Sun.
Bhownaggree enters Parliament
Bhownaggree quickly realized that to gain a real voice he had to gain a parliamentary seat. The Indian voice in Britain was almost exclusively with the Liberal Party (in the late nineteenth century the main party in the Commons along with the Conservatives), but Bhownaggree had a good pitch to make to the Tories, of whom he was an enthusiastic supporter. He argued that his election would shatter at a stroke the idea that Indians were naturally Liberal, while gaining huge publicity for the Tory cause.
The party agreed, but put him up in an ‘unwinnable’ seat, against the popular Liberal MP, George Howell, in Bethnal Green – a traditional Liberal stronghold. Remarkably he won. His opponents would argue he did it by becoming more British than the British themselves: he argued against Home Rule for Ireland, and against the disestablishment of the Church of England. Perhaps also the large Irish and Jewish constituency of Bethnal Green warmed to this fellow outsider who didn’t want to change things too much?
Howell himself was bitter. ‘After ten years hard labour in Parliament…I was kicked out by a black man, a stranger from India, one not known in the constituency,’ was his sour slant on the loss. The people of Bethnal Green were more open minded, returning Bhownaggree with an increased majority in 1900.
Where the new MP really upset people, though, was with his argument that India should stay in the Empire. Dinshah Wacha, secretary to the Indian National Congress (INC), called him ‘a tool of the Anglo-Indians’ doing harm to India’s cause ‘by his abject slavery [to the Conservatives]’.
Bhownaggree and Gandhi
So ‘Bow and Agree’ became a popular jibe, though not entirely fairly. Before he lost his seat in the Liberal landslide of 1906 he argued against the ‘drain of Indian resources’ (the British Government systematically taxed India to fund other parts of the Empire, including Tibet). And Gandhi himself expressed support for the Bethnal Green MP, saying ‘We in South Africa have begun to rely on your continuous labours in the House on our behalf’ and calling him ‘our greatest champion in the House of Commons’.
Arguing within a context of support for Empire was a tricky balancing act though, and the mood was turning … increasingly Indians wanted the British out of India altogether. By the time Bhownaggree died in 1933, the prevailing wind was with Gandhi and his supporters, and the East End MP was a figure of Empire and the past.
For more, see Bhownaggree By Hinnells and Ralph, Hansib Publishing, ISBN 1870518489, £3