‘He struggled to promote the rights of Indians’: The Indian Overseas Association

Returning to London in 1917, Polak maintained his relationships, friendships and collegial connections with Indians by correspondence and by occasional visits. His working relationships stretched around the empire. He set up his legal practice in central London chiefly taking cases to the Privy Council for Indians and Indian bodies both in India and across the diaspora. His reputation spread and in 1938, the young Trinidad based lawyer, Mitra Sinanan asked him to take the appeal of Afro-Caribbean labour leader, Uriah Butler against his conviction for sedition. Polak took no fees, working on this successful appeal with Sir Stafford Cripps, the Labour politician and barrister. Both he and Cripps were active in the Labour Party, serving on the party’s colonial matters committee, and Polak was a foundation member of the Colonial Advisory Committee of the British Trades Union Congress.101

Polak offered his services free of charge in the Privy Council appeal of the young revolutionary socialist Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) condemned to death for the political assassination of a Bengal policeman.102 He took many cases related to the impact of discriminatory legislation, including the appeal of Queensland cane cutter, Addar Khan, for his conviction under the Queensland Sugar Cultivation Act (1913).103 Polak acted as the London agent for various Indian organisations such as the National Liberal Federation, the Lucknow Liberal League and nationalist organisations in the feudal princely states, such as the Kathiawar Hitvardhak.104

From 1920, alongside his legal work, he set up the London-based Indian Overseas Association (IOA), which took up the cases and causes ofIndians across the diaspora, from the Caribbean to East Africa, Australia and Fiji. As secretary Polak was crucial in its foundation and in the prosecution of its aims.105 He needed a network of information about local conditions in various localities as well as a detailed understanding of local legislation and regulation. He also needed to develop relationships with British officials in the Colonial and India offices. A notion of the global sweep of the issues addressed can be found in his March 1920 report on the first months of the IOA.106 These included corresponding with the Colonial and India Offices about the Commission concerning the 1919 Asiatics and Trading and Land Act of Transvaal, urging the franchise for qualified Indians in British East Africa, equality of status for Indians and the ending of restrictions on Indian immigration there. He conveyed to the Colonial Office the objection of the East Indian Association of British Guiana to a colonisation scheme as well as pressing for the end of the existing indentures of Indians in Fiji and making representations about indenture to the former German colony of Samoa. Other areas of activity were Ceylon, Mauritius, Australia and Kenya. A Kenyan Indian delegation described him as a ‘lidless watcher of India’s weal in Britain as well as overseas’.107

Polak also connected with young Indian students in Britain and, in 1920, assisted K.T. Paul, the Indian Christian Leader, in founding the YMCA hostel for Indian students in London. Racial prejudice meant Indian students were often refused lodgings and could be under surveillance by British security services. ‘Paul wanted this institution to be a space where Indians and British people could meet under conditions of equality’.108 Polak served on its inter-faith management committee for decades.109 Along with the East West Friendship Council, he and his family offered hospitality to many Indian students in London. He took young Indian lawyers under his wing, thus arranging Privy Council experience for Barry Sen, later an eminent lawyer and adviser on international affairs.110

This activism extended to many organisations during the inter-war years, such as the Quaker sponsored, Indian Conciliation Group, which fostered ‘sympathy for the nationalist cause in the British public’.111 Both the League of Coloured Peoples and the British National Council for Civil Liberties combatted racial discrimination. Despite despairing over the disinterest of the British public in imperial affairs, he gave a series of public lectures in 1923 on issues including the League of Nations, Nationalism and Internationalism, Racial and Colour Problems, and the Necessity of the Brotherhood of Nations, part of his continuing endeavours to educate public opinion towards a more cosmopolitan outlook.112

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