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Dr Jainti Dass Saggar - Part Two

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Jainti Dass Saggar from the Labour Yearbook for Dundee, Angus, Perth and Montrose Burghs 1947

Jainti Dass Saggar certainly made his mark on Dundee as a well-liked, hardworking doctor, but his legacy as a public figure is arguably even greater. The 1920s had seen him become a noted speaker in Dundee and the early 1930s saw Jainti increasingly appear in the news in connection with his political activity. At this stage he was best-known for his views in relation to the question of Indian home rule. This was a topic of much interest in Dundee, as the future of India would undoubtedly shape the city’s staple jute industry. In April 1930 he gave a high profile lecture in Dundee organised by the Independent Labour Party (ILP, then still affiliated with the Labour Party) on Ghandi at a meeting which expressed support for Indian Home Rule. He followed this up with a similar lecture to the Fabian Society in October. In February 1931, Saggar addressed the Dundee branch of the ILP on the Indian Round Table Conference which had been discussing the future of the governance of India. There, he spoke in favour of India having self-government and expressed his belief that if Labour had had a majority in Parliament such a policy would have been the outcome. His support for Ghandi was further demonstrated when Miss Madeleine Slade, a prominent Ghandi supporter, stayed with him when she came to Dundee to speak on Ghandi and his policies. He gained further prominence in this respect when, as the representative of the Friends of India Society, he was one of the speakers at the mass peace rally held in the City Square on 28 June 1936. This was a major civic event, attended by around 3,000 people, with other speakers including the Liberal MP Dingle Foot, the Unionist (as the Conservatives in Scotland were then known) MP Florence Horsburgh and veteran Labour councillor D R Kidd, with the whole event being presided over by Lord Provost John Phin. Saggar was thus emerging as a major public figure.

Thus it is not surprising that he soon sought elected office and in September 1936 it was announced that he was to be a Labour candidate for Ward VIII at the municipal elections to be held in November. At that time Dundee was divided into 12 council wards, each of which returned one councillor every year for a three-year term. Ward VIII at this point covered an area in the west of the city north of Blackness Road and south of Lochee. From the 1920s, Dundee’s municipal elections were dominated by two parties, the Moderates and Labour. The former was a loose coalition usually backed by the Municipal Electors Association (and later its successor, the Dundee Ratepayers’ Association). Its members were drawn from Conservative and Liberal ranks (at a time when these parties did not contest local elections) and its councillors were often local businessmen. Although Labour had had some successful elections, notably in 1919, prior to 1936 the Moderates always had control of the council. However, in 1935 Labour had matched the Moderates in terms of the number of elected councillors, with the Moderates relying on the support of the unelected Lord Dean of Guildor the casting vote of Lord Provost Phin to retain control of the council. This meant that the 1936 election was Labour’s first real chance to take control of the council and Ward VIII was crucial to it doing so.

There were two places available in Ward VIII in November 1936. One was due to the fact that the Moderate Bailie Richard Fenton’s three-year term had ended and he had to seek re-election, while the extra vacancy was caused by the resignation of Labour councillor John Fraser. Ward VIII had something of mixed voting record. It had returned the socialist prohibitionist Edwin Scrymgeour in 1905 and 1907 and had been one of the few wards in Dundee to return Labour councillors prior to the Great War. However by 1933 all three of its councillors were Moderates, in part due to ILP and Communist candidates splitting the left’s votes in the early 1930s. While Labour had recovered to win the ward in 1934 and 1935 with solid majorities, victory in 1936 could not be taken for granted. Fenton, who would go onto be Lord Provost (1949-1952), was a well-known and experienced figure and his running mate was Dr T F Black, who had an interesting background. Like Saggar, Black was a doctor who had studied at University College, but his path to medicine was very different. Joining the Corporation Water Department in 1906, he had risen from labourer to inspector in a 15-year career. For much of this time he had combined his work with studying, eventually leaving it in 1921 to focus full-time on obtaining medical qualifications. On top of this he was the former bandmaster of the Dundee Salvation Army Band and his brother William was already a councillor. Thus Black was a formidable candidate. Moreover, both he and Fenton received favourable coverage from the local newspapers.

Nevertheless, Saggar fought a good campaign, working closely with the other Labour nominee, A J Thomson and both were elected. Significantly Saggar topped the poll (meaning he won a three-year term) with 3,580 votes, one more than Thomson. Fenton polled 3,171 votes, with Black polling 3,163. It is worth noting here that Saggar’s election expenses (£10 9s 7d) were the lowest of any candidate in the election (and nearly five times lower than the highest), perhaps suggesting his stature and reputation in the local community was such that he did not need to spend great amounts on introducing himself to the electorate. The result did indeed prove crucial as it meant that Labour now had a majority of two on the council and for the first time could form an administration, although ultimately this would only last one year.

One of the main achievements of this administration was the abolition of fees for the council’s secondary school teaching five-year course, with Saggar seconding the historic motion of education committee convener Lily Miller in April 1937 that initiated this move. Indeed throughout his time as a councillor, educational matters were one of his principal interests and he was one of the Labour group’s most effective speakers on the subject. Being a doctor it is hardly surprising that he also spoke regularly on matters relating to public health and soon became seen as Labour’s main authority on the topic.

Saggar would have faced re-election in 1939, but municipal elections were cancelled for the duration of the Second World War. Thus it was November 1945 before he had to defend his seat. This time he won 4,194 votes, a record total for the ward, giving him a majority of 1,825 votes over his Moderate opponent. While Labour did well across the city and easily took control of the council, this result still was a massive endorsement by his constituents. Saggar was chosen to be convener of the Public Health Committee and as such would play a leading role in the new administration, which was to last until 1947. He was also now joined on the council by his father-in-law, Thomas Quinn, an experienced political figure who had gained a seat in Ward IX.

The moving of municipal elections in Scotland from November to May meant there were no contests in 1948, with Saggar’s second term expiring in May 1949. This time he faced a tough fight. The Moderates had defeated Thomson in 1947 and were in the political ascendancy in Dundee. His father-in-law had also been defeated in 1947, ironically by Richard Fenton, as Labour were routed. By 1949 Labour was struggling nationally, and indeed the party did poorly across Scotland in the municipal elections, suffering a landslide defeat in Edinburgh and losing control of Glasgow Council. That Saggar was able to hold his seat with a majority of over 200 suggests that his constituents had a particular loyalty to him and that he was appealing to voters who might not otherwise have supported Labour. This was again suggested in 1952 when he again polled over 4,000 votes to win a majority of over 800 - yet the Progressives (as the Moderates now tended to be known) had won the ward in both 1950 and 1951, defeating Saggar’s long-term colleague Arthur J Bayne twice in the process. Though in opposition, Saggar remained a powerful voice on the Council throughout these years.

What would prove to be Saggar’s final election came in 1954. Dundee’s Council ward boundaries were redrawn and every seat on the council was thus considered vacant. Ward VIII, now named Balgay, was now arguably slightly more favourable for Labour and it was no great surprise that the party won all three seats. However, it is again a testimony to Saggar’s popularity that he topped the poll, winning 30 more votes than the second candidate and 47 more than fellow incumbent councillor and future MP Peter Doig. Saggar was now joined on the council by his wife Jean, who somewhat surprisingly won a seat in Riverside Ward in an election which saw a Labour landslide. A formidable politician in her own right who twice stood for Parliament, she would later also represent Balgay Ward. With Labour holding 24 of the 36 seats, a new Labour administration was formed which would last until 1967. Dr Saggar was again appointed Chair of the Public Health Committee and looked well-placed to play a leading part in the running of Dundee for years to come.

Tragically, it was not to be. On 14 November 1954 he had just completed a number of eye examinations in his Byron Street surgery when he collapsed as the result of a cerebral haemorrhage. Discovered by his brother, he was rushed to Dundee Royal Infirmary where died a few hours later without ever regaining consciousness. His death at just 56 was a major shock to the people of Dundee and the city witnessed an outpouring of grief. Lord Provost (and Jainti’s long-time council colleague) William Hughes summed up the thoughts of many noting that Jainti Dass Saggar “was a man full of compassion for everyone in need, who never spared himself in his work for the community”. Noting that although Saggar came to the city “from half way across the world”, Hughes argued that no Dundonian had greater love for the people of Dundee and their interests, concluding that “Dundee is much the poorer by his passing”. Progressive Councillor William Luke spoke of admiring his political opponent’s “sincerity and integrity” and stated that “he had given his life for others”.

Jainti Dass Saggar’s funeral on 16 November 1954 saw Dundee crematorium packed with mourners. Indeed, it was so busy that over 200 people had to be turned away. The service was taken by the Reverend Henry Donald, the former minister of Trinity Congregational Church who had returned to Dundee from Letchworth for the funeral. Four former Lord Provosts were among the mourners in addition to Lord Provost Hughes who delivered the main eulogy. Hughes noted that although born in India, more than half Jainti’s life had been spent in Scotland. Hughes also explored Jainti’s personal philosophy, spirituality and approach to life in general, saying that Jainti “loved his neighbour” and “his fellow man” and noting his opposition to the taking of any life, even for food. Reflecting on the source of his beliefs, Hughes further observed that “I do not think he would have called himself either a Hindu or a Christian” as he did not need to label himself, but Hughes added “He did as his heart told him”. Hughes concluded that he doubted whether God would “ask Jainti Saggar ‘What was your country, your politics, your religion?’ For God loveth a cheerful giver.”

That Dr Saggar freely gave of his time and talents to the local community cannot be denied. Throughout his time as a councillor, in addition to attending council and committee meetings and attending to his constituents, he had served as a council representative on a number of external bodies including the Public Libraries Committee, the Victoria Art Galleries Committee of Management (both of which he chaired), the Morgan Trust, the Board of Governors of Dundee Institute of Technology and the College of Art, the Eastern Regional Hospital Board and the Board of Management of Dundee General Hospitals. That he was able to combine all this civic work with a busy medical career is a testament not only to his endurance, but to his remarkable devotion to Dundee and its people. Truly by his death Dundee had lost an irreplaceable public servant.

Written by Dr Kenneth Baxter, University of Dundee Archives


Dundee Directories (various years)

Labour Yearbook for Dundee, Angus, Perth and Montrose Burghs 1944

Labour Yearbook for Dundee, Angus, Perth and Montrose Burghs 1947

The Courier [and Advertiser], various dates

The Evening Telegraph and Post, various dates

Unpublished talk by Eddie Small, given at the University of Dundee at the launch of Jainti Dass Saggar Memorial Scholarship, 6 December 2019

Rozina Visram “Saggar, Jainti Dass (1898–1954)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2012)

Kenneth Baxter ‘Estimable and Gifted’? Women in Party Politics in Scotland c1918-1955 (Unpublished thesis, University of Dundee 2008)

Other resources

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