Pranlal Sheth

First deputy chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality
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The Independent Online

Pranlal Purshotam Sheth, journalist, barrister and businessman: born Nairobi 20 December 1924; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1962; Chairman, Asian Hospital Authority 1964-66; group secretary, Abbey Life Group 1971-77, legal adviser and director 1980-88; legal director, Hartford Europe Group 1977-86; Deputy Chairman, Commission for Racial Equality 1977-80; director, Abbey Life Assurance Co 1977-89; Vice-President, UK Immigrants Advisory Service 1986-92; CBE 1994; married 1951 Indumati Druva (one son, one daughter); died London 30 June 2003.

In 1977 Pranlal Sheth was appointed one of the two part-time deputy chairmen of the newly established Commission for Racial Equality.

At the commission his contribution was threefold. As its first deputy chairman, he helped to set its overall priorities and give it a clear sense of direction. He chaired its legal committee, and played a crucial role in mounting several strategic investigations, including one into immigration procedures which was contested by the Government and cost Sheth reappointment three years later. He also went round Britain urging the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities to integrate into mainstream British life and fight for their rights. During his three years at the CRE, Sheth built up a considerable national reputation for his courage and moderation.

He retained a lifelong interest in race-related issues, and was much sought after for his legal and business acumen by various organisations. He was Vice-President of the UK Immigration Advisory Service, a member of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and a trustee of the Runnymede Trust.

He also helped set up several bodies dealing with issues relating to Asian women, professionals and small businesses. His interest in race and the problems of the underprivileged led to a wider concern with the developing world. He was a council member and a trustee of Oxfam, a trustee of Shelter, and President of One-World International Foundation. He had a strong conscience and gave his best to every organisation of which he was a member. He was appointed CBE in 1994.

Pranlal Purshotam Sheth was born in Kenya in 1924, and educated at the Nairobi Indian High School. He began his career as a journalist, first as a sub-editor of the weekly Colonial Times and then as editor of The Daily Chronicle. He was also active in the trade-union movement, and played a leading part in founding the East African Trades Union Congress.

In the aftermath of Mau Mau, the colonial government severely curbed press freedom and clamped down on trade-union activity. Since Sheth's paper campaigned for Kenyan independence, whose likely consequences frightened some sections of Asian businessmen, the latter began to withdraw advertisement from it.

Seeing no future in journalism, Pranlal decided to train as a lawyer. He came to England, where he was enrolled at Lincoln's Inn and called to the Bar in 1962. He returned to Kenya that year, and started practice as an advocate in Kisumu, while also remaining active as a trade unionist.

He participated in the negotiations for Kenyan independence, and was a much-respected adviser to the Kenyan delegation at the Lancaster House conference. He was particularly close to Odinga Odinga, one of the important nationalist leaders, and on reasonably good terms with Jomo Kenyatta.

When Kenyatta became the President and Odinga Odinga the Vice-President of independent Kenya in 1963, Sheth's services were greatly in demand. He served on public bodies such as the Central Agricultural Board, the Economic Planning and Development Council, the Commission on the Future of Broadcasting Services, and the Sugar Advisory Board. He also chaired the Commission of Inquiry into Tribal Riots in western Kenya, and produced a well thought-out report whose recommendations were implemented by the Kenyatta government.

As the relations between the President and the Vice-President turned sour, Sheth's position in public life became precarious; his life was even in danger. He was deprived of his Kenyan citizenship by a presidential order, allowed no legal redress, and put on a plane to India in 1966. Thanks to the help of well-placed British friends, he was able some months later to come to England, where he was joined by his wife, Indumati, and young family.

He found it difficult to find employment as a lawyer, and instead joined the insurance company Abbey Life as a junior clerk. Within a short span of 10 years, he had become head of its legal department, company secretary, and later a full member of the board of directors and board director of nearly 20 companies within the Abbey Group.

He was one of the first Asian immigrants to occupy such a high position, and became a role model to many young Asians. He was widely respected in the City and the insurance industry, and contributed to the debates leading up to the Insurance Companies Act and the Financial Services Act. He also continued an earlier interest in journalism and started the weekly Gujarat Samachar in 1972, which still continues to remain an influential voice of the Indian community.

Pranlal Sheth developed cancer of the kidney in 2001 but did not allow it to curtail his enthusiasm for life or commitment to worthy causes. His wife Indumati was his source of strength for over half a century; their two children, Sunil and Vandna, are both well-established solicitors.

Bhikhu Parekh