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Labour’s pioneering role in this subcontinent: an introduction

by Farooque Chowdhury : 

THE wage ‘slaves’ were coerced or allured out of their villages with the power of starvation. ‘[B]etween the years 1921 and 1931 the number of industrial workers employed in establishments of more than 10 workers rose from 2.6 million to 3.5 million. In the intervening decade, and especially in the last two and a half years of the war with the large increase in heavy war industry, this number has rocketed by leaps and bounds. … [T]he industrial proletariat numbers [were] far more than the 5 million estimate of 1931. To this core of true industrial workers must be added about 20 million handicraft workers who work in places employing less than 10 people. These are wage workers and constitute a reserve for the industrial working class. … In addition to this there [was] an agricultural proletariat … approximately 130 million’ (Ted Grant and Andrew Scott, ‘The road to India’s freedom’, Workers’ International News, vol. 5 nos. 3&4, presumably June 1942) A part of the ‘slaves’ were being mobilised by capital in newly established factories and mills with

regimentation and rule. Children of these ‘slaves’ were not even allowed to stay beyond the tentacles of capital. ‘If the children of workers are provided with education under tolerable conditions of life, a new generation

of workers will grow up, who will learn to regard mill work as their fixed occupation’ (IICR). So,

there’s arrangement for perennial supply of labour! And, they were already there. ‘Children between the ages of 9 and 14, generally known as half-timers, are employed in mills for six hours a

day …’ (ibid). Long ago, Marx found the fact in the home of the imperial masters as he quoted the

17th January, 1860 issue of the Daily Telegraph: ‘Children of nine or ten years are dragged from their

squalid beds at two, three, or four o’clock in the morning and compelled to work for a bare subsistence until ten, eleven, or twelve at night, their limbs wearing away, their frames dwindling,

their faces whitening, and their humanity absolutely sinking into a stone-like torpor, utterly horrible

to contemplate…’ (Capital, vol. I). The subcontinent was chained by capital. So, why should capital

spare children of wage slaves in the subcontinent? Yet, capital teaches ‘civility’ and ‘humanity’!

From the very beginning the property owning classes related to industry and commerce were

organised: the British Chamber of Commerce ─ in 1834 in Bengal; the Bombay Mill Owners’ Association ─ in 1875; the Duars Planters’ Association by the European tea planters ─ in 1878; the

Indian Jute Mills Association (during formation, it was Indian Jute Manufacturers’ Association, and

the renaming was done in 1902) ─ in 1884; Ahmedabad Textile Mills’ Association ─ in 1891, Indian

Tea Planters’ Association ─ in 1918. Sugar, mining, engineering, paper, etc found similar organisations within a short period. The Indian Chambers of Commerce was in close relations with

the Indian political leadership dependable to the colonial rulers. Deep impact of the relations

between this political leadership and economic interests, writes CB Kumar in The Development of

Industrial Relations in India, by these types of organisations were felt at latter stage. During the

World War I, the British colonial rulers got assistance from the Tata’s iron, steel, cement and hydro-

power establishments. It was a business of mutual benefit ─ comprador serving its master and the

master blessing the comprador. ‘Only moneylenders, urban merchants, and a handful of indigenous

industrialists seemed to have benefited consistently from India’s renewed importance in world

trade’ (Mike Davis, ‘The Origin …’).

At the same time, new industrial centres were turning into centres of protest and resistance. The

industrial workers in the subcontinent waged struggles in its economic and political interests, and for

the country’s freedom from colonial chains. For more than a century, the struggle, part of class

struggle, was waged in waves. The working people, it’s found:

(1) On occasions, established command over situation. Working people, on one such occasion, smashed colonial administration in Sholapur, an industrial centre, in May 1930, and established their

administration for days. It, the Sholapur Commune, was crushed only with imposition of martial law

there. Thousands of textile mills workers stood there in barricades. Mallappa Dhanshetty, Shrikisan Sardar, Qurban Husain and Jagannath Shinde, four leaders of the commune were hanged on January 12, 1931. Bombay [now, Mumbai] experienced similar rising after mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy.

Workers were in control of the city. The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny in Mumbai on February 18, 1945 that spread from Karachi to Kolkata involving 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000

members of the navy was another example of the working people’s struggle that put them in command of a situation although the initiative was lost due to failures of varying types. Mumbai

went into total strike with the initiative of the working people, and from February 18 to 22, the imperialist British government gunned down more than 400 workers.

(2) Set examples of peaceful protests. In Peshawar, soldiers ─ peasantry, as Lenin found, in uniforms

─ defied command and didn’t open fire on people, deserted their rank, joined protesting people, and

suffered rigorous imprisonment. It was during the Peshawar Uprising in 1900 that witnessed blood

of hundreds of commoners. And, it was MK Gandhi, who repudiated the rebel soldiers although the

armed rebels followed Gandhi’s ahimsa, non-violence and the path of peaceful protest. The rebel

soldiers, workingmen, didn’t use their arms, and suffered rigorous imprisonment.

(3) Never resorted to terrorism, conspiratorial approach, individualistic adventurism although a part

of enlightened middle class temporarily practiced the method. The labour’s non-resorting to

conspiratorial work is a show of its strength. Resorting to conspiratorial work, it should be

mentioned, is an infantile approach. Resisting/defying capital was begun by the emerging class itself

since its very early days, and that was not through conspiracy and terrorism. The emerging class

gradually resorted to collective resistance. On the contrary, it was the capital owning classes and their political cohorts and suppression-

machine that were ceaselessly resorting to conspiracy, terror, violence, armed assault. Laws and

courts of law were used against the working classes although it was unremittingly propagated that

law and its court were impartial. There’s instance of court of law fined trade union, which was trying

only to raise and realise justified demands of its members ─ industrial workers, and thus the court

stood against labour. The position compelled the working masses to resort to forceful resistance.

Labour always resorted to collective resistance after only a few resistances at individual level at its

initial days. The practice ─ collective approach ─ was praxis of democracy within its sphere, and in its

struggle for survival.

(4) Stood against imperialist power. On occasions, it was the working class that raised the banner of

resistance against imperialism before any other class in the sub-continent could initiate the job. It

opposed unjust war. The All India Trade Union Congress in its Lahore session in March 1923 adopted

a resolution calling on not to participate in unjust wars. And, the class paid for the resistance. In this stand, and in opposing capital, labour was not waiting for leadership from other classes. At later

stages, other classes, especially the local bourgeoisie felt its urgent need to win over the labour, and

took initiative to sit on the leadership of labour movement. Gandhi got involved with labour strike in

Ahmedabad in 1918. He later took part in directing trade union that, at later stage, evolved into

Gandhite trade union. Congress in its Nagpur and Kanpur sessions adopted resolutions and

programme asking its provincial committees, other organs, leaders and workers to organise labour

into trade unions and to send Congress propagandists and organisers among the labour. It took

vigorous steps to take hold of leadership of the AITUC. CR Das said in Congress’s Gaya session: We,

the Congress, are already too late about labour; workers and peasantry will get detached from us,

build up their organisation, and will bring class struggle if we fail to reach them. The labour and

peasantry have to be brought to our control if Congress likes to stay free of this situation.

(5) Stood by national struggle for independence. Swadeshi movement found labour by its side.

Native rulers in princely states, Marx observed, were most formidable obstacle on the path to

advancement of the sub-continent (‘The native states’, July 25, 1853, New York Daily Tribune).

Labour struggled for democracy in the princely states. Labour was in solidarity with broader society

as it took active participation in the broader society’s political struggle for independence. Labour

raised its banner of resistance during the Red Fort Trial of Indian National Army members in 1945. Its

role and participation along with students and other sections of the mass in Kolkata protesting the

trial was heroic. At its initial days, labour lacked political programme, a natural consistency. The

political programme developed gradually as labour was gaining knowledge from political

developments and from its fights against capital. At the Calcutta Congress, 50,000 workers

demonstrated with the slogan: An independent socialist republic of India.

(6) Labour established alliance with peasantry. It was established, among other places, in Jalpaiguri

by tea plantation workers in the 1920s. Labour expressed solidarity with the revolting peasantry

during its Chouri Choura trial although Congress leadership abandoned the Chouri Choura-peasantry

that followed Congress’ call for mass upsurge.

(7) Stood against communalism although capital and its politicians tried to spread poison of

communalism in the camp of labour.

(8) Stood for dignity. On occasions, labour struggled for recognition of its union as its representative,

which is identified as question of dignity.

(9) On occasions and in areas, organized it on its own. Organisations and leadership from among the

ranks of labour emerged, on occasions, through its fights in factories and mills.

(10) With its struggles, confirmed class struggle as the key to social advancement. With its struggle,

thus, labour carried forward the historic task of advancement in the sub-continent. It carried on the

task since its days of inception. No other class in the land has embarked on this task as labour. In this

task, labour held high the banner of equity, equality, equitable distribution, people’s control over all

public resources, and the task of smashing of capitalism, imperialism and remnants of feudalism.

On the contrary, labour had to face all the adversaries and force capital and the state in its command

could unleash and heinous tact these could adopt:

(1) Brutal force, murder, killing, massacre, treachery, coercion, threat, surveillance. State resorted to

its freedom in using firearms in the face of labour’s justified collective protests/resistance/demands.

At those moments, labour had nothing but gravels, bricks pieces, and on one or two occasions, parts

broken from machines to protect it. Even, labour’s minimum demands for a better working

condition, an essential for regeneration of capital, were initially denied, brushed out, unheeded,

gagged down. Capital and state felt scared with labour’s most primary moves, with labour’s search

for recourse in its roots in village life and in its spiritual practices, with slightest signs of labour’s very

primary initiative for education (organising library) and amusement or spiritual practices (organising

puja, prayer). The state, as is claimed by revolutionary theoreticians of proletariat, was always

faithful to its duty: serve capital, and very naturally, administrative machine, law and courts of law

were nothing but drumbeaters although a lot of theoreticians always propagate and demand non-

partisan administrative machine, which is not only an illusion, but a damn lie also.

(2) Spreading of confusion and communalism in the ranks of labour, forcefully keeping labour

isolated from broader society, collaboration between capital and its political representatives that

posed as leader of the masses, taking hold of leadership. On occasions, political leadership tried to

keep labour away from participating in political activities. But labour thwarted those ill-efforts.

(3) Unemployment, competition, burden of decreased profit, illiteracy, uncertainty, starvation,

indignity. Capital was always using hunger to force labour to capitulate. Capital was reducing wages

while its profit was rising. During boom in economy, capital intensified its exploitation of labour, and

burdened it during period of bust. Capital increased working hours as it got hold of electricity.

Kolkata jute mills workers had the experience. Holidays on occasions of religious festivals including

eid, rathjatra and Annapurna puja of followers of Islam and Hindu religions respectively were not

allowed by capital. Labour had to struggle for full day’s leave with pay on the occasions of these

festivities. The Kolkata labour repeatedly had the experience for years.

But no conspiracy, no threat and terror, no murder and killing, no imposition of boundary by law and

force could deter labour in its fight for a better life ─ a life with freedom and dignity, a life with

safety and security, a life with opportunities to pursue humane excellence. In waves of strikes across

industry and across the land, labour spread its movement with loss of millions of working days in the

subcontinent, and at times, compelled capital and its state to surrender. In areas, labour turned

market places into staging ground for mobilisation and resistance. There’s instance that a library

evolved into a trade union and a typed newsletter of a few hundred copies had to be printed in

larger number for distribution around the land.

It took years for a red flag to appear in a labour procession in this sub-continent; and at a time of

triumph, labour was spreading its message with red flags on a locomotive engine that was moving

from place to place. It was labour’s moment of victory in the subcontinent-wide struggle of railway

workers in 1946.

Embryos of trade union almost simultaneously came into being in more than one place in the

subcontinent as it was organising on its own although an assumption prevails that trade union

activities began in a single area. The pattern ─ simultaneous ─ is meaningful.

Labour’s movement in the subcontinent supports the claim, to put it briefly, reality shapes ideas. In

its initial days, labour in the sub-continent was tied to ideas and culture of its old home: village, and

ghosts and ill-spirit, etc. Many of its faiths were ancient. To get free from exploitation, a part of

labour, in its initial days, in the sub-continent sought help of gods that lived eternally somewhere in

forests and hills. It even imagined Kaiser as a god, who had the capacity to free labour from the

clutches of feereengee, the eengrej, the English, the British colonial rulers, and its collaborators. It

should not be imagined that all old ideas and concepts evaporated the moment labour interacted

with machine, with modern production process, with capitalist production. But new ideas, concepts,

method, style, imaginations crept in. Those might be partial, might be mixed; but old ones were

coming into conflict with new ones, and giving in to the new.

In areas, because of type of production, labour was kept isolated from broader social

community/towns/villages; they had to work in small groups; even one group of workers were

isolated from other groups, and the groups were smaller in number. Effective and organised forms

and methods of protests, other than falling sick or deserting work place, were unknown to labour in

the area. It was difficult for news of political and social developments in the broader society to reach

labour in the area. Political leadership at national level, at times, even, was not taking initiative to

reach the labour there. But that didn’t permanently kept labour away from organising collective

struggle. It’s a meaningful signal to comprehend.

But with perseverance, labour learned. On the path to learning, mistakes were there as were

failures. Successes also raised their victorious flags. Successes were teachers as were mistakes and


Responsibility for failures in political struggle and political development, for failures to foil onslaught

by forces of reaction and retrogression, for fratricidal bloodbath engineered and instigated by capital

in no way falls on labour, a young class not developed fully at that period, as at no moment in the

history of this sub-continent labour was in full control of political situations, which was always

developing through competition and conflicts. Labour’s contending classes were older, stronger,

having more interactions with science, finance, diplomacy and geopolitics, modern knowledge, and

with other countries, and were politically more organised, matured and powerful. The class in

collusion with imperialist rulers, and standing opposed to labour was more matured than all other

classes in the sub-continent. Labour, despite its inexperience, weaker organisation, and theoretical

incompleteness, stood against backward, reactionary political ideas and activities, and stood for

progress. A historical responsibility it was. Labour always stood for fraternity and solidarity. No other

class in the sub-continent can make similar claim throughout the period.

Forms and methods of protest, resistance and struggle that emerge in spheres of society depend on

prevailing reality, which is a historical growth. Politics can’t escape the reality as it can’t bury

prospects also. Adopting appropriate strategy and tactics takes time. At times, initially obviously,

resistances and barricades may crumble down as those initially can’t overpower relevant process.

But despite failures and temporary crumbling downs the clarion call for a humane life and humane

dignity remains alive. It’s one of the teachings by labour in the subcontinent. ‘[W]e have to work

very hard to … preserve the dignity of human beings as creatures with the ability to reason and

choose. Resistance lives! As we say in India, Inqilab Zindabad!’ (Amiya Kumar Bagchi, ‘The

Parameters of Resistance’, Monthly Review, vol. 55, issue 3, July-August, 2003)

A modified English version of ‘Shoochanaa’ (‘Introduction’), Upamahaadeshe Srameek Aandoloner

Kaalpanjee (Notes on Labour Movement in this Subcontinent, in Bangla), May 2015, by Farooque

Chowdhury. Observations made above are on the basis of findings mentioned in the notes. Farooque

Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance writer.