Indian Working Class Celebrates
A Hundred Years of Its First Political Strike
- D P Buxi
Emergence of the Indian working class
British colonial rule had a twofold impact on societal development in India: (a) destroying the elements of capitalism that were naturally emerging from within the Indian variety of feudalism and (b) on the ruins of these indigenous capitalist elements, developing a distorted capitalism characterised by absolute domination of colonial capital and a new comprador class. The journey of industrial capitalism charted by the British began with the introduction of railways in 1853 (laying 20 miles of railroad from Mumbai). This was followed by the development of coal industry in the Asansol- Jharia belt of Bengal and Bihar which was essential for raw materials to run the railway engines. Around the same time tea plantation was introduced in Assam. Jute, textiles and spinning industries also began to take shape, giving rise to commercialisation of agriculture for the purpose of industrial use of agricultural raw materials.
1853 thus marked the emergence of modern industrial workers in our country. At that time the main component of the working class was landless poor peasants and bonded agricultural labourers -- mostly from socially backward and oppressed backgrounds such as dalits and tribals. Moreover, there was a strong presence of labouring women and child labourers. Marginalization and destruction of skilled artisans acted as a stumbling block in the process of natural transformation of artisans into modern industrial workers.
Spontaneous protest and struggle of working class at the initial stage (1850-1900)
The first-ever strike struggle of Indian industrial workers took place in March 1862, i.e., within nine years of its emergence. 1200 Railway Workers of Howrah Station went on strike demanding an eight hour work day. In 1877 workers launched a strike demanding a wage hike in Nagpur Empress Mill. Between 1882 and 1890, 25 important strike struggles took place in Mumbai and Madras Presidencies. In 1881, jute workers at Ghusuri (Bengal) went on strike on two occasions against wage erosion. In 1885, jute workers of Budge Budge (near Kolkata) went on strike for 6 days and in 1889 the same jute workers went on strike for 8 days. The police opened fire on the agitating workers.
As colonial industrialization advanced, the newly emergent class of industrial workers reacted spontaneously to extreme exploitation with a good many struggles. Such outbursts, mainly directed against excessive workload, low wage and absence of minimum security, began to attract the attention of humanist intellectuals. In other words, the nascent working class movement carved out a niche for itself within the reformist domain. While workers were yet to be organised in trade unions proper, enlightened intellectuals like Sashipada Banerjee of Bengal and N M Lekhande of Mumbai started some reform work among industrial workers from a humanist and philanthropic perspective. In 1874 Sashipada Banerjee published a news magazine for workers called 'Indian Workers' and in 1898 Lekhande published a magazine in Mumbai called 'Dinabandhu'. Mr. Banerjee also set up the Baranagar Institute on the outskirts of Kolkata to impart primary education to workers. On the initiative of the Brahmo Samaj and under the direction of Sashipada Banerjee, night schools and a Savings Bank for jute workers were set up in Baranagar in 1884. Another propagandist of the Brahmo Samaj, P C Majumder established 8 night schools in Mumbai to spread primary education among workers. In Mumbai Lekhande prepared a 5-point charter of demands (related to working conditions like Sunday holiday, half- an -hour rest in noon, payment of wage within 15th of every month etc.) of workers and collected signatures of 5,500 workers in 1884; later it was submitted before a commission appointed by the Government.
Formed in 1885, the Indian National Congress was dominated by the “enlightened” upper strata and the leadership was controlled by big zamindars and the emerging capitalist class. Its class character did not permit it to address issues like exploitation and suppression of poor peasants and workers.
The first Factory Act in colonial India was enacted in 1881; it banned the appointment of child labour below 7 years and children between 7 and 12 years were awarded 4 holidays. The Factory Act of 1891 further expanded the rights of workers; the age limit for child labour was raised to 9 years. It also provided for 7 hour working day for child workers up to 14 yrs, 1½ hour rest for women workers and half- an -hour rest for male workers; Sundays were declared holidays.
However, neither British nor Indian capitalist ever cared to implement the minimum rights of workers as per Factory Acts. In fact workers could hardly make any demarcation between British colonial rulers and Indian capitalists. Their class consciousness developed through organically linked dual conflicts with both British colonial rule and Indian capitalists.
Genesis of political awakening of Indian working class
If the latter half of the 19th century was marked by the emergence of industrial workers and their spontaneous resistance, the first two decades of the 20th century witnessed a massive expansion of working class struggle in our country, preparation of organised trade union movement and the assertion of the role of the working class on key political questions.
In 1905 Lord Curzon announced the partition of Bengal. This “divide and rule” measure provoked angry outbursts not only in Bengal but also in different parts of the country. The outburst also had a distinct working class dimension in addition to intensification of the Swadeshi campaign and beginning of revolutionary terrorism.
The first trade union in the true sense of the term was formed on 21 October 1905 amidst intensive strike struggle in printing presses of the government. In 1905 itself workers of Burn Company (Howrah) and Kolkata Tram Company and 2000 coolies and sweepers of Kolkata Corporation went on strike. In October 1905, 950 railway guards of the East India Railway, Bengal sector, participated in a strike struggle for wage revision (against racist discrimination in wages). In 1906, about 1000 jute workers went on strike against inhuman behaviour of British officers and for improvement of their working conditions.
Similarly in 1905 several strike struggles were organised by textile workers of Mumbai against increased workload. In 1907, textile workers also participated in a strike for wage hike. Some of these strikes continued for full one week. In 1906, 500 Post and Telegraph employees participated in a week-long strike for their wage hike, bringing the entire work of the P&T department to a halt.
1907 witnessed a wave of militant struggles of railway workers on various economic demands and in protest against too much workload, successfully bringing different zones of the railways to a halt. The struggles of railway workers assumed a very crucial role in anti-imperialist mass awakening.
Meanwhile in 1907, the Indian National Congress got split into two fractions, viz. the moderates and extremists. The moderate leadership withdrew the campaign of boycotting foreign goods, called for co-operation with the government and advised rejection of militant struggles. The so-called 'extremists' led by Balgangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal called for intensifying the mass campaign against the British. Tilak and his followers started a campaign among workers in Mumbai and appealed to them for joining the anti-British movement. The Russian revolution of 1905, though not successful in the immediate sense, also had an inspiring impact on the Indian proletariat. In 1908, textile workers of a foreign-owned cotton mill at Tuticorin went on strike and attempts to suppress them were met by militant protests of municipal workers and common people.
First political strike --
A turning point and historic milestone
In this backdrop, when Tilak was arrested on 24 June 1908 by the colonial police and booked on the charge of “sedition”, Mumbai workers swung into action. On 29 June thousands of people including workers clashed with the police in front of the court. When the trial began on 13 July the clashes were further intensified. Armed military forces cordoned off the roads so that workers could not reach the court. In a few cotton mills workers went on strike and marched towards the court. The army tried to disperse them, but a wide cross-section of people joined the march. The struggles continued through 14-16 July 1908. Workers of British and ‘native’ mills went on strike. 20,000 workers marched across the entire mill area calling upon other workers to join the strike.
On 18 July, police opened fire on workers. On 19 July in Mahim and Panch area of Mumbai 65,000 workers joined the strike. On the next day, police again fired on workers. Dock workers and petty traders along with common people joined the struggle. On 21 July, strike struggles spread further . On 22 July, 5 striking workers booked in criminal cases were sentenced. This was also the final day of Tilak’s trial and he was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment. On that day, defying storms and heavy rains, thousands of workers gathered in front of the court, forcing the authorities to remove Tilak from the court through back doors after the sentence was pronounced.
What follows is an account of 6 days of workers’ political action against the 6 years' sentence for Tilak: a struggle in which 200 workers and common people lost their lives.
• 23 July: workers of Mumbai went for an all-out political strike against the atrocious sentence. 1 lakh workers went on strike and a broad cross section of people came out in support of the strike, turning it into a general strike.
• 24 July: confrontation between striking workers and their supporters and the police got intensified. Street-fights started in different part of Mumbai. People formed small groups and threw brickbats to counter the police firing. Many workers were killed and injured.
• 25-26 July: The struggle continued and ‘native’ mill owners started their campaign to break the strike.
• 27 July: The urban middle class and other unorganized labouring people also joined the struggle.
• 28 July: Urban servants from a rural background joined the struggle and took an active part in the street fights.
In terms of intense hatred against the colonial authorities, mass militancy, sustenance, and linkage with other sections of society, it was really a grand beginning of the political awakening of the Indian working class.
Lenin hailed this heroic action of Bombay workers in the following words: “The infamous sentence pronounced by the British jackals on the Indian democrat Tilak … evoked street demonstrations and strike in Mumbai. In India, too, the proletariat has already developed to conscious political mass struggle — and, that being the case, the Russian style British regime in India is doomed.”
Lenin's words proved prophetic. Workers confronted both the British regime and ‘native’ capitalists in militant struggles, often finding themselves at odds with the official Congress leadership. In the process, the working class gradually established itself both as a front -ranking detachment of the freedom movement and as a formidable fighter against the exploitation and injustice meted out to it as a class. The next couple of decades saw a rapid proliferation of trade unions culminating in the formation of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in 1920 as the first central trade union; and also the foundation of the political party of the working class, the CPI, in 1925. In course of an eventful journey through 1947 and beyond, the Indian proletariat launched innumerable struggles not only to defend its interests and expand its rights, but also to address the burning issues facing the nation. Many of these movements -- such as the “Sholapur Commune” (May 1930), the numerous strike struggles during the Quit India Movement, street fights in Kolkata and Mumbai respectively against the trial of INA soldiers and the Naval Mutiny (1945 and 1946), the historic political action of Durgapur Steel workers in solidarity with the prolonged food movement combined with burning issues of workers (August 1966), the all-India strike by 25 lakh central government employees and workers demanding “need-based minimum wage” (19 September 1968), the historic railway strike by 20 lakh workers (May 1974), the great textile strike in Mumbai led by Dutta Samant in 1980s and so on -- carried forward the glorious tradition of the first political strike of 1908 and will always inspire us to forge ahead.
Today as we step into the hundredth anniversary of the first political strike in the era of liberalization and globalization, the Indian working class is facing an unprecedented assault in the wake of policies of privatization, downsizing, increased workload, contractualization-casualization-informalisation and so on. Hard-won trade union rights are under constant attack not only from the central and state governments, but also from the judiciary. And to be sure, it is valiantly responding to the challenges. Even a cursory glance at some of the struggles that rocked India in recent years, reveal an extremely broad sweep: the struggles waged by government employees in Tamil Nadu and Bihar, the weeklong strike of SBI employees, struggles of NALCO and Neyveli workers, the nationwide protests by central trade unions against blatantly pro-imperialist measures like the hike in FDI cap in Telecom industry (February 7, 2005), the Parliament March of February 26, 2005 against the passing of the Third Patents (Amendment) Bill, the trend-setting action in aviation sector by the airport authority employees and so on.
As the leader of Indian revolution, the proletariat is also called upon to champion the political struggles of Indian people at large against the onslaughts of globalisation and in defence of democracy and communal harmony. In particular, issues like the worsening agrarian crisis as evidenced by farmers’ suicides and starvation deaths, corporate land grab and state repression on people’s movements deserve a conscious and organised political response of the working class – both by trade unions and the communist party. In this context, the fine traditions of our working class movement remain an inexhaustible source of inspiration for present day workers. Let us begin a new phase of our journey by renewing the pledge in the memory of great martyrs of the first political action of Indian working class in its centenary year, and by campaigning to celebrate the hundred years of struggles (1908-2008) in June-July 2008.