Chapter 20: Working class struggles


Before the 20th century the working class struggles were limited to a few cities and only to meet the immediate economic grievances. They were sporadic and local. The early nationalist used to fight for rights of European employed workers but not Indian employed workers as they didn’t want to create any division in Indian ranks by offending the Indian capitalists.

Dual Nature of Protests

The opposition by congress to factory and labor legislations was due to them being dictated by British interest. The government would try to make Indian manufacturing less competitive by introducing such legislations. Hence even newspapers didn’t report much on strikes in Indian owned industries.

However when foreign capitalists were exploiting Indian labor the congress would take up the cause and the press did wide reporting to highlight their problems. The swadeshi movement created an awakening and the workers were more organized after this movement. The reasons for strikes were also not limited to economic reasons but were connected to the national struggle. It got involved in mainstream politics too.

All India trade union congress was created in 1920 under guidance of Tilak and the first meeting in Parel was under president lala lajpat rai.

Soon by end of 1928 not a single public entity was without a union. The government too acted harshly too suppress the growing communist tendency. It enacted legislations “Public Safety bill” to prevent spread of socialist and communist ideas and to acquire power to arrest and deport any foreign national.

The bill was rejected by all sections of nationalists and even capitalist class. Having failed to pass the bill the government arrested entire leadership of the labor movement and tried them [Meerut conspiracy case]. 

The labor movement suffered a setback also when the communists changed their policy of aligning themselves with the national movement. This decision isolated them from the working class and they were thrown out of the AITUC in 1931.

The decision to not participate in the civil disobedience movement was suicidal. Although workers did take part in it. The dip in working class movements was seen from 1931-1936 and the next wave was during the provincial elections in 1937. The pro labor nature of congress ministries meant that the number of strikes and unions and membership increased. AITUC had given full support to the congress during the elections.

When the World War II broke out the workers were first to launch an anti war strike in spite of the severe repression by the government to prevent any disruptions during the war. But the Nazi attack on Soviet Union changed the communist stance. They refused to support Gandhiji’s call for quit India movement. They maintained peace with the employers to ensure that industrial production wasn’t affected.

Rise of the Left-wing:

Socialist ideas acquired roots in Indian soil and socialism became the creed of the Indian youth whose urges came to be symbolized by J Nehru and SC Bose. Gradually there emerged two parties in India, the congress socialist party and communist party of India.

The catalyst was the Russian revolution that had ended the czarist rule. Indian youth who had participated in non cooperation movement were influenced by socialism. They had no interest in either gandhian politics or swarajist.

The period also saw emergence of youth groups, unionism and peasant sabhas. Jawaharlal Nehru and Bose preached against capitalism and militarism. Socialism became even more popular after the economic depression of 1930's. Congress to saw increase in left wing influence when Nehru and Bose were elected president.

It was Nehru who was the champion of the socialist cause. He wanted congress to follow a program of socialism if the cause of country had to be advanced. But he never wanted a separate organization outside the congress.

The Trade Union Act, 1926

  • The Act recognised trade unions as legal associations;

  • laid down conditions for registration and regulation of trade union activities

  • secured immunity, both civil and criminal, for trade unions from prosecution for legitimate activities, but put some restrictions on their political activities.

Public Safety Ordinance (1929) and the Trade Disputes Act (TDA), 1929

  • Alarmed at the increasing strength of the trade union movement under extremist influence, the Government resorted to these legislative restrictions.

  • The TDA, 1929 made compulsory the appointment of Courts of Inquiry and Consultation Boards for settling industrial disputes;

  • made illegal the strikes in public utility services like posts, railways, water and electricity, unless each individual worker planning to go on strike gave an advance notice of one month to the administration;

  • forbade trade union activity of coercive or purely political nature and even sympathetic strikes.

Meerut Conspiracy Case (1929)

  • In March 1929, the Government arrested 31 labour leaders, and the threeand-a. half-year trial resulted in the conviction of Muzaffar Ahmed, S.A. Dange, Joglekar, Philip Spratt, Ben Bradley, Shaukat Usmani and others. The trial got worldwide publicity but weakened the working class movement.

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