Chapter 20: Working class struggles
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.
In Bombay, where a
predominantly Marathi labour force facilitated some degree of social contact across class lines,
middle-class philanthrophic efforts to improve labour conditions began fairly early with N.M.
Lokhande (an associate of Phule) starting the weekly Dinabandhu in 1880, organizing labour
meetings to demand shorter hours in 1884, and even starting a Bombay Mill-hands' Association
This, however, was not a trade union, it merely involved Lokhande setting up an office
to give free advice to mill-hands who came to him.
Similar activities were started by the Brahmo
social reformer Sasipada Banerji among the Bengali jute mill-workers of Baranagore, a Calcutta
suburb— night schools, clubs, temperance societies, a journal named Bharat Sramajeebi (1874),
all trying to inculcate a middle class Victorian morality of thrift, sobriety and self-help among
Bengali intelligentsia leaders like Dwarkanath Ganguli did launch a memorable
campaign in the 1880s against the slave labour conditions in the tea plantations, but no one as yet
made the attempt to organize the coolies themselves.
Workers did occasionally fight back in their own way, through assaults on overseers, sporadic
riots and spontaneous short-lived strikes.
But the important point
made by Chakrabarti is the way in which embryonic labour protest could often take the form of a
kind of 'community-consciousness' rather than a clear recognition of class.
The impoverished Indian peasant or ruined artisan being sucked into
factories tended to fall back upon sectional ties of region, caste, kinship or religion.
urban environment in fact often strengthened such old loyalties, as the new immigrant found
himself in an intensely competitive surplus labour market where unskilled hands fought each
other for jobs—and jobs could usually be secured only through sardars who were likely to favour
their own community or kin, and who could also at times act as carriers of the separatist ideology
of their social superiors.
Dual Nature of Protests
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
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.
India trade union congress was created in 1920 under
guidance of Tilak and the first meeting in Parel was
under president lala lajpat rai.
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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
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.
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