Percy Glading

The Growth of the Indian Strike Movement, 1921-1929


Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 12, July 1929, No. 7, pp. 429-434 (2,063 words).
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


During the period 1921-1929 there were 1,729 industrial disputes throughout India, one of which extended to five provinces and another covered three provinces. The total number of workers involved in these disputes was approximately 3¼ million and the aggregate time-loss amounted to 84 million days or over 250,000 working years. Here is the table of disputes given by the Government of Bombay’s Labour Gazette:—


Year Number of Disputes Number of Workers Involved Number of Working Days Lost
1921 326 600,351 6,284,426
1922 2781 435,434 3,272,727
1923 253 301,044 5,051,704
1924 133 312,462 8,730,218
1925 134 270,423 12,578,122
1926 128 186,811 1,027,478
1927 1222 131,655 2,012,270
1928 203 506,851 31,647,404
1929 141 532,061 12,165,691
1,739 3,252,146 84,248,447

An examination of this table shows that the number of strikes and the number of workers involved diminishes steadily from the high point of 1921 until 1927, after which the number of strikes begin to increase while the number of strikers rapidly mounts up. Thus the course of these strikes can be shown as a descending curve reaching its bottom level in 1926 and therefrom rising fairly steeply.

How is this related to the general economic and political situation in India during these years? Clearly there is a direct relation. The year 1921 marked the highest point of the mass Non-Co-operation Movement, which lasted also into 1922. But by the middle and the end of 1922 the Movement was being suppressed, and scores of thousands of workers and peasants were cast into British jails. And the years 1923-6 represented the low ebb of the revolutionary tide. They were the years when C. R. Das developed Swarajist parties inside the Assemblies and Legislatures; when the masses, suffering from the memory of Gandhi’s betrayal of their movement in February, 1922, and, untouched by the trumpery superstructure of empty legislative assemblies, &c., appeared relatively quiescent under their exploitation. But what a quiescence! For even in this ebb of the tide, the extent and duration of the strike movement is much greater when the small size of the Indian proletariat is taken into account than in most European countries in the same period.

The year 1921 wholly belongs to the height of the post-war revolutionary movement throughout the whole world. But the conditions of the colonies and the special effects on India of the decline of British Imperialism are reflected in a remarkable way in the years after 1921. Let us survey the more notable strikes of these “ebb-tide” years, so as to gain some idea of how the Indian proletariat was developing towards militancy.

In 1922 one dispute took place on the East Indian Railway at Turdla and lasted from the first week of February to second week of April, involving over 21,000 workers. The cause of the dispute was that an Indian fireman was assaulted by a European shunter. In this year also 60,000 Bombay cotton mill workers struck in commemoration of the second anniversary of the death of Mr. B. G. Tilak, an old leader of the early Nationalist Movement.

The most important dispute in 1923 occurred at the Ahmedabad textile mills over the proposed reduction of 20 per cent. in wages. Forty-three thousand workers employed in fifty-six mills were involved, and the aggregate number of days spent in the dispute were 2,400,000. Another long dispute in this year occurred in the Burma Oil-field, which in the aggregate amounted to 300,000 working days.

Although the total number of strikes decreased in 1924 the magnitude of single strikes increased. The cotton mill workers of Bombay were on strike for over two months; some 160,000 workers were involved. The dispute arose over the decision of the Bombay Millowners’ Association to withhold payment of the annual bonus owing to trade depression. The local Government appealed to a Committee to investigate the cause of the dispute, and the findings of the Committee were in favour of the millowners. Prolonged strikes also occurred in the Cawnpore cotton mills and among the dock workers of Rangoon.

The cotton mill workers were again the principal section of the workers involved in the disputes of 1925. The question was one of a 11½ per cent. reduction in wages, the argument put forward by the mill-owners being the severe and unprecedented depression. The number of working days lost in this-dispute was nearly 11 million. The workers refused to return to work until the cut in wages was restored. The Viceroy was compelled to remove the cotton excise duty and so help the mill-owners to concede the workers’ demands. The railway workers on the North-Western Railway struck against the victimisation of a fitter at the Rawalpindi loco-shops. The strike involved 18,000 workers and lasted from the end of March to the end of June.

The number of disputes in the years 1926-27 were few compared with earlier years. But in 1927, though the number of strikers was less, there was already to be seen a changed outlook amongst the, workers. The year 1927 was the turning point, in 1928 the revolutionary spirit of workers again blazed forth.

By 1927 the growing crisis in Indian economy resulting from the decline of British imperialism was becoming more and more evident. Amongst the working class an increasing spirit of militancy showed itself as a result of the rationalisation drive resorted to by the employers in their endeavour to find a way out of the crisis. There was an increase in the number of trade union meetings. The agitation being carried on by B. F. Bradley and P. Spratt, two of the English prisoners now on trial at Meerut, met with a more and more favourable hearing. Throughout all India, on the peasantry and petty-bourgeoisie as well as on the workers, the effects of the growing crisis were more and more clearly shown. The growing spirit of revolt found expression in hartals and strikes against the Simon Commission. Thus from the very beginning the great strike movement of 1928 and 1929 took on a political colour. Indeed the difference between the strike wave of 1928-29 and earlier years is not so much in what is shown in the figures, big though this difference is, but in the growing political nature of the strikes.

When in 1928 the revolutionary spirit of the workers blazed forth, the total number of disputes during this year was 203, as against 129 in the previous year, and the loss in the working days reached the record figure of 31 million which was even greater than the total loss of working days during the whole of the five preceding years.

The general strike of cotton mill workers in Bombay against the rationalisation drive with its new methods, and greater exploitation, lasted in the aggregate over 22½, million working days.

Other textile disputes occurred at Sholapur and Cawnpore. The wave of revolt was not confined to textile workers alone, but the magnificent spirit of the textile workers of Bombay, who had borne the brunt of severe class struggles in previous years, was an inspiration to the rest of the working class in India. Therefore it is not surprising to find huge strikes in 1928 at the Tata Iron and Steel works at Jamshedpur, the East Indian Railway, the Southern Railway, and the Fort Gloster Jute Mills at Bauria in Bengal. The struggles of 1928 marked a new phase in the brutality of the authorities against the strikers. The workers answered this new phase in the development of class oppression with mass demonstrations and increased picketing. As a consequence this attempt at brutal suppression resulted in much bloodshed.

A review of the whole period, 1921 to 1929, shows that out of a total of 1,739 disputes, the largest number, 808, occurred in the cotton spinning and weaving mills. This industry alone recorded an aggregate of over 58½ million working days lost through disputes; the number of workers involved was over one and a third million. Two of these disputes lasted over two years. The capitalist class of India, backed up by the Imperial government, including the Labour Government in 1924, carried, on the programme of the capitalist class in Great Britain, i.e., “The wages of all workers must come down.” This applied especially to the cotton spinning and weaving mills.

During this period, 1921-29, of these 808 cotton textile disputes there were 326 directly dealing with wages; 94 relating to “bonus”; 228 come under the heading of “personnel,” which means political and sympathetic strikes; 23 over “leave and hours” and 137 due to other unspecified reasons. The workers were successful in 162 of these struggles; partially successful in 91; unsuccessful in 549.

If we examine the total number of disputes for all industries during this period, i.e., 1,739, then we find of these, 783 were directly caused by attacks on wages; 141 related to bonus payments; 399 came under the heading of personnel; 67 leave and hours, and 349 were caused by other reasons which the official report does not classify. The working class by their heroic determination which has been an object lesson to the proletariat of the world were completely successful in 285 disputes; partially successful in 291 disputes, and were driven back or unsuccessful in 1,153 disputes.

The capitalist class of India, fearing this rapid development of the revolutionary working class, used every means at their disposal in their attempt to crush the future ruling class. Police, Army, Air Force, Bombs, Tanks, Gas and Legislation were the means and methods of attack. The drive of capitalist rationalisation caused by the enormous fall in prices forced the capitalists to savagely attack the already miserable standard of wages of the Indian working class. Although the cotton and woollen workers have stood the full force of the attack, all other sections of the workers have also had their share of capitalist viciousness.

But the heroic and determined Indian workers have not shirked the issues; although butchered, bludgeoned and murdered, these workers have not faltered. Their leaders have been arrested, jailed and tortured; the reformist leaders have betrayed and deserted the workers as they do in capitalist countries, but even these acts of treachery have not stopped the onward march of the proletariat of India.

Mass demonstrations and strikes met the Simon Commission in February, 1928. The great strikes of railway workers on the East India and South India Railways, were suppressed with much brutality; many were killed and wounded by bayonet charges. And in the latter strike the whole Executive Committee of the Union was arrested, the chief leaders each being sentenced to ten years’ rigorous imprisonment.

The greatest strike of the post-war period began in 1928 in the mills of Bombay against the rationalisation drive and a cut in wages; the workers were successful in resisting this and resumed work on the old terms. The Fawcett Commission was set up to report on the conditions of the textile industry. But prior to this Committee issuing their finding thirty-three Trade Union leaders, men who had been responsible for the successful leadership of previous strikes, were arrested and placed on trial for “Conspiracy against the King Emperor.” Of these thirty-one working-class fighters have now for the last fifteen months stood for trial at Meerut.

Anti-labour legislation has been introduced; a “Trades Disputes Act” was passed, making sympathetic strikes illegal, and going beyond the British Act of 1927. Public Safety Ordinances have been put into operation which enable the Government to deport from India any British subject helping the Indian workers in their struggles. The Ordinance also sanctioned the confiscation of moneys sent in support of the Indian workers on strike. Press Acts have been introduced, and also various Ordinances issued by the Viceroy—the real despotic head of the Imperialist Government—acting under the instructions of MacDonald and the social-fascist Labour Government.

But all this has not deterred the Indian masses, imprisoned, butchered and murdered by the Imperialist governments of Tories, Liberals and Labour. These workers repudiated their old leaders, found new class conscious fighters during the class battles, and have set up new revolutionary working-class unions. These new forces, which have been created on the field of class battle, have now become the driving force in the revolutionary struggle in India.

 

Notes

1.  One dispute was common to five provinces.

2. One dispute was common to three provinces.