R. Page Arnot
Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 15, February 1933, No. 2, pp. 96-101
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML 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.
The Meerut prisoners have been sentenced. After nearly four years in the stifling jail of Meerut, held without bail and tried without jury, they receive sentences of transportation for life, for twelve years, for ten years.
What Devil’s Island meant in the calendar of French Imperialism, what northern-most Siberia meant in the record of the Tsardom, that transportation has meant in the annals of British India. The penal settlements, and of these the Andaman Islands are the most used and the best known, are a bye-word for the horrors inflicted on their inmates, fever-ridden swamps, where disease and death commute the government sentences of long-term imprisonment.
These men had dared to help in the organisation of trade unions, they had dared to lead mass strikes and to develop the class character of the workers’ struggle in India. Through their efforts and through the lessons of the strike they led, the Indian workers were rapidly overcoming the weaknesses of the earlier period and as a consequence were growing increasingly conscious of themselves as a class, and had taken the first steps to independent struggle and leadership of the whole struggle of the Indian masses.
For this the vengeance of imperialism falls upon them in this series of savage sentences:
Muzaffar Ahmad, Vice-President of the All-India Trade Union Congress, already sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in the Cawnpore conspiracy trial of 1924, is sentenced to transportation for life.
Philip Sprat, executive member of the All-India Trade Union Congress, active in trade union work and in the co-operative movement when in England, is sentenced to transportation for twelve years.
S.V. Ghate, Vice-President of the Bombay Municipal Workers’ Union, and in 1927 appointed Assistant Secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress—transportation for twelve years.
K.N. Joglekar, organising secretary, G.I.P. Railwaymen’s Union—transportation for twelve years.
R.S. Nimbkar, President Bombay Oil Co.’s Employees Union, Secretary Bombay Trades Council—transportation for twelve years.
S.A. Dange, General Secretary of the Girni Kamgar Union (which lead the six months’ Bombay cotton strike of 1928), and Assistant Secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress—transportation for twelve years.
B.F. Bradley, formerly of the London District Committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, member of the Executive Council of the Girni Kamgar Union, and Treasurer of the joint strike committee during the Bombay cotton strike—transportation for ten years.
S.S. Mirajkar, Secretary of the British India Steam Navigation Co. Staff Union—transportation for ten years.
S. Usmani, delegate to the All-India Trade Union Congress, previously sentenced in the 1924 Cawnpore trial—transportation for ten years.
P.C. Joshi, Editor of Kranti Kari and Secretary of United Provinces Workers’ and Peasants’ Party—transportation for seven years.
D. Goswami, Organiser of the Bengal Jute Workers’ Union—seven years’ transportation.
Abdul Majid, left India to fight for the Khilafat in 1920, and visited Russia—seven years’ transportation.
G.M. Adhikari, a doctor of engineering, M.G. Desai, an Indian journalist; S.S. Josh, president of the first All-India Workers and Peasants’ Party in December, 1928; A. Prasad, all prominent workers in the Indian Labour Movement—transportation for five years.
Those who received four years’ rigorous imprisonment were: G. Chakravarty, leader of the Kharagpur Railway strike, official of the East India Railway Union; R.R. Mitra, General Secretary of the Bengal Jute Workers’ Union; Gopal Basak, official of the Bengal Textile Union; Lester Hutchinson, Editor of the New Spark, after the arrest of the others elected to an official position in the Girni Kamgar Union; S.H. Jhabwalla, General Secretary of the G.I.P. Railwaymen’s Union (with 41,000 members); K.N. Sehgal, member of the All-India Congress Committee.
Those sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment were: S. Huda, Secretary of the Transport Workers Union of Bengal; A.A. Alwe, President of the Girni Kamgar Union; R. Kasle, official of the Girni Kamgar Union; Gourakshanker, member of the Workers and Peasants Party; L.R. Khadam, prominent worker in the Labour Movement.
Three were acquitted, while in the case of another, D.R. Thengdi, pioneer of the Indian Trade Union Movement and a veteran Nationalist, British imperialism was cheated of its victim by the old man’s death in prison.
When the news of these dreadful sentences was received in Bombay, the Girni Kamgar Union called a strike in protest. It was a sign that the cotton workers of Bombay, who get neither insurance benefit nor P.A.C. relief, for whom to strike means to face starvation, understood very well that the right of trade union organisation is at stake.
The issue is nothing less than this, as indeed is indicated by the list of who the prisoners are, whether the capitalists are to be allowed to root out trade unionism in India.
This is not how the prosecution put it. They charged the prisoners, in the portentous language of the Indian Penal Code, that they conspired to deprive the King-Emperor of the Sovereignty of British India.
This was accompanied by a long rigmarole about the Communist International, which blossomed out in the speech of the prosecuting counsel into the statement that the object of the accused “was, in effect, to substitute for the Government of His Majesty, the Government of Mr. Stalin, as he is now called.”
But in the whole three years and ten months of the trial, from arrest to sentence, not a single overt act, which could deprive the King-Emperor of his Sovereignty, could be proved against them. Their “offence” was to have stimulated, encouraged and led the fight against the terrible oppressions and poverty imposed by British Imperialism upon the toiling masses of India. This is “conspiracy against the King.”
On the other hand, for the 1928 cotton strike alone the prosecution produced seven hundred of the usual garbled police reports of speeches, to prove the “incitement of antagonism between Capital and Labour.”
That is to say, the prisoners were sentenced for doing just what every fighting trade unionist in this country is found doing during a strike, and for saying just what is daily said in our trade union branches. The Meerut trial therefore is in the first place an attack on the workers’ right of trade union organisation. The sentences strike at the root of trade unionism. The international working class, and above all, the British working class, is bound to fight against these sentences and not to cease the struggle until the sentences have been cancelled and the prisoners released.
Trade unionism in India in the real sense begins with the Meerut prisoners. The name, trade union, had not existed before 1918, and the meagre trade unions that grew up after that date, were vessels without contents; not trade union organisations, but trade union offices, in which sat middle-class philanthropists and lawyers, generals without an army and without an enemy. In a word, this trade union movement in name only, tolerated by the government as harmless and even useful, became the prey of every sort of adventurer and opportunist who used it as a jumping-off ground for a seat in the legislative assembly or a post under the government.
The Meerut prisoners brought life and fight into these unions, increased their membership and organised the trade union movement in trades hitherto unorganised. The great strikes at the end of the war had thrown up forms of trade union organisation which were little more than strike committees and these had vanished like the transient organisations of the early strike movement in Great Britain.
The Meerut trial and sentences represent therefore the attempt of British Imperialism to strangle at birth a great historical working-class movement, in a country whose population comprises one-sixth of mankind.
British imperialism has its reasons for this. Indian trade unions have to protect workers against the most miserable conditions, of wages (1d an hour), hours (limited in 1922 to a 60-hour week), and general working conditions. If Marx could tell how the millocracy of England used up three. generations of cotton operatives in one lifetime, an even worse tale must be told in India during the “beneficent” rule of the sahibs, when the expectation of life has fallen within a generation from 30 to 22, or less than half the average expectation of life in England.
The fight of an organised Indian working class against such conditions as these would threaten the very basis of Imperialism, the super-profits on which the British capitalists fatten.
The Indian working class could not be bribed as were sections of the English working class in the later nineteenth century by crumbs from the rich man’s banquet of super profits, for they themselves are the source of super-profits. The Indian trade unions, if real, as the Meerut prisoners were making them, were bound to be of the same sort as the Chartist trade unions, and could never sink into the torpor and friendly society condition of the British craft unions in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
But the parallel with Chartism is insufficient. The Indian trade union movement is being born in the epoch of Imperialism, amid wars and revolutions, in the country that is a blazing furnace of colonial revolt against Imperialism.
Born in these circumstances, the Indian trade unions are bound to be but a first step. The Indian proletariat once aware of itself as a class, enters on a road when of necessity it is bound to organise trade unions, to organise its own independent working class party, to take the lead of the peasantry, to lead the whole national struggle for emancipation, and to find its goal (though not its final goal) in the overthrow of Imperialism, the independence of India, and the complete destruction of the feudal-imperialist regime.
British Imperialism recognises its deadliest enemy in the Indian working class and for this reason, tries to crush its advance by a reign of terror and sentences of transportation.
For this reason, too, because there is no reconciling of the interests of the Indian workers with the interests of the Imperialist bourgeoisie, all other interests and all parties are bound to take up their positions on one side or other. The British Labour Party, and the Trade Union Congress General Council, abandon their humanitarian pose when colonial super-profits are at stake (for they share in these super-profits) and condemn the Meerut prisoners, only blaming the Government for not finishing them off more quickly. A sentiment with which the Tory Secretary of State for India cordially agreed, “this trial has gone on far too long,” as he said when he took over this hangman’s job from the Labour Government.
The pharisees of the General Council, celebrating this year the centenary of the Dorchester Labourers (sentenced to seven years’ transportation a hundred years ago for organising trade unions in England), would not raise a finger to release the men who were organising trade unions in India.
On the other hand, the organisation of the Indian capitalists, the Indian National Congress, when faced by the sharpening class struggle, abandons its opposition to the “Satanic” British Raj, and its representative, Gandhi, signed a pact with the Viceroy which released 50,000 political captives, but kept the Meerut prisoners fast in their gaol.
The Meerut prisoners’ trial and sentences raise the whole question of the right of workers to organise trade unions in a colonial country, where the masses are held down by naked force. For British Imperialism it is too dangerous, and for Gandhi and Lansbury also. But for British workers it is an elementary duty, which they cannot fail to carry through, to support the fight of working-class organisation in India, and to join with the Indian workers in their struggle against British Imperialism.
It is not only a duty: it is a necessity. Not only is it true that a nation that oppresses another cannot itself be free; but the same Imperialist class that is oppressing India, is oppressing and robbing the workers of this country by wage-cuts and speed-up, tariffs and taxes, is taking the bread out of the mouths of the workers’ children, depriving them of the benefits of education, insurance and all other social services, and casting into gaol Tom Mann or any other leader of working class revolt. The railwaymen facing a wage-cut, the busmen on strike against speed-up, the Lancashire workers suffering under the Midland Agreement, are fighting the same class that would deny the Indian workers the right to organise.
But the deepest significance of the Meerut Trial and the reason for the extreme ferocity of the sentences, is that the representatives of the Indian masses and the representatives of the British working class were carrying on a united struggle against British Imperialism. For a hundred and fifty years British Capitalism has been a parasite on India, sucking its life-blood. For a hundred and fifty years every device of imperialist propaganda has been used to sunder the exploited of India from the exploited of Britain.
It is the glory of the Meerut prisoners that for the first time on such a charge representatives of the exploited classes of India and Britain stood together. Their stand is a symbol of that unity of the British working class with the masses of the British Empire which alone can destroy British Imperialism. For a hundred and fifty years British Capitalism has been a parasite on India, sucking its life-blood. For a hundred and fifty years every device of imperialist propaganda has been used to sunder the exploited of India from the exploited of Britain.
The Meerut prisoners, Englishmen and Indians in the dock together, destroyed once and for all the jingo picture of “black men” versus “white men,” of “Asiatics against Europeans” and showed the true line of cleavage in a fight of the oppressed of both nations against the oppressors. To obtain their release, therefore, must be the object of both British and Indian workers. But it is the British Governments—Tory, Labour and National—that have kept them in prison. It is the British Government which is responsible for the sentence. The biggest responsibility lies with the British working class to secure their release, by nation-wide agitation in every organisation, in every kind of meeting.
The feeling of horror and indignation that was felt in the middle of January when the sentences were announced must grow into a powerful agitation that will force open the prison doors, annul these venomous sentences, and establish the workers’ right to organisation in India.
Note by transcriber Ted Crawford. After the trial the three Englishmen were swiftly deported back to Britain where Ben Bradley wrote on India in Labour Monthly in March 1934. Phil Spratt, as a ‘Cambridge man’ and traitor to his class, got the heaviest sentence of the English of 12 years transportation. He later wrote Blowing Up India, published in Calcutta, 1955.