Clemens Dutt

The Present Strike Movement in India

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 10, June 1928, No. 6, pp. 369-374 (1,985 words).
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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All over India to-day strikes are breaking out in ever-increasing frequency. During the autumn of last year there were several, including the prolonged one at Karaghpur, lasting for three months. But their extent was nothing to the wave that is now spreading over the whole of India. The Times, of May 17, even considers it necessary to print a report to the effect that the Punjab, where so far only one strike has been reported, will not be touched by the present unrest “though it probably will be affected if the labour troubles in the Presidency (i.e., Bombay province) become general.”

There are four noticeable features about this wave of unrest:—

(1) The officials of that section of the trade union movement with European reputations are either standing aloof for the movement or definitely opposing it. For instance, Shiva Rao, the present Chairman of the Executive Council of the Indian Trades Union Congress, made the following statement at a meeting of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway Labour Union, according to the Bombay Chronicle, of April 18:—

The time had come when the trade union movement in India should weed out of its organisation mischief-makers. A warning was all the more needed for there are certain individuals who go about the country preaching the gospel of strike.

The leadership of the strike movement is consequently in the hands of the Left Wing of the Labour movement, and in particular of many members of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of Bengal and Bombay.

(2) The forces of the Government are everywhere in evidence, and ruthless attempts are being made to break up meetings and spread false rumours by agents provocateurs. Shootings have already taken place, not only by armed police but by British troops. Many arrests have been made, but reports so far received indicate that the authorities dare not as yet to convict. Strikers, even in the Bengal province, who carried out a march in order to collect funds and food, on their return were driven on like a pack of sheep by the police riding in lorries and were prevented from even resting, let alone seeking refreshment, for close on twenty-four hours on an end. In spite of all this provocation the strikers’ demonstrations have been kept disciplined.

(3) The demands of the strikers are largely the elementary demands for recognition of the union, against wage reductions, for wage increases, against victimisation, and for better housing accommodation or allowances for housing, and in one case the most elementary. demand for the immediate cessation of all abusive and filthy language—the necessity for such a demand signifying the brutal treatment which the agents of British imperialism consider they can impose upon the subject races.

(4) The unrest is not only confined to the urban areas. For in January there was unrest on a tea estate at Mijkar in Assam, where a manager was attacked, the reason for the unrest being given as a demand for higher wages. Near Bardoli in the Bombay province, in April there were protest meetings against the decision to increase the level of assessments on the peasants and a demand that they should rather be reduced—a demand which was supported in about seven other areas in the same district

Two of the most noteworthy examples of this strike movement are given below.

Bombay Textile Strike

It has long been evident that a conflict in Bombay was inevitable. As the international cotton situation became more and more pressing, the millowners of India, like those of Egypt and Japan, and for the matter of that, like the cotton lords of Manchester and New Bedford, in their anxiety to outbid each other in the world markets, have been driven to pursue a common policy of rationalisation and reaction. The form to be taken by the Bombay millowners was already foreshadowed in the Report of the Indian Tariff Board, where the extension of the piecework system, increase in the number of spindles allotted to each spinner and looms per weaver are strongly recommended. It is taken as axiomatic that labour costs must be reduced, but the previous attempts of the Bombay owners have not met with much success for while their rivals in Ahmedabad were able to reduce wages in 1923, the efforts of the Bombay millowners to follow their example in 1924 and 1925 ended in failure. The alternative method of speeding up is now being tried out, and warned by the strikes at the end of last year, the owners opened their campaign with considerable caution, putting forward the E.D. Sassoon concern as a sort of pioneer battalion, while the others held themselves in readiness to advance into the, breach at the first favourable opportunity.

On January 3 the gallant five—Apollo, Alexandra, Spring, Rachel, and Jacob Sassoon—their names are like a battle cry—posted notices to the effect that each spinner was to work double frames. The challenge was answered—the workers struck, the mills closed; soon 10,000 men were out.

It should be noted that the Bombay Textile Labour Union took the opportunity of the breaking out of this strike to declare itself “unequivocally” against the policy of a general strike. The Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, however, were in favour of the general strike policy; the strike, through lack of sufficient support, broke down, and the workers returned on the companies’ own terms.

The owners immediately proceeded to put into force the further recommendations of the report of the Textile Tariff Board. On April 16, however, the workers were out again on strike, and within a week practically all mills were deserted involving some 150,000 workers. One of the main grievances of the workers was the reduction in wages involved in the introduction of higher counts, one of the Tariff Board’s recommendations. By this means, owing to the reduction in weight of cotton that could be worked, involved in their introduction, the wages of the workers were reduced from some 58 rupees a month to 45 or 40 rupees, reckoned by the strike committee to be equivalent to an all-round cut of 25 per cent. Another grievance was a change in working hours of some workers involving an increase of one-and-a-half hours to eleven per day.

A strike committee was immediately formed, but it was noticeable that the leaders of the Bombay Textile Labour Union kept aloof from the dispute. What is more, on April 19, three days after the commencement of the strike, N.M. Joshi, one of its leaders, gave an extraordinary interview to the Bombay Chronicle, which he started of by saying: “As yet I do not know what the exact cause of the present unrest is,” yet went on to admit that there was “no doubt” that the millowners were attempting to reduce wages.

Then after regretting that the Millowners’ Association had omitted to negotiate with his union before introducing the cuts in wages, &c., he remarked:—

“Under the circumstances, when the Millowners’ Association is unwilling to negotiate with the representatives of the organisation of workers and when some persons, who believe more in strikes than in negotiations naturally get more scope for their activities, the representatives of the Bombay Textile Labour Union, who are willing to negotiate where negotiations are practicable, have to be content with being merely lookers on.” (Our italics.)

Whatever doubts Mr. N.M. Joshi had about the causes of the unrest the chairman of the Millowners’ Association, Mr. J.B. Petit, seemed to have no doubts whatever; for in the course of an interview with the Bombay Chronicle, on April 27, he made the following statement, worthy indeed of Baldwin’s statement in July, 1925, to the miners:—

“A straight cut in wages would appear to be inevitable.”

At a great mass meeting the leaders of the strike, many of whom were members of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, were elected on to a strike committee, in addition to the leaders of the Textile Labour Union: these latter demanded as a condition of serving a 50 per cent. representation on the committee.

Mass demonstrations and marches were organised; clashes with the police rapidly became more frequent, and many strikers were injured and arrests were made. In one of these clashes the police opened fire, killing one and wounding others on the pretext that the strikers were throwing stones at the mills. This, however, could not have been the case, because it took place at a distance of at least half a mile away from any mill. A court subsequently justified the action of the police.

At the time of writing the strike is still in full force though many workers, as has been the practice in previous strikes, have returned to their villages. The Millowners’ Association have now issued an insolent notice dismissing the strikers, that is they have declared a lock-out, and rejecting their demands as “impossible.” They define the terms on which they will be allowed to resume work. These include “a full ten hours-day.” The Times, of May 17, in reporting this, remarks that “both sides in the dispute appear to be stiffening.”

The Lilloah Strike

The strike of the railway shop workers at the Lilloah workshops of the East Indian Railway Company, near Calcutta, has been in some ways even more sensational. The story is a simple one. The East Indian Railway is a State-managed one, which has so far refused to recognise the existence of the Union. An all-round increase of 25 per cent, was demanded, calculated to bring the wages up to the level of the workshops of Lucknow and Lahore; the minimum thus arrived at was no more than 45 rupees per month. Another grievance, also a very common one, was concerned with the question of free quarters for the men, or allowances, in lieu of accommodation.

Petitions were first presented as early as the middle of January, but the agent refused to grant any of their demands, and his recognition of the Union took the form of dismissing two of its most active members. A subsequent petition was also unsuccessful, and on March 3 four more men were summarily discharged, but after further protest reinstatement was promised. When it was seen that the Company only meant to reinstate four out of the six the workers’ exasperation at being tricked was tense, and they retaliated with a stay-in strike. The following day, March 8, the works were closed by the order of the Company, and 14,000 men were locked out.

In spite of the Company’s provocative behaviour the workers remained quiet but firm, but this policy did not commend itself to the authorities, who proceeded to interfere with a peaceful demonstration on March 28 on its return from holding a meeting at Bamangachi. First a baton charge by the police immediately followed with an assault by the military, in the course of which two strikers were shot down and numbers injured. The circumstances of this uncalled for attack have attracted a good deal of public attention owing to the censuring of the responsible officer, Captain Christie, by the District Magistrate at the official inquiry. According to this report no warning was given to the strikers, and the shots appeared to have been fired not at random but deliberately at particular individuals who were regarded as the leaders. More significant is the fact that killed and injured were shot in the back, supporting the workers’ contention that so far from attempting to overpower the police and rush the loco yard, they were driven back by police and troops while proceeding peaceably across the Bamangachi railway bridge to their own houses.

This clash of forces undoubtedly intensified the class character of the struggle, and sympathetic action has been taken in most of the other departments and centres of the East Indian Railway—at Howrah, Kharaghpur, &c.