Evelyn Roy

Some Facts About the Bombay Strike

Source: Labour Monthly Vol. VI, May 1924, No. 5.
Transcription/HTML: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

ONE hundred and fifty thousand mill operatives, including thirty thousand women and children, have been on strike and locked-out of the textile mills of Bombay for nearly three months. All the mills of the district, eighty-three in number, are closed down. The question at issue is the payment of the annual bonus to the operatives, in addition to their usual wage. In July of last year, the owners put up a notice that the usual bonus, received by the operatives during the last five years and regarded by them as a form of supplementary wages, would not be paid. The men did not heed the notice, most of them being illiterate, and it was not until the end of the year when the bonus became payable that they realised the issue at stake. A strike was declared in the middle of January, followed immediately by a lockout on the part of the owners, in an attempt to force the men back to work unconditionally.

The monthly wage of a Bombay mill operative is 35 rupees for men; 17 rupees for women—for a ten-hour day. This sum is insufficient to maintain their bodily health and strength, or to provide them with the most elementary necessities. For this reason, during the height of the post-war boom period when mill profits soared to several hundred per cent., the annual bonus was granted as a form of supplementary wages. The cost of living has risen (according to official figures) 58 per cent. since 1914; profits have risen from 674 lakhs of rupees in 1917 to 1,559 lakhs in 1921, with a slight falling-off in 1922-23. The cotton mill workers are proverbially underpaid and overworked, with the result that they are always heavily in debt to the money-lender. Their right to organise into trade unions is not legally recognised; they have no regular labour organisations and no union fund. Their leaders, up to the time of the present strike, were drawn from the ranks of the bourgeoisie—lawyers, politicians, philanthropists and professional labour leaders, who were closer, in interests and sympathies to the employing class than to the workers. They sabotaged every attempt to strike on the part of the latter; they took the part of the employers in every decisive issue; they used their influence to keep the men at work and satisfied with the old conditions instead of attempting to better themselves. The Government, which affects to maintain its neutrality in labour disputes, has never hesitated to call out armed police and military to aid the employers in guarding their property and crushing a strike.

Thus every institution and condition was against the success of the present strike, as it has been of previous ones. Yet the textile workers of Bombay have maintained their struggle far three months in face of all odds; they have remained peaceful and nonviolent in the teeth of the most open provocation; they have repudiated their old leaders and elected new ones from their own ranks to present their demands before the Government and the employers; they have endured with marvellous fortitude the sufferings of hunger and privation throughout the whole of the strike period. They have never wavered in their demand for the payment of bonus as a pre-requisite for returning to work; they have maintained their solidarity of front against the efforts of the employers to seduce a part of them back to work, and against the sabotage of the Government and the public, which has refrained from giving them any concrete help during the long and bitter dispute.

The textile workers of Bombay are dying in the streets from starvation. Their January wages, already earned before the declaration of the strike and lockout, have been illegally withheld by the owners. The grain dealers and provision shops have long ago refused them credit. They are unable to pay their rent for the miserable rooms in which they huddle by tens and dozens in the infamous Bombay Chawls (tenements). The workers have never possessed any material resources to carry them from one day to the next, nor any central fund to maintain them in time of strike. They are sticking to their demands in the face of slow starvation. Appeals to the public for material help and to the Government have met with no response. The charitable associations of Bombay are all controlled by the Mill Owners’ Association, and have refused to give aid to the strikers. The Legislative Councils, both national and provincial, have made no move to come to the assistance of the sufferers. The Indian National Congress, which in each of its annual sessions since 1916 has pledged its support to the cause of Indian labour, refused to sanction the granting of a sum for supplying grain or credits to the starving strikers. The All-India Trade Union Congress, which presumes to lead the struggle of the Indian workers against the employing class, has never so much as mentioned the Bombay strike, nor sent one of its office-holders to the scene of the struggle to investigate and guide it, nor issued a single appeal on behalf of the starving strikers. The Fourth Annual Session of the All-India Trade Union Congress, which was scheduled to be held on March 7, the very day on which the workers of Bombay were being shot down by the guns of the police and military, deferred its session indefinitely because of internal quarrels and factional disputes among its office-bearers. When it finally met on March 14, it broke up in a rain of abuse and a free-for-all fist fight, without so much as giving one thought to the cause of the 150,000 striking mill hands of Bombay, or of identifying the All-India Trade Union Congress with the greatest industrial struggle that has ever been waged in India.

The British Labour Government and Labour Party, which rule the destinies of the Indian people to-day, has limited its interest in the fate of the starving Bombay workers on strike for a living wage to a statement in the House of Commons that the matter “has been left to the Government of India.” While in Britain the Dockers’ strike, the tram and bus strike, and other threatened strikes have been subjected to the immediate and closest scrutiny of the Government, which spares no efforts to bring them to a speedy and satisfactory solution, in India an industrial dispute affecting the welfare and very lives of 150,000 workers, to which must be added the count of their families and dependents, and reaching out in its consequences to the very shores of England in its effect on the Lancashire textile industry, has been allowed to proceed for three months without a motion to interfere on the part of the Labour Government or a gesture of sympathy or solidarity on the part of the Labour Party.

The British Labour Government and the British Labour Party have permitted the striking and locked-out mill hands of Bombay to die in the streets from starvation, to be shot down by the rifles of armed police and military, without using their supreme power as head of the British Empire to bring this strike to an end and to secure victory to the just demands of the Bombay workers.

What are the facts of this strike? In what way is it proceeding, and what will be the result of a defeat of the workers, both in India and in Great Britain?

The present struggle is more than a mere demand for payment of bonus on the part of the workers. It is an offensive on the part of Indian capitalism (which includes both Europeans and natives) against the Indian working class to reduce still further its already pitiably low standard of living. It was intended to follow up the refusal of the bonus with a cut in wages. The comparative lull in the textile industry was seized upon by the owners as a favourable moment to cut into the wage-bill, which had been slightly raised during the boom period in response to the rise in the cost of living and the consequent strike wave that visited Bombay in 1919. Such an, offensive had already taken place in Ahmedabad, where the workers were forced to accede. The Bombay mill owners were prepared to close down for a short time to force the men to submit to the new conditions. The strike of the operatives in January was promptly replied to by the declaration of a two-weeks’ lockout; It was held that this period would suffice to bring the men to their knees. In spite of the opposition of their so-called leaders, who tried by every means to persuade them to resume work unconditionally, having failed in all their efforts to prevent the strike, the workers instinctively realised that more than the bonus was at stake—if they yielded, the next attack would be directed against their wages. Therefore they held firm, and the lockout had to be extended for two further successive periods of two weeks. At the close of each one, unsuccessful attempts were made by the owners to reopen the mills with blackleg labour. Signs were posted, saying that if the men would resume work the owners guaranteed not to reduce wages, but nothing was said about the bonus. The men held out, and at the end of six weeks the owners began to feel the effects of the complete stoppage, and division arose in their own ranks. At a meeting of the Bombay Mill Owners’ Association, a strong Indian minority were for granting the demand for bonus, but a slight majority against it carried the day. In the battle between Lancashire and Bombay, in which Lancashire textile products are protected at the expense of native industry, it is the Indian workers who must pay the difference in a lower wage bill to permit the Indian textile industry to thrive.

At the end of six weeks, in response to the urgent demands of the workers and the pressure of public opinion, the Governor of Bombay, Sir Leslie Wilson, who had refrained from taking any action calculated to bring the dispute to a close, appointed an Inquiry Committee with power to investigate “the customary, legal or equitable claim of the men to payment of bonus.” This Committee had neither power to recommend nor to arbitrate; despite the request of the workers, no representative of labour was included among its members, appointed from the prominent capitalists and Government henchmen of Bombay. It was a move to gain time, by appearing to do something, and to drag out the negotiations until the workers would be forced to surrender. This Committee held three sittings, extended over a period of two weeks. Appointed on February 29, it published its findings on March 12, five days after the events of March 7, when protest meetings of the strikers were fired upon by the police, resulting in five killed, four wounded and thirteen arrests. The decision of the Committee caused no surprise, given its nature and composition; it declared that: “The mill workers have not established any enforceable claim, customary, legal or equitable, to the payment annually of a bonus,” . . . and that “the results of the working of the mill industry as a whole for the year 1923 are such as to justify the contention of the mill owners that the profits do not admit of the payment of a bonus.” Would that the mill workers of Bombay could say to their Christian rulers: “I asked for bread, and ye gave me a stone.”

On March 7, just before these findings became public, a notice was posted on all the mill premises to the effect that: “To all workers willing to resume work unconditionally, the mills will by opened for resumption of work on March 8, and two days later the January wages will be paid.” The notice was signed by S. D. Saklatvala, Chairman of the Bombay Mill Owners ’ Association. The result was the tragic and, till present writing, unexplained events of March 7, when in reply to some stone-throwing on the part of assembled groups of strikers gathered together to discuss the notice, police fire was opened without warning on the unarmed crowd, killing five and wounding four. Thirteen workers who attempted to loot a grain shop were arrested.

This brutal massacre, which would have been unthinkable in Britain, and which roused a storm of indignation in the Indian public mind, was brushed aside by the Bombay Government with the single statement in the Bombay Legislative Council on March 8 that “the Government desire to offer their sympathy to the victims, particularly in view of the very creditable behaviour of the men hitherto. . . . Military patrols have been called out, but it is hoped that it will not be necessary to use them unless absolutely essential to preserve law and order.” Asked by a member if there was any loss to property as a result of the acts of the strikers, the Home Member replied: “I understand there has been some window breaking and some looting in the mills. But so far I have no information of any serious injury to any of the mills.

Human life may be held cheap in a country inhabited by 320,000,000 souls, but in the interests of what assumes itself to be “civilised government” it might have been expected that an official inquiry would be undertaken into the reasons for an order to shoot, on the sole authority of a deputy police inspector (European), in the absence of a magistrate, and before the crowd had been warned to disperse or blank shots had been previously fired into the air. Can mere stone-throwing on the part of justly-aggrieved men in the face of the most intense provocation be held to justify the calling out of armed police and soldiery and the shooting into an unarmed and defenceless mob? Are industrial Amritsars to be repeated all over India with impunity under the aegis of a Labour Government?

The events of March 7 precipitated long-delayed action on the part of the Bombay Government, and the Mill Owners’ Association was informed by His Excellency that: “January wages should be paid at once without affecting the question of bonus and irrespective of resumption of work by the men, and that the mill owners should meet the representatives of the men to discuss the questions at issue.” It should be remembered that this tardy step to effect negotiations was made two months after the beginning of the dispute which had plunged 150,000 workers, together with their wives and families, into the direst distress and the whole industrial life of Bombay into an abnormal state. Would a similar strike of such dimensions have been allowed to drag out its course in Lancashire without some action being taken by the Labour Government?

Yet still another month has been allowed to pass without any decisive action being taken to bring the dispute to a close. The latest reports bring news that the striking operatives, exhausted and starving, have appealed to the Government for help to assist 50,000 of them, with their wives and children, to be repatriated to their villages, where they hope to find some kind of work. Fifty thousand have already found their own way back to the country districts—the remaining ones, three times fifty thousand at the least if we count those dependent upon them, remain in Bombay to fight it out to the end, performing causal labour, subsisting on precarious charity, or dying outright in the streets of Bombay. The Government has been asked to provide them with some form of work to enable them to survive the struggle. A few of the smaller mills are reported to have opened, to which a few thousand men had straggled back to work. But the overwhelming majority remain firm to their voluntary pledge to abstain from rejoining the mills until their original demands have been met. Nor theirs is the cry of the British proletariat, “Work or maintenance.” To claim such a boon as their right is beyond their humble dreams. They know only how to do that which is within reach of their own human endurance—to resist the capitalist offensive dumbly, peaceably, uncomplainingly, but with what worlds of determined fortitude, until either their cause is won or they themselves are no more. There is something truly Indian in this infinite capacity for suffering; in this strength of the meek to resist injustice even unto death. What scorn of human life it expresses—or of human existence reduced to a status lower than the beasts!

The British Labour Party, in power to-day as the British Labour Government, has it within its means to save the Bombay workers from death by starvation and from the lingering existence which exploitation renders worse than death. It can send material help to support the starving strikers, and it can demand arbitration of the dispute in a manner fair and just to the cause of the Indian working class.

Upon the outcome of this strike hangs the fate, for the next few years, of the Indian textile workers in their heroic struggle for a living wage. And upon the payment of a living wage to the Indian textile workers depends the future well-being of the textile workers of Great Britain, whom the Indian workers are being forced, against their will, to undercut. The Bombay strike is but another instance oŁ the fact that the international proletariat must hang together or they will hang separately.