M.N. Roy

The Railway Strike in India

(16 May 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 37, 16 May 1922, pp. 295–296.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2020). 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.

About the same time that the German railway strike and the revolutionary action of the Rand miners were attracting the tense attention of the world, India was also visited by an industrial strike of quite a serious and extensive nature, the strike of the workers on the East India Railway. This protracted struggle of our none too well organized and badly led Indian comrades has passed without receiving much attentions as the information that reached Europe through the medium on the capitalist press, was very meagre.

The strike broke out on the 2nd of February and cannot be called completely finished even now. The struggle lasted almost three months. And when we remember that working class organizations are still in a rather rudimentary condition in India and that the workers come face to face with naked starvation as soon as they quit the job, having no union funds to fall back upon, the revolutionary nature of the East India Railway strike becomes evident to us. For the benefit of those having a rather vague idea of the Indian movement (and unfortunately the number of such comrades is very great) it should be pointed out in the very beginning that this struggle of the Indian wage-slaves, like many other previous, was not brought about through the efforts of the bourgeois politicians, who are sinking deeper and deeper in the quagmire of reactionary pacifism. frightened by the nightmare of a mass upheaval. It was an action taken by the workers on their own initiative, without even consulting the union leaders who began to sabotage he strike as soon as it was declared. And the workers had to struggle not only against the employers, but also against those who pretended to lead them. These self-appointed leaders can be divided into three categories; viz., 1. government agents. 2. adventurous politicians, and 3. reformist pacifists busy drugging the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. To have carried on a struggle for three months under such circumstances testifies to the grim determination of the Indian workers to improve their lot.

The strike originated in the United Provinces, which have been the theatre of a series of peasant revolts in the last years. It was started as a protest against the assault on an Indian fireman by an English engineer. In a few hours’ time the Indian workers of the locomotive workshop left work. and were followed instantaneously by the station and traffic staff of the entire district. Thus the men threw themselves into a struggle before the union leaders could have the chance of preventing it by opening futile negotiations, which always put the employers on the vantage ground. The strike spread like wild-fire all over this principal railway system of the country, and in a few days’ time it affected over 1,200 miles of the trunk line, together with its extensive branches. About one hundred and fifty thousand men were involved, and passenger as well as goods traffic, was almost completely paralyzed in the three large and important provinces of Bengal, Behar and Orissa, and in the United Provinces. In all the important railway centres, mass-demonstrations took place, and most of these demonstrations ended in conflicts between the strikers and armed police, who were called upon to guard the stations and lines as well as to protect those still working. In many places, the strikers in large bodies attacked the workshops and forced the strikebreakers, including the privileged English workers, to go out.

Although a protest against the assault upon one worker was the immediate cause of the strike, it was not long before the demands of the workers were formulated; as follows: first, recognition of their union; second, 25% increase of wages; third, no victimization: strike leaders dismissed summarily should be reinstated without any disability; fourth, no confiscation of the Provident Fund in case of any worker not returning to work; fifth, full wages for the strike period; and sixth, equal pay for equal work.

The leaders of the several unions of the various railways met in a conference to discuss these demands with the workers. In this conference the crafty lawyers and reformist politicians forced the ignorant and trusting strikers on the road to negotiation. It was decided that a deputation of these misleaders would bring the “case of the employees to the notice of His Excellency the Viceroy” and open negotiations with the company.

This unsolicited intervention of the bourgeois leaders not only checked the further development of the strike along its original revolutionary lines, but directed it into the blind alley of negotiation. The Government refused to interfere, in order to leave the striking workers entirely at the mercy of the company, which had piled up profits at the rate of several hundred per cent, during the last century and a half. Evidently, according to imperialist logic, sending armed forces to protect the properties of the company, to terrorise the hungry strikers or to fire wholesale on the harmless demonstrators were not considered acts of state intervention. Mr. Andrews, the ex-Christian missionary, who has undertaken the task of making the rebellious workers submit to capitalist exploitation veiled by sweet words and liberal sentiments, had already approached the director of the company and accepted his offer to induce the strikers to return to work, leaving the decision of their fate to the sense of justice of the employer. The Government referred the so-called “representatives” of the strikers to the understanding arrived at between the director and Mr. Andrews. The Company on its part threatened the men with summary dismissal if they failed to resume work with in a few days.

Although taking their menacing attitude, the Company was ready to continue negotiations, because that was the best means of breaking down the resistance of the strikers. Long protracted negotiation was the surest weapon of starving the men back to work without having any of their demands complied with. That crowd of religionists, adventurers and reformists who posed as the defenders of the workers’ interests advised the men from the beginning to resume work, on condition that their claims would be subsequently considered by the employers. But the intervention and sabotage by all sorts of people, who were at heart anything but friendly to the interests of the working class, could not keep the real character of the strike hidden. Addressing a mass meeting at Burdwan on February 21, the secretary of the local Congress Committee called upon the strikers to keep strictly on the line of non-violence indicated by Gandhi, because, he said, “that was the only way of attaining Swaraj.” Upon his rebuking the men that they were fighting not so much for Swaraj as for their own interest, the latter retorted pertinently “pet ka waste” (we are fighting for our stomach). The speaker in great indignation replied “then don’t say Gandhiji ki jai, but shout pet (stomach) ka jai”. Incidents like this were not rare. They show that the Indian masses are becoming conscious of their class interests and are going ahead in their struggle more and more consciously.

As expected by the company and feared by the more intelligent section of the strikers, the negotiations, once started, dragged along, wearing out the power of resistance of the men, who had little resources to fall back upon. Great numbers of the strikers, who had come but recently from their village homes and who still had some means of subsistence there went back, leaving the stormy life of industrialism; an increasing number of the unskilled hands were starved into submission and went back to work; the most advanced section, composed mostly of skilled men whose services could not be so easily dispensed with, kept up the fight determinedly. Betrayed by those leaders in whom they trusted, deserted by the less conscious and less determined comrades, these men adopted more violent methods. Stations were burned, lines were destroyed, workshops run with strikebreakers were attacked, trains wrecked, etc., etc. This not only brought down upon them all the weapons of State repression, but invoked the righteous wrath of those who professed to be their friends and leaders.

Mr. Andrews, who took the most prominent part in the negotiations openly denounced the strikers as Syndicalistes when they attempted to call a conference of the delegates from the various railwaymen’s unions in order to declare a general strike embracing all the Indian railway systems. This conference was to meet in the beginning of May; no news about its deliberations and decisions are available.

The East India Railway strike has practically ended in exhaustion and the temporary defeat of the workers. But they have gained a valuable experience and have developed the consciousness of their class. The Indian revolution is progressing along the lines of class struggle.

Last updated on 2 January 2020