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Fourth International, May 1946


Robert L. Birchman

Revolutionary Developments in India


From Fourth International, May 1946, Vol.7 No.5, pp.158-159.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


The termination of hostilities in the Pacific marked a stormy resurgence of the working class movement in India. In the months since V-J Day this vast subcontinent has witnessed strikes in virtually all the major cities – Bombay, Calcutta, Allahabad, Delhi, Madras, etc. At the beginning of this year this strike wave assumed a highly political character. The Indian working class swept to the forefront as the decisive force in the struggle of the Indian people for independence from the British yoke.

The Indian workers were the backbone of the demonstrations protesting against the Delhi Court Martial of members of the Indian National Army. In November of last year, a general strike was called in Calcutta, crippling transportation and public utilities. Street barricades and road blocks were erected. At Lillooah, the demonstrators sat on the railroad tracks to stop incoming trains. These Calcutta actions were followed by a protest strike of railway workers in Bombay and set off a series of student demonstrations throughout India.

On January 24 of this year, 175,000 textile and industrial workers struck in Bombay in protest against the shooting of demonstrators celebrating the birthday of Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the “Free Indian Government” and organizer of the Indian National Army. Pickets roamed the streets shouting “Down With Repression!” According to an Associated Press dispatch: “In one residential section virtually all roads were blocked by rioters who hurled stones on roadways to make them impassable, cut down trees and burned them, as blazing barricades.”

The power and militancy of the workers were most graphically demonstrated in support of the revolting sailors of the Indian Navy.

In Bombay a series of huge demonstrations took place. “Some 60 textile mills were closed by strikes which also extended into some railway shops,” reported the Associated Press on February 22. On the next day: “Striking drivers of one of the city’s principal transportation companies seized busses, festooned them with Hindu and Moslem league flags.” Throughout the city trenches were dug across the roads, filled with inflammable materials and gasoline, thus erecting a veritable “wall of fire.”

Similar demonstrations took place in Calcutta where the transportation workers took the lead in calling a one day strike. In Calcutta and Bombay alone not less than 300,000 participated in, strikes in support of the Indian seamen. In Trichinopoly, 10,000 workers struck; a general strike was called in Karachi; similar action was taken in Madras, where the demonstrators “stoned British military trucks and battled civilian police forces around the city railway station.” Throughout all these demonstrations the inspiring and fiery slogan “Long Live the Revolution!” was repeatedly heard.

Expressed in it is the readiness of the Indian masses to mobilize for a decisive blow against British imperialist rule. Addressing a huge mass meeting of 250,000 at the height of these demonstrations in Bombay (February 26), Jawaharlal Nehru declared that if revolution became necessary the proper leaders would give the signal But in reality, the militant actions, and demonstrations and the forging of unity between Moslems and Hindus were frowned upon and disapproved by the Congress leaders. They did not sanction either the demonstrations or the political strikes, but on the contrary exerted their efforts to stem the tide of militant action.

Thus, at the height of the movement, Sardar Vallabhai, leading member of the Congress Working Committee appealed to the sailors to be patient and peaceful and begged the people to maintain discipline and do nothing to aggravate the “present state of high tension.” “There should be no attempt to call for a hartal (general strike and boycott),” he pleaded.

Gandhi, for his part condemned the “exhibition of distressed unrest.” He said, “The combination between Hindus, Moslems and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy. Let it not be said,” he continued, “that the Indians of the Congress (Party) spoke to the world of winning home rule through non-violent action and belied the words in action – and that too at a critical period of her life.”

*  *  *  *


The struggle for independence in India is unfolding against the background of rapidly growing unemployment and economic dislocation caused by the war and the reconversion to peacetime production. The situation is aggravated by the determination of the British to maintain their grip on the country’s economic life.

A large number of war plants have been shut down with little prospect of their being reconverted to civilian production. These plants served their purpose. Now that the British imperialists no longer have need of war implements, they do not desire to see these plants competing in peacetime production with their home plants. The Indian bourgeoisie is too weak financially to take over and operate them. Many other factories operated by the Indian capitalists during the war face liquidation because of poor organization, high production costs and high overhead. They are unable to compete with American and British industries.

The London Times painted the following picture on January 4:

“It was stated in Delhi today that in the transitional period before the development plans of Central and Provincial governments materialize there may be displacement of between 5,000,000 and 7,000,000 Indian industrial workers, including men and women demobilized from the forces.”

The ranks of the unemployed will be further swelled by sharp curtailment of the administrative apparatus. Official estimates are that by the middle of 1946 about 230,000 will he laid off in the Central Government departments, while another 540,000 are scheduled for demobilization from the military forces.

Among the workers hardest bit are the railwaymen. According to Times of India (September 7, 1945):

“The termination of the war will soon bring nearly 262,000 men employed in railways all over India to face the grim prospect of unemployment ... according to information gathered by the All-India Railwaymen’s Federation.”

Added to unemployment are skyrocketing prices, and the threat of famine. The employers are, of course, seizing the opportunity to wipe out all the gains of the unions in wartime. The workers have responded with a series of long and bitterly fought strikes. These strike actions center around demands for higher wages, maintenance and improvement of union working conditions, increases in dearness allowances, payments of bonuses, reinstatement of discharged union workers, etc. Calcutta and Bombay, the largest cities in India, have been centers of the struggle.


A partial list of these strikes follows. In Calcutta the traditionally militant street car workers tied up the city’s transportation system in the middle of last September, They won their demands on wages and working conditions, received a month’s pay as bonus and compelled the reinstatement of discharged workers. The bus and taxi drivers struck in sympathy with the carworkers.

Toward the end of the month the workers at the Cassipore Gun and Shell Factory, near Calcutta, staged a “sit-in” strike, in sympathy with 100 discharged workers.

At the beginning of October several thousand engineering workers in different plants struck for bonus payment and reinstatement of discharged workers. Similar action was taken by 4,000 at Clive Jute Mills at Mitabriz, a suburb of Calcutta.

The textile workers at Bouria, at the Vassari Cotton and Silk Mills and the Mafolta Spinning and Manufacturing Mill went out in the same period.

In November, during the general strike in protest against the Delhi Court Martials, 20,000 municipal workers struck for wage increases. On January 9 of this year, eight workers were injured, during two lathi charges by police on pickets at the Keshoram Cotton Mills. Many arrests were made. The strike was six weeks old at the time.

Bombay was the scene of similar struggles during this period. Thus, the workers at the Ford Motor Co. Assembly Plant in Bombay and other Ford plants in the country went on a sitdown strike against lay-offs.

In December 8,000 Bombay dock workers struck, demanding payment of three months bonus, graded scales of pay, medical aid and a guarantee of 20 days work a month. There were strikes by the electrical workers at Calaba and by the workers of the Burma Shell, Standard Vacuum and Caltex Oil Companies.

A strike by the staff of the Bombay Electric Supply and Trolley Co. on February 5 left the city’s 2,800,000 population without transport by bus or street car.

Elsewhere in the country, the strike of 10,000 tailors and laborers in the ordnance clothing factory at Shahjabanput was in its 18th day on January 9.

24,000 miners in four gold-fields at Kolar in the Madras Province went on strike on January 7 for a basic minimum wage and increases. In the secret balloting only seven voted against the strike action

Workers have played a prominent role in the countless protest rallies and demonstrations against the famine and the cuts in rations.

A Reuters dispatch reports a mass demonstration held on February 10 of 100,000 members of all Indian parties in Cawnpore, leading industrial city in the United Provinces. This action was taken in protest against the 50 percent reduction in wheat rations. The meeting called upon Government officials to resign from their posts inasmuch as they had “failed to feed the country.” On the day before the meeting “angry citizens marched through the streets, shouting protests against the ration cut and stopping and stoning private cars.” All shops and industries were closed and no public transportation vehicles were on the streets that day.

The city of Allahabad, 560 miles northwest of Calcutta, was paralyzed by a general strike on February 12. “50,000 hunger marchers paraded through the streets protesting cuts in food rations and demanding more wheat for bread,” reports the Associated Press.

*  *  *  *


Far sharper and broader struggles are in prospect. The All-India Railwaymen’s Federation has long been threatening a strike of 1,500,000 workers unless their demands are met. These demands include higher wages, the introduction of a 48-hour week in place of the prevailing 64-hour week. This campaign started last July, when “the All-India Railwaymen’s Federation launched a militant campaign for an increased dearness allowance of Rs. 45 per month ($13.80), abolition of unsatisfactory new rates of pay and a basic minimum wage of Rs. 36 per month ($10.80). Meetings and demonstrations in support of these demands are being held throughout India.” (Press release of the International Federation of Transport Workers.)

The Indian railways are government owned and operated. The union has been given the run-around for months by the government Railway Board. If a show-down comes, it may well precipitate the biggest strike wave in India’s history.

The extent to which the British apparatus of repressions has been corroded was revealed by the mutiny of the seamen, the strikes in the Royal Air Force and the ferment in the ranks of the Indian army. This process has continued. Recently the entire lower grade personnel of the Sind Province police and the clerical staff of the Sind Provincial police department have threatened strike. In March, 45,000 primary school teachers in Bombay Province went on strike. The movement of such strata indicates how deep-going is the crisis of British rule.

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