Abani Mukherji

Indian Labour Movement:
A Review of the Situation

Source: The Communist Review, September 1922, Vol. 3, No. 5.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). 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.

THERE exists in India a powerfully organised Labour movement. The secretary of the Indian Labour Federation, or “Standing Committee of the All-India Trade Union Congress,” as it is called, is Mr. Chiman Lal, who claimed that under this federation are combined 97 unions, with 1,500,000 members. These unions embrace nearly all the industries of the country. The leading organisation is the Railwaymen’s Union, which has organised 50 per cent. of those employed, which is about 325,000 workers. The second in importance is the Textile Workers’ Union, and the third is the Miners’ Union.

Trade Unionism is a new thing in India. Before 1918 it did not exist except for a few unions for white workers. It was out of the strike movement of 1918 that the unions came into existence. The first one was organised at Madras by Mr. B. P. Wadia. Since then the progress of the movement has been both rapid and successful. The amount of success can be determined from the huge number of organised members, representing about 25 per cent. of the total number of the factory-going workers. This growth indicates that the Indian labourers are speedily realising the need for their own organisations.

It is important to observe that the Indian Labour movement is rapidly becoming revolutionary. To illustrate this, take, for example, the number of strikes that have taken place in India since 1918, the history of which are written in blood. Strikes were common in the Indian factories, but they were never of a country-wide nature, and did not demonstrate any solidarity among the workers. The first instance of such a strike took place in Bombay, known as the General Strike, in which 120,000 workers, mostly textile operators, took part. The solidarity of the masses on that occasion was shown by sympathetic strikes in other parts of the country. The strike was practically lost. About 200 workers were shot down by the soldiers. There were no proletarian leaders at that time, and the Nationalist middle-class politicians who took the lead utilised the strike for demonstration purposes. Similarly, another strike of several hundred thousand plantation workers took place in Assam, about 2,000 miles from Bombay, three years after the general strike, and it, too, was lost, due to the Nationalist leaders exploiting it for political purposes. Once again strikers were killed. According to the report of the Government Commission appointed to inquire into the reason for labour unrest in India it was shown that in nine months, from July, 1920, to March, 1921, in the province of Bengal, 137 strikes took place, reacting on all branches of industry. 244,180 workers took part in these strikes, and 2,631,488 working days were lost. Of these strikes 110 were for higher wages and 13 were for the continuation of former strikes. A note issued by the labour officer of Bombay states that in three months, from April to June, 1921, 33 strikes took place in that town alone, involving 240,000 workers, with a loss of 500,000 working days. About the middle of the same year a strike of 20,000 workers took place in the town of Madras. To suppress the labour movement in Madras, the Government, with the help of the capitalists, tried by all means to subdue the labourers. They imprisoned strikers, burnt their houses, and fined the unions, but the labourers were very determined in their demands. The strike ended in a compromise due to the reformist character of the leaders. This strike movement was country wide. In the north, in 1920, a strike of over 60,000 railway workers took place; the printers struck work to show their sympathy with their railroad comrades. Out of this strike was organised the Punjab Labour Union. The strike of the Cawnpore leather and textile workers, altogether about 30,000 men, is also noteworthy. They organised themselves and put forward 21 demands, including increased wages, unemployment insurance, and a share in profits. In short, in the year 1920, altogether 2,500,000 workers were involved in the strike movement, and in many cases it ended in bloodshed. It is estimated that altogether there were 1,000 workers wounded and killed.

An important fact is that this strike agitation was not a class-conscious revolutionary movement, but it does mark the beginning of the class struggle in India. To illustrate the growth of capitalism in India I quote the following figures from the 15 volumes of official statistics for the year 1917. In the year 1917 there were 8,000 mills and workshops, of which 67 per cent. were driven by mechanical power. The railway and tramways amount to 38,000 miles. The total industrial production was valued at 261,000,000. This is excluding handicraft work and including railways. The persons taking part in this production numbered 3,500,000; thus the production per person employed was 74 for the year. In the United Kingdom in 1907 the production per person amounted to 100. Of these workers 327,000 formed the bureaucracy, both native and Europeans; the rest were wage earners.

The sum paid as wages amounted only to 27,000,000, or little over 10 per cent. of the production, as against 53 per cent. in the United Kingdom and 50 per cent. in the United States in 1907. The salaries paid amounted to 33,000,000, or 6,000,000 more than the wages of the proletarians. These salaries are due to the existence of about 28,000 European workers, whom the capitalists have to bribe with high wages in order to keep them on their side and to keep them out of the Labour movement and away from the Indian native workers. Deducting 33 per cent. of the total production as cost of material and 23 per cent. from wages and salary, we can fix the profit at 44 per cent. on an average. To support this the following figures from the Labour Review of November last may prove interesting. In one year the Indian cotton textile mills profited l00 per cent. of its outlayed capital. One factory in 1920 declared a dividend of 160 per cent. on an inflated capital of 300,000, while the dividend declared becomes 500 per cent. when the original capital invested by the shareholders is taken into account, which was only 100,000. Another mill, the Ring Mills, declared a dividend of 365 per cent. in the same year. Over a dozen mills have given dividends between l00 per cent. and 300 per cent., and quite a number between 50 per cent. and l00 per cent. The same thing was also shown in the jute and textile industry, where numerous, mills declared dividends from 150 to 330 per cent. Dividends in sugar works were about 60 per cent., and in the oil and flour mills 140 per cent. That of publishing houses was l00 per cent., etc.

The size and importance of the various industries can be judged from the following table:—


Cotton textile, 284 mills, but capital only known for 264, amounted to 19,000,000.

Jute textile, 76 mills, but capital only known for 76, amounted to 10,000,000.

Coal mining, 850 mines, but capital only known for 236, amounted to 6,000,000.

Plantations, 1,300 plantations, but capital only known for 300, amounted to 22,000.

Railway capital at the end of the year 1917-18 was 366,436,000, and the percentage of return on capital was very high. The net gain from the railways to the Government alone was 10,000,000.

The coal mining industry in that year produced 4,512,000. Deducting from this one and a half per cent. to cover the cost of material, which is the rate in the United Kingdom, Germany and France, we get the income of the mines at 3,902,880; of this 25 per cent. or 978,036 was paid as wages against 56 per cent. in France and 59 per cent. in Germany before the war. The salaries amounted to 350,000, and the rest was profit. The coal mines show dividends which rise to 120 per cent. In one case the average dividend for 15 years was 95 per cent. The cheapness of woman labour has already caused their wholesale introduction into all industrial spheres. In one year 43 per cent. of the coal mine workers were women. No less than 40,030 women and 665 children were employed underground, and 18,872 women and 2,283 children worked on the top. The earnings of the miners were 10 8s. per year as against 55 in France and 57 in Germany before the war. The average wages of the mine workers were 6 in 1917, which was raised to 7 5s. in 1918, or 6d. per working-day. The cheapness of labour in India has kept the modern improved machines out of the Indian mines; as a result of obsolete methods 30 per cent. of the labour is wasted.

Again, in the tea gardens, the output amounted to 12,400,000, and putting 20 per cent. aside as cost of material, we get 9,920,000 as the income. The workers numbered 703,585, of whom 640,267 are women. The wages paid amounted to 3,579,952, or 35 per cent. of the income. The salaries paid amounted to 60 per cent. of the amount paid in wages, and two-thirds of these salaries were drawn by a few European supervisors. The average wage of a woman worker in the tea plantations was 5 per year.

Eighty per cent. of the factory capital, 30 per cent. of the plantation capital, 40 per cent. of the mining capital, and 2 per cent. of the railway capital is Indian. Three-fourths of the rest is British and the rest international, mostly American. The following figures will show the increase of the Indian industry since 1917:—“The average total capital of the new companies registered in India year by year was approximately 12,000,000 per year for the years 1910-14. In the first three years of the war the average fell to 6,000,000 per year. After the war it rose to the enormous figure of 183,000,000, and in 1920, to March, 1921, owing to the extraordinary ordinary disturbances in the exchange rate, it went up to 100,000,000.”

On the face of these figures it is needless to argue about the class struggle in India. These figures prove that the struggle between labour and capital in India is a struggle of a twofold character—it is both a class struggle against native capitalists and a fight against British imperialism. This explains why the class war sometimes appears in a national form.

There is an idea that the Indian workers are semi-proletarian; and that they have connection with their native villages, where they can take refuge in case of long trouble. To disprove this I quote the following written by a Indian trade union secretary who inquired into the matter after the plantation workers’ strike of last year. He writes:

“The nationalists repatriated the workers in their villages, with the result that all of them returned to the gardens and the strike was lost. I found that the repatriation of the coolies had practically resulted in sending them to death. Most of the returning emigrants had no homes, no lands. Many of them had been born in the gardens and did not even know the names of their villages. The village people absolutely refuse to have anything to do with them. The villagers find it difficult to keep themselves from starvation, and therefore feeding the returned coolies is an impossibility. In the villages there are no industries in which these men might be employed, nor any kind of work can be found for the day labourers. It is futile to bring away the coolies from the gardens and send them to the villages, because 50 or 60 men are leaving daily for the gardens owing to the famine conditions prevailing there.”

Indian labour can be divided into five groups: (1) The land labourers, who are the largest in number—about 30,000,000. Their chronic poverty, continual semi-starvation, are well known; it is bitterly illustrated by the fact that their earnings, including unemployed days, are between 4 and 6 per year. (2) The plantation workers, whom I have already described. The planters are organised, and consequently their misery is not growing. (3) The mine workers. In the mining districts rice is the main food of the miners. The price of clothing has gone up three times, but the wages have remained the same since 1918; the average wage is 6d. per day, and 300 working days a year. (4) The handicraft workers, numbering about 2,500,000 hand weavers and 8,700,000 metal wood, ceramic, and other hand labourers. Their income, according to the calculation of the India Industrial Commission of 1916-18, was, weavers 2 7s. per year, and others 4 a year. (5) The factory going workers, who stand as the advance guard of the labour movement. To a certain extent the second and third groups are still the mainstay of the Nationalist leaders, whose opportunism is forcing the workers towards class-consciousness, as was proven during the plantation strikes of last year.

The main principles of the Indian Trade Unions are as follow:—(1) The status of labour as a labourer, his relation to his employer, and effect on the economic and industrial life of the country. (2) The status of the labourer as a citizen, as related to the political movements and its result. (3) The status of the labourer in the industrial world, which has been rising ever since the Russian Revolution.

These extracts are from the Madras Labour Union’s programme. It is said that the Union started with the first principle. “It was when the work of education was begun, when several questions were submitted by the Union men, that the second factor emerged. . . . In dealing with the second we were face to face with the necessity of recognising the third factor.” It is further given out that in formulating these principles very little help was received from the educated class. “The workpeople themselves, with a culture of their own, vaguely felt, but were unable to express what was passing in their mind, and what was bound up in the three factors described above.”

The value of solidarity has already been realised by the Indian workers. The president of the Madras Union, Mr. Wadia, writes “Indian labour understands that men working on the railway in Punjab, in the mills of Bombay, in the engineering shops of Bengal, are no better off than those working in the mills of Messrs. Binney & Co., Madras. The distance of a few hundred miles makes no difference in their solidarity, which alone will lead them to the final victory, the destruction of wage slavery.” About the International he says: “The fate of the International is in the balance, what with the activities of the Second and Third, but as soon as a properly constituted International begins to work the Indian labourers will naturally ally themselves with the movement. The labourers, by themselves, are not sufficiently organised; they are not educated in the modern method of political struggle, and, therefore, if a long, weary fight between labour and capital, between landlordism and peasantry, is to be avoided, the Indian labourer must gain moral and other support from his comrades and brothers in other parts of the world.”

The Unions in India were not recognised by the capitalists at the beginning, and the government backed their attitude. But the strength of the movement has forced recognition upon both of them. In November, when the Second Congress was to have taken place, the Mine Owners’ Association opposed it and requested the Government to send the military to disperse it, but the Government refused. Consequently the conference went on unhampered, and the clever bourgeoisie, finding it not possible to fight labour face to face, adopted the diplomatic method and sent a deputation to make friendly relations with the workers, but not with the labour leaders. This capitalist deputation apologised for its former opposition and agreed to adopt 44 hours a week instead of 72, in addition to some other minor concessions.

The direction of this potential revolutionary labour movement in India is in the hands of people who can be classed into four groups (1) The Nationalists; (2) The Reformists; (3) The Government and capitalist agents; and (4) the leaders who have come out from the ranks of the labouring class. (1) The foremost of the Nationalist politicians interested in labour is Mr. Lajpat Rai. He is the veteran centrist leader, a rich advocate, a journalist and landowner, but very orthodox. The same Mr. Rai in the year 1920 shamelessly condemned the printers’ strike of Lahore because it touched his pocket. Despite this, in 1921, a year afterwards, he was elected as president of the First All-Indian Trade Union Congress. The union leaders who elected him to preside, by this action alone, demonstrated their real character. Another Nationalist labour leader is Mr. B. K. Chakrabarty, an advocate, landowner, and multimillionaire. He was the president of the Calcutta Tramway Workers’ Union, one of the most virile groups of Indian workers. Dr. R. K. Mukherji, a bourgeoisie economist and professor, is a leader of a small national centrist group. He was delegated from the Bengal Unions to the First Congress of the Trade Unions. Some dozen other such advocates and professors can be shown to be interested in trade unionism; it is the fashion, at present, to become a labour leader in India. This is due to the fact that the nationalists understand the power of the industrial labour movement and want to control it; besides, it wants to frighten the Government with the organised force of the unions for political purpose.

(2) Mr. Gandhi, the now imprisoned leader of the Indian nationalists, also tried his hand on the trade unions, but without much success. He left the labour field after the workers of the textile mills of Ahmedabad, Gandhi’s native town, refused to break the strike on terms agreed between himself and the nationalist mill owners. He said: “We must not tamper with the labourers. It is dangerous to make political use of the factory proletariat“ (The Times, May, 1921).

The most prominent leader of the labour movement is Mr. B. P. Wadia. It was he who first started the labour unions in India. Wadia is an ex-member of the Indian Home Rule League (a moderate political organisation with a programme to achieve self-government by gradual concessional process) and a well-known theosophist. He is president of five virile unions in Madras. He says that the economic aim of the Indian labour movement is not only to get higher wages, etc., but the ultimate destruction of wage slavery. In his opinion the international labour movement is too materialistic, and lacks a soul. This spiritual task, he contends, is a special one left for the Indian workers to develop. His reformist attitude became most marked in his evidence on labour reform, given before the Joint Parliamentary Committee, which collected material to find the best means of introducing political reforms into India. He said: “It is my considered opinion that Indian Ministers are better fitted to carry out adequate factory reforms than the Official Executive.”

The next leader in importance is the reformist Indian Labour leader, Mr. Joseph Baptista. He was president of the Second Congress of the Indian Trade Union Congress. Four months before the Congress, on the 29th July, he addressed a mass meeting requesting them to follow the pacificism preached by Gandhi. He was met with cries of “Shame.” The chairman of this meeting was Mr. Jamnadas Dwarkadas, a well known member of the Bombay Mill Owners’ Association, and among those present on the platform was Mr. R. Williams, chief Publicity Bureau officer of the Government of Bombay. This bureau was specially created to fight the revolutionary tendency of the masses. Mr. Baptista came to the forefront after Colonel Wedgewood’s visit to India, and though we do not know of any relation or agreement between them we know that Mr. Baptista is following the policy of the very moderate I.L.P. Labour M.P., and is introducing Fabian Socialism to India. In his presidential speech he declared that: “The political policy of the Congress must steer clear of extreme Individualism and Bolshevism and follow the golden path of Fabian Socialism.”

The Government and capitalist agent types of labour leaders are Mr. Lokhande, of Bombay; Dr. Nair, of Madras, and Mr. Jones, of Calcutta. Jones was the general secretary of the All-Indian Railwaymen’s union. He was the J. H. Thomas of India, and he had to resign because his treachery became too well known. The charges against the first two are so well known that Comrade Saklatvala had to warn everybody against them recently in the Labour Monthly. Regarding these types of labour leaders, there are very few Indians amongst them; they are mostly Europeans residing in India. We want European assistance, but we do not desire moderate Labourism of the I.L.P. brand. It is here that the British Communist Party can and ought to help us directly.

The labour leaders who have come from the masses themselves are not very well known. One who has become prominent is Comrade Viswanandda, leader of the miners of Bihar. At the Second Congress he declared that “If the present misery of the workers of India is allowed to continue nothing will stop Bolshevism. Let them take due warning, because the Indian workers are determined to become the rightful owners and rulers of the wealth produced by their labour.”

These mass leaders lack a definite viewpoint. They have picked up, here and there, some news of the Russian revolution from the bourgeoisie newspapers, and a few Communist ideas have influenced them. But they are our men, and we ought to gather them together for the Indian Communist Party and then push them to take leadership of the unions. This is the immediate task of the Party.

But in India there is no strong Communist Party, and it will take some time to create an effective one. The Internationals are not yet in touch with India, and at the present rate no one knows how long it will take them to reach the native masses. On the other hand, as I have shown, the Indian Fabians and moderates are spending all their energy to capture the masses. That they are somewhat successful may be seen in the growing timidity of the strike movement. The Indian workers have been flattered by the moderate labour leaders, and have been urged to be contented with the little increases in wages, etc., which were won during the time of the great strikes.

The British Labour Party is also busy with the Indian workers and their unions. These British leaders must understand, however, that the industrial victories of the English workers can only be maintained by co-operation with the Indian masses. For their own interests, therefore, the British workers must stand on common ground with their coloured comrades of India. The tie of economic interests that binds them is very close. The British Labour Party, which expects to control the governing power very soon, must stop fooling the Indian masses by pushing the Baptista moderate type of labour leader. On the other hand the organising radical societies in England for helping the Indian workers must show the International comrades that the real driving force in Indian emancipation rests in the organised power of the native masses.