Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 10, September 1928, No. 9, pp. 572-575, (1,528 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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For five months the workers of Lillooah carried on a bitter struggle against their employers, the railway authorities and one or two private firms of engineers. The dispute had its origin with the refusal of the Agent of the State-owned railways to discuss the following demands put forward by the workers at Lillooah early in January, 1928:—
(1) Recognition of the Union by the Agent.
(2) All-round increases of 2.5 per cent. in wages, with a minimum wage equal to the prevailing rates paid at Lucknow and Lahore workshops, of Rs.30 per month (the rate paid was as low as Rs.9 to Rs.15 for unskilled workers).
(3) Free quarters or allowances, &c.
Promises were made by the Agent to investigate the grievances, but no reply was received for over six weeks.
On February 10 two workers were dismissed on flimsy charges. The workers sent in a petition to the Agent, demanding their reinstatement, which was refused. On March 3 four more were discharged, and again demands for reinstatement of the six and the fulfilment of the original demands were made. The Agent reinstated four and agreed to recognise the Union, but refused the other demands.
By now the workers were exasperated by the trickery of the Agent, and resorted to a stay-in strike on March 7, in which about 700 took part. In retaliation the Agent ordered a general lock-out, to apply to the whole centre, and 14,000 workers were immediately involved.
The Union now demanded, in addition to the demands mentioned, that all dismissed workers must be reinstated at once and lock-out wages paid. The Agent turned down these demands and refused to meet a deputation of the workers on March 11.
Meetings were held invoking the support of all workers in the other centres, and by March 19 about 500 men from the block signal and 400 of the Howrah store departments joined forces. Armed police were called in and posted at every vantage point. The strikers were soon joined by other sections in the railway depot, including about 300 at Bamangachi.
On March 28 a special deputation of twenty from the strikers were sent to the Agent urging him to reconsider his decision concerning the lockout, and on his definite refusal a mass meeting was called at Bamangachi, a suburb of Lillooah, to consider further steps to be taken.
While returning from meeting the workers were prevented from crossing the Bamangachi railway bridge—the only way to return to their homes—by police, strengthened by Gurkha soldiers and European employees of the railways, who were armed. As soon as the strikers reached the bridge the police opened fire upon them, and as a result four were killed and over thirty wounded.
This incident evoked considerable resentment, which took the fbrm of additions to the number of strikers, such as the stoppage in Burns & Co., Joseph & Co., and the Bankra workshop of Martin & Co., resolutions of protest from the tramwaymen of Calcutta and from various national bodies, and a scathing indictment from the Nationalist Press. Further, a widespread demand was made for a general strike on the whole line.
The more serious the situation became the more callous was the police repression. Gagging orders were passed, and the promulgation of Section 144, Indian Penal Code, which practically amounts to a declaration of martial law, with the object of breaking the strike by any means possible.
A Bulletin issued by Mitra, the secretary of the E.I. Railway Union, states that blacklegs were recruited, but with no success, and that the authorities had employed about twenty-five persons “with high remuneration, to preach reactionary ideas to the workers on strike.” On May 4 the workers sent a petition to the Agent asking him to make an honourable settlement, and to feed the strikers until agreement, and also a conference was held between workers’ representatives and two representatives of the railway authorities. A reply was given on behalf of the authorities, by the district magistrate, that the first request could not be dealt with by the Committee, but would be forwarded to the authorities, and that the second was entirely refused, and that if the strikers would send in voluntary resignations they would be given the arrears of pay. This meant that they would be considered as dismissed.
The following day the postal authorities intervened in the struggle. A cablegram to European Labour organisations was held back in the post as it was considered objectionable. It was an appeal for funds to carry on the struggle.
A retreat had already been begun by the officials of the Union, as witness the criticism made by Ganavani, the organ of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party. This paper states in its issue of June 21 that:—
they had not said anything against K.C. Mitra, the secretary of the Union, before, because it would have hampered the progress of the strike; but had to criticise his approach to the Agent of the railways.... The way he was prepared to surrender was nothing but suicidal to the interests not only of the strikers, but to the whole of the working class of India . . . The authorities were faced with a real crisis….
The modified demands put forward on May 9 were as follows:—
(1) Reinstatement of the two dismissed workers, or an open inquiry.
(2) Minimum wages of Rs.16 per month.
(3) General increment of 10 per cent. in wages.
(4) Provision of quarters or allowance at 20 per cent. of wages.
(5) Demand for Sunday and other public holidays.
(6) Recognition of Union, passes and special leave, rooms for use of officials in railway offices free of rent.
(7) Ten days’ time to be given for resumption of work.
(8) One month’s pay as loan.
(9) Lock-out wages left for further discussion.
(10) No victimisation.
The Agent definitely refused the demands, except that his meeting the Union representatives meant the recognition of the Union, and he promised that no victimisation would take place.
The activity of the strike breakers developed. Free fights with the police, who charged groups of strikers, happened on May 10, in which about forty workers were injured, and prohibition of public assemblies was ordered. All this merely resulted in increased activity on the part of the strikers. Picketing was carried on with greater intensity, and by May 25 about 600 workers at the Ondal works struck in sympathy, and strikes broke out at Asansol. As at Lillooah, police and soldiery were drafted in, and hundreds of Gurkha soldiers, fully armed, guarded the works at these places, with Captain Christie, who was responsible for the shootings at the beginning of the strike, in charge.
On June 1 a Government communiqué was sent giving carte blanche to the Agent and demanding of the strikers an unconditional surrender; and complete approval of the Agent’s demand that there should be no concessions as an inducement to resume work was given by the Government and the Railway Board.
The strike was intensified at Asansol, when, on June 12, the menial staff struck, and young lads from the High School, who were on holidays, were recruited to act as blacklegs. An ultimatum was issued by the Agent that if the workers at Asansol did not resume work by the 19th, all would be dismissed; but on that day only six turned up— under police escort. The strikers were served with notices to quit their quarters, and on one occasion the magistrate of Burdwan with about 150 armed police entered their quarters and strewed the roads with the chattels and stores of the workers, smashing the locks on the doors to obtain admission.
Burns & Co. tried to induce the workers to return by publishing leaflets, but the workers gathered them all together and made a bonfire of them before the Union offices. Reports of the failure of the strike were circulated by the Press, but repudiated by the strikers’ leaders. Assaults became more frequent by the end of June and arrests more numerous, but, although the number of workers resuming work increased gradually in Lillooah, at Asansol the strike was only really beginning.
On July 7 a wire was received from Bombay requesting the strikers to carry on pending the Bombay conference of the All India Railway Federation Conference, where the question of a general strike was to be discussed, but by the 9th Mitra, speaking at a meeting at Lillooah, stated that he was expecting a reply from the Agent. On July 11, at a mass meeting, Mitra advised the workers to resume work unconditionally as the Agent had promised to consider their grievances if they resumed work, winding up with the rhetorical flourish:—
Let the public know that it is not a surrender or an end of the strike, but a mere truce in the fight in order to enable the men to recoup and prepare for the next.
By the 10th 5,000 had resumed work, but a large number were refused admittance— victimised, while about 172 cases were pending against the strikers on charges of rioting and disorderly behaviour, &c.