M. Singh

The Struggle of the Indian Textile Workers

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 16, June 1934, No. 6, pp. 347-352, (3,244 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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The Indian textile workers’ struggle against rationalisation, wage cuts and for the recognition of the right of trade union organisation within the Indian States, for unemployment benefit, maternity insurance, and the right of trade unions to function inside the factory, has again brought the heroic workers of India right to the forefront of the struggle against British imperialism.

Now the workers engaged in the textile industry in Bombay have been forced to bear the brunt of the attack of the millowners during the last decade, and in spite of all the police and military terrorism which the British ruling class can and do let loose in colonial countries in their attempts to crush any resistance to colonial oppression, these Indian workers have written in blood countless pages of working-class history which will command the admiration of the international proletariat in every capitalist country.

The Bombay textile workers do not arrive at a decision to strike without some careful thought of what they are going into. They have already had their baptism of fire caused by the brutal methods of strike breaking adopted by the police and military in the past. The textile workers of Bombay, always to the forefront in the great class battles organised their forces against the millowners in 1920, and in Bombay, Madras and other towns several strikes took place on questions relating to hours and wages.

The millowners up to that period had enjoyed unprecedented profits, the average rate working out at 99.69 per cent. on capital invested in 1919, 102.68 per cent. in 1920 and 92.73 per cent. in 1921. So outrageous was the greed for profit in the post-war period that the “Royal Commission on Labour in India” was forced to publish the following:

The leading industries were yielding phenomenal profits, but wages lagged behind prices, and labour, so far from participating in the unprecedented prosperity, often found conditions harder than before. The world-wide uprising of labour consciousness extended to India, where for the first time the mass of industrial workers awoke to their disabilities, particularly in the matter of wages and hours, and to the possibility of combination.

Past Textile Struggles

The textile workers began to realise the possibility of combination in 1921, and although there was practically no organisation of textile workers apart from the Madras Labour Union and the Textile Labour Association of Ahmedabad—which was under the control of Mr. Gandhi -- there were 148 disputes in the cotton industry which involved some 162,203 workers. Since 1921 the struggle of the textile workers has been an incessant one, the general strikes of cotton workers in the years 1925 and 1928 being landmarks in the great strike battles of the Indian proletariat.

The magnificent courage and determination displayed by the textile workers in the 1925 dispute won the admiration of the international working-class movement. In the campaign fostered by the Communist Party in this country against the slogan of Baldwin “The wages of all must come down,” the General Council of the British Trades Union Congress decided to open a lockout fund for the Indian textile workers. This fund, for the support of Indian workers, the first of its kind in the history of the British Labour Movement, realised £1,250.

The millowners and the Government in India, in their anxiety to maintain the standard rate of profit and to avoid open conflict, decided to attack the workers in another way by schemes of rationalisation. Accordingly on the 10th of June, 1926, the Government of India appointed a second and special Tariff Board to investigate into the conditions of the Cotton Textile Industry with special reference to Bombay and Ahmedabad.

During the year 1926 there was almost a complete lull in the struggle against the employers’ offensive. Many of the reformist trade union leaders were of the opinion that the workers had ceased to be influenced by the Communist agitators. And therefore one finds in the Report, of the Bombay Textile Labour Union for 1926 the following: “During 1926 we received 260 complaints from the workers about their conditions, and of these complaints eighty-nine only became successful.” The Union leaders were also proud to report that they did not authorise any strike. But these same leaders were also compelled to admit that they were forced to deal with five strikes in four mills. It did not occur to these leaders to prepare the workers for the future attacks which the millowners, with the aid of the Government, were preparing against the textile workers. They were proud of the fact that they did not authorise any single one of these strikes. The workers, by actual experience in previous class battles, were able to see the part played by the many de-classed petit bourgeois lawyers, and the dilettante of the intelligentsia who had fastened themselves like limpets on to the working-class organisations in the capacity of secretaries, and as agents of the Government maintained by a trip to the International Labour Conferences at Geneva.

The determination of the textile and other workers to shed these agents of the employers and the Government filled the authorities and the textile millowners with dismay and fear, and the Royal Commission of Labour in India (1931) reports the following:

Recently other influences have appeared; the spread of Communism has affected the workers in certain places, particularly Bombay, and in the big mill strikes which have occurred there during the last few years communist leaders and organisations have played a leading part . . . . But although workers may have been influenced by persons with nationalist, communist or commercial ends to serve, we believe that there has rarely been a strike of any importance which has not been due, entirely or largely, to economic reasons.

In this way the Royal Commission wishes to explain away the determined efforts of the working class to break with the old bunch of “leaders,” Messrs. Joshi, Ginwalla and Dewan Chaman Lall (who actually became a member of the Royal Commission), and to fall in behind the class lead given by such men as Spratt, Bradley, Ahmed and others who were soon to be put away as “conspirators against the King.”

Whilst the Bombay Textile Labour Union were pleased to report no action the special Tariff Board were very active in planning a new offensive upon the workers, and in the first half of 1927 this Board published its report in which it made many suggestions for the introduction of new methods for obtaining increased output per operative. The attack on the textile workers was led by the notorious exploiters, Messrs. E.D. Sassoon and Co., who endeavoured and eventually succeeded in introducing into their Manchester and Apollo mills the three-loom system, instead of the two-loom system which was generally prevalent in the Bombay mills. In January, 1928, they introduced the double-frames working in Spinning Departments in all the mills over which they were in control.

The textile workers on each occasion resisted this new form of attack by strike action. After the success in the Sassoon mills the millowners generally took up the offensive and although the workers were again compelled to resume work they did not give up the fight, but prepared for a new period of struggle which broke out in 1928, in spite of the efforts of the Mr. M.N. Joshi, President of the Bombay Textile Labour Union, and of the Secretary of the other Union, the Girni Kamgar Mahamandal, both of whom were opposed to it. The Court of Enquiry, set up by the Government of Bombay, states: “It appears that an attempt was made in February, 1928, to bring about a general strike in the industry, but it failed”—because the two gentlemen named above “were opposed to it.” However, a huge meeting of 15,000 textile workers decided upon a general strike. Again the leaders, headed by M.N. Joshi, opposed the idea and did all in their power to sabotage the determination of the textile workers to struggle against the new attack of the millowners. In the official Government report the following appears, tersely summing up the position:

About this time the officials of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, alleged to be a Communist organisation who had not been previously prominent in the textile labour movement in Bombay, took an interest in their affairs. The joint efforts of some of the leaders of the Labour Unions and the leaders of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party resulted in bringing about a general strike which became a fait accompli on or about April 26, 1928.

The textile workers, learning from the past class battles, were determined to carry this general strike to a successful conclusion. They had no faith in the reformist leaders and Government agents attached to the trade unions, and after the strike had been in progress for one month a new union was launched—the Bombay Girni Karngar Union, and was registered with a total of 174 members.

The Bombay General Strike of 1928

This general strike was an epic struggle in the history of the working-class movement in India lasting for six months during which time, in spite of the most brutal persecution and terror, more than one hundred thousand workers stood solid, full of courage and with a will to struggle, which won for them the admiration of the whole international working-class movement. The growing militancy and class consciousness of the textile workers who, in spite of the previous eight years of struggle and defeat against the millowners, struck fear into the hearts of the Government of India and the imperial Government in London. The Government intimated that a Committee of Enquiry would be set up to “investigate the references agreed upon between the parties.” The strike was called off and the status quo was maintained in reference to wages. In the Labour Gazette of October, 1928, the following appears:—

“The Joint Strike Committee held a big mass meeting of the workers on the morning of the 5th, which was attended by about 15,000 to 20,000 workers. Almost all the leaders with the exception of Mr N.M. Joshi delivered speeches on the settlement that had been arrived at. Several speakers stated that the settlement was only in the nature of a truce because they did not expect any favourable report from the Committee of Enquiry to be appointed by the Government. Particular stress was laid on the necessity of creating a comprehensive organisation with sufficiently large funds during the next six months in order to compel the millowners by another prolonged strike if necessary to improve the condition of work and wages of textile workers in Bombay city. The report of the settlement was, however, received by the strikers with considerable jubilation, and there was no dissentient voices against resumption of work.”

The new Girni Karngar Union issued a leaflet to the strikers which stated:—

This strike of the textile workers has been suspended. The strike has not closed. If we sit quiet and do not prepare for the future, the Government Committee, the owners will deliver an attack on us. Hence all textile workers should prepare for the future.

A hundred thousand members should be enlisted for the Girni Kamgar Union.

The Meerut Arrests and the Aftermath

The Girni Kamgar Union had gained the confidence of the workers. Registered in May with 174 members, it reported a membership of 54,000 in the last quarter of the year. If the Government and the mill-owners were alarmed at such a growth, they were even more alarmed at the class character of its leadership, and so in the days immediately before the Court of Enquiry issued its findings practically the whole of the Executive of this Union were arrested and placed on trial at Meerut, hundreds of miles away from Bombay on a charge of Conspiracy against the King. Even this piece of class trickery and terrorist persecution did not have the desired effect upon the textile workers. The Royal Commission on Labour in India was forced to report: “The subsequent arrest of the leaders of the Girni Kamgar Union deprived the workers of these representatives, and the leaders of the older Unions were unable to regain the confidence of the men.”

The Government had deprived the workers of their leaders, but no action of the Government could deprive the working class of its capacity to fight. The heroic textile workers, deprived of its leadership and partially crushed by the relentless and continuous attacks of the employing class, struggled on fighting against brutal oppression and the savagery of the police persecution as well as against the depravity and the lack of principle on the part of the old leaders; the resistance of the workers began to lack cohesion and direction, the number of disputes in the Bombay Presidency decreasing from 114 in 1928 to 53 in 1932. Owing to the long drawn out proceedings in connection with the Meerut Conspiracy Case—which occupied 4 years—the workers’ forces, lacking their old leadership, became partially disorganised and split by factional fights, and although the textile workers participated in scores of struggles during this period their successes were few.

The world-wide agitation for the release of the Meerut accused forced the Government of India to reduce the savage sentences passed upon these working-class fighters in January of 1933 with the result that all but 4 of the 27 were released before the end of the year. Once released they at (once threw themselves again into the struggle against another terrific attack which the millowners were contemplating against the wages and conditions of the textile workers. Meetings were held, groups drawn together, an examination of the mistakes and the lessons to be drawn from past experiences were soon consolidated into concrete proposals. The enthusiasm of the workers received a fresh stimulant; confidence was instilled into their ranks; the militancy and determination of the workers rose to a higher level; the workers again took the offensive.

The New Strike Wave

During 1933 82 disputes occurred in the Bombay Presidency; of these 70 were connected with the textile industry in which 70,310 textile workers participated and the number of days of struggle equalled 689,186.

Throughout the closing period of 1933 much propaganda was being conducted for the need of “unity of action” of the whole of the textile workers against the new drive against wages and to rationalisation.

The Sassoon mills, always to the front in the drives against the workers, were closed in Bombay in December of last year and the workers were told that the mills would reopen in January on a reduced scale of wages. Over 2,000 workers refused to accept this reduction; blacklegs were introduced under police protection, but they were attacked by those on strike. The police opened fire on the strikers and, as a consequence, about 15 workers and 4 policemen were reported injured in the conflict. Sassoon’s eventually closed their mills and reopened again after agreeing to pay 30 per cent. food allowance instead of 25 per cent, originally proposed. The extent of the strike movement in the textile industry can be seen from the fact that in the last quarter of 1933 there were 27 disputes in the cotton and woollen mills over wages.

In Ahmedabad the millowners are reported in the paper, Kaiser-I-Hind (February 25, 1934), to have organised a Council of Action to press for a 25 per cent. reduction in one blow. This reduction would affect about 75,000 workers. In Sholapur the owners made a demand for a 12½ per cent. reduction in wages; in this town disputes broke out in most of the mills. More looms per operative had been introduced in many of the mills with a consequent increase in unemployment.

On April 23 the Bombay textile workers responded to the call of the All-India Textile Workers’ Council for a general strike, and it rapidly spread throughout the textile centres in India. On May 1 7,000 textile workers in Delhi declared a sympathetic strike with the workers in Bombay; 156 of these were shot down in the streets of Delhi. Meetings have been prohibited, special emergency laws have been operated, 14 of the leaders have been arrested, and many people have been shot down. “The Government of Bombay reports that interest in the mills strike appears to be waning and that meetings are smaller. The exodus of mill workers from Bombay appears to be increasing, although leaders have advised the strikers not to go to their native places as the strike would thereby be weakened.” (Times, May 18, 1934.) So such things appear to be happening to the Government of Bombay.

What does not appear to the Government of Bombay is the determination of the workers in spite of all the intimidation, all the persecution, all the misery and poverty that the Indian workers have suffered in their heroic struggles over the past decade to protect their standard of living which is almost unparalleled in the history of capitalism.

They are not prepared to suffer any longer as patients of such a bloodthirsty system. The Indian workers are fighting with their backs to the wall. The Trade Union Movement has gathered new recruits and is being built on the demand from the workers to struggle against such a vile system of exploitation. They realise that joint action is absolutely necessary for victory. The demands set forth by the mill workers in Bombay show that the consciousness of the workers is on a much higher level than in previous disputes. Release of Political Prisoners: Recognition of the Right of Trade Union Organisation within the Indian States: No Rationalisation: A Minimum Wage of 3 7s. 6d. per month: Unemployment Benefit and Maternity Insurance, the cost to be borne by the Government and millowners; Liberty for Trade Union Committees to supervise conditions of work in the mills:—these are some of the points contained in a list of 20 demands.

The working class in India have been taught a bitter lesson in the past, but they now see exposed the machination of the National Congress wallahs, the Gandhis and the Joshis; they see that civil disobedience is no weapon to be adopted against the bloodthirsty millowners and the agents of British imperialism.

The workers of other industries will watch with enthusiasm the struggle of the textile workers; they, too, have suffered from retrenchment, unemployment, wage cuts, horrible living conditions, and starvation. The textile workers are also being watched by the millions of peasants who have suffered untold miseries from the effects of the world crisis and the colossal fall in agricultural prices.

These toiling millions are slowly beginning to realise the necessity of a change in the system of society which makes such lives as theirs possible; they hear of the change in the Soviet Union and a Soviet China; they see the vile persecution of their trade union and political leaders; they hate the British imperialist slave owner; in fact they are becoming conscious of their mission in life. The struggle of the textile workers has become a beacon light for the toiling masses of India. A victory for the textile workers will herald the beginning of a much greater struggle not only against the millowners but against imperialism in general. The coming of that day will mark the beginning of the end of British imperialism, British exploitation, and British domination.