Labour Monthly

The Bombay Strike

S. S. Batliwala

Source : Labour Monthly  December, 1939, No.12.
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML : Salil Sen
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). 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.

[The following account of the Bombay Strike of October 2 is reprinted from "The National Front" of October 8, 1939.]

From the day the second imperialist world war began, we were all very concerned. Not to say that the machinations of Chamberlain and his gang had enmeshed us in their glib talk about "defence of democracy." What worried the Communists, leaders and rank and file, was how to effectively harness the opportunity and create confidence in the Indian National Congress that the working class would not fall behind in the fight against imperialism and for independence.

It was increasingly evident that the top leadership in the Congress was hesitant and wavering. It was adopting dilatory tactics, and going in for negotiations with the Viceroy.

The country was seething with discontent. The Defence of India Ordinance was demoralising quite a lot of political workers in the Congress fold through its ruthless provisions. "It is no more a question of going to jail as in the Civil Disobedience days; this time you face the gallows! Let us not be rash, let us move with circumspection" -- this was the advice freely given by responsible "leaders."

The Communists were faced with the task of breaking the spell of the Ordinance, and creating confidence in the masses. We, in Bombay, determined to give the lead, and naturally our first task was to organise a one-day political strike with the dominant section of the local working class, the textile workers, shouldering the burden.

We were faced with tremendous obstacles.

The local nationalist newspapers were crowing the imperialist tune under the direct gaze of the Press Censor. They refused to give us even a few odd lines in a remote corner of their journals for the purpose of giving the call. Legal leaflets and handbills could not be issued, as the owners of printing presses refused to risk "confiscation" by publishing our manifesto or appeal. Even the Kranti, our Marathi-weekly, and the National Front had been forced to close down because no press was prepared to print "Communist" newspapers.

The police made bando-bast to prevent processions by enforcing the requisite of a "pass" to be previously obtained from the local police station.

Our most popular comrades on the textile front, the office bearers of the Girni Kamgar Union, were bound down by "bail-conditions." They were prohibited from addressing meetings, or otherwise taking part, directly or indirectly, in the furtherance of any strike. Thus, Comrades Dange, Mirajkar, Mrs. Dange, Patkar, Bhise and Bhogle were not available to us.

The Congress Socialist Party was not ready to co-operate.

The Trade Unions would have to be left out of count in order not to deprive the workers of their legal organisations in these days of economic hardship entailed by the War.

Besides all this, the issue would be a straight political one, not permitting the use of economic grievances for rallying support. A clear anti-war call would be given, the Ordinance would be defied in action and not in mere words, and we were to be ready for the full consequences of the action.

A meeting of all Communists unanimously decided for the strike to be called on October 2. The die was cast.

Our campaign immediately started with barely three weeks in hand. With hurricane speed meetings of contacts were convened, areas divided up, and details chalked out. From the first day, the street-corner meetings were organised. All our speakers, good, bad and indifferent, were posted in different localities. Under the Red Flag gathered toiling men and women to listen to the clear analysis of the war, the repudiation of any and every compromise, the exposure of "neutrality," the reasons why the working class was forced to take the lead and point the way to the rest of the nation, a call to immediate action.

From all corners came the demand for handbills and leaflets. With great difficulty the Manifesto was printed anyhow and circulated. The Congress Ministry had distributed 1,300,000 handbills, and the Bombay Provincial Trades Union Congress had printed 120,000 before the general strike on November 7. Only ten thousand copies of the Manifesto could be printed for the strike on October 2. Further handbills were not possible to get.

Every day, after the mills closed, the working-class area hummed with activity. Cyclists with red flags went shouting by. In the night men with burning torches appeared at strategic corners and harangued the crowd. A new cadre, which had not touched the textile workers before, took street-corner and chawl meetings and gave convincing proof of the ramifications of Communists in the city. They argued and carried conviction, patiently explaining the difficulties that loomed large before the workers. In the morning as the workers went to their mills and factories, they were greeted by hand-written posters in their chawls, on the walls of buildings, on the stairs they mounted, at the gates they entered, even on the road on which they walked. Group meetings of "contacts," the gatherings of promising workers selected for their mettle in previous local strike struggles, were organised by the hundred. Everywhere the effort was to clearly understand the political implications of the strike. These contacts emerging from these "study circles" widened the net of organisation, and proved to be the pivot of the strike. They brought home the lesson that effective Trade Union work is indispensable for a party professing Marxism because that alone can supply the necessary links with the working masses and permit you to test and choose the right men. The patient work of our comrades for the last so many years in the Girni Karngai Union was yielding its result.

Four days previous to the strike the first blow was received as com. Sawant was arrested with a bundle of anti-war posters and taken to the lock-up. The comrades resolved, "We shall be more careful. We cannot afford to lose comrades like this." The campaign was further intensified on the last days but no arrest of a similar kind could be effected by the police.

The rally of workers at Delisle Road mustered only ten thousand men and a sprinkling of women workers.

"This means that the strike to-morrow will be a flop" said an interested press reporter in the hearing of our comrades.

"I beg your pardon," came the prompt reply, "what you do not see is the character of the gathering. We are working on a different basis this time. We are not relying on agitation and mass enthusiasm so much as on effective organisation. Here in this meeting there are representatives from every centre and area. The picked men, the contacts, are here. And we are confident about success to-morrow."

But the press representative went away unconvinced. He had witnessed the rally that preceded the November 7 general strike. It had reached the colossal figure of nearly a lac. This rally could not impress him.

Com. Joglekar presided at the rally. In his characteristic style, he brought the grimness of the occasion to bear on the workers since Parulekar, Joint Secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress and a member of the Servants of India Society, spoke next. In burning words, he tore the veil that covers the propaganda by the Government. "Why should you offer your lives at the altar of this British Empire? This is a war between two dacoits. Let them fight between themselves, Why should we, the toilers, their victims, help them?" Comrade Ranadive made the best speech of the day. In quiet argumentative style, he posed one problem after another and demolished the bogey held up before the workers against the strike on October 2.

"We are told we shall lose a week's wages by going on a day's strike. But who can deny that if we do not strike on this political issue, if we do not give the call for action so that national independence may be achieved, we shall lose not a week's wages but the wages of a whole life-time, the wages of freedom from slavery, the wages of happiness from misery, the wages of relief from stark exploitation that is our misfortune to-day, and harder chains to-morrow? … We are not stealing the initiative from anybody. Through the strike, we assure the Congress, the Indian nation, that the working class will be solidly behind every struggle for attaining freedom, whatever the cost, however big the sacrifice demanded … We give our assurance by deeds and not only by words To-day the British lion has fallen into a pit which he dug himself. He had meant it for Soviet Russia, the land where Workers and Peasants rule. It is not our good fortune to claim that we have pushed him into the pit. But it is certainly our good fortune that he is in it. We are not going to help him to come out. The lion is telling us: "Pull me out by my tail, dear lamb, and we shall be eternal friends." But we know full well that the lion will eat us up if he is once extricated. So all we are ready to do is to push him deeper down, to cover the pit, along with him, with dust and sand, and give this vicious exploiting Empire a decent burial ...."

There was loud and long applause. "Victory to the Red Flag," "Down with Imperialist War," "Long Live Indian Independence," burst forth from every corner.

The meeting transformed itself into a procession, headed by the women with torchlights. Till late in the night, these men and women marched through streets and by-lanes carrying the message for the next day.

All night there was feverish activity. The finishing touches to the arrangements were completed by 2 a.m. And by 4 a.m. the pickets with Red Flags had already reached every mill-gate. Over and above these there were pickets posted at strategic corners and chawl-gates. Then with baited breath we waited. I turned to Comrade Bukhari and asked: "What is your estimate of success?" A mysterious jumble of lines gathered on his forehead and with the left eye half-closed, he haltingly said: "Success -- I am certain about. But numbers -- I fear it may not reach even 50 per cent. of November 7. You see, the odds are too great."

I asked Comrade Vaidya the same question. He said: "The Bombay working class has never failed us. But I agree the odds are very great. No press, no handbills, no effective opposition to give momentum, no effective aid from others. They are trying to kill us by isolation, by putting us in cold storage .... Yes, yes, I believe we can draw easily about thirty thousand or so -- because the issue is a straight political general strike, and the terror of the Defence of India Act is so wideŽspread in the city."

I asked a young worker lad: "What are the workers feeling? Will there be a strike?" He was visibly annoyed. "Have you doubts about it? Come to my chawl and speak to the workers themselves. The worker is quite confident about the strike. We have done it before, we shall do it again." And then the momentous day arrived. All our sober calculations were smashed up by the militant working class. The Bombay textile proletariat rose to the occasion and gave a bigger and a better demonstration than November 7.

We had only one motor-lorry to give the call on the day of the strike. The loud-speaker was not available. Nor were Comrades Dange or Mirajkar available.

Police arrangements were thorough. In front of every mill-gate, at every street-corner, the police with their lathis strutted about under the direct supervision of a sergeant or a sub-inspector. In three or four places, armed policemen with rifles were present in batches of twelve and more. Four loaded police vans continuously patrolled the labour areas, going round and round, stopping before each mill-gate, exchanging greetings and going ahead.

But where were the workers?

The slogan given was: "You need not stir out of your houses. Do not throng near mill-gates, or the police may take the excuse for a lathi-charge or more." And the order was being obeyed. The streets remained empty, especially in front of mill-gates.

Picketing was hardly needed.

At the Morarjee Mills I got mixed up with some Bhaya workers. One of them was saying: "Bhaiya, this time we must not be disgraced like last time. We are not going in at all -- nowhere near the gates. They blamed us as strike-breakers. Don't you remember the rebuke of Swamiji when he came here the other day?" And the others -- to a man -- concurred.

In Madanpura, the Muslim workers seemed equally determined. "This is our strike, too. The Britisher is no friend of Islam. And we know the Red Flag stands equally for everybody."

I asked: "What is the position in your area?"

The prompt reply came: "More than fifty per cent. of Muslim workers have obeyed the Red Flag consciously." At Worli, a dozen women workers were arguing strenuously. I overheard: "Who is going to stop me? Come, I shall lead you in."

"No, no, you are foolish -- what will you gain by going in?"

"Are you going to lose wages for these good-for-nothings?"

"Don't say that -- I am not coming. I am a follower of these Red Flaggers. Have you never heard Usha-tai speaking at a meeting?"

In the end all went home. They said the children at home were better company than the inhuman machines.

We almost ran into two volunteers with Red Flags being pursued by a dozen lathi-wielding policemen under the valiant lead of an Anglo-Indian Sergeant at Foras Road. The volunteers complained that they had been assaulted, the flag torn up and now they were being bodily hustled from the area.

We asked the sergeant why he was behaving in this fashion. "I don't want anybody lurking about here. They tried to hold a meeting in the garden next door to the Mill. Supposing they throw stones from there. I shall not permit it."

We had to sternly tell him that he was over-stepping the bounds of his duties, that he could not stop meetings like this in anticipation of stone-throwing.

"I do not care. I am the master here." And he started strutting about the place, brandishing his "stick."

A crowd had collected. We decided to report him to higher authoriŽties. We got our volunteers to resume their meeting as well as picket-posts with the flags. As we were moving away to the police station, the sergeant walked up. "Look here, mister, I did not mean any harm. The flag was accidentally torn. Honest truth. Let us treat the whole incident as closed."

And when we told him that his explanation was unsatisfactory, he said: "But I am an Indian, I was born in India, I wish to live in India. We are all brothers."

This was something new from an Anglo-Indian sergeant.

But the police tried to keep a neutral attitude in most cases. They did not take sides as on November 7.

At Worli the manager and higher staff of a mill came out and started using undue pressure on their men to get in, actually hustling some of them inside. The volunteer at the gate gave an extempore speech. In order to silence him a stone was pelted at him from inside the mill gate. It caught him in the back. The result was at once visible. Even the dozen or so who had weakened and were about to be dragged in walked away disgusted with the mill authorities. The manager made a piteous appeal, saying he was a "labour-wallah," but to no avail. In half an hour, the fifty who had previously gone in also came out and joined the strike. The mill completely closed down for the day by 9 a.m.

At Kohinoor Mills men were brought into the mills from 3 a.m. Nearly one thousand five hundred -- nearly half the complement -- were in by 8 a.m. But by 11.30 a.m. the whole mill came out en masse and joined the strike.

Nearly 40 mills remained completely closed from the beginning, not a single worker crossing the gate. Another 15 tried to work with depleted complements, but most of them had to give up the ghost by noon.

In the north of Bombay, where the labour areas are situated, all the colleges and the most important schools also closed down. Nearly ten thousand students came on the streets. Three meetings of students took place, and fiery speeches against War and declaring solidarity with the workers were made. It is interesting to note in this connection that these students attended the evening Kamgar Maidan meeting and the workers greeted them with "Vidyarthi-Kamgaranchi Jai."

At Girgaon, a group of hotel workers went from restaurant to restaurant with two demands: (1) one hotel-worker to join the group in propaganda; (2) the restaurant to shut down in sympathy with the strike.

The Dharavi leather workers had joined the strike. So also a majority of the Ambarnath match factory workers. The seamen held a demonstration and meeting in sympathy. Sections of building workers laid down their tools.

Comrade Taher was first arrested for "obstruction to traffic" and released. Once again he was arrested for "stone-throwing" and bailed out for Rs.10.

Two volunteers were also arrested for "obstruction," and bailed out for varying amounts.

But the whole day passed without a single affray or "incident." The workers behaved with great restraint and earned the unstinted unanimous compliment even from the hostile local press that the strike was absolutely peaceful and no force was used at any stage.

By 9 a.m. the strike was practically complete. It totalled 89,000 workers when we approached the desk of Comrades Deshpande and Bhandarkar at the Kranti office for reports from the various centres The comrades had worked with iron discipline. The organisation functioned through the new contacts and had worked wonderfully The Phoenix Mills workers, men and women, on strike for the last six months, had done yeomen service. After the success of November 7 interested parties had maintained that the success of the general strike was due to the unholy alliance made by the Communists with Ambedkar. Ambedkar and his party have now declared for co-operation with Britain. And yet the call of the Communists had found a bigger response from workers than November 7, and in a sober and quieter mood. The strike had made a record in numbers and in the peaceful way in which it was accomplished.

As we went along to the historic Kamgar Maidan, Comrade Ranadive remarked: "For the next strike, we need only one public rally, on meetings of contacts and one handbill, and the task would be accomplished." Nobody contradicted him, so well was everybody impressed by the cool, silent and yet effective strength displayed by the workers There was no fuss, no excitement, but with quiet, determined, grim faces they had forged a huge political weapon for themselves and evolved the technique of its use.

We reached the Kamgar Maidan and a sea of heads greeted us The maidan was decked in huge Red Flags. Comrade Shahid, with his stentorian voice and wide, sweeping gestures, was casting a spell on the audience.

Comrade Guran retailed in song, in a beautifully-worded Marathi povada, the history of the Russian worker before, during and after the Revolution. Every phrase was eagerly taken in, and as he stretched the pitch of the last words, thundering applause greeted him. Comrade Tambitkar sang, and the huge multitude, transformed into a militant mood, sang with him, rocking to the tune.

Comrade Joglekar once again presided at the meeting and gave a stirring call to action. "We, the workers of Bombay, have proved to-day that we shall never be found wanting in the struggle for indeŽpendence .... English statesmen shall no more fix who is our friend..... This Hitler whom they called a friend yesterday is now the worst criminal on earth .... We have nothing to do with their quarrels. We stand for a free India and are determined to achieve our indepenŽdence."

Comrade Ranadive moved the main resolution of the day. In a speech which went directly to the heart of the workers he explained how the war had come about, who was involved in it and why. He said: "If Gandhiji stands pledged to non-violence, it is not understandable why he wants India to support Britain which has resorted to violence We have had a peaceful exhibition of our strength to-day, and we pledge that till the last worker is alive, we shall fight for the cause so dear to the Indian nation." He gave the history of the workers' struggle in Bombay and India, and asked, "With what face can imperialists and foreign capitalists ask us to-day to help them? Have they forŽgotten their own misdeeds? And what is the guarantee that the shootŽings on workers, the Jallian-wallas, will not be repeated in the future? We are not likely to give milk to the serpent who has bitten us before and whose teeth have not been drawn by us .... If the Russian worker could effect a revolution during the last World War, the Indian worker can also rise to the same heights now."

He ended up amidst cheers when he declared: "They say the war will last for three years. We have sworn to-day to resist imperialism and within the three years, we are sure of bringing it down to dust."

The resolution was read out:

"This meeting declares its solidarity with the international working class and the peoples of the world, who are being dragged into the most destructive war by the Imperialist Powers. The meeting regards the present war as a challenge to the international solidarity of the working-class, and declares that it is the common task of the workers and people of different countries to defeat this imperialist conspiracy against humanity, so that peace and goodwill is restored among the nations of the world.

"This meeting condemns the Nazi aggression against Poland, and expresses its deep sympathy with the Polish people, who have been the victims of barbarous atrocities.

"This meeting is further of opinion that the war between Nazi Germany and British Imperialism is born out of Imperialist rivalry and that British Imperialism is neither defending democracy nor the independence of nations.

"This meeting, therefore, is of opinion that loyalty to Indian freedom demands resistance to war on the part of the Indian people.

"This meeting strongly protests against the attempts of the GovernŽment to exploit Indian resources and man-power and impose the war on India in spite of India's declared opposition to it.

"This meeting strongly condemns the Viceregal Ordinances which virtually place the country under martial law regime and demands their immediate repeal.

"This meeting is of opinion that the full resources of the country should be utilised at this critical stage for forcing the pace of Indian democracy. This meeting, therefore, requests the coming meeting of the All-India Congress Committee to give a bold lead to the country, by throwing overboard all compromise proposals and starting a nation-Žwide war-resistance movement.

This meeting pledges itself to war resistance and declares that any other path at this critical juncture would be a crime against Indian freedom and independence."

Comrade Bukhari in his simple and forceful Urdu, seconded the resolution. He explained the task of the working class in the present epoch, dilated on the foreign policy of Soviet Russia, and appealed to the Congress to launch a country-wide struggle from which we must emerge victorious.

Comrade Parulekar was greeted by the workers as he advanced to the microphone. He said: "To-day your success has created a stir in the Assembly Chambers. Prime Minister Kher acknowledged to me that the strike has been a phenomenal success. I greet you on your strength and unity."

Comrade Indulal Yagnik, Joint Secretary of the All-India Kisan Sabha, then rose to give fraternal greetings on behalf of the A.I.K.S. and the Forward Bloc.

"I am returning from my tour of Gujerat and I bring you the admiraŽtion and affection of the peasants. You know how to do things in a big way. We, the poor peasants, live in small isolated villages, but we too are copying your example. We have also started resistance against war."

The resolution was adopted amidst loud slogans of "Down with Imperialist War," "Long Live Indian Freedom."

The meeting adopted a resolution supporting the demand of workers for wage adjustment to prices.

"This meeting is firmly of opinion that the rise in prices, permitted under Government authority, is extortionate and excessive. It has entailed severe hardship on poor and middle sections of the population.

"This meeting therefore demands immediate legislation guaranteeing increase in wages with the rise in prices. This meeting further calls upon the workers of Bombay to organise a conference to create sanctions behind the above demand."

The meeting then adopted a resolution demanding from the Congress Government a fair settlement to the Phoenix Mills Strike. Comrade Laljee Pendse explained in detail the need of building up the Girni Kamgar Union into a mass union and how a sound trade union can be the basis of a sound political party. Comrade Tambitkar made an impassioned appeal for the redress of the grievances of the Phoenix Mills workers, retailed their miseries and showed how firmly they had borne the brunt of a long strike to save the Bombay working class from retrenchment and unemployment.

The Marathi version of the International was cheered to an echo and the meeting dispersed.

We were all tired out after a strenuous day. But the Kranti office carried on discussions for another two hours, evaluating the gains, measuring the next advance, wondering what the morrow would bring us.