(As independent India approaches 75 years, Liberation marks the occasion with a series - starting with the August 2021 issue – of commentaries and features on the richly diverse freedom struggle, especially on under-represented aspects and chapters of the struggle that hold inspiration for the challenges that the country and its people face today. It is our effort to remind ourselves that the workers, peasants, adivasis, dalits, women, were not mere “followers” of charismatic leaders – they were the true makers of history, leaders in their own right. India's March to Freedom: The Other Dimension (Dipankar Bhattacharya, Liberation Publications, July 1997) noted that in most of the dominant, official narratives of the freedom movement, ordinary people, workers and peasants, “are never shown in action as men and women fighting their own battle with their own vision, dynamism and initiative and trying to become arbiters of their own collective destiny. The working people are thus not only denied their due in the present. They are also denied their role in the past. They are sought to be delinked from their own past and turned into permanent refugees relegated to the margins of history.” In this issue, we carry some edited excerpts from India's March to Freedom, to foreground the role of the working class in the freedom movement.)
The first footsteps of the Indian working class could be heard in the second half of the nineteenth century. Facilitated by the introduction of railways in 1853, industries like cotton textile and jute as well as coal mining and tea plantation began to come up in different parts of the country. Early instances of workers trying to organise and revolt against their oppressive living and working conditions date back almost to the same period. Strikes of non-industrial workers like palanquin bearers and scavengers have also been recorded in the dosing years of nineteenth century.
Quite understandably, the formation of trade unions proper was preceded by the launching of various welfare organisations often by non-worker philanthropist citizens. At a time when the working class was still in its inception or infancy, with no tradition of trade unions or factory acts or labour laws, clear demarcation between various forms of organisation and categories of demands was often not possible. But given the fact that the mill managements were overwhelmingly white and the air was heavy with the humiliation and hatred generated by a racist, colonial order, even the most ordinary and primary attempts to organise the workers and articulate their demands tended to acquire an unmistakable political significance.
The first surge of working class action came in the wake of Partition of Bengal and the subsequent swadeshi agitation. On 19 July, 1905 Curzon issued his fiat partitioning Bengal. This sinister application of the British strategy of divide-and-rule in one of the most sensitive Indian provinces anticipated the eventual vivisection of the country in 1947. The Partition of Bengal provoked angry outbursts not only in Bengal itself but also in distant Maharashtra, a sure sign of the rise of a popular national consciousness.
In a two-pronged campaign, spearheaded primarily by the so-called extremist wing of the Indian National Congress led by Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal (the famous Lal-Bal-Pal trio), people were urged on the one hand to boycott British goods and promote Swadeshi ways on the other. Most of the Swadeshi leaders advocated the use of religious idioms to mobilise the masses. Tilak came up with the idea of celebrating Ganesh and Shivaji Utsavs.
This was also the formative phase for revolutionary terrorists. The attempt made by Khudiram Basu and Prafulla Chaki at Muzaffarpur on April 30, 1908, on the notorious British magistrate Kingsford was the most well-known terrorist action of this early period. But beyond this interface between religious revivalism and revolutionary terrorism, Swadeshi also had a distinct working class dimension.
The first real trade union, the Printers' Union, was formed on 21 October, 1905 in the midst of a stubborn strike in government presses. During July-September 1906, workers in the Bengal section of the East Indian Railway launched a series of strikes. On 27 August there was a massive assertion of workers at the Jamalpur railway workshop. The rail strikes would become more decisive and widespread between May and December 1907 covering important centres like Asansol, Mughalsarai, Allahabad, Kanpur and Ambala. Between 1905 and 1908, strikes were also quite frequent in the jute mills of Bengal. In March 1908, workers at the foreign-owned Coral Cotton Mills at Tuticorin in Tirunelveli district of the then Madras province went on a successful strike. Efforts to suppress the Coral mill workers led not only to protest strikes by municipal workers, sweepers and carriage-drivers, but municipal offices, law courts and police stations at Tirunelveli town too were attacked by the masses.
More importantly, Swadeshi signalled the arrival of the working class as a political force with workers beginning to take to the streets together with students and peasants demanding freedom and democracy. Militant street fights would soon become the order of the day. In the first week of May 1907, about 3,000 workers of the Rawalpindi workshop and hundreds of fellow workers from other factories joined the students in a huge protest demonstration against the conviction of the editor of the journal Punjabee for publishing 'seditious' matters. Peasants from nearby areas also joined this militant rally and virtually everything with a British connection came under attack.
Meanwhile the Russian revolution of 1905 had failed but not before it had inspired the entire international working class movement with a new vision and with a brand new weapon: the mass political strike. When Bipin Chandra Pal was arrested, the Calcutta journal Nabasakti wrote on 14 September, 1907: “The workers of Russia today are teaching the world the methods of effective protest in times of repression – will not Indian workers learn from them?”
This anticipation soon came true in Bombay. The arrest of Tilak on 24 June, 1908 provoked a storm of protest not only in Bombay but also in industrial centres like Nagpur and Sholapur. While court proceedings were on, workers would explode in protest and clashes would ensue with the police and military. In one of these street battles, on 18 July, several hundred workers were wounded and many killed. The next day some 65,000 workers belonging to 60-odd mills went on strike. Dock workers of Bombay also joined the movement on 21 July. On July 22, Tilak was sentenced to six years of rigorous imprisonment. In protest, for six days striking workers converted Bombay into a veritable battle field.
Lenin hailed this heroic assertion of Bombay workers as an inflammable material in world politics: “... in India the street is beginning to stand up for its writers and political leaders. The infamous sentence pronounced by the British jackals on the Indian democrat Tilak ... evoked street demonstrations and a strike in Bombay. In India, too, the proletariat has already developed to conscious political mass struggle — and, that being the case, the Russian-style British regime in India is doomed!”
The Swadeshi aftermath had already seen a significant upswing in revolutionary militancy in Bengal. The Yugantar and Anushilan groups emerged as the two key centres and in spite of the revocation of Partition in December 1911, the Bengal militants continued to gain in strength and popularity. The foremost leader of this school, Jatin Mukherjee (Bagha Jatin), died a hero's death near Balasore on the Orissa coast in September 1915.
Revolutionary militancy also struck strong roots among Indian expatriates, mostly Sikhs, in British Columbia and United States. The famous Ghadr (revolution) movement began in 1913 in San Francisco. In contrast to the Hindu overtones of early Bengal militants, Ghadrites invoked the 1857 legacy of Hindu-Muslim unity. Many of the terrorists and Ghadrites were to be transformed eventually into communist activists.
With the outbreak of the First World War, British imperialists intensified their reign of repression in India. Even after the war was over, the British tried to perpetuate and legalise the war-time suspension of basic rights by pushing through the so-called Rowiatt Act, against which a popular offensive was soon unleashed by various sections of Indian people.
British colonialists tried their level best to crush the post-war popular upsurge through sheer repression. The worst instance of repression in this period was the barbaric Jallianwallahbagh massacre in Amritsar on 13 April, 1919. The infamous General Dyer who executed this massacre defended it in terms of “producing a moral effect” and his only regret was that had he not run out of ammunition he could have killed many more! In the face of such acute state terror and Gandhian vacillation and dilution, if the Indian people succeeded in producing a different 'moral effect' on the British administration, it was largely due to the powerful working class initiative and wider expressions of peasant discontent.
Parallel to the upswing in peasant movement, there was a strong strike wave sweeping across the country. The following figures quoted from a 1923 publication (cited by Sumit Sarkar in Modern India) give an idea about the depth and sweep of the strike-wave:
It was in the midst of such a powerful countrywide assertion of the working class that the first central organisation of Indian workers came into being. The All India Trade Union Congress was founded in Bombay on 31 October, 1920. Tilak was a key inspiration behind the birth of AITUC, but he expired on 1 August, 1920, three months before the actual inception of the organisation.
The inaugural session had all the fervour of a new-found proletarian identity, but ft could not move out of the Congress trajectory of constitutional reforms. In his presidential address, Lala Lajpat Rai emphasised the role of organised labour as the antidote against capitalism as well as “militarism and imperialism ... the twin children of capitalism” and underscored the need to “organise our workers (and) make them class conscious”; but with regard to the British government he said the attitude of labour should be “neither one of support nor that of opposition.”
The “Manifesto to the Workers of India” released on this occasion by the first General Secretary of AITUC, Dewan Chaman Lall, called upon the “Workers of India” to “assert your right as arbiters of your country's destiny”. It reminded them that they must remain “part and parcel” of the movement for national freedom and urged them to “cast all weakness... and ... tread the path to power and freedom”. Vice-President Joseph Baptista, however, waxed eloquent about “the higher idea of partnership”, emphasising that mill-owners and labourers “are partners and co-workers and not buyers and sellers of labour”.
The second, conference of AITUC (30.11.1921 - 02.12.1921) held at the coal-town of Jharia in Dhanbad district of today's Bihar (reckless and faulty mining by BCCL has unfortunately jeopardised the very existence of this historic working-class centre which also hosted the ninth AITUC session in December 1928 that called for transforming India into a Socialist Republic) was, however, much more emphatic about the goal of the Indian workers and the people at large. “The time has now arrived”, the conference declared, “for the attainment of swaraj by the people”. The Jharia session was an extraordinary event-some fifty thousand people, most of them coal miners and other workers from nearby areas and their family members, participated in this unprecedented show of worker power.
The 1920s saw an infectious rise of political activism in almost all major working-class centres. New states joined the map of the working class movement. In May 1921, tea gardens of Assam, especially at Chargola in Surma valley witnessed a major upsurge of tea workers leading to a massive exodus of some 8,000 workers from the valley. Sporadic struggles were again reported in December 1921 from the tea gardens of Darrang and Sibsagar districts. On November 17, 1921, workers in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras played a key role in organising a highly successful countrywide hartal (general strike) in protest against the visit of the Prince of Wales. Madras had just witnessed a bitter four-month-long strike from July to October at the Buckingham & Camatic Mills. As many as seven workers were killed by the police in the course of this strike. On 1 May, 1923, elderly Madras lawyer and labour leader Singaravelu Chettier organised the first major May Day celebration in India on the Madras beach. Singaravelu was critical of the repeated brakes applied by Gandhi on the non-cooperation movement and went on to be among the communist pioneers in the country. North Western Railway witnessed a major strike lasting from April to June 1925. Textile strikes, of course, continued to rock Bombay at regular intervals.
This was also the period that saw the beginning of introduction of communist ideology in the Indian working class movement. Communist circles began to operate among Indian expatriates as well as inside the country. On December 26, 1925, leaders of various communist circles active in the country met at Kanpur and formally launched the Communist Party of India. In the 1920s, communists also operated from within organisations called workers' and peasants' parties apart, of course, from the Congress. Such parties became quite active and popular in Bengal, Bombay, Punjab, UP and Delhi. In Punjab the party was known as the Kirti Kisan Party and was formed at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar on the ninth anniversary of the infamous massacre.
To stem the rising tide of working class movement, the British government came up with the highly restrictive Trade Unions Act legislation in 1926. This Act virtually declared all unregistered unions as illegal and placed all sorts of restriction on trade unions collecting and contributing funds for political purposes. Ironically, this was in sharp contrast to the prevailing norms in Britain where trade unions formed the backbone of the Labour Party and played a key role in the country's politics. But this retrograde and restrictive piece of hypocritical legislation could hardly dampen the rising spirit of working class movement.
In February 1928, 20,000 workers marched in Bombay against the arrival of the all-white Simon Commission. The Lilooah rail workshop witnessed a major struggle from January to Jury 1928, From 18 April to September 1928, T1SCO workers went on a protracted strike. Bombay had yet another massive textile strike from April to October 1928. July 1928 saw a brief but very bitter strike on the South Indian Railway. Its leaders, Singaravelu and Mukundlal Sircar, got jail sentences while a worker striker, Perumal, was extemed for life to the Andamans. The most spectacular assertion of the working people could be seen in Calcutta where in December 1928, thousands of workers led by the Workers' and Peasants' Party of Bengal marched into the Congress session, occupied the pandal for two hours and adopted resolutions demanding Purna Swaraj or complete independence.
The beginning of the 1920s had witnessed a great example of peasant guerrilla war in Andhra. From August 1922 to May 1924, Alluri Sitarama Raju and his band of hundred tribal peasant guerrillas waged a successful war against the British state over an area of about 2,500 square miles in the hills of the Godavari Agency region. With his accurate ambushes and successful raids on police stations, Raju won the grudging admiration of the British as a formidable guerrilla tactician. The Madras Government spent Rs. 15 lakh to suppress the rebellion with the help of the Malabar Special Police and the Assam Rifles. Raju was finally caught while he was bathing in a pond, and after inflicting heavy torture on this great fighter the British administration shot him dead on 6 May 1924. Incidentally, the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence also marks the birth centenary of this legendary peasant revolutionary.
If Alluri Sitarama Raju symbolised the courage and capacity of the rural poor to wage a militant battle for independence, Bhagat Singh held out a really potent promise of a much more meaningful freedom that could have been ours. In September 1928, he and his comrades set up the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army at a meeting held on the ruins of Delhi's Ferozeshah Kotla. In one of its first actions, the HSRA avenged the assault on Lajpat Rai (he was seriously injured by the police white leading an anti-Simon protest march at Lahore on 30 October, 1928 and finally succumbed to death on 17 November) by killing the guilty police official Saunders at Lahore in December 1928. On 8 April, 1929 Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutta threw bombs in the Legislative Assembly even as discussion was on in the Assembly on the anti-labour Trades Disputes Bill and a bill to bar British communists and other supporters of Indian independence from coining to India.
While carrying out such specific terrorist actions under the HSRA banner, Bhagat Singh and his comrades also built up an open youth organisation in the name of Naujawan Bharat Sabha. The clarion call popularised by Bhagat Singh, Inquilab Zindabad, has become the permanent war cry of every Indian struggle for justice, freedom and democracy.
From 12 March to 6 April, Gandhi accompanied by 71 inmates of his ashram drawn from different parts of the country undertook the famous Dandi March. The issue of salt served as a simple yet very potent rallying point and the movement soon assumed a countrywide mass dimension. The arrest of Nehru in the middle of April led to bitter clashes between mill workers at Budge Budge near Calcutta and the police. The mood of the jute mill workers of Bengal was then quite upbeat, only the previous year they had organised a highly successful general strike in jute mills to beat back the employers' bid to increase working hours from 54 to 60 hours a week. Calcutta transport workers too waged a militant struggle. A major upsurge was also witnessed at Peshwar in North Western Frontier Province. The city continued to be rocked for ten days on end following the arrest of Badshah Khan (the Frontier Gandhi) and other leaders on 23 April, 1930 leading to the imposition of martial law on May 4. Refusal by the Garhwal regiment led by Chandra Singh Garhwali to open fire on peaceful demonstrators at Peshawar opened up a new possibility of fraternisation between the fighting people and the armed forces. Dock labourers in Karachi and Choolai Mill workers in Madras were also up in arms.
The climax came at Sholapur following Gandhi's arrest on 4 May. The entire work force in the textile industry went on strike from 7 May onward. Till martial law was clamped down on 16 May, the town remained virtually under workers' control. Liquor shops were burnt down and police outposts, law courts, the municipal building and the railway station all came under attack. Something like a parallel government seemed to have token over the entire township and if soon became well-known across the country as the celebrated case of the Sholapur Commune.
The twenty-seven months of Congress rule in the provinces served as a clear early pointer to the conservative character of the Congress-led social coalition. A whole set of democratic demands of the working class and the peasantry had already come to be articulated not only by the AITUC and the All India Kisan Sabha (formed in Lucknow in April 1936 under the presidentship of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati) but also in various AICC sessions and by the Bihar and UP PCCs. The Congress governments in the provinces refused to take any significant step in this direction.
The betrayal was perhaps most glaring on the working class front. While in Bengal, the Congress Working Committee expressed solidarity with the jute workers who went on a massive general strike from March to May 1937 and denounced the non-Congress Fazlul Haq ministry for adopting repressive measures, similar measures continued to be freely applied by Congress ministries in other provinces. In Assam, during the Digboi oil strike of 1939 against the British-owned Assam Oil Company, the Congress ministry led by N C Bordoloi allowed free use of the war lime Defence of India rules to crush the strike. And in Bombay, the Congress ministry rushed through the Bombay Trades Disputes Act in November 1938 which was far worse than the earlier 1929 version of the Act. It imposed compulsory arbitration thereby making virtually all strikes illegal and raised the prison-penalty for illegal strikes from three months to six months. The Bombay Governor found the Act “admirable” white Nehru found it “on the whole ... a good one”. Barring the Gandhian labour leaders of Ahmedabad, the entire trade union movement opposed this draconian Act; 80,000 workers attended a protest rally in Bombay on 6 November addressed among others by Dange, Indulal Yajnik and Ambedkar and the next day the entire province observed a general strike.
On 8 August, 1942, at Gandhi's behest the Congress Working Committee adopted the famous Quit India resolution calling for “mass struggle on non-violent lines on the widest possible scale”. Anticipating immediate arrest of the Congress leadership, the resolution even asked “every Indian who desires freedom and strives for it ... (to) be his own guide”. Gandhi delivered his celebrated “Do or die” speech and for once even went to the extent of saying “if a general strike becomes a dire necessity, I shall not flinch”.
All Congress leaders were arrested and removed by the early morning of August 9. With the British unleashing wholesale repression, almost the entire country exploded in violent protests.
What eventually came to be known as the great Quit India rebellion was thus a largely spontaneous outburst, led in pockets by socialist leaders working underground and local-level Congress activists. Bombay and Calcutta were rocked by continuous strikes. Striking workers clashed with the police in Delhi, and in Patna, control over the city was virtually lost for two days following a major confrontation in front of the Secretariat on 11 August. The Tata steel plant was completely closed down for 13 days from 20 August with the TISCO workers refusing to resume work till a national government was formed. Ahmedabad textile workers were also on strike for no less than three and a half months. As many as 11 B & C Mills workers died in police firing in Madras.
To prevent any repetition of a mass upsurge on the Quit India scale and best preserve their long-term interests in India, Britain quickly initiated the process of negotiations for the eventual transfer of power. Indian capitalists were also in great hurry to have an early transfer primarily because they were afraid that delay would only raise the profile of the working class and the communists in the future alignment of forces in free India. The fear of a revolution was quite real both for British imperialists and their would-be Indian successors.
After the ill-conceived isolation of 1942, communists were soon back in mass action in a big way. With exemplary zeal and dedication, the Communist Party organised massive relief operations in the wake of the severe 1943 famine. Mention must be made here of the excellent role played in this relief work as well as in all subsequent mass upsurges by the communist-led progressive cultural activists of the Indian People's Theatre Association.
In an increasingly communally surcharged situation when almost all established leaders were busy angling for their own loaves of power, the working people marching and fighting under the great red banner were the only force to uphold the ideals of communal harmony and secularism, selfless sacrifice and progressive anti-imperialist nationalism.
On 21 October, 1943, when the Second World War had nearly entered its last phase, Subhas Chandra Bose issued his famous Delhi Chalo call from Japanese-controlled Singapore. He announced the formation of the Azad Hind Government and the Indian National Army, the latter had rallied about 20,000 of the 60,000 Indian prisoners of war in Japan. Between March and June 1944 the INA made its brief entry into India, laying siege to Imphal along with Japanese troops. But this campaign ended in an utter military failure even though it had a great psychological impact on the popular Indian mind.
In November 1945 British rulers began public trial of INA soldiers in Delhi's Red Fort. This provoked a very powerful and determined wave of protests in Calcutta. On 20 November, students took out nightlong procession demanding release of INA prisoners and when two students were killed in police firing, thousands of taxi drivers, tram workers and corporation employees joined the students. Pitched battles were fought on Calcutta streets on 22-23 November leaving 33 people killed in police firing. Between 11 and 13 February, Calcutta was shaken by a second wave of protests when Abdul Rashid of INA was sentenced to seven years' rigorous imprisonment 84 people were killed and 300 injured during these three days of street battle.
While Calcutta exploded in protest over the INA trials, Bombay was rocked by the heroic naval mutiny. The sequence of events had a close resemblance to the Black Sea Fleet mutiny in the Russian revolution of 1905 which has been immortalised by the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein in his all-time classic Battleship Potemkin. In India there has been no film on the Bombay mutiny, but playwright director Utpal Dutt did pay tribute to the great naval fighters in his inspiring play Kallol in the 60s.
On 18 February, 1946, ratings in the Bombay signalling school Talwar went on hunger-strike against bad food and racist insults. The strike soon spread to Castle and Fort Barracks on shore and 22 ships in Bombay harbour raised the Congress, League and Communist flags on the mastheads of the rebel fleet. The Naval Central Strike Committee combined issues like better food and equal pay for white and Indian sailors with the demands of release of INA and other political prisoners and withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia. On 21 February, fighting broke out at Castle Barracks when ratings tried to break through the armed encirclement. By 22 February the strike had spread to naval bases all over the country involving no less than 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 ratings.
The Bombay unit of CPI, supported by Congress Socialist leaders like Aruna Asaf Ali and Achyut Patwardhan organised a general strike on 22 February and despite Congress and League opposition 30,000 workers struck work, almost all mills were closed and according to official figures 228 people were killed and 1046 injured in street fighting. Senior Congress leaders only intervened to end the mutiny. On 23 February, Patel succeeded in persuading the ratings to surrender on the assurance that their demands would be conceded and nobody would be victimised. But the assurance was soon forgotten with Patel pointing out that “discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with”, Nehru emphasising the need to curb “the wild outburst of violence” and Gandhi condemning the ratings for setting bad “an unbecoming example for India”.
1946 also saw a massive wave of working class struggles and peasant insurgency crossing all previous records. The strike-wave this year recorded 1629 stoppages involving 1,941,948 workers. And with government employees too throwing in their full weight, strikes increasingly became all-India affairs. Most significant in this context was the July strike of postal and telegraph employees. On July 11, 1946, the Postman Lower Grade Staff Union went on an indefinite strike. The All India Telegraph Union too joined in. By July 21, posts and telegraph employees all over Bengal and Assam also threw in their lot. Bombay and Madras observed solidarity industrial strikes on July 22 and 23 respectively. On July 29, general strike was observed in Bengal and Assam.
The same day, Calcutta witnessed a massive rally, which has perhaps had very few parallels since in terms of spontaneous mass involvement, firm in its belief that “this historic general strike has marked the beginning of a new chapter of unity and fighting consciousness in the labour movement of the country”. The strike wave continued in 1947 with Calcutta tram workers striking work for 85 days. Kanpur, Coimbatore and Karachi also emerged as prominent centres of working class action.
In the 75 years of independence, India’s working class waged many battles, and wrested a measure of rights from the capitalists and landlords that rule India. But today, each hard-won right is under a lethal attack from the current rulers who are descendants of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha that betrayed the freedom struggle and served the British rulers back then. Today in their labour laws, working conditions, treatment of union leaders and working class movements, they mirror the colonial “Company Raj”, serving corporations and sacrificing workers. And at the same time, the current regime tries not only to replicate the colonial “Divide and Rule” policy but to dismantle India’s constitutional democracy and hard-won freedom and replace it with fascist oppression under the garb of “Hindu Rashtra” within the country, together with subservience to US imperialism.
During the freedom struggle, workers again and again rebuffed divisive communal politics and united to deliver spirited blows to the colonial rulers. Now, once again, India’s workers must rise to the challenge, resist every attempt to poison the well of workers’ unity with anti-Muslim venom, and unite to defend India’s democracy and freedom.