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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. (Source: Marxists Internet Archive”
Regional Trade Union Movements
Though the trade union movement all over the country has certain commonalities, each area has its own distinctive features also. The labour movement in the north east, regions of Bihar and Bengal and several other places have their own dominating features and tribal influence is one among them. The tea and plantation workers in the North-east, jute, oil, mines and other industries in Bengal and Bihar had tribal and local deprived sections employed and were oppressed economically as well as socially. The tribals in these parts were innocent about the money commodity exchange and labour value. But once they were conscious of their rights, they got organised strongly and their tribal sense of unity played a great role.
The tea plantations in Assam and Meghalaya had a considerable supply of labour from Bihar and eastern UP. Jute and oil industries have been the fields of many historic battles. But introducing the idea of trade union in the north eastern regions have not been easy as is evident from the interviews.
Bihar has been the centre of several militant labour movements. The mine workers in coal, mica etc have formed important part of the trade union struggles in the region, as the respondents from the area informed. The mine workers from Jharia, Dhanbad, Jamshedpur, Hazaribagh conducted several struggles for their demands under the banner of various trade unions like AITUC, INTUC and others that have their own significance in the labour movement. Trade union rivalries have also been sharp including on caste lines.
Talking of mine workers’ movements, a definite picture emerges from the interviews of the participants from Bihar, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, stone querries in Rajasthan and Gujarat, mines in Goa and Karnataka, including that of gold. In Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), a strike took place in 1945-46 for nealy two months. Th workers were treated as the domestic servants of the Britishers. They were mostly scheduled caste workers. They formed Sc Association and SC Federation.
They mine workers played a pioneering role in the formation and consolidation of the trade union movement in the country and even helped to organise workers in industries like iron and steel etc. Tile workers constitute an important segment of the working class and trade union movement in Karnataka, Kerala and few other places. The tile workers and factories originated during the British regime when construction activities in these areas gathered momentum, particularly to meet the colonial needs. The workers in these factories worked and lived in utterly appalling conditions. They formed powerful bases for the trade union movement in the Dakshin Kannada and other districts. Even today the large number of workers are employed in these fctories though their conditions have improved due to long struggles. Interviews of leaders as well as of ordinary participants have been recorded from these regions as well.
The trade union movement in what was the huge Madras Presidency, and later in its constituent parts was also very strong. This was because of the spread of railways, mining, textiles and some other industries and shipping.
Shipping and port and dock constituted an important and distinguishing feature in the industrial development process in the southern region. Consequently, port and dock workers’ unions were very stron and important. Large proportions of the respondents who worked in trade union movement in south India, were connected with the trade unions of dock and port workers.
Besides, some distinct and interesting features in the trade union movement were found in these regions like temple workers union and their movement in Kerala and Tamilnadu, toddy tappers and inland water transport workers’ union and the struggle launched by them. Number of repondents who worked in trade union movement in south India, were connected with the port and dock workers’ movement. Besides some of the distinguishing features of the trade union movement have been found in the southern regions that have been reflected in the interviews granted and recorded.
Pondicherry and Goa represented two unique places ruled by the colonial powers other than the British. They were under French and the Portuguese rule respectively. Lot of trade union activities in Pondy were conducted from Madras province. Conditions in both the colonies were more difficult than in British India, with virtually no trade union rights. They remained under the foreign rule well after India attained freedom.
Conditions in Goa were particularly difficult. The labour movement there was organised with the help of those in Bombay and Karnataka. The trade union movement in Goa became stronger after liberation in 1961. There was tremendous growth in industrial and economic sector after liberation though the origins and development of the labour movement has been closely connected with the period under Portuguese rule, the liberation struggle and the post colonial days.
Labour movement in the region Bombay is wellknown and some of it has found reflection in the interviews. Marathwada and its border regions present some distinctive features because of its being part of Nizam state at one time, and by effects of the developments after independence. At one time, the mainstream trade union had to fight against the armed goons of the Nizam or the Razakar trade unions who operated as the socalled “Yellow Flag” trade unions.
Some sections of the trade union movement in Marathwada and other parts of Maharashtra have tried to combine the urban workers alongwith the rural workers especially in sugarcane and construction industries.
The labour movement in UP, Punjab and Haryana present a wide veriety. UP and its regions have had trade union movement since pre-independence period and have centres like in railways, construction, transport, textile and many other industries. The historical aspects of the movement in Kanpur, Agra, Mussoorie, Dehradun etc have been reflected in the interviews.
About historic movements of textile, leather, railway etc in Kanpur, Benaras and other places, the respondents provided interesting details. The AITUC was able to eliminate the hand driven rikshaws in Mussoorie and replaced them by pedal driven ones.
Punjab has its own share in the process of development of the labour movement and the centres are still functional while Haryana being a relatively new state has only recently formed bases.
Region-wise: The work was conducted zone-wise in the second phase of the work: Northern, Eastern and Western. It brought out some important characteristics of the various areas, cities, provinces, princely-states, etc.
Bombay and Calcutta: The richness of the traditional working class and industrial centres was clearly brought out in the interviews, tales and documents. Several unknown facts of local nature were also brought to light.
In Calcutta, some interesting movements took place, wherein the rickshaw pullers and bullock carters played invigorating role. In the pre-independence days, during a general strike in the city, some enthusiastic leaders decided that the advancing troops would be blocked by the bullock carts! So, these carts began gathering in a semi-circle to prevent the armed men. Of course, they were beaten back and even shot at. Wife of Dr. Ranen Sen died thus.
Any movement or strike of the hand-pulled rickshaws in Calcutta was a very difficult task to accomplish. But this could be done in one of the movements in the pre-independence days. The pullers at that time used to be confined within a protected area. But Momin and others made it possible to contact them and set them on strike course.
Bankim Mukherjee was one of the cool players during those difficult days.
Tram workers had to fight for such elementary facilities as putting up a glass window at the front of the tram they drove. Otherwise, it was very difficult in the conditions of hot and cold winds or during the storms etc. This, again, took place in Calcutta.
Incidentally, K.L.Mahendra, the famous TU leader, began his labour movement career from Burnpur in Bengal.
Benaras: This religious and spiritual city comes alive during the interviews as a city of workers’ struggles through the decades: weavers, temple workers, railway, sweepers, etc. Among the interesting persons talked to is the priest or pandit Kanhaiya Lal Tiwari, who owns a portion of the religious space but who participated in some unique activities including hiding of bombs during the anti-British days. He did much to help the pandits get more facilities for their religious worship activities and for their better conditions.
Orissa: Despite being a backward region, the organisations and movements display their own features. Orissa had a rich and vibrant movement: press workers, the workers in the glass industry, mining, textiles, port and dock, and others. One of the features in Orissa was its initial division into several princely states. This feature deeply influenced the labor movement in the state. Orissa had some big princely states, as well as very small ones. T.U. movement and its leaders played no small role in their struggles. Activities in Barbil is another feature of Orissa. The T.U and labor leaders in Orissa have had close relationship with the literary activities.
It was narrated during the interviews that Oriya workers formed an important section in Calcutta, who mainly did the jobs related with cleaning of drainage, sewage, lanes and by-lanes and so on. Some of the leaders, particularly of Orissa, started their TU life by organising these very workers, who were among lowest rungs of their class working and living in the most degrading and despicable conditions imaginable.
Bihar and Jharkhand: Bihar has had a variety of activities of workers in mining, railways sugar, textile, engineering, etc. the movement there has been far richer than expected. One of the interesting movements that took place was that of Khadi Gramodyoga employees, which ultimately assumed state-wide proportions. Bihar Rajya Khadi Gramodyoga Karmachari Sangh played a leading role in the organised movements. It has been mentioned elsewhere.
Events of Jamshedpur struggles, including that of 1958, were brought alive by the respondents. Stories of the famous leader Kedar Das were narrated. Activities in Bokaro, Chaibasa, Dhanbad, and other places, and in various industries like iron/steel, mining, engineering, etc were described in detail.
The problems of organising workers in the tribal belts also came up, both in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. An important interview in this context was that of the woman TU leader Laro Jonko of Jharkhand. She gave lot of information about Purnendu Mazumdar, and about mine workers’ struggles of the 1960s and other times. Laro Jonko is a celebrity of sorts with the famous Mahashweta Devi having interviewed her, and the film-makers approaching her. Tara Reddy in Maharashtra also worked among the tribals. Roza Deshpande was another formidable woman leader in Maharashtra.
Central India: Struggles of the central Indian region are well-reflected in the oral history work. The entire region from Indore and Bhopal to Raipur and Bailadilla (Kirandul) is full of activities of workers in engineering, textiles, mining, etc. Normally, this is considered a backward region; but country to the expectations it was found to be highly conscious, active and organised. Ordinary, illiterate masses have played some glorious part in the saga of the Indian labour movement. INTUC and AITUC leaders and others provided lot of information about BHEL, NMDC, as also about IMWF, SKMS, and such other unions.
In an interesting tradition established in Indore region is the badges given to the workers every year on the occasion of Vijaya Dashmi after a huge prcession to the union office. These badges are pinned by Homi Daji, the former M.P. and prominent TU leader. Textiles were an important industry in the region. B.K. Gupta and others described their experiences of the struggles in central India before and after independence including under the princely state of Bhopal. Interviews in the Indore-Bhopal belt reflected highly vibrant workers’ movement.
Northern Region: The oral history work for this region mainly covered the railway workers’organisations and movements. Besides, there was lot of handloom industry. The industrial growth and the consequent labor activity in this region is closely related with the demands of the second world war and the immediate post-Independence needs. Reorganisation of states led to the emergence of new kinds of industries and labor activities.
Coverage of Trade Unions Organisations
The respondents chosen belonged to the trade union organisations of various affiliations, like AITUC, INTUC, CITU, HMS, a section of Lohiaites, Shramik Sanghatanas of Lal Nishan Party and Lal Nishan Party (Leninist), Majoor Mahajan and independents and unaffiliated. From among the AITUC members, we had the largest number of respondents as it was the oldest organisation. Even some of the major trade union centres were, at one time or other, affiated to the AITUC.
Interesting and unusual contributions have come from some of the smaller and non-mainstream organisations. The beginning of the trade union lives of these leaders were relatively independent and many of them had taken up fight against socio-economic discrimination and mobilised the local workers forming their unions. They had formed unions of laundry boys, gas leakage workers etc. They also launched fight against beating of workers, like of those who were known as Gorakhpur workers. However,these Gorakhpur workers were also used as hired goons to teach lessons to the rebelling workers and kept separately especially in Bihar and that too in the colliery areas. These leaders used to take up social/family problems of the workers in places like Kottagudem, and came up with organisations like those of temple workers in Kerala and of women and child workers, that of Royal Household Employees, workers in stone quarries etc.
The respondents from major trade union centres have provided huge amount of rich information on and their own analysis of, the various well known and not so known facts. These trade unions have different reasons and processes of emergence and evolution. They have certain distinctive characterstics , policies, methods, different bases in the industries, trends and contributions and also perspective. At the same time, they have a lot in common as trade union organisations. Some of the aspects are covered in the interviews recorded. The united AITUC also had various political ideological and attitudinal trends as part of a broad and flexible mass organisation. The trade union centres do differ as to their mass bases within the working class like railways, textiles, engineering, cooperatives, public sector enterprises etc. They also display differences regarding greater or lesser emphasis on reforms, social improvements, mass struggles, long term and short term activities etc.
There was a wide variety among the wide range T.U. and labour organisations covered. The Shiv Sena-led Bhartiya Kamgar Sena (BKS) was an important addition. Talks with its leaders provided lot of insight into the functioning, structure, thinking and methods of the BKS and its relationship with the S.S. One point that came up was that its main functionaries were appointed directly by the Shiv Sena “Supremo” i.e. Balasaheb Thackeray. Many of their cases are referred to the local S.S. branches to deal with. The respondents denied carrying politics they practised in the S.S. to the BKS. The BKS has a well-ramified organisation under strict central control in the various industries. It is dealing with a section of engineering, textile, middle class employees, and other sections. It believes in keeping peace within the industry. It also claimed it not only believed but initiated joint actions with other trade union centres in actions like the Maharashtra Bandh and observance of all-India days. The BKS opposes what its leaders called the “LPG” i.e. liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, and expressed itself against the policies of the central govt. The BKS was relatively new organisation, formed a little more thirty years ago.
It is also interesting to note that all the respondents of the BMS too pointed out the fact that they were assigned by the RSS to work on the trade union front. They claimed that after being so appointed, they functioned freely.
The HMS leaders and activists were extremely useful in providing information about the evolution of labour movement and organisations in the railways. Similarly about movement in other industries. They provided a wide range of historical information about various incidents, and about the role of the leaders like Peter Alvares, George Fernandes, Khedgikar, JP and others, about whom first-hand accounts could be had from them. Some of the HMS leaders, such as Dr Shanti Patel, Jagdish Ajmera and Manohar Kotwal, also others, described their experience and eye-witness account of the formation of the HMS. AITUC and HMS leaders in particular provided important leads to the history of the labour movement in railway, textile and other industires.
Important leads about an interesting organisation known as Navjeevan Sanghatana, little-known outside Maharashtra, were provided in some of the interviews. This organisation was established by a group of radical youth in January 1943 in certain areas of Maharashtra e.g. Bombay, Poona etc. It was a fallout of the 1942 movement. This group had differences with the CPI on the question of participation in the movement. Though an youth organisation, it worked actively among the industrial workers; their work ultimately led to the formation of several TUs among the textile and other workers. For example, they organised the silk workers of Bombay and led their strike lasting for several days. Not only this; the Sanghatana led also to the formation of the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), the Workers and Peasants Party (WPP), the Lal Nishan Party and groups of congressmen and communists, who did active work among the industrial workers. They have also done considerable work mong the unorganised and decentralised workers. Its leaders like Yashwant Chavan were instrumental in organising All India Textile Engineering Workers’ Conference.
Another interesting union is the Kamgar Aghadi run by Dada Samant, elder brother of Dutta Samant of the fame of the textile strike of Bombay in the 80s. Dada Samant was earlier a PSPer (activist of Praja Socialist Party), and worked as such in the railway employees union. Since then he worked in various unions, ultimately taking over his brother’s TU. It has members among textile, stone quarries, unorganised, etc workers. His union also exists among the bus transport employees.
There are several other independent or small splinter groups of the TUs. Among them household-help workers (in Pune-Bombay), AICP/UCPI-led groups, and some others.
Among the well-organised but unaffiliated ones, mention should be made of pharma workers, Crompton-Greaves, banks, GIC-LIC, govt-employees, etc.
A wide variety of TU and Labor organisations and centres have been covered in the course of the present phase of Oral Histoy program. All the national TU centres were covered eg. AITUC, HMS, CITU, INTUC and BMS. Besides, in various zones, regions and states, several other labor and TU organisations were contacted. Notable among them are: the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, Lal Nishan Party-led Shramik Sangathana, various independent organisations led by CITU leaders in Eastern and Western zones eg. Crompton Greaves Workers Union led mainly by CITU but also by AITUC leaders, mixed organisations participated in by various TUs including the BMS, independent sanghathanas, sanghas, associations, etc, government employees organisations (non-affiliated), railway employees’ TUs which did not attach themselves to any (loco, gangmen, station master, etc), railway employees’ TU, led jointly by HMS and INTUC-oriented leaders, TU leaders owing allegiance to the UCPI, defence employees’ TU organisation, railway leaders belonging to Samata Party, independent teachers’ associations, and so on.
Besides, within each major TU organisation, conflicting and dissenting voices could be heard, who spoke openly against or differing from other leaders. This was particularly apparent in the railway segment. But not only in that. In other segments also. There were re-evaluations, re-appraisals, criticisms and even narration of inside stories in several narrations.
This subject has not found its due place in labour history. It has almost been forgotten. But it was one of the most glorius achievements of the workingclass movement. The labour constituencies were created for the 1946 general elections, when the franchise was limited. They were a prelude and a training ground for the subsequent electoral and constitutional participation of the labouring masses in the post-independence India. S.A. Dange’s election to the Bombay Legislative Assembly was a historic event in many senses. His subsequent marathon speech in the Assembly the same year, lasting several hours, is still remembered by many people including the respondents.
It is equally interesting to find out as to how exactly workers and unions organised the election campaign those days. The workers’ constituencies were separate and several, e.g. textile, railway, etc constituencies. Members of the unions in each industry constituted the voters. Respondents in Mumbai, as elsewhere also, described as to how they would line up the workers much before the voting hours. Women were very active and enthusiastic. The workers and leaders would go through the chawls and bustees gathering the workers. They gathered in the Kamgar Maidan and other places in the night itself. They slept there and lined up early in the morning before the sunrise. Thus they ensured the victory of their favourite candidates. Preparatory meetings were held in the chawls, and at factories and the mill gates, in the maidans. Elaborate organisational preparations were made. Those days, it was not easy for the trade unionists to get elected. Hence the importance is all the greater.
We also learned interesting details of workers’ constituency in Orissa. It is a little-known fact that Baidyanath Rath was elected from the this constituency in the 1946 elections. He had complicated battles with the opponents. The small meetings of activists in the jungles and villages outside Bhubaneshwar, formed the basis of this work. The areas today are transformed into urban outskirts, where Sh. Rath still lives recalling his olden days.
The 1942 Movement and Workers
The ’42 movement turned out to be an important landmark from the viewpoint of the history of the labour movement. AITUC leaders like Tara Reddy worked actively for the movement and mobilised the workers for the same. Thay also opposed those in the movement who did not agree with the 1942 ‘line’. The future HMS and INTUC leaders were among the most active in the workers’ activities connected with the ’42 movement. Workers participated in this movement on a big scale in Bombay, UP, Orissa, Bihar and other regions.
Working class formed a huge mass of the people gathered at the Chowpatty Maidan in Bombay when 1942 Resolution was announced in August 1942. Workers struck work in several factories in Bombay and other places. The ‘Satara govt’ had active contacts with the labour organisations. Railway workers’ unions in the GIP and other railways played an active role helping the ’42 movement, both underground and overground.
Naval Revolt of 1946 and Workers’ Movement
The workers’ contribution to the RIN (Royal Indian Navy i.e. the British navy) revolt, also known as the sailors’ revolt, of February 1946,is one of the obscure chapters of the labour movement. Among the concrete facts thrown up by the Oral History work is that of active day to day contacts of the textile and other workers’ leaderships with the leaders of the Naval revolt. For example, several GKU leaders and activists (e.g. G.L. Reddy) used to conduct the leaders of the revolt to various meetings and then take them back to their hidings on the docks and the ships.
Naval Dockyard Employees’ Union is another organisation that actively helped the naval ratings by helping the latter to set up a kind of base for their activities in the dockyards and by restoring the water supply that was cut off by the Britishers.
The GKU office at the Parel Naka in Bombay was a key centre, fromwhere active contacts were kept up with the ships in revolt. It was just nearby that two women textile workers were shot at by the marauding British troops; one of them died on the spot. The office and the bridge still stand as witness to history.
Labour Movement and Armed Struggle
The welknown Telangana and little known Salaya (Gujarat/Saurashtra), and several other struggles express the occasional pressures built up by the working masses to express their sentiments and articulate their demands. In Nanded, Sikka, Travancore-Cochin, Pondicherry, Himachal, W. Bengal, North-eastern regions, Marathwada, Nizam Hyderabad, Nilgiri, Dhenkanal and several other places in the country, the toiling masses had been organised in the trade unions and even armed struggles were launched to further the cause of their movement. Trade union movement, Praja Mandal and anti-Nizam struggles in Nizam’s Hyderabad, particularly in Telengana in late 40s, were closely interwoven. The workers’ movement in the railways, transport, mines, factories helped the anti-feudal mass armed struggles. In their turn, the anti-Nizam movement helped the growth of political/trade union consciousness of the industrial workers in the region. The interviews recorded bear testimony to this. The trade unions and workers of Hyderabad did a great deal of practical work to send and receive the help of the underground period. This imparted greater militancy to the trade union movement. The armed struggle for a limited purpose and for a short time helped the trade union movement to grow.
The militant, and to a limited extent, armed,movement of the workers of Salaya on the Gujarat sea coast was unique in several ways. The workers of ports, factories, salt workers and others alongwith rural population ‘captured ‘ the town for several hours and ‘liberated’ certain pockets. They had hopes to stretch further in the wider areas.
A little-known fact that came up in the course of the interviews is the Valsura Camp Revolt, near Jamnagar in 1946. The RIN revolt of Bombay is wellknown, but this one is hardly known. The leaders including labour leaders like Vasa, Bhikubhai Vaghela and others from Saurashtra and several princely states worked in the military naval camps among the naval ratings and other personnel preparing an armed revolt against the British government. They planned a general strike.
The wellknown and little-known struggles express the occasional pressures built up by the working masses to express their grievances as well as points of view. In Himachal, W. Bengal, Marathwada, Nilgiri, Dhenkanal and several other places in the country, the toiling masses had been organised in the trade unions and even armed struggles were launched to further the cause of their movement. Trade union and Praja Mandal movements were closely interwoven. The workers’ movement in the railways, transport, mines, factories helped the anti-feudal mass armed struggles. In their turn, they helped the growth of political/trade union consciousness of the industrial workers in the regions. The interviews recorded bear testimony to this. The trade unions and workers did a great deal of practical work to send and receive the help of the underground movement. This imparted greater militancy to the trade union movement. The armed struggle for a limited purpose and for a short time helped the trade union movement to grow, though in the long run, unnecessary stretching of it and its unrealistic use without taking into account the situation greatly harmed the TU movement. Armed periods often tended to ignore great potentials and possibilities of the open, legal, constitutional and democratic methods, which were more and more developing. Many unions/movements e.g. in the railways are still to fully recover from the damage done by this attitude.
The respondents, therefore, generally refused to glorify the long-drawn armed struggles and saw, in retrospect, the faults involved. They have also drawn lessons from such experiences.
Underground Trade Union Movement
This is an important aspect that has come to light during the interviews. This is a period which is not well-recorded and documented. Therefore, the importance of the oral history and recording of the personal and wider reminiscences becomes greater as they present several facts not avaialble anywhere else.
The 1942 movement has already been mentioned. The movement was helped greatly, in many secret and open ways, by the labour organisations, including railway, textile, and other workers. The socialists belonging to the CSP and others played an active role in mobilising workers for the success of the movement. This was particularly clear in Maharashtra, C.P.-Berar, Northern regions, Orissa, etc.
In fact, 1948-51 was the period when the AITUC decided to take a more militant line and oppose the policies of the government in a more aggressive way, including through armed struggles. Even the establishment of a workers’ state consequent upon the struggle was visualised. INTUC and HMS opposed this line. Later, AITUC withdrew this line.
During this period, the AITUC largely functioned semi-underground, yet it organised some important struggles in these conditions. The interviews provided a number of ‘leads’.
Some underground activities were also part of the 1974 railway strike, as also of the 1960 and 1968 strikes. These movements faced severe repressions. As result, the leaders and activists of AIRF and other TUs had often to carry on their work secretly. NCCRS and the various organisations formed, wherever possible and necessary, a wide network of semi-underground groups and individuals to carry on the regular work contacting, exchange of messages and instructions, transport of literature and materials, organising meetings, keeping contacts with the Jail Committee and the NCCRS, organising defence against police attacks, keeping a check on the workers against police provocations, help workers tide over long period of strike, and other activities. The 1974 strike was a well organised effort mainly due to countrywide network of railwaymen’s organisations.
Strikes and movements of cotton textile, jute, tramways, defence, engineering, port and dock, salt, municipal, mines, service sector and many took place during this period. Interviews have yielded important facts. For example, the railway and city workers of Hyderabad as also the bus employees of the state provided transport for taking arms, ammunitions, literature and other materials. They also helped the cadres and leaders to remain underground and function from their hideouts. The example of Kottagudiyam (Kottagudem), Calcutta, Asansol etc are great examples of how ordinary workers helped not only the trade union movement but also the entire society.
Public Sector Labour Movement
Largely after independence, the emergence and growth of public/state sector provided a strong impetus to the growth of the modern workers and their trade union movement. Central and state government employees, defence, petroleum, steel, post and telegraph, railways, NCDC, nationalised banks, GIC, and other nationalised sectors, oil and numerous others emerge as actively new areas/bases of the largescale trade union movement often leading to broad based actions leaving a deep impact on the country as a whole. Modern working class emerges as an important factor. A number of interviews emphasise these facts and add new dimensions to the study of history of the trade union movement. Among the very important but little known or forgotten facts, is that the building of the Vishakhapattanam Steel Plant was the result of the huge mass movement in Andhra Pradesh, as a result of which the Central Government had to concede the demand.
Small Scale and Household Sector
The interviews have yielded lot of information on the workers and their organisations in the household sector industries, often of a secondary and tertiary kind. They bring to light, for example, several facts about the beedi workers’ organisations/movements in Rajasthan, Marathwada, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Bihar, Haryana, M.P.and eleswhere. These workers, alongwith their leaders as well as their organisations launched and fought struggles for most elemenatary rights and demands, and ultimately spread around the country as a largescale movement. It matured to a point, where like in Aurangabad in Marathwada region, they formed a housing cooperative of their own, something unheard of till now. Pune and Mumbai, for example, have well-organised household workers’ organisations.
Among the major achievements of the labour movement in India has been the creation of a massive labour /industrial legal machinary to address, deal and channalise the problems/demands of the labour. This has mainly been a post-independence achievement due to both to the trade union struggles and the changed favourable conditions after the end of the colonial rule. Various acts, labour courts, tribunals, awards, wageboards, committees/commissions, consultative mechanisms, participation in government sponsored and government bodies, cooperating with ILO, workers’ education, leadership training and so forth are now the part and parcel of the legal labour system.
Besides the government representatives, economists and scholars, various managements etc, the labour leaders and the trade unions have also made very important and historic contributions to this field. Some of the tallest leaders have been associated with it, who have left a deep and lasting impression with their scholarly as well as practical knowledge, study/research, suggestions, actual contributions to the formulation and articulation of the issues etc.
Some portions and aspects of these endeavours are to be found in the interviews, on rationalisation, questions of DA/bonus, formulation of the various bills and acts, laws and by-laws, suggestions on disposition of labour in the context of upgradation and expansion of technology and industry, and several others.
Gorakhpur Labour Office
An important contribution of the Oral History Project has been some facts on the Gorakhpur Labour Office (GLO) that have come up during interviews. Otherwise too, very little has been said and written, and is known about the GLOs. But the interviews yielded some details, which need further study and elaboration. By themselves also, they are undoubtedly a cotribution to the subject.
Incidents and facts about Gorakhpur Labour have been mentioned while interviewing respondents in Kottagudam, Hyderabad, Patna etc. These labourers were used as a different category in the mines, factories, and railways during the second world war, and were in existence till a few years after independence. They were kept in isolation in paramilitary form, were highly exploited, including physically as they were kept in chains at some places like in mines in Bihar and were often used to divide the workers and destroy the trade union movements. However they got assimilated in the mainstream trade union movement at the end.
This time several women respondents were interviewed, common activists as well as leaders. They presented several facets and sides that normally are not brought to light.
Women workers and leaders constituted on important and militant contingent of textile, mining, railway, small scale industries workers’ and other movements. For example, as some of the interviews showed, women workers were at the forefront in several textile workers’ movement in Bombay and elsewhere. The Girni Kamgar Union (GKU) and other organisations owed a lot to them. It was stated that India’s first ‘Gherao’ was organised in 1937 in the Bitiya Textile Mills of Bombay; and this was done by the women workers mainly. The women did not allow the owner to go out for almost a day. Even his food was arranged by the workers. It was only the next day when the negotiations started that the gherao was lifted.
The women workers contributed to the militancy of the struggle by keeping up the tempo and often forced the men workers to go into action. They were by means behind the menfolk in picketing, slogan shouting, strikes, demonstrations and so on. These mostly illiterate workers were a tremendous source behind the militant actions. Some of the outstanding leaders came out of them, including at worker-cadre levels. Their histories have generally been forgotten. The chawls of Parel, Prabhadevi, Girgam and innumerable other places were their centres of activities. They even fought off the police on several occasions. The chawls would reverberate with the sloganeering, meetings, processions and so on.
Besides, the women workers saw to it that their family duties did not come in the way of the movement. They would look after their children and families and took care of any disruptive activities. Thus, they functioned in double capacity. They also looked after the children and families of the leaders and activists, who could not spare time during struggles for their families.
During the textile struggles in Bombay in the ’30s and ’40s, for example, in the Bitiya Mills strike, the women workers refused to go home to look after their little children home, lest the gherao was weakened and the owner got an opportunity to escape! They had to be convinced that they should be going home in batches.
Women workers on the GIP and other railways were also very active in movements and could be counted upon for support. During the railway strikes of 1960, 1968 and 1974, the families of the workers had to bear the brunt of repression. The women members of the families and women workers themselves took an active part in the movement and organisation.
At one time, there were more than 60 textile mills in Bombay, before independence. Of the workforce, more than 40,000 were women. But they hardly sat in home, and were always on the move.
Women constituted overwhelming majority of the bidi workers in Maharashtra and elsewhere. Among the respondents were the leaders of the bidi workers. In one incident, the bidi workers stopped the motorcade of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, and handed over a petition. Of course, a large number of women were arrested and their court cases dragged on for long years. This incident took place in Bombay near a place called Haji Ali.
One aspect that came up was that once decided, the women workers would not backtrack from the battle, in contrast to the men, who often hesitated. Women were more decisive and forthright in their resolve, and it was not easy to convince them to go back to work, once the situation had changed. They displayed more involvement than men.
In this context the information on pharma girl workers is important. They constituted the main segment in the unionisation of this section of workers. They were at the forefront of several militant struggles. Not only this; they did not hesitate to brave the lathicharges and police attacks on several occasions. It all shows that their militancy and energies could be channelised into the process of unionisation with right approach. These girls were also an educated and advanced section of workers, conscious of their responsibility.
This fact is important as it shows that even modern educated workers, including women workers, can take clear-cut decisions regarding TU activism and struggles. If needed, they are prepared to forego their family interests in favour of the primary interests in the factory.
Not only Laro Jonko, Roza Deshpande, Tara Reddy, Malini Tulpule, Mrs. Patnaik, Mrs. Vishwanathan and other women repondents but almost all the men respondents highlighted the tremendous contribution and fighting spirit of the women workers.
Trade Unionism among Artist
In Bengal, Maharashtra and elsewhere, many people’s or worker-artists came up out of the labor movement. They were ordinary workers, who in the course of time became artists and singers singing revolutionary songs, performing popular street corner and stage plays, and so on. They played particularly important role during the upsurge in the movements. They became so popular that they could match the professional stars in the appeal and performance. (Late) Amar Sheikh was the most typical of such a category; Narayan Surve is another, who also composes songs and poetry. Their very names could attract people in large numbers, which then would be a prelude to a huge meeting.
But their importance is not confined to only being exceedingly popular. An entire generation or two and large numbers of young artists and followers were produced all over Maharashtra, who still carry on and enrich the traditions established by these worker-artists. With the onset of the use of electronic methods, they have also enetered the world of cassettes and albums. Besides, they cooperate with various other artists’ groups, both formal and informal, in composing music and organising cultural programs on particular issues.
Trade Unionism during the Great Famine
The role of the working masses cannot be forgotten in the great famine that engulfed Bengal and Bihar in the 40s. Grains were collected, food prepared and then distributed day and night in the food camps organised by the simple workers who worked either as coolies or otherwise. The contributions of these common workers in such moments of crisis empowered the labour movement itself. These experiences were narrated in great details by persons involved while recording their interviews.
Leaders and ordinary cadres and workers did great work during the 1943 famine. From Punjab to Bengal, and from South India to North, people flocked to help the victims. Leaders and activists from as far as Punjab and Maharashtra went to Bengal for relief work. Respondents from Punjab (e.g. Parduman Singh, Satyapal Dang and others) related first-hand experiences in this field. Some of them actually went there to run relief kitchens and other kinds of work.
Orissa famine: One of the lesser known facts is that Orissa was badly affected by the Great Famine of 1942-43. More than 35000 people died due to the famine. Workers and trade unions, along with other sections, did lot of relief work for the affected people.
The Days of Partitions
The railway workers and trade unions played great role in providing relief and shelter for suffering people of all the communities during the communal holocaust in the wake of country’s partition in 1947. They worked day and night salvaging and helping the victims of communal riots. In places like Panipat, Delhi, areas of Punjab, Calcutta, Bombay, etc, golden chapters were written in this work. The railway unions in the north-western and Bombay regions had to struggle hard to keep the communal unity of the workers and to see that their unions were not destroyed. Similarly, the port and dock workers were also seriously affected, and their organisations struggled tenaciously against divisions.
The days of partition can be cited in this connection when in Calcutta, the tramway depots were the shelter for suffering people of all the communities and the uniform of these workers was accepted as the symbol of peace. They worked day and night salvaging and helping the victims of communal riots. The leaders helped the workers to go to safe places. The TUs worked day and night to guard and protect the workers of various communities.
Places like Amritsar and others in Punjab had traumatic experiences. Partition brought about a change in the composition of the working class and deeply affected the TU movement and organisation. The leaders had to struggle hard to see that they did not kill each other in the communal frenzy, and that the workers of the respective communities reach their assigned countries safely. The pre-partition workers in Amritsar were mainly Muslims, but after the partition, they were predominantly Hindus and Sikhs.
To Sum up
The work on the oral history of the labour movement has been a very satisfying experience. We have been able to uncover and salvage considerable history. There have been several important discoveries. The archaeology of labour is really taking shape, to which valuable information is being continuously added. It forms an important base for research in the field of labour history. Lot of important respondents have been interviewed, considerable material/information/history has been retrieved that has proved to be highly valuable, and otherwise would have been lost. The personalities interviewed include some of the most outstanding ones in the rich history of the labour movement. Besides, several new repondents could be located, who were not included in the original list. Many younger persons were also talked to.
The work needs to be carried forward. Many more important as well as not so well known names will keep on being added as the work proceeds and as we come across more facts. The spatial coverage of this effort also needs to be enhanced covering more states and regions. Further, this unique exercise of tapping the memories of activists cannot be postponed, as every delay would mean irretrievable loss of valuable data.