Skip to main content Accessibility help

Sons of Soil, Sons of Steel: Autochthony, Descent and the Class Concept in Industrial India


Inspired by E. P. Thompson's modelling of class as the contingent outcome of historical processes, this paper explores how autochthony and descent came to inform the boundaries of industrial workforces in the Indian steel towns of Jamshedpur and Rourkela. We suggest that if class is a historical object, then it relates to other forms of power and identity in ways that question the use of rigid analytic typologies. In the private sector Tata company town of Jamshedpur, an industrial working class was constructed during the late colonial period from labour migrants, whose employment became heritable within families. In the public sector Rourkela Steel Plant, founded in the mid-twentieth century, the politics of ethno regionalism coincided with state development policy to inform employment reservation for autochthons. Through a historical analysis of urbanization, migration and employment policy, we consider how elite workforces that bound themselves according to the principles of autochthony and descent were formed in the social laboratories of India's steel towns. We suggest that such processes demand a class concept that engages more subtly with the work of E. P. Thompson.

Hide All

1 Thompson, E. P. (1978b). ‘The Poverty of Theory: or an Orrery of Errors’ in Thompson, E. P.The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays, Merlin, London, pp. 193399.

2 Ibid., p. 212.

3 Ibid., p. 214.

4 Althusser, L. (1970). Reading Capital, Verso Books, London, New York, p. 117; Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and Philosophy. New Left Books, London, p. 76.

5 Popper, K. R. (1974 [1957]). The Poverty of Historicism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

6 Thompson, E. P. (1978a). Eighteenth-Century English Society: Class Struggle Without Class?, Social History, 3: 2, 133–65. Thompson, E. P. (1991[1980]). The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

7 See introduction to this volume; cf. Basu, S. (2004). Does Class Matter? Colonial Capital and Workers’ Resistance in Bengal, 1890–1937, Oxford University Press, New Delhi; Chandavarkar, R. (1997). ‘The making of the working class’: E. P. Thompson and Indian history, History Workshop Journal, 43, 177197.

8 Sanchez, A. (2012a). Deadwood and Paternalism: Rationalising Casual Labour in an Indian Company Town, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 18, 808827; Sanchez, A. (2012b). Questioning Success: Dispossession and the Criminal Entrepreneur in Urban India, Critique of Anthropology, 32:4, 435457; Strümpell, C. (2014). The politics of dispossession in an Odishan steel town, Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.), 48:1, 4572.

9 See Introduction, this Forum.

10 Cooke, P. (1990). Locality, Structure, and Agency: A Theoretical Analysis, Cultural Anthropology, 5:1, 315; Geschiere, P. and Nyamnjoh, F. B. (2000). Capitalism and Autochthony: The Seesaw of Mobility and Belonging, Public Culture, 12:2, 423452; Jackson, S. (2006). Sons of Which Soil? The Language and Politics of Autochthony in Eastern D. R., Congo, African Studies Review, 49:2, 95123; Kruckemeyer, K. (2002). ‘You Get Sawdust in Your Blood’: ‘Local’ Values and the Performance of Community in an Occupational Sport, The Journal of American Folklore, 115: 457458, 301–331; Lambek, M. (2011). Catching the Local, Anthropological Theory, 11:2, 197221.

11 Weiner, M. (1978). Sons of the Soil: Migration and Ethnic Conflict in India. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

12 Nash, J. (1979). We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines, Columbia University Press, New York, Guildford; Westwood, S. (1984). All day, Every day: Factory and Family in the Making of Women's Lives, Pluto Press, London; Zonabend, F. (2007). The Nuclear Peninsula, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

13 Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (trans.) Richard Nice. Routledge and Keegan Paul, London; Carrier, J. G. and Heyman, J. M. C. (1997). Consumption and Political Economy, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 3:2, 355373; Gabriel, Y. and Lang, T. (1995). The Unmanageable Consumer, Sage, London.

14 Jones, G. S. (1983). Languages of Class: Studies in English working class history, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 90.

15 Bourgois, P. (2003). In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Chandavarkar, R. (1994). The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900–40, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Gooptu, N. (2001). The Politics of the Urban Poor in Early Twentieth-Century India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York; Wacquant, L. J.D. (2008). Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality, Polity, Cambridge; Malden, Massachusetts.

16 Freeman, C. (1998). Femininity and flexible labor: fashioning class through gender on the global assembly line, Critique of Anthropology, 18:3, 245263; Godelier, M. (1986) The Making of Great Men: Male Domination and Power Among the New Guinea Baruya, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Murray-Li, T. (1998). Working separately but eating together: personhood, property, and power in conjugal relations, American Ethnologist 25:4, 675694.

17 Chari, S. (2004). Fraternal Capital: Peasant Workers, Self-Made Men, and Globalization in Provincial India, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California; Goldthorpe, J. H. and Jackson, M. (2007). Intergenerational Class Mobility in Contemporary Britain: Political Concerns and Empirical Findings, British Journal of Sociology, 58:4, 525546.

18 Ceuppens, B. and Geschiere, P. (2005). Autochthony: Local or Global? New Modes in the Struggle over Citizenship and Belonging in Africa and Europe, Annual Review of Anthropology 34, 385407; Stephen, L. (2002). Zapata Lives! Histories and Cultural Politics in Southern Mexico, University of California Press, Berkeley.

19 Jawaharlal Nehru's own term for the steel mills and dams that were to lead India's march to modern nationhood. cf. Khilnani, S. (1997). The Idea of India. Penguin Books, London, pp. 61106.

20 Parry, J. P. (2003). Nehru's Dream and the Village ‘waiting room’: Long-distance Labour Migrants to a Central Indian Steel Town, Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.), 37:1–2, 217249. Parry, J. P. and Strümpell, C. (2008). On the Desecration of Nehru's ‘Temples’: Bhilai and Rourkela Compared, Economic and Political Weekly, 43:19, 4757.

21 Parry, J. P. (1999b). ‘Two Cheers for Reservation: The Satnamis and the Steel Plant’ in Guha, R. and Parry, J. P. Institutions and Inequalities: Essays in Honour of Andre Beteille, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 128170.

22 Bagchi, A. K. (1972). Private Investment in India, 1900–1939, Cambridge University Press, New York; Bagchi, A. K. (1981). ‘Reinforcing and Offsetting Constraints in Indian Industry’ in Bagchi, A. K. and Banerjee, N.Change and Choice in Indian Industry, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, pp. 2362; Chatterjee, P. and Sen, A. (1988). ‘Planning and the Political Process in India: Duality and Differentiation’ in Bagchi, A. K.Economy, Society and Polity: Essays in Honour of Professor Bhabatosh Datta, Oxford University Press; Calcutta, A. (1982). The State, Industrialization and Class Formations in India: a Neo-Marxist Perspective on Colonialism, Underdevelopment and Development, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London; Zachariah, B. (2005). Developing India: an Intellectual and Social History, c. 1930–50, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

23 Jharkhand's formation in 2000 follows 40 years of petitioning from tribal interest groups, who claim the southern areas of Bihar to be a homeland for the autochthonous peoples of the region; mainly those from the Ho, Munda, Santal and Oraon Adivasi communities. However, whilst the state has a tribal population of 26.3 per cent, there is a pronounced lack of integration between the state's urban industrial regions and its poorer rural communities.

24 Bahl, V. (1995). The Making of the Indian Working Class: The Case of the Tata Iron and Steel Co., 1880–1946, Sage Publications, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, California; Fraser, L. (1919). Iron and Steel in India: A Chapter from the Life of Jamshedji N. Tata, The Times Press, Bombay; Pillai, P. P. (1923). Iron and Steel Production in India, Economica, 7: 5566.

25 Ibid, p. 144.

26 Gupta, M. and Thavaraj, M. J. K. (1974). Indian Industrial Policy and Economic Power Concentration, Social Scientist, 3:4, pp. 5664; Slater, G. (1925). The Steel Industry of India, Economica, 13: 6268. Varshney, R. L. (1964). Government-Business Relations in India, The Business History Review, 38:1, International Government-Business Issue (Spring, 1964), 2257; Wagle, D. M. (1981). Imperial Preference and the Indian Steel Industry, 1924–39, The Economic History Review, New Series, 34:1, 120131.

27 Unsuccessful attempts had been made to establish profitable British iron works at Porto Novo, Madras, intermittently between 1830 and 1874, and in Jerriah, West Bengal, from 1875–1906.

28 Bahl, (1995), The Making of the Indian Working Class, p. 106.

29 Bahl, V. (1982). TISCO Workers’ Struggles: 1920–1928, Social Scientist 10:8, 34.

30 Sanchez, A. (2012a), Deadwood and Paternalism, pp. 810–811.

31 Bahl, (1995), The Making of the Indian Working Class.

32 Ibid.,; Bahl (1982), TISCO Workers’ Struggles.

33 Thompson, E. P. (1991[1980]). ‘The Making of the English Working Class’.

34 Keenan, J. L. and Sorsby, L. (1945). A Steel Man in India. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, p. 33.

35 Pillai, Iron and Steel Production in India, p. 59.

36 Karan, P. P. (1957). Economic Regions of Chota Nagpur, Bihar, India, Economic Geography, 29:3, 216.

37 Bahl, (1995), The Making of the Indian Working Class, p. 71.

38 Ibid., p. 72.

39 Pillai, Iron and Steel Production in India, p. 59.

41 Fraser, Iron and Steel in India, p. 103.

42 Singh, M. S. (1998). From the Desk of The Labour Association, Tata Workers’ Union, Jamshedpur, p. 31. In a similar vein, the Communist Party of India urged its aligned trade union in Bhilai to abstain from militant action around the Bhilai Steel Plant, which was built with Soviet expertise. See Parry, J. P. (2009). ‘Sociological Marxism’ in Central India: Polanyi, Gramsci, and the Case of the Unions, in Hann, C. and Hart, K.Market and Society: The Great Transformation Today, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, p. 185.

43 Gupta and Thavaraj, Indian Industrial Policy, p. 59; Nomura, C. (2011). Selling steel in the 1920s: TISCO in a period of transition, Indian Economic and Social History Review 48: 83116; Slater, The Steel Industry of India, p. 62; Varshney, Government-Business Relations, p. 30; Wagle, Imperial Preference, p. 123.

44 Parry and Strümpell, On the Desecration of Nehru's ‘Temples’, p. 47.

46 Sperling, J. B. (1965). Die Rourkela-Deutschen. Probleme der Verhaltensweisen deutscher Techniker auf einer Großbaustelle in Indien, Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, Stuttgart (English version available as: Sperling, J. B. (1969). The Human Dimension of Technical Assistance: The German Experience of Rourkela India, Cornell University Press, Ithaca).

47 Payable at RS200, RS400, RS700, or RS900 per acre according to the quality of the land acquired.

48 Ratha, S. N. and Behera, D. K. (1990). Displacement and Rehabilitation: Data from the resettled colonies around the steel plant at Rourkela, Orissa, Man in Asia, 3:1, 1023; Strümpell, C. (in press). ‘The Making and Unmaking of an Adivasi Working Class in Western Orissa’ in Shah, A. and Bates, C.Savage Attack. Tribal Insurgency in South Asia, Social Science Press, Delhi.

49 For a detailed account of the merger of eastern and western Odisha, see Pati, B. (1993). Resisting Domination. Peasants, Tribals and the National Movement in Orissa 1920–50, Manohar, Delhi.

50 Bailey, F. G. (1959). The Ganatantra Parishad, Economic Weekly 11:4344, 1471.

51 Strümpell, C. (2011). Social Citizenship and Ethnicity around a public sector steel plant in Orissa, India, Citizenship Studies, 15:3–4, 485498.

52 Bailey, F. G. (1998). The Need for Enemies: A Bestiary of Political Forms. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, p. 31.

53 Sperling, J. B. (1963). Rourkela: Sozio-ökonomische Probleme eines Entwicklungsprojekts. [Rourkela: Socio-economic Problems around a Development Project]. Eichholz Verlag, Bonn.

54 Ibid., p. 22.

55 Parry and Strümpell, On the Desecration of Nehru's ‘Temples’, p. 48f; Sperling, (1965), Die Rourkela-Deutschen, p. 197.

56 Keenan and Sorsby, A Steel Man in India, p. 33.

57 Keenan and Sorsby, A Steel Man in India, ibid.

58 Bahl, (1995), The Making of the Indian Working Class, p. 100.

59 Ibid., p. 106.

60 Bahl (1982), TISCO Workers’ Struggles, p. 34.

61 Sanchez, A. (2012a), Deadwood and Paternalism, p. 812.

62 Ibid., p. 810.

63 Bahl, (1995), The Making of the Indian Working Class.

64 Ibid., pp. 221–222.

65 Bahl, (1982), TISCO Workers’ Struggles, pp. 34–37.

67 Tata Workers’ Union (2000). 80 Glorious Years of Tata Workers’ Union: Souvenir. Tata Workers’ Union, Jamshedpur, p. 1.

68 Singh, (1998). From the Desk of the Labour Association, p. 31.

69 Bahl, (1995), The Making of the Indian Working Class, p. 144.

70 Tata Workers Union (1978). The Story of Tata Workers’ Union, Tata Workers Union, Jamshedpur, p. 2.

71 Ibid., p. 8.

72 Tata Workers' Union (2000). 80 Glorious Years of Tata Workers' Union, p. 1.

73 Bombay and Madras experienced dozens of organized strikes throughout the 1880s that were led by workers’ committees in the textile industry. Later, in 1895 8,000 weavers in Ahmedabad struck against proposed fortnightly wage payments. See Jha, S. C. (1970). The Indian Trade Union Movement: An Account and An Interpretation, Mukhopadhyay, K. L., Calcutta, p. 82. Formalized unions from this period, including The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of India and Burma founded in 1897, the Calcutta Printers Union in 1905 and the Bombay Postal Union in 1907 all predate the Tata Workers’ Union by some few years (ibid: p. 87). During 1918, a flurry of national industrial unrest led to the formation of a number of organizations that would come to form the All India Trade Union Congress. First and foremost the Madras Labour Union was formed in 1918, followed by the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association in 1920. See Revri, C. (1972). The Indian Trade Union Movement: An Outline History 1880–1947, Orient Longman, New Delhi, pp. 7179. The first meeting of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was convened in 1920, and at that date claimed to represent 140,000 members from 171 organizations, at a time when the Tata Workers’ Union's predecessor (The Jamshedpur Labour Association) was still only loosely organized. See Jha, The Indian Trade Union Movement, p. 105.

74 Sanchez, A. (forthcoming). Criminal Capital: Violence, Corruption and the Making of Class in an Indian Company Town, Routledge, London.

75 Thompson, E. P. (1991[1980]). The Making of the English Working Class.

76 Harriss, J. (1986). The Working Poor and the Labour Aristocracy in a South Indian City: A Descriptive and Analytical Account, Modern Asian Studies, 20:2, 231283. Hobsbawm, E. J. (1984). Artisan or Labour Aristocrat?, The Economic History Review, New Series, 37:3, 355372; Holmström, M. (1976). South Indian Factory Workers: Their Life and Their World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Holmström, M. (1984). Industry and Inequality: The Social Anthropology of Indian Labour, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Lenin, V. I. (1996[1917]). Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline, Pluto Press, London, Chicago, pp. 78; Moorhouse, H. F. (1978). The Marxist Theory of the Labour Aristocracy, Social History, 3:1, 6182; Moorhouse, H. F. (1981). The Significance of the Labour Aristocracy, Social History, 6:2, 229233; Parry, J. P. (1999a). Lords of Labour: working and shirking in Bhilai, Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.), 33:1–2, 107140.

77 Sanchez, (2012b), Questioning Success, p. 444.

78 Chandavarkar, (1997), ‘The Making of the Working Class’, pp. 179–181, 183–184.

79 Sanchez, (2012b), Questioning Success, pp. 441–443.

80 Sanchez, A. (2012a), Deadwood and Paternalism, p. 812.

81 Parry, J. P. (2012). ‘Comparative Reflections on Fieldwork in Urban India: A Personal Account’ in Pardo, I. and Prato, G. B.Anthropology in the City: Methodology and Theory. Ashgate, Farnham, Burlington, pp. 2953; Redfield, R. and Singer, M. B. (1954). ‘The Cultural Role of CitiesEconomic Development and Cultural Change. 3:1, The Role of Cities in Economic Development and Cultural Change, Part 1 (October 1954), pp. 5373.

82 Parry, (2012), ‘Comparative Reflections’, p. 41.

83 Arnold, D. (1980). Industrial Violence in Colonial India, Comparative studies in Society and History, 22:2, 234255; Bahl (1982), TISCO Workers’ Struggles. Bahl, (1995), The Making of the Indian Working Class; Chakrabarty, D. (1981). Communal Riots and Labour: Bengal's Jute Mill-Hands in the 1890s, Past and Present, 91: 140169. Chakrabarty, D. (1983). On Deifying and Defying Authority: Managers and Workers in the Jute Mills of Bengal circa 1890–1940, Past and Present, 100: 124146; Chakrabarty, D. (1989). Rethinking Working-class History: Bengal 1890–1940, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey; Chatterjee, P. (2004). The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Political Society in Most of the World, Columbia University Press, New York; Chatterjee, P. (2008). Democracy and Economic Transformation in India, Economic and Political Weekly, 43:16, 5362; Chatterjee and Sen, (1988), Planning and the Political Process; Guha, R. (1982). ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’ in Guha, R., Subaltern Studies, Vol. I, Delhi, Oxford University Press, pp. 18; Ramaswamy, E. A. (1973). Politics and organised Labor in India, Asian Survey, 13:10, 914928. Ramaswamy, E. A. (1977). The Worker And His Union: A Study in South India, Allied Publishers, Bombay; Ramaswamy, E. A. (1983). The Indian Management Dilemma: Economic vs Political Unions, Asian Survey, 23:8, 976990; Ramaswamy, E. A. (1988). Worker Consciousness and Trade Union Response. Oxford University Press, New Delhi; Sen, A. and Himanshu, (2004a). Poverty and inequality in India—I, Economic and Political Weekly, 39:38, 42474263; Sen, A. and Himanshu, (2004b). Poverty and inequality in India—II: widening disparities during the 1990s, Economic and Political Weekly, 39:39, 43614375.

84 Thompson, (1978b), ‘The Poverty of Theory’, p. 212.

85 Sanchez, A. (2012a), Deadwood and Paternalism, p. 812.

86 Breman, J. (2004). The Making and Unmaking of an Industrial Working Class: Sliding Down the Labour Hierarchy in Ahmedabad, India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi; Ramaswamy, (1983), The Indian Management Dilemma; Wersch, H. van. (1992). The Bombay Textile Strike, 1982–83, Oxford University Press, Bombay.

87 Sanchez, A. (2012a), Deadwood and Paternalism, pp. 819–820.

88 Ibid., p. 812.

89 Chari, Fraternal Capital; De Neve, G. (2005). The Everyday Politics of Labour: Working Lives in India's Informal Economy, Social Science Press, Delhi; Harriss-White, B. (2003). India Working: Essays on Society and Economy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

90 Parry, (1999b), ‘Two Cheers for Reservation’.

91 Sanchez, A. (2012a), Deadwood and Paternalism, pp. 812–815.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed