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Workers' Politics and the Mill Districts in Bombay between the Wars

  • Rajnarayan Chandavarkar (a1)

Extract

Between the wars, the development of a labour movement in Bombay reflected a growing polarization in social and political relations in the city. This period, which saw an intensification of social conflict, also witnessed changes in the character of industrial action. Until 1914, strikes in the cotton textile industry were largely confined to particular departments and mills; increasingly after the war, they were coordinated across the industry as a whole. Rising prices and unprecedented profits which accompanied the post-war boom led to the demand for higher wages supported by two general strikes. In the mid 1920s, as the industry's markets slumped, attempts to cut wages were once again strongly resisted. With a slight improvement in their fortunes in the later 1920s, the millowners introduced ‘rationalization’ schemes; for the workforce this meant more work, less wages and higher chances of unemployment. Between April 1928 and September 1929, two general strikes crippled the industry for about eleven months, and the extension of these schemes and a further round of wage cuts led to another strike wave in 1933-34. Apart from several one-day closures, eight general strikes occurred in the industry between 1919 and 1940. The impact of this militancy was felt not only in other occupations in Bombay but also in other industrial centres, such as Sholapur and Ahmedabad. As Bombay became the scene of militant working-class action in India, its labour movement, under communist leadership since 1928, acquired an explicitly political direction.

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1 After the 1919 general strike, the Government of Bombay believed that ‘while the workers had no accepted leaders’ the conduct of the dispute ‘appeared to indicate the probability of some controlling organisation’. J. Crerar, Sec. to Government of Bombay [GOB], to Sec. to Government of India [GOI], Home, Delhi, 7/15 February 1919, in Bombay Confidential Proceedings, vol. 46, 1919, India Office Library [IOL], London. This riddle of leadership bemused the Bombay Chronicle, too, in 1924 when it commented: ‘it is absurd to suppose that the men are lacking in leadership … it is clear that there is good sound leadership among them somewhere.’ Bombay Chronicle, 21 February 1924.

2 The first cotton mill was built in 1856, see Morris, M. D., The Emergence of an Industrial Labour Force in India (California, 1965), p. 17.

3 Newman, R., ‘Labour Organisation in the Bombay Cotton Mills, 1918–1929’, unpublished D.Phil. thesis, University of Sussex 1970;Kooiman, D., ‘Jobbers and the Emergence of Trade Unions in Bombay City’, International Review of Social History, vol. xxii (1977), pt 3, pp. 313–28. Morris attributes the growth of labour militancy to ‘the role of the middle-class intellectual appearing in his first full-blown opposition to British rule’, in Industrial Labour Force, p. 180.

4 Coneybeare, H., Report on the Sanitary State and Requirements of Bombay (Bombay, 1855), p. 2; Selections from the records of the Bombay Government, new series, vol. XI.

5 Labour Gazette, vol. IV, no. 7 (March 1925), pp. 745–7. This survey was based on a sample of 1,349 male and 715 female mill hands.

6 J. Sandilands, ‘The Health of the Bombay Workers’, ibid., vol. I, no. 2 (October 1921), pp. 14–16.

7 Pradhan, G. R., ‘The Untouchable Workers of Bombay City’, unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Bombay, 1936.

8 Report of the Rent Enquiry Committee (Bombay, 1939), vol. I, p. 9. The Committee noted pertinently that the minimum space required by the Bombay Jail Manual for a prisoner was double that which was stipulated as permissible under the Bombay Municipal Act of 1888. It also reported that 256,379 people lived in rooms occupied by six or more persons and 15,490 lived in rooms with at least twenty others, see pp. 7–9.

9 For a description of the social life of the mill districts in this period see Bhor, Parvatibai, Eka Rannaraginichi Hakikat, as told to Padmakar Chitale (Bombay, 1977).

10 Patel, K., Rural Labour in Industrial Bombay (Bombay, 1963), p. 150.

11 General Department, Order no. 3253/62-Confl; 15 May 1917 in Bombay Confidential Proceedings (1917), vol. 25, p. 15, IOL.

12 Proceedings of the Meerut Conspiracy Case [henceforth MCC], statement by Jhabvala, S. H. vol. II, non-communist series, pp. 786–7. The fact that the Bible—as Jhabvala told the Meerut court—was ‘one of my daily readings’ perhaps explains his prose style.

13 For the organization of the handloom weaving workshops in the city see Enthoven, R. E., The Cotton Fabrics of the Bombay Presidency (Bombay, 1897). The separation of workplace and neighbourhood in the mill district also had its physical aspect. The mill compounds resembled fortresses in the mill district, protected by high walls, iron gates and sentries equipped with lathis.

14 Labour Office, Bombay, General Wage Census, Part I; the Perennial Factories: Report on the Wages, Hours of Work, and Conditions of Industry in the Textile Industries (Cotton, Silk, Wool and Hosiery) in the Bombay Presidency (including Sind), May 1934 (Bombay, 1937), p. 20.

15 Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island, compiled by Edwardes, S. M. (Bombay, 1909), vol. I, p. 493.

16 Burnett-Hurst, A. R., Labour and Housing in Bombay: A Study in the Economic Conditions of the Wage Earning Classes in Bombay (London, 1928), pp. 46–7.

17 Bombay Disturbances Enquiry Committee, 1938 [henceforth BDEC] oral evidence of Dhaku Janu Lad, pp. 103–5; Mathura Kuber, p. 499, Daji Sakharam, p. 507 and several others in GOB, Home (special [sp]) file 550(25) III B of 1938, Maharashtra State Archives [MSA]. Such evidence should modify the widely accepted picture of the jobber's awesome personal control, which has tended to neglect the institutional basis of his power.

18 Royal Commission on Labour in India, [henceforth RCLI], Evidence, Bombay Presidency (including Sind), 1929–31 (London, 1931), vol. I, pt i, written evidence, Seth Ambalal Sarabhai, Ahmedabad Manufacturing and Calico Printing Co. Ltd, p. 277.

19 Proceedings of the Bombay Provincial Banking Enquiry Committee, 19291931, file 12 c, Replies to the questionnaire … submitted by the Currimbhoy Ebrahim Workmen's Institute, MSA.

20 See Patel, Rural Labour in Industrial Bombay, p. 72. The most noted example of such organization was the ‘clubs’ established among the Goanese in Bombay. They were financed by subscription and operated as a welfare system, giving preference to the unemployed among them, see RCLI, Evidence, I, i, The Bombay Seamen's Union, p. 293.

21 Pradhan, ‘The Untouchable Workers’, pp. 7–12.

22 Report of the Rent Enquiry Committee, vol. I, p. 20.

23 Of course these relationships were not stagnant. Between the wars, the jobber's authority at the workplace diminished. This was partly because the growth of labour militancy made it increasingly difficult for him to reconcile the demands of his men with the imperatives of management. As the jobber's influence at work declined, it became more necessary and, at the same time, more difficult for him to entrench himself within the neighbourhoods. It was probably the case that, by the late 1930s the jobber's position became less crucial to political and commercial advance in the neighbourhood. The extent of the jobber's decline should not, however, be exaggerated. In the mid-1930s, the Bombay Millowners' Association, in response to the declining efficacy of the jobber, introduced schemes to revamp the system of labour recruitment and control in the industry. However, individual mill managements remained the jobber's last defender. At the level of the individual mill, the jobber still retained his uses for management. Ineffective in countering industry-wide action, the jobber attempted to entrench himself in the neighbourhood in order to dominate more completely the politics of the particular mill. At this level, BMOA schemes to control the jobber met with considerable initial resistance from some of its own members. For a summary of the BMOA schemes to control badli hiring and the jobber system in general see the Report of the Textile Labour Inquiry Committee, vol. II, Final Report (Bombay, 1953), pp. 337–50; BMOA, Annual Report (1935), pp. 27–9 and BMOA Annual Report (1936), pp. 37–40.

24 BDEC, oral evidence, Ravji Devakram in GOB, HD (sp) file 550 (25) IIIB of 1938, pp. 277–9, MSA.

25 Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island, vol. I, p. 185.

26 Commissioner of Police, Bombay to Secretary, Judicial Department, Bombay, No. 545-C, 20 January 1911, reprinted in Edwardes, S. M., The Bombay City Police 1672–1916: A Historical Sketch (London, 1923), Appendix, p. 198. Edwardes' account of Mohurram related largely to areas of the city outside the mill district. But some of these relationships described for these areas were equally applicable to the mill district.

27 See J. Masselos, ‘Power in the Bombay “Moholla” 1904–1915: An Initial Exploration into the World of the Indian Urban Muslim’, South Asia, no. 6 (1976), pp. 75–95.

28 Edwardes, Bombay City Police, Appendix, p. 198.

29 Bombay Chronicle, 13 January 1919.

30 Police Report on the Riots in Bombay, February 1929 (Bombay, 1929);Report of the Bombay Riots Inquiry Committee (Bombay, 1929).

31 Bombay Chronicle, 7 February 1940.

32 BDEC, evidence of Tukaram Laxman, in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III B of 1938, p. 517 MSA.

33 BDEC, evidence, Baijnath Bahadur in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III B of 1938, p. 639 MSA.

34 BDEC, evidence, W. R. G. Smith, Commissioner of Police, Bombay, in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III B of 1938, p. 1049, MSA.

35 Burnett-Hurst, Labour and Housing in Bombay, p. 49.

36 Bombay Riots Inquiry Committee, 1929 [henceforth BRIC], oral evidence, Balubhai Desai, file 8, and A. R. Dimitimkar and S. Nabiullah, file 7, MSA.

37 BRIC, oral evidence, G. L. Kandalkar and V. H. Joshi, p. 71, MSA.

38 BRIC, oral evidence, G. L. Kandalkar and V. H. Joshi, file 16, p. 69, MSA.

39 ibid., p. s61.

40 BRIC, oral evidence, Balubhai T. Desai, file 8 p. 29–31, MSA.

41 ibid., p. 29.

42 Interview, V. B. Karnik, April 1979.

43 BDEC, evidence, Dhaku Janu Lad, GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III B of 1938, pp. 103–17, MSA.

44 See Cashman, R. I., The Myth of the Lokamamya: Tilak and Mass Politics in Maharashtra (California, 1975), pp. 7597; Masselos, ‘Power in the Bombay “Moholla”’, pp. 75–95.

45 Raghunathji, K., The Hindu Temples of Bombay (Bombay, 1900).

46 Cited by the Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island, vol. I, pp. 187–8.

47 BRIC, oral evidence, Balubhai T. Desai, file 8, pp. 69–71, MSA.

48 BRIC, oral evidence, Syed Munawar, file 3, p. 279, MSA.

49 BRIC, oral evidence, A. R. Dimtimkar and S. Nabiullah, p. 271, MSA.

50 Interview, V. B. Karnik, April 1979.

51 Nava Kal, 6 January 1928.

53 One mill manager told B. Shiva Rao, ‘For every one who goes out of this gate there are nine more waiting outside who would be grateful for the wages I am paying.’ Rao, B. Shiva, The Industrial Worker in India (London, 1939), p. 55.

54 RCLI, Evidence, Bombay Presidency, I, i, written evidence, The Social Service League, p. 445.

55 Dissatisfaction in this regard was often expressed in the speeches of the chairmen of the Bombay Millowners' Association at their annual general meetings; see, for instance, the BMOA, Annual Report, (1934), Chairman's speech, p. ii.

56 BMOA, Annual Report, 1893, p. 16.

57 BRIC, oral evidence, Milton Kubes, file 5, p. 241–3, MSA.

58 ibid., p. 201.

59 BRIC, oral evidence, Syed Munawar, file 3, p. 269, MSA.

60 BDEC, evidence, extracts from the monthly reports of the Labour Officer, BMOA, in GOB Home (sp) file 550 (25) III of 1938, pp. 173–245, MSA.

61 Times of India, 8 August 1929.

62 RCLI, evidence, Bombay Presidency I, i, written evidence, Mr M. S. Bhumgara, p. 499.

63 In January 1928, during the strike wave which finally launched the general strike, the police observed: ‘The strikers were determined not to work the new system and are gradually leaving for the native places by the coasting steamers and trains after receiving their wages’. Bombay Presidency Police [henceforth BPP], Secret Abstracts of Intelligence [SAI], 1928, no. 3, 21 January, para. 61.

64 BRIC, oral evidence, S. K. Bolc, file 3, p. 217, MSA.

65 Interview, V. B. Karnik, April, 1979.

66 BRIC, oral evidence, G. L. Kandalkar and V. H. Joshi, file 16, p. 71, MSA.

67 BRIC, oral evidence, S. K. Bole, file 3, p. 247, MSA.

68 MCC, statement by S. A. Dange, pp. 2447–8.

69 Commissioner of Police, Bombay, Daily Report, 6 April 1940 in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (23) C-I of 1940, p. 83, MSA.

70 BDEC, evidence, Girni Kamgar Union, Bombay (Kandalkar) in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III of 1938, p. 431, MSA.

71 See leaflets collected in GOB, Home (sp) file 543 (46) of 1934 and 543 (46) pt I of 1934, MSA.

72 BDEC, confidential statement submitted by the Bombay Millowners' Association in GOB Home (sp) file 550 III of 1938, p. 315, MSA.

73 Commissioner of Police, Bombay, Daily Reports, 1 April 1940 in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (23) C-I of 1940, p. 21, MSA.

74 BDEC, confidential statement submitted by the BMOA, Annexure B-I in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III of 1938, pp. 317–43, MSA.

75 BDEC, oral evidence, S. K. Patil in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III B of 1938, p. 401, MSA.

76 BDEC, oral evidence, Mr U'ren, Deputy Commissioner of Police in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III B of 1938, pp. 681–3, MSA.

77 Bombay Strike Enquiry Committee. 19281929, Proceedings [henceforth BSEC], vol. I, p. 121, MSA.

78 BDEC, oral evidence, Jayasingrao Bajirao in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III B of 1938, p. 553; see also the evidence of Dhaku Janu Lad, p. 105, MSA.

79 BMOA, Annual Report, 1928, Chairman's speech, AGM, p. iii.

80 BDEC, BMOA answers to the questionnaire in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III of 1938 pp. 141–5, MSA.

81 BMOA, Annual Report, 1928, Chairman's speech, AGM, pp. v–vii; BMOA, Annual Report, 1933, Chairman's speech, AGM, p. v.

82 BDEC, oral evidence of Dhaku Janu Lad, in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III B of 1938, p. 105, MSA.

83 BRIC, oral evidence, J. Addyman, file I, p. 85, MSA.

84 BSEC, vol. I, p. 122, MSA.

85 BRIC, oral evidence of K. F. Nariman, file 6, p. 85, MSA.

86 Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to Secretary, GOB, Home (sp) Secret no. 3757 B, 8 August 1935 in GOB, Home (sp) file 543 (77) of 1935, p. 77, MSA.

87 Departmental note in GOB, Home (sp) file 543 (42) of 1940, p. 16, MSA.

88 During the 1930s, three unions adopted this name.

89 BRIC, oral evidence, Syed Munawar, file 3, p. 267, MSA.

90 See Confidential Proceedings of the Government of Bombay, 1917, vol. 25, pp. 1519, IOL.

91 RCLI, evidence, I, i, written evidence, the Bombay Textile Labour Union, p. 353. The outcome of these agonies was that by 1931 the Union's membership figure stood at 56 and was to fall further to 20 in 1938; see Labour Gazette, ‘Principal trade unions in the Bombay Presidency’, passim.

92 Labour Gazette, vol. II, no. 7, March 1923, p. 26.

93 Departmental note in GOB, Home (sp) file 543 (10) E Pt D of 1929, p. 25, MSA.

94 BSEC, vol. I, p. 71, MSA.

95 MCC, statement submitted by S. A. Dange, pp. 2413–15.

96 MCC, examination of Arjun A. Alwe, p. 961; BPP, SAI, 1928, no. 20, 19 May, para. 793; GOB, Home (sp) file 543 (18) C of 1928, MSA.

97 MCC, statement submitted by S. A. Dange, p. 2424.

98 ibid., p. 2507.

99 Report of the Court of Inquiry into a Trade Dispute Between Several Textile Mills and their Workmen (Bombay, 1929), p. 11.

100 See BRIC, oral evidence, file 5, Milton Kubes, pp. 209–13, MSA.; see also MCC, statement submitted by S. A. Dange, pp. 2498–537.

101 BRIC, oral evidence, file 2, Sir M. M. Ramji, p. 367, MSA.

102 MCC, statement submitted by S. A. Dange, p. 2514.

103 Ibid.

104 MCC, vol. 10, Marathi Exhibits, Girni Kamgar Union Minute Book, Public Meetings, pp. 6–7.

105 BDEC, evidence, extract from monthly report of the Labour Officer, BMOA, August 1935, in GOB, Home (sp) file 550 (25) III, of 1938, p. 181, MSA.

106 GOB, HD (sp) file 546 (13) B (1) of 19371938, p. 7, MSA.

107 Smith, W. R. G., Commissioner of Police to R. M. Maxwell, Secretary, GOB, Home (sp), no. 3035 L, 20 June 1935, in GOB, Home (sp) file 543 (48) L, pp. 99–101, MSA.

108 MCC, examination of Arjun A. Alwe, 12 August 1931, p. 972.

109 See, for instance, Edwardes, Bombay City Police, Appendix, p. 197.

110 ‘Statement relating to the disturbances in the City of Bombay in April 1919’, in Bombay Confidential Proceedings, 1920, vol. 53, pp. 13–27 IOL; ‘A Report from the Commissioner of Police, Bombay to the Government of Bombay Concerning Political Developments before and during 1919’ in Curry Papers, Box IV, item nos 54 and 55, Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge; BPP, SAI, 1917, no. 29, 21 July para. 794.

111 MCC, statement submitted by S. A. Dange, p. 2404.

112 ibid., pp. 2438–9; BRIC, oral evidence, K. F. Nariman, p. 87, MSA.

113 GOB, Home (sp) file 543 (18) C of 1928, MSA.

114 BRIC, oral evidence, W. T. Halai, file 5, p. 81, MSA.

115 BRIC, file 6, oral evidence, Dr P. G. Solanki, p. 165; see also, file 16, oral evidence of G. L. Kandalkar and V. H. Joshi of the Girni Kamgar Union, pp. 65–7, MSA.

116 Indian National Herald, 7 December 1928.

117 Letter, Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to Secretary, GOB, Home, Bombay no. 5395 L, 13 December 1928, in GOB, Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, MSA.

118 Ibid.

119 Indian National Herald, 7 December 1928. Mayekar, claimed the paper, only ‘masquerades as a labour leader and is, in fact, alleged to be an agent of the Criminal Investigation Department.’

120 GOB, Home (sp), file 543 (18) C of 1928, MSA.

121 MCC, statement submitted by S. A. Dange, p. 2522.

122 Telegram, Police Commissioner to Secretary, GOB, Home (sp) no. 5368 L, 12 December 1928 in GOB Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, MSA.

123 Letter, Commissioner of Police to Secretary, GOB, Home, Bombay no. 5395 L, 13 December 1928, in GOB, Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, pp. 41–5, MSA.

124 Report of H. C. Stokes, Inspector, Byculla Police Station, D. Division in GOB, Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, pp. 13–15, MSA; Times of India, 21 December 1928.

125 Report by Inspector Klein, Bhoiwada Police Station to Superintendent of Police, E. Division, Bombay in GOB, Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, pp. 21–5, MSA.

126 Letter of Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to Secretary, GOB, Home, Bombay no. 5395 L, 13 December 1928 in GOB, Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, pp. 41–5, MSA.

127 Report by W. D. R. Spiers, Superintendent, E. Division, in GOB, Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, pp. 27–31, MSA.

128 Letter Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to Secretary, GOB, Home, Bombay no. 5395 L, 13 December 1928 in GOB, Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, p. 41–5, MSA.

129 Indian National Herald, 7 December 1928.

130 Ibid.

131 Letter, Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to Secretary, GOB, Home, Bombay no 5395 L, 13 December 1928 in GOB, Home (Poll) file 265 of 1928, p. 45, MSA.

132 Their leaflets, fly-sheets and public meetings dealt with such questions as jobber tyranny, methods of wage calculations, the shortcomings of ‘efficiency’ schemes which increased workloads without improving machinery, the use of the rotation of shifts to weed out troublesome workers and the causes of unemployment. See, for instance, the communist fly-sheets and leaflets collected in GOB, Home (sp) file 543 (46) of 1934 and file 543 (46) Pt 1 of 1934, MSA.

133 Times of India, 8 August 1929.

134 MCC, statements made by the accused, non-communist series, examination of S. H. Jhabvala, p. 756. This comment must also be read in the light that Jhabvala by his own admission ‘knew very little Mahratti’ and was, when he spoke these words, apparently isolated within the labour movement.

135 Memorandum by Director of Information, Government of Bombay, 3 May 1929 in GOB, Home (Poll) file 344 of 1929, pp. 113–15, MSA.

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