Before the 20th century, the working class struggles were limited to a few cities and only to meet the immediate economic grievances. They were sporadic and local. The early nationalist used to fight for the rights of European employed workers but not Indian employed workers as they didn’t want to create any division in Indian ranks by offending the Indian capitalists.
- In Bombay, where a predominantly Marathi labour force facilitated some degree of social contact across class lines, middle-class philanthropic efforts to improve labour conditions began fairly early with N.M. Lokhande (an associate of Phule) started the weekly Dinabandhu in 1880, organized labour meetings to demand shorter hours in 1884, and even started a Bombay Mill-hands’ Association in 1890.
- This, however, was not a trade union, it merely involved Lokhande setting up an office to give free advice to mill-hands who came to him.
- Similar activities were started by the Brahmo social reformer Sasipada Banerji among the Bengali jute mill-workers of Baranagore, a Calcutta suburb— night schools, clubs, temperance societies, a journal named Bharat Sramajeebi (1874), all trying to inculcate a middle-class Victorian morality of thrift, sobriety, and self-help among labourers.
- Bengali intelligentsia leaders like Dwarkanath Ganguli did launch a memorable campaign in the 1880s against the slave labour conditions in the tea plantations, but no one as yet made the attempt to organize the coolies themselves.
- Workers did occasionally fight back in their own way, through assaults on overseers, sporadic riots, and spontaneous short-lived strikes.
- But the important point made by Chakrabarti is the way in which embryonic labour protest could often take the form of a kind of ‘community-consciousness’ rather than a clear recognition of class.
- The impoverished Indian peasant or ruined artisan being sucked into factories tended to fall back upon sectional ties of the region, caste, kinship, or religion.
- The new urban environment in fact often strengthened such old loyalties, as the new immigrant found himself in an intensely competitive surplus labour market where unskilled hands fought each other for jobs—and jobs could usually be secured only through Sardars who were likely to favour their own community or kin, and who could also at times act as carriers of the separatist ideology of their social superiors.
Dual Nature of Protests
The opposition by congress to factory and labor legislation was due to them being dictated by British interests. The government would try to make Indian manufacturing less competitive by introducing such legislation. Hence even newspapers didn’t report much on strikes in Indian-owned industries.
However, when foreign capitalists were exploiting Indian labor congress would take up the cause and the press did wide reporting to highlight their problems. The swadeshi movement created an awakening and the workers were more organized after this movement. The reasons for strikes were also not limited to economic reasons but we’re connected to the national struggle. It got involved in mainstream politics too.
All India trade union congress was created in 1920 under the guidance of Tilak and the first meeting in Parel was under president Lala Lajpat Rai.
Soon by end of 1928, not a single public entity was without a union. The government too acted harshly to suppress the growing communist tendency. It enacted legislation “Public Safety bill” to prevent the spread of socialist and communist ideas and to acquire the power to arrest and deport any foreign national.
The bill was rejected by all sections of nationalists and even the capitalist class. Having failed to pass the bill the government arrested the entire leadership of the labor movement and tried them [Meerut conspiracy case].
The labor movement suffered a setback also when the communists changed their policy of aligning themselves with the national movement. This decision isolated them from the working class and they were thrown out of the AITUC in 1931.
The decision to not participate in the civil disobedience movement was suicidal. Although workers did take part in it. The dip in working-class movements was seen from 1931-to 1936 and the next wave was during the provincial elections in 1937. The pro-labor nature of congress ministries meant that the number of strikes and unions and membership increased. AITUC had given full support to congress during the elections.
When World War II broke out the workers were first to launch an anti-war strike in spite of the severe repression by the government to prevent any disruptions during the war. But the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union changed the communist stance. They refused to support Gandhiji’s call to quit the India movement. They maintained peace with the employers to ensure that industrial production wasn’t affected.
Rise of the Left-wing:
Socialist ideas acquired roots in Indian soil and socialism became the creed of the Indian youth whose urges came to be symbolized by J Nehru and SC Bose. Gradually there emerged two parties in India, the congress socialist party and the communist party of India.
The catalyst was the Russian revolution that had ended the czarist rule. Indian youth who had participated in the non-cooperation movement was influenced by socialism. They had no interest in either Gandhian politics or swarajist.
The period also saw the emergence of youth groups, unionism, and peasant sabhas. Jawaharlal Nehru and Bose preached against capitalism and militarism. Socialism became even more popular after the economic depression of the 1930s. Congress saw an increase in left-wing influence when Nehru and Bose were elected president.
It was Nehru who was the champion of the socialist cause. He wanted Congress to follow a program of socialism if the cause of the country had to be advanced. But he never wanted a separate organization outside the congress.
The Trade Union Act, 1926
- The Act recognized trade unions as legal associations;
- laid down conditions for registration and regulation of trade union activities
- secured immunity, both civil and criminal, for trade unions from prosecution for legitimate activities, but put some restrictions on their political activities.
Public Safety Ordinance (1929) and the Trade Disputes Act (TDA), 1929
- Alarmed at the increasing strength of the trade union movement under the extremist influence, the Government resorted to these legislative restrictions.
- The TDA, 1929 made compulsory the appointment of Courts of Inquiry and Consultation Boards for settling industrial disputes;
- made illegal the strikes in public utility services like posts, railways, water, and electricity, unless each individual worker planning to go on strike gave advance notice of one month to the administration;
- forbade trade union activity of coercive or purely political nature and even sympathetic strikes.
Meerut Conspiracy Case (1929)
- In March 1929, the Government arrested 31 labour leaders and the three and-a. half-year trial resulted in the conviction of Muzaffar Ahmed, S.A. Dange, Joglekar, Philip Spratt, Ben Bradley, Shaukat Usmani, and others. The trial got worldwide publicity but weakened the working-class movement.