• The beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century heralded the entry of modern industry into India. The thousands of hands employed in construction of railways were harbingers of the modern Indian working class.
  • Further industrialisation came with the development of ancillary industries along with the railways. The coal industry developed fast and employed a large working force. Then came the cotton and the jute industries.
  • The Indian working class suffered from the same kind of exploitation witnessed during the industrialisation of Europe and the rest of the West, such as low wages, long working hours, unhygienic and hazardous working conditions, employment of child labour and the absence of basic amenities.
  • The presence of colonialism in India gave a distinctive touch to the Indian working class movement. The Indian working class had to face two basic antagonistic forces—an imperialist political rule and economic exploitation at the hands of both foreign and native capitalist classes. Under the circumstances, inevitably, the Indian working class movement became intertwined with the political struggle for national emancipation.
  • All India class is linked with the growth of Indian National Movement and the process of the Indian Nation-in-the-making because the notion of the Indian Working Class could not exist before the notion of the Indian people had begun to take roots.
  • The Gov of India was pro-capitalist and took some half-hearted steps to mitigate sorry state of labours.

Earlier Efforts:

The early nationalists, especially the Moderates:

  1. Were indifferent to the labour’s cause;
  2. Differentiated between the labour in the Indian-owned factories and those in the British-owned factories.  In case of British-owned enterprises, nationalists had no hesitation in giving full support to the workers. This was partially because the employer and the employed, in the words of P. Ananda Charlu, the Congress president in 1891, were not ‘part and parcel of the same nation.’
  3. Believed that labour legislations would affect the competitive edge enjoyed by the Indian-owned industries;
  4. Did not want a division in the movement on the basis of classes;
  5. Did not support the Factory Acts of 1881 and 1891 for these reasons.
  6. But there was also the nationalist newspaper, Mahratta, then under the influence of the radical thinker, G.S. Agarkar, which even at this stage supported the workers’ cause and asked the mill owners to make concessions to them. This trend was, however, still a very minor one.
  • One major reason for the relatively lukewarm attitude of the early that, at this time, when the anti-imperialist movement was in its very infancy, the nationalists did not wish to, in any way, weaken the common struggle against British rule — the primary task to be achieved in a colonial situation — by creating any divisions within the ranks of the Indian people. Dadabhai Naoroji, in the very second session of the Indian National Congress (1886), made it clear that the Congress ‘must confine itself to questions in which the entire nation has a direct participation, and it must leave the adjustment of social reforms and other class questions to class Congresses.
  • Later, with the national movement gaining in strength, and the emergence within the nationalist ranks of ideological trends with less inhibitions towards labour and increasingly with an actively pro labour orientation, efforts were made to organize labour and secure for it a better bargaining position  vis-a -vis the more powerful classes in the common anti-imperialist front. While still endeavouring to maintain an anti-imperialist united front, unity was no longer sought at the unilateral cost of the worker and the oppressed but was to be secured through sacrifices or concessions from all classes.
  • Thus, earlier attempts to improve the economic conditions of the workers were in the nature of the philanthropic efforts which were isolated, sporadic and aimed at specific local grievances.
  • 1870: Sasipada Banerjee (Brahmo Social Reformer) started a working men’s club and newspaper Bharat Shramjeevi.
  • 1878: Sorabjee Shapoorji Bengalee tried unsuccessfully to get a bill, providing better working conditions to labour and limit working hours, passed in the Bombay Legislative Council.
  • 1880: Narain Meghajee Lokhanday started the Anglo-Marathi weekly newspaper Deenbandhu and set up the Bombay Mill and Millhands Association.
  • 1899: The first strike by the Great Indian Peninsular Railways took place, and it got widespread support. Tilak’s Kesari and Maharatta had been campaigning for the strike for months. Public meetings and fund collections in aid of the strikers were organized in Bombay and Bengal by prominent nationalists like Pherozeshah Mehta, D.E. Wacha and Surendranath Tagore. The fact that the exploiter in these cases was foreign was enough to take agitation against it a national issue and an integral part of national movement.
  • There were many prominent nationalist leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal and G. Subramanya Aiyar who demanded better conditions for workers and other pro-labour reforms.

During Swadeshi Movement of Bengal:

  • Workers participated in wider political issues which was shift from earlier agitation on only economic questions. Strikes were organised by Ashwini Coomar Banerjee, Prabhat Kumar Roy Chaudhuri, Premtosh Bose and Apurba Kumar Ghosh. These strikes were organised in government press, railways and the jute industry.
  • The number of strikes rose sharply and also it graduated from unorganised strikes to organised strikes.Swadeshi leaders enthusiastically threw themselves into tasks of organising stable trade unions, strikes, legal aids, fund raising etc. The first tentative attempts to form all-India unions were also made at this timer but these were unsuccessful. The differential attitude towards workers employed in European enterprises and those in Indian ones, however, persisted throughout this period.
  • Subramaniya Siva and Chidambaram Pillai led strikes in Tuticorin and Tirunelvelli in a foreign-owned cotton mill saying that strikes for higher wages would lead to the demise of foreign mills. and were arrested.
  • In Rawalpindi, in Punjab, the arsenal and railway engineering workers went on strike as part of the 1907 upsurge in the Punjab which had led to the deportation of Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh.
  • The biggest strike of the period was organised after Tilak’s arrest and trial.
  • The Swadeshi period was also to see the faint beginnings of a socialist tinge among some of the radical nationalist leaders who were exposed to the contemporary Marxist and social democratic forces in Europe. The example of the working class movement in Russia as a mechanism of effective political protest began to be urged for emulation in India.
  • With the decline in the nationalist mass upsurge after 1908, the labour movement also suffered an eclipse. It was only with the coming of the next nationalist upsurge in the immediate post World-War I years that the working class movement was to regain, though now on a qualitatively higher plane.

During The First World War and After:

  • The War and its aftermath brought a rise in exports, soaring prices, and massive profiteering opportunities for the industrialists but very low wages for the workers. This led to discontent among workers.
  • The emergence of Gandhi led to a broad-based national movement and the emphasis was placed on the mobilisation of the workers and peasants for the national cause.
  • A need was felt for the organisation of the workers in trade unions.
  • International events like the establishment of a socialist republic in the Soviet Union, formation of the Comintern and setting up of International Labour Organisation (ILO) and economic depression lent a new dimension to the movement of the working class in India.
  • The strike movement which began in 1918 and swept the country in 1919 and 1920 was intense. The end of 1918 saw the first great strike affecting an entire industry in a leading centre in the Bombay cotton mills. The response to the hartal against the Rowlatt Act in the spring of 1919 showed the political role of the workers in the forefront of the common national struggle.
  • Railway workers’ agitations for economic demands and against racial discrimination also coincided with the general anticolonial mass struggle. Between 1919 and 1921, on several occasions railway workers struck in support of the Rowlatt agitation and the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat Movement.
  • The call for an All-India general strike given by the North Western Railway workers in April l919 got after enthusiastic response in the northern region. Lajpat Jagga has shown that for railwaymen in large parts of the country Gandhiji came to symbolize resistance to colonial rule and exploitation, just as the Indian Railways symbolized the British Empire, ‘the political and commercial will of the Raj.”
  • Trade unions were formed by the score in this period. There was not yet any political movement on the basic of socialism of the conception of class struggle.
  • In November 1921, at the time of the visit of the Prince of Wales, the workers responded to the Congress call of a boycott by a countrywide general strike. In Bombay, the textile factories were closed and about 1,40,000 workers were on the streets participating in the rioting and attacks on Europeans and Parsis who had gone to welcome the Prince of Wales.
  • First attempts at trade union organisation were springing up all over India during this period. There is a trace of the Workers in the Ahmedabad Cotton Mills forming a union in 1917. But the basis of organisation was still very weak and far behind the level of militancy.
  • The starting point of Indian trade unionism is commonly derived from the Madras Labour Union, formed by B.P. Wadia, an associate of the theosophist Mrs. Besant , in 1918.


  • The All India Trade Union Congress was founded on October 31, 1920. The Indian National Congress president for the year, Lala Lajpat Rai, was elected as the first president of AITUC and Dewan Chaman Lai as the first general secretary.
  • Lajpat Rai was the first to link capitalism with imperialism—”imperialism and militarism are the twin children of capitalism”.
  • In his presidential address to the first AITUC, Lala Lajpat Rai emphasized that, ‘Indian labour should lose no time to organize itself on a national scale… the greatest need in this Country is to organize, agitate, and educate. We must organize our workers, make them class conscious.’
  • The manifesto issued to the workers by the AITUC urged them not only to organize themselves but also to intervene in nationalist politics.
  • In its early years, AITUC leaders had very limited connection with the working class movements. The main purpose of its founding was to secure a nominating body for representation at the International Labour Conference at Geneva.
  • In second-session-of the AITUC, Dewan Chaman Lal while moving a resolution in favour of Swaraj pointed out that it was to be a Swaraj, not for the capitalists but for the workers.
  • The prominent Congress and swarajist leader C.R. Das presided over the third and the fourth sessions of the AITUC. The Gaya session of the Congress (1922) welcomed the formation of the AITUC and a committee was formed to assist it.
  • C.R. Das advocated that the Congress should take up the workers’ and peasants’ cause and incorporate them in the struggle for swaraj or else they would get isolated from the movement. Other leaders who kept close contacts with the AITUC included Nehru, Subhash Bose, C.F. Andrews, J.M. Sengupta, Satyamurthy, V.V. Giri and Sarojini Naidu.
  • In the beginning, the AITUC was influenced by social democratic ideas of the British Labour Party. The Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, trusteeship and class-collaboration had great influence on the movement.
  • Gandhi helped organise the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (1918) and through a protest secured a 27.5 per cent wage hike. (Later, the arbitrator’s award ensured a 35 per cent raise.).
  • Too often and too casually had Gandhiji’s experiment based on the principle of trusteeship (the capitalist being the trustee of the workers’ interest) and arbitration been dismissed as class collaborationist and against the interests of the workers.Apart from the fact that the TLA secured one of the highest hikes in wages (27 1t2 per cent) during a dispute in 1918, Gandhiji’s conception of trusteeship also had a radical potential which is usually missed. As Acharya J.B. Kripalani, one of Gandhiji’s followers, explained: ‘The Trustee by the very term used means that he is not the owner. The owner is one whose interest he is called upon to protect,’ i.e., the worker. Gandhiji himself told the textile workers of Ahmedabad ‘that they were the real masters of the mills and if the trustee, the mill owner, did
    not act in the interest of the real owners, then the workers should offer Satyagraha to assert their rights.” Gandhiji’s philosophy for labour, with its emphasis on arbitration and trusteeship,also reflected the needs of the anti- imperialist movement which could ill-afford an all-out class war between the constituent classes of the emerging nation.

Government Response:

  • British Government showed some steps by the appointment of Bengal Committee Department in 1919-20, Bombay Industrial Dispute Committee of 1922 and Madras Labour Department in 1921 (passed in 1926).
  • The main aim of Government was to find the means to direct the labour movement in India into the safe channel and right type of unionism. This was reflected in Trade Union Act of 1926 with its special restriction of political activities.

The Trade Union Act, 1926:

  1. Recognised trade unions as legal associations;
  2. laid down conditions for registration and regulation of trade union activities;
  3. Secured immunity, both civil and criminal, for trade unions from prosecution for legitimate activities, but put some restrictions on their political activities.

Late 1920s:

  • After 1922, there was again a lull in the working class movement, and a reversion to purely economic struggles, that is, to corporatism. The next wave of working class activity came towards the end of the 1920s, this time spurred by the emergence of a powerful and clearly defined Left Bloc in the national movement.
  • Formally Communist Party of India was founded in 1925. Communist believed in Class Struggle unlike socialist who did not believed in class struggle but were conscious of organising peasants and workers with a view to serve their economic and other interest.
  • Various Communist groups in different parts of India had by early 1927 organized themselves into the Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties (WPP), under the leadership of people like S.A. Dange, Muzaffar Ahmed, P.C. Joshi and Sohan Singh Josh. The WPPs, functioning as a left-wing within the Congress, rapidly gained in strength within the Congress organization.
  • Strong communist influences on the movement lent a militant and revolutionary content to it. In 1928 there was a six-month-long strike in Bombay Textile Mills led by the Girni Kamgar Union.
  • The workers under Communist and radical nationalist influence participated in a large number of strikes and demonstrations all over the country between 1922 and 1929. The AITUC in November 1927 took a decision to boycott the Simon Commission and many workers participated in the massive Simon boycott demonstrations. There were also numerous workers’ meetings organized on May Day, Lenin Day, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and so on.
  • Some success was achieved as Government  appointed the Royal Commission on Labour in 1929. But alarmed at the increasing strength of the trade union movement under extremist influence, the Government resorted to legislative restrictions. It passed the Public Safety Ordinance (1929) and the Trade Disputes Act (TDA), 1929.
  • The TDA, 1929:
  1. Made compulsory the appointment of Courts of Inquiry and Consultation Boards for settling industrial disputes;
  2. Made illegal the strikes in public utility services like posts, railways, water and electricity, unless each individual worker planning to go on strike gave an advance notice of one month to the administration;
  3. 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.
  • From about the end of 1928, the Communists reversed their policy of aligning themselves with and working within the mainstream of the national movement. This led to the isolation of the Communists from the national movement and greatly reduced their hold over even the working class.
  • The Left leadership, which came into control of the AITUC in 1929 lacked coherence, being composed of very adverse elements.  This left wing within AITUC grew aggrssive which resulted in split in 1929 in which N.M. Joshi broke away from the AITUC to set up the India Trade Union Federation. AITUC now came with an extensive and bold programme.
  • The workers participated during 1930 in the Civil Disobedience Movement but after 1931 there was a dip in the working class movement because of a further split in AITUC in 1931 mainly on the question of the independent political role of the working class. The communist section which held this view formed Red Trade Union Congress.  Workers take an active part in the second phase of Civil Disobedience Movement of 1932-34.
  • The Communists had, in the meantime, abandoned their suicidal sectarian policies and since 1934 re-enacted the mainstream of nationalist politics. They also rejoined the AITUC in 1935. Left influence in nationalist politics and the trade union movement once again began to grow rapidly. The Communists, the Congress Socialists and the Left nationalists led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose now formed a powerful Left consolidation within the Congress and other mass organizations.
  • The next wave of working class activity came with provincial autonomy and the formation of popular ministries during 1937-l939.

Under Congress Ministries and Afterwards:

  • During the 1937 elections, the AITUC had supported the Congress candidates. One of the principal factors which gave a fillip to the trade union movement during Congress ministries was the increased civil liberties under the Congress Governments and the pro-labour attitude of many of the Congress ministries. It is significant that a peculiar feature of the strikes in this period was that a majority of them ended successfully, with full or partial victory for the workers.’Many legislations favourable to the workers were passed but due to Capitalists pressure, many Congress ministries was not able to go too far.
  • In 1938 at Nagpur, National Federation of Trade Unions affiliated itself with AITUC with equal representation to the two sections in the governing body of the Congress. The Trade Union once againt became the uniting body of India trade unionism as a whole, only Textile labour Association of Ahmedabad under Gandhist inspiration remained outside.
  • AITUC now came forward with an extensive and bold economic political programmes with the aim of establishment of a socialist statue in India, socialisation and nationalisation of means of production etc.
  • The special characteristics of Congress Socialist Party was that  its membership was made conditional on membership of the Indian National Congress, the party thus constituted a wing within Congress and discouraged mass membership.
  • Before the beginning of second world war in India the trade union movement spread leading to the formation of several unions.

During And After the Second World War:

  • Initially, the workers opposed the War but after 1941 when Russia joined the war on behalf of the Allies, the communists described the war as a “peoples’ war” and supported it.
  • With the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the Communists argued that the character of the War had changed from an imperialist war to a people’s war. It was now the duty of the working class to support the Allied powers to defeat Fascism which threatened the socialist fatherland. Because of this shift in policy, the Communist party dissociated itself from the Quit India Movement launched by Gandhiji in August 1942. They also successfully followed a policy of industrial peace with employers so that production and war-effort would not be hampered.
  • Despite the Communist opposition to Quit India Movement immediately after the arrest of Gandhiji and other leaders on 9 August 1942, following the Quit India Resolution, there were strikes and hartals all over the country, lasting for about a week. The Tata Steel Plant was closed for thirteen days with the strikers’ slogan being that they would not resume work till a national government was formed. In Ahmedabad, the textile strike lasted for about three-and-a-half months. The participation of workers was, however, low in pockets of Communist influence.
  • In the period 1945 to 1947, workers participated actively in the post-War national upsurges. In 1945, the dock workers of Bombay and Calcutta refused to load ships taking supplies to the warring troops in Indonesia.
  • During 1946, the workers went on a strike in support of the Naval Ratings. During the last year of foreign rule, there were strikes by workers of posts, railways and many other establishments.
  • The last years of colonial rule also saw a remarkably sharp increase in strikes on economic issues all over the country — the all-India strike of the Post and Telegraph Department employees being the most well known among them. The pent-up economic grievances during the War, coupled with the problems due to post-war demobilization and the continuation of high prices, scarcity of food and other essentials, and a drop in real wages, all combined to drive the working class to the limits of its tolerance. Also, the mood in anticipation of freedom was pregnant with expectation. Independence was seen by all sections of the Indian people as signalling an end to their miseries.


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