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Nationalism and the working class movements: Part III

Nationalism and the working class movements: Part III

Attitude of INC towards working class:

  • The Indian National Congress from the very beginning took an ambivalent position vis-a-vis the working class. During the Swadeshi period there were isolated attempts to organise labour strikes in European owned industries and railways.
    • But the nationalist leaders hardly took any initiative to mobilise the workers. Where a congenial situation was created by the “spontaneous” action of the working class, they only intervened to harness it to their own movement.
  • By 1918, as strikes began and the working class asserted itself, it became increasingly difficult for Congress to ignore them.
    • So in 1919 at its Amritsar session it adopted a resolution urging the provincial committees to “promote labour unions throughout India“.
  • But by this Time it had also developed a close relationship with the big business.
    • So in the labour front, Congress could afford to be more articulate only where European capitalists were involved, such as the railways, jute mills or the tea gardens; and they exerted a moderating influence where the Indian capitalists were affected, like the jamshedpur steel plants or the textile industry in Bombay and Ahmedabad.
    • The workers were often asked to sacrifice their present day needs for the future of the nation, as a strike affecting Indian business was portrayed as likely to perpetuate foreign economic domination.
    • The workers’ unresolved grievances were to be met once the swaraj was attained.
  • From the 1920s these dilemmas of the Congress were very clearly visible, often inviting articulate, even violent, disapproval of the workers themselves.
  • Some of the Congress leaders did from time to time participate in strike,
      • such as Gandhi in the Ahmedabad textile strike in 1918 or
      • Subhas Bose in the Jamshedpur steel strike in 1928-29;
      • others got involved in trade union movement, such as V. V. Giri in Madras or
      • Guljarilal Nanda in Ahmedabad.
    • But they did so as individuals, often to increase their own popularity as nationalist leaders.
  • Some of them were involved in the formation of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), which was constituted in 1920 to elect an Indian delegation to the international Labour Organisation.
    • Although number of trade unions affiliated to it began to increase in the 1920s, its national existence remained “largely marginal“, except in 1929 when there was a communist threat of take Over.
  • The differential attitude towards workers employed in European enterprises and those in Indian ones persisted throughout.
    • The Non-cooperation resolution adopted by the Congress in 1920, therefore, talked about oppression of workers by foreign agents, but failed to mention that the Indian employers also perpetrated similar atrocities.
    • As a result, the management in Indian owned industries regarded trade unions dominated by Congress leaders, like the ATLA or the JLA, as the more desirable legitimate channels of negotiations.
  • The workers, on the other hand, sometimes had little faith in such organisation.
    • In Ahmedabad, there were series of strikes in 1921-22 which the union failed to control, while after the failure of the 1923 strike, in which the union had taken the initiative, the membership of the ATLA rabidly declined.
    • In Jamshedpur, after the strike of 1928, the JLA leader Subhas Bose had to be escorted by Gurkha police, as his own supporters turned against him because of the compromise settlement he had arrived at with the TISCO management.
  • Yet, despite sometimes organisational apathy from the Congress, the working class in various parts of the country participated overwhelmingly in the- nationalist movement. Their direct participation in the Gandhian agenda was selective, but what was important, they often integrated the nationalist agitation’ into their own struggle and industrial actions.
    • The strike waves in the Bengal industrial centres in 1920-21 were directly motivated by the new spirit and enthusiasm generated by the Khilafat-Non-cooperation movement.
    • The strikes in the Assam tea gardens, the Assam-Bengal Railways and the steamship employees at Chandpur in May 1921 were also directly related to this movement.
    • In Ahmedabad, during the latter part of Non-cooperation movement there was at least one strike per month in the textile industry, and some of them were organised around quite radical demands.
    • The striking workers in the Madras cotton mills run by the Binnys invited the Congress Non-cooperators to give them leadership.
    • The strikes of the North-Western Railways in 1919 and 1920 were also inspired by the Congress movement.
  • And only sometimes the Congress leaders themselves were directly responsible for organising these strikes.
  • Sometimes, workers’ own nationalism surpassed that of the Congress leaders in its radicalism and militancy.
    • In 1928 the Calcutta session of the Congress was taken over for two hours by thirty thousand workers who passed resolutions for the complete independence of India and for a labour welfare scheme.
  • One of the obvious results of this Congress dilemma towards worker movements was the increasing influence of the communists in the labour front.
  • Gandhiji’s experiment based on the principle of trusteeship (the capitalist being the trustee of the workers’ interest) and arbitration.
    • Since 1918, he was developing the philosophy of harmonious capital-labour relationship.
    • Gandhi disapproved of the autonomous labour militancy and after the Chandpur tragedy in May 1921 seriously reprimanded the Bengal Congress leadership for their misadventure in trying to harness this militancy in the cause of nationalism.
      • He reasoned: “We seek not to destroy capital or capitalists but to regulate the relations between capital and labour“.
      • The same argument resonated in jawaharlal Nehru’s statement in 1929. As the President of the AITUC, he reminded everybody that Congress was “not a labour organisation“, but “a large body comprising all manner of people”.
      • Although the Congress Socialists showed greater sympathy for labour, the compulsion to remain an umbrella organisation representing the interests of all the classes became obstacle for Congress in integrating the working classes more closely into its movement.
    • Apart from the fact that the TLA secured one of the highest hikes in wages (27.5 per cent) during a dispute in 1918, Gandhiji’s conception of trusteeship also had a radical potential.
    • 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.

Workers during Civil Disobedience Movement:

  • CPI dissociated itself from Civil Disobedience Movement.
    • The decision of the communists to dissociate themselves from the Congress under a fiat from Comintern in 1928 cost the Indian communists dearly, as the Civil Disobedience movement soon diverted mass attention to Gandhi and the Congress.
    • The workers’ allegiance to communists was neither permanent nor unconditional.
  • The workers participated during 1930 in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
    • The textile workers of Sholapur, dock labourers of Karachi, transport and mill owners of Calcutta, and the mill workers of Madras clashed with the Government during the movement.
    • In Bombay, where the Congress slogan during civil disobedience was that the ‘workers and peasants are the hands and the feet of the Congress,’.
    • The day Gandhiji breached the salt law, 6 April, a Satyagraha was launched by the workers of GIP Railwaymen’s Union.
    • In Chota Nagpur in 1930, the workers began to wear Gandhi caps and attended nationalist meetings in thousands.
    • By linking up the strikes with the nationalist movement the workers sought greater legitimacy for their own struggles.
  • 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. 
  • The Communists had, in the meantime, abandoned their suicidal sectarian policies and since 1934 re-enacted the mainstream of nationalist politics.
    • There was a communist revival around 1933-34, after the Civil Disobedience movement was withdrawn and the Comintern in the summer of 1935 mandated in favour of a united front strategy.
    • Communists 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 results were increasing working class enthusiasm and militancy around 1937-38, manifested in another strike wave across the country.
      • This consolidation of communist position among the working classes was perhaps one reason why the provincial Congress governments became so sternly anti-labour at this stage.
  • 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.
  • Compulsions to seek labour votes in the provincial elections of 1937 forced the Congress to include in its election manifesto some promises for labour welfare programmes.
    • The Congress election manifesto declared that the Congress would take steps for the settlement of labour disputes and take effective measures for securing the rights to form unions and go on strike.
    • Its subsequent victory, therefore, aroused great enthusiasm and expectations among the working classes, as a number of trade union leaders became labour ministers in congress cabinets.
  • 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.
  • During the tenure of the Congress Provincial Governments the trade union movement showed a phenomenal rise.
    • Trade union membership increased by 50 per cent during this time, leading to a spectacular rise in industrial unrest and strikes in 1937-38, causing panic among the Indian industrialists.
    • This only resulted in a decisive anti-labour shift in Congress policies.
  • In a non-Congress province like Bengal, the Congress leaders were only too happy to support the general jute mill strike in 1937, as it was an ideal opportunity to discredit the to discredit the Fazlul Huq ministry and to hit at the “white bosses” of the IJMA.
    • Nehru even went so far as to claim it to be “a part of our freedom movement.
    • Yet at the same time, in the Congress provinces like Bombay, Madras and UP, their governments were using similar strong-arm tactics to control industrial unrest.
    • The same Nehru, known for his socialist leanings, during the Kanpur textile strikes—Of 1937, while condemning the victimsaion of workers also defended the mill manager’s “right to dismiss a worker who does not do his work well.”
  • By this point, the Congress appeared to be too closely allied with the Indian capitalists, the passage of the Bombay Trades Disputes Act in 1938 being an unmistakable marker of that growing friendship.
    • All parties except Congress condemned it and the passage of the bill was immediately greeted with a general strike in Bombay.
  • 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 against 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:
    • The working class of Bombay was amongst the first in the world to hold an anti-war strike on 2 October, 1939.
  • 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 and supported the 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 followed a policy of industrial peace with employers so that production and war-effort would not be hampered.
  • But communist endeavours to consolidate popular support for the “Peoples, War” did not succeed.
    • The workers’ allegiance to them in the past was largely because of their continued resistance to the state.
    • Since their role now reversed, “their fortunes also began to wane”, as the Quit India movement drew huge mass support.
    • Although the communists in the 1940s took control of a few trade unions and came to dominate the AITUC, in real terms this did not indicate their rising popularity, as very few workers were actually unionised.
  • 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 though in many areas the Communist rank and file, actively joined the call of Quit India despite the party line.
  • 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.

Workers were neither unresponsive to, nor dissociated from the nationalist or leftist politics organised by educated middle-class politicians; but their support was conditional, not absolute.

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