Going Unsung

May 1, 2015 marks the 126th International workers’ day, a Public Holiday for working communities in 90 countries across the world. Barring two or three states, it is a not a statutory holiday in India. Interestingly, it has been a statutory holiday in China since 1950. The Communist Left in India and in the sub-continent as a whole has been celebrating May Day for long without really making it an annual date for uniting wage earners. For them it is more like a ritual to be observed for the sake of ritual. All their combined workers’ unions fail to demonstrate adequately their power of defiance on the occasion, albeit toilers in the sub-continent have a glorious struggling past.

With heroic struggle and unforgettable sacrifice labour played a pioneering role in this sub-continent’s struggle for independence from colonial rule. Labour's undeniable leading role is also there in making the society humane and democratic. In areas and at times, labour struggled alone for the causes in this land. But it's a march to progress for all.

Labour's struggle for liberation from all forms of bondage and backwardness should be inscribed bright in the pages of history. Only many epics can recite labour's historic struggle in this land.

Contradiction between labour and capital began the moment capital enslaved labour. From Peshawar to Yangon labour had to enter into struggle for survival, and for making circumstances and situations humane and democratic. It's a part of humanity's journey to emancipation.

The struggle spanned from the loco sheds in Rawalpindi to textile mills in Ahmedabad to coal pits in Jharia to jute mills along the Hooghly River to tea gardens in the Dooars to streets in Kolkata to factories in Narayanganj and Rangoon. The struggle, obscure and seemingly insignificant initially, took varying forms: composing songs, passive, peaceful, go-slow, active, forceful, desertion, going back to villages, wearing Khadi, the hand-spun and hand-woven cloth, and Gandhi cap, strike, general strike, standing by barricades, and unfurling flag of mutiny on navy ships. Labour's rising in the sub-continent led Lenin to write: "In India, too, the proletariat has already developed to conscious political mass struggle—and, that being the case, the Russian style British regime in India is doomed!"

The colonial rule was nothing but plundering a land—about 1,800, 000 square miles or more than twenty times the area of Great Britain; the colonial rule was nothing but chaining a people—318,942,000, or about one-fifth of all the humans in the world at that time. And, with the plundering and chaining the people the colonial masters were unashamedly happy and shamelessly proud.

The land was rich in resources. Clive, as he was quoted in the Indian Industrial Commission Report 1916-18, found Murshidabad in 1757 was "rich as the city of London", and was "possessing infinitely greater prosperity than London". Bernier, as he was quoted in Lectures on the Ancient System of Irrigation in Bengal and its Application to Modern Problems by Sir William Willcocks in 1930, found Bengal was "richer than Egypt".

In 1861, the colonial rulers issued an order on reclamation of degraded land. It was issued to encourage cotton cultivation. Cotton supply to the British Isles from America decreased due to American civil war. Mumbai textiles mills made wide expansion in 1863-1866. Bailing, shipping, marine insurance companies, 46 in number, came up in Mumbai during the period.

The East India Company exported the first consignment of jute in 1793: 100 tons. The first jute mills came into existence in 1855, and by 1869, 5 jute mills were operating with 950 looms. By 1910, 38 companies exported more than a billion yards of clothes and more than 450 million bags. By 1939, the number of looms increased to 68,377.

In 1834, Lord Bentinck submitted a proposal to the East India Company Council of Directors on the possibilities of tea industry in the sub-continent. The first tea consignment from Assam sent as a sample to London in 1837 found a ready market. Tea plantations began journey in the Brahmaputra valley in 1859, and the tea industry expanded. Tea plantation in Sylhet was established in 1857, the year the First War for Independence began, and in the Dooars, it was in 1874. By 1868, the area under tea plantation in Sylhet went up to 2,050 acres, and it expanded to more than 71,000 acres by 1900. Tea export to Britain went up to 13 crore and 70 lakh (10 million = 1 crore and 1 hundred thousand = 1 lakh) pounds by 1900. Speculation with land suitable for tea plantation began during the latter half of the 1800.

The 1894-1914 was the period of establishment of mining industry in the subcontinent. In 1895, 3 million tons of coal was extracted.  Railways, jute and textile industries, engineering and foundry workshops, rice mills and brick kilns increased the extraction of coal. Extractable and exploitable all areas were exploited only to enrich the colonial masters. The result : massive hunger was visiting the sub-continent.

Swadeshi movement found labour by its side. Native rulers in princely states, Marx observed, were most formidable obstacle on the path to advancement of the sub-continent. Labour struggled for democracy in the princely states. Labour was in solidarity with broader society as it took active participation in the broader society's political struggle for independence. Labour raised its banner of resistance during the Red Fort Trial of Indian National Army (INA) members in 1945. Its role and participation along with students and other sections of the population in Kolkata protesting the trial was heroic. At its initial days, labour lacked political programme, a natural consistency. The political programme developed gradually. Despite failures and set-backs, May Day's clarion call for a decent life and dignity remains alive.

01-05-2015 [contributed]

Vol. 47, No. 44, May 10 - 16, 2015