Review Article

Jute Workers in Colonial Bengal

Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay

This is a very well-researched, complex, and theoretically nuanced *book that studies industrial workplace—the mill—as a historically produced and dynamic site formed and transformed by social relationships, labour process, managerial control, subversion and strikes. In much of labour history and history of industrial capitalism, workplace unfolds only in the background, as a stage. In a welcome departure, Workplace Relations in Colonial Bengal presents workplace as a crucial component in materialising capitalist production, exploitation, consciousness, and collective action. A remarkable feature of this book is how it weaves together the everyday rhythm of labour process and its interruptions, and thus presents the mill as a dynamic and negotiated entity. How was the mill socially produced in Calcutta’s jute belt between 1890s and 1930s?

At the heart of this story is how the capitalist regime devised techniques to optimise absolute surplus value by operationalising a multiple shift system of substitution that involved ‘excess’ employment of workers to ensure a literally restless production process. In the context of low wage—coupled with circular migration and high demand of jute in the global market—this system of labour substitution worked well for the investors to address labour shortage due to what appeared then to be an Indian habit of taking too many breaks and go to their villages for days and months during festivals and intense agricultural work. This system also allowed the workers to pause in a working day and prepare themselves for another round of ‘duty’.

The multiple shift system paid dividend until 1920s. The system was slowly abolished from the 1920s as overproduction hit the jute industry and ‘labour shortage ceased to be a problem’. The abolition of the multiple shift system and the introduction of a more individualised single-shift system meant that a substantial section of the jute workers lost employment. It also involved the sanitisation of the workplace. This change elicited varied social responses: from continuation of now informal substitution to unionisation and general strikes in an overall milieu of mass political formation.

Sailer tells this story via an implicit dialectic of structure and agency—the involuntary social relationships that humans get into, in producing and reproducing their existence within capitalist mode of production, and the histories that humans make—‘the more effective narratives of human belonging’. Her carefully crafted narrative shows how human agency inhered in the structure while actively interrupting and punctuating its course. While talking about resistance and subversion, Sailer displays a very careful approach to structure and agency. Thus, in pages 220, she writes: ‘Whether we can understand workers’ insistence on maintaining their practices of shared work in terms of social continuity, or as an act of resistance, hinges, in the first place, on the concrete moments in which we can identify conflicts over these issues.’

The histories of capitalism tend to focus more (but not exclusively) on the structure—the involuntary tendential aspects of society and the economy, while labour historians—especially those working on trade union movements—often (but not always) privilege workers’ agency over structure. Sailer’s dialectical sensibilities unravel how ordinary mill workers and their kin members negotiated and came to terms with capital’s law of motion. These human negotiations produced the workplace as a social phenomenon, as the workers exposed themselves to surveillance and exploitation. Thus, Sailer shows that agency was not external to structure. Nor was it subsumed in structure. Its relationship with structure, Sailer shows, was multiple, ‘ranging from opposition to neutrality’.

Sailer is also well aware of the limitations of this inquiry. A focus on workplace relations often compelled her to only precisely talk about the neighbourhood and the bazaar that surrounded and often invaded the mill, gender dynamics of control and work, ethnic and communal mobilisations that intercepted and complicated working class militancy of the era. This was a conscious choice she made in the book. Some of these—especially gender and communalism—are also well-researched topics in Calcutta’s mill districts and elsewhere. Hence, no harm committed.

As a historian of her time and an extended neighbourhood, this reviewer is also well aware of certain archival compulsions that must have limited her choice to not further probe into certain categories such as the ‘Madrassis’, the ‘up-country men’, the ‘Hindus’ and the ‘Muslims’ or even the ‘Bengali’ workers. More often than not, the files do not tell about the humans that constituted these social identities or indicate the element of repression that accompanied any such categorical act, or even if all these categories were equally ‘lived’ and ‘experienced’ identities. Readers are told that during the strikes, the Hindu ‘Madrassi’ spinners might often have clashed with the Muslim ‘up-country’ weavers—now being organised by Suhrawardi, undermining the potential of the strike. The very co-existence of riot and strike as two forms of mass mobilisation in the early twentieth-century industrial neighbourhoods is itself an important social phenomenon.

These identities can perhaps be broken into more fundamental pieces only when one consults the archives of the latter day ‘socio-economic surveys’ or conducts ethnographies in the area to track their contemporary figurations. Surely, this exercise is outside the scope of this volume, but only in so far as it does not prohibit people to understand the dynamics of workers’ mobilisations and participation in work and agitation. For one thing mobilisation does not always imply participation. Who for instance were mobilised by the trade unions and who all participated in its activities? Who were immobilised and who broke mobilising efforts? The Questions of this kind remain only partially addressed due to the lack of adequate social data. Of course, there is some information about Narayana—a ‘Madrassi’ worker mentioned in p. 178—who came out of Prabhabati Das Gupta’s leadership and joined a more radical wing along with another Bengali trade unionist—‘comrade Bagchi’. The files would not track this man’s journey further.

The book is almost exclusively about variable capital, i.e., the living labour. The machinery installed in the mill remained operative in the background. In other words, there is not much about the technical transformations that intensified the extraction of relative surplus value—and hence absolute surplus value—during this period, although Sailer does mention how electric light prolonged the working day to 122 hours per week. This appears in page 1. In page 22, Sailer mentions the introduction of electricity in the mill that enabled multiple shift system to operate round the clock and how electrification privileged migrant workers living in the mill’s vicinity and disadvantaged the Bengali workers who used to walk miles to reach the mill in page 37. Still, one does not get much information about crucial technical transformations—if any—in the mill space that impacted on how the workers negotiated capital. Marx says: ‘Once the capitalist mode of production is established and become general, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt, whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value’(Capital, Vol 1, Chapter 16). It may well be the case that between 1890s and 1930s, technical up-gradation in the jute belt remained slow, while low wage rates, excess employment and effective managerial control continued to fetch enough surplus value, inhibiting long-term investment in constant capital.

Sailer’s analysis is based almost exclusively on an imaginative reading of colonial official sources. Unlike in the West, the mill workers of colonial India had rarely left behind their own narratives, literary works, diaries, and autobiographies. Their access to durable devices of memory was rather limited due to the limited social reach of literacy. Writers here are still too much dependent on imaginative capacity and deconstruc-tive skill to read ‘the silence the sounds embedded in the documents of their rulers’, while writing working class history. The Royal Commission did document oral testimonies of some of the important bhadralok and bhadramahila trade unionists. But these narratives do not help much to examine what the masses that they frequently alluded to consisted of. These testimonies became merely a part of the tripartite division of the industrial society into the capitalists, the state, and the masses. In this context, Sailer’s occasional logical extrapolations from the available testimonies of the workers become very important to understand both the organisation of workplace relations and trade unionism. Her capacity to logical extrapolation is amply evident when, for instance, she extrapolates the testimony of Shama Charan Samuth, who worked in the weaving department of the Budge Budge Jute Mill in the 1890s.

It is a well-written, well-edited, and well-argued book.  

Workplace Relations in Colonial Bengal: The Jute Industry and Indian Labour 1870s-1930s
By Anna Sailer
London, Bloomsbury, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-3502-3354-6

[Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay is associated with Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali]

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Vol 55, No. 22, Nov 27 - Dec 3, 2022