CPI Leads Workers’ Struggles

In this chapter we shall briefly examine the metamorphosis of the Indian working class from a ‘class in itself to a ‘class for itself in the process of continued struggle against the imperialist regime and the rule of capital with particular reference to the role of the CPI in this process.

The working class and trade union movement during 1921-25

Amidst the nation-wide mass upsurge of 1921 as discussed earlier, thousands of Indian workers assembled in Jharia, which was then pulsating with coal miners’ strike, for the second congress of AITUC. In respect of mass enthusiasm, mass participation and political maturity this historic gathering of the Indian workers from all branches of industries in India and from all parts of the country deserves special mention. Even at a conservative estimate, more than fifty thousand delegates participated in this trade union session which began on 30 November, 1921. The session was marked by the participation of a large number of women delegates breaking all feudal shyness in this early part of the century. The first resolution on swaraj echoed the tone of the Congress left wingers who dominated the session politically. The session declared “… The time has now arrived for the attainment of swaraj by the people.” Swaraj not for those who rolled in luxury, drove in motor cars or dined at government houses, but for those millions of human beings who by their labour filled the pockets of the rich and the wealthy, set the tone of the swaraj to be achieved. While the first congress of the AITUC remained silent on this vital issue of the period, the second congress came out strongly with the demand of independence, which was coined in swarajist terms ‘swaraj for the people’.

The second resolution brought out the political maturity and international brotkerhood of the Indian working class. The session expressed deep sympathy with the starving millions of Russia which was rocked with famine and draught. The session resolved to send token aid and appealed to the Indian workers to donate one day’s wage for the famine-stricken people of Lenin’s Russia. The session also adopted a resolution on the coal miners’ demands, but the failure of the swarajist leadership in passing resolutions on the ongoing (Eka movement, 1921) or the just-suppressed peasant movements marked a chronic weakness of the working class movement in expressing solidarity with the struggles of their consistent and solid friends — the peasantry.

No known early communists were present in this Jharia session, though Singaravelu Chettiar sent a message of greetings to the session. In the early Congresses of the AITUC the stage was dominated by Congress stalwarts, mainly Swarajists, like Lala Lajpat Rai, Chittaran-jan Das, Motilal Nehru, Annie Besant, and even Jinnah. Gandhi never sent a message nor was interested in the functioning of the AITUC. Even when the AITUC was mainly dominated by Congress politicians, Gandhi’s brain-child — the Ahmadabad Majoor Mahajan — never sought affiliation to the AITUC.

Meanwhile, the emigre Communist Party of India tried to intervene ; in the ongoing labour movement in India. Their main methods were sending manifestoes or appeals to the leadership of the National Congress or directly to the worker and peasant masses, thereby trying to influence their course of activities, though with nominal success. Thus the manifesto sent to the Ahmadabad session of INC upheld the role of the workers and peasants in the national liberation struggle. The principal slogan was “Land to the Peasants and Bread to the Workers”.

The earliest articulated expression of Communists working in India on the working class movement appeared in March, 1923 in The Socialist. An article entitled “The capitalist offensive in India”, (Text IV A-1) instead of giving mere philosophic advice a la the reformist labour leaders, of for ‘collective good’ as propagated by the Gandhian followers in the labour front, appealed to the workers to wage class struggle against the ensuing capitalist offensive. Similar class approach was evident also in the appeal by the emigre communists in February, 1923. The Indian labour unions were urged to force the authorities, under the threat of a general strike, to remit the death sentences of the 172 peasants convicted in the Chauri-Chaura incident.

When these two trends of labour movement — the old one of class peace and ‘collective good’ and the new one of class struggle — were contending amongst themselves, workers of the Tata Iron and Steel Works, Jamshedpur, were forced to go on a strike with the demands of reinstatement of two of their dismissed comrades, recognition of their union, eight hour general shift and payment of bonus. But this struggle ended in a failure amidst the overall lull of 1923. In this period of lull, the 3rd Congress of AITUC (26-27 March, 1923) in Lahore failed to make any headway. Similar was the case with the 4th Congress in March, 1924 in Calcutta. The two consecutive AITUC Congresses were thinly attended (100 and 150 delegates respectively), failed to evolve the proper tactics to resist the capitalist offensives like retrenchment of Railway workers, deployment of police and military forces in disputes between capital and labour etc. However, though the number of industrial disputes was only 213 in 1923 and 133 in 1924, the magnitude was greater in 1924, showing stubborn resistance by the mass of workers. One instance was the Bombay textile workers’ movement in 1924 against the textile barons’ refusal to pay bonus. 1,60,00 workers of 81 mills moved into strike resulting 7.75 million man days lost. Though the movement failed, the birth of future militant TU centres (GKU, Red Flag) and their success in the strike movement of 1928 was rooted in this struggle.

But the British authorities made a pre-emptive strike on the labour leaders who were trying to organise the workers on class- lines. SA Dange, Muzaffar Ahmad, Shaukat Usmani were rounded up in the year 1924 in the Kanpur Bolshevik conspiracy case, thereby causing a major jolt in the early communist initiatives in organising the workers in militant struggles.

Amidst this capitalist onslaught, the fifth Congress of the AITUC was held in Bombay on 14 February in the year 1925, while the Kanpur trial was going on. It was a poorly attended session with only 66 delegates present. It was presided over by Mr DR Thengdi, who was later associated with the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of Bombay. Apart from adopting resolutions on minimum living wages, representation in Central and provincial legislatures, it also adopted a revised constitution of the AITUC which widened the scope of joint activities with other like-minded trade ‘unions at home and abroad.

The year 1925 saw a further intensification of class struggle. The workers resisted the combined attack of foreign and indigenous capitalists and the British authorities with utmost determination. One such heroic resistance was the strike movement of the North Western Railway workers in March, 1925. The movement was sparked off by a disciplinary action against a union activist, with gradual inclusion of other demands like eight-hour working day, wage-rise, stoppage of retrenchment and reinstatement of dismissed workers. 22,000 railway workers participated in the strike, but it failed, resulting in dismissal of 8,000 railwaymen. London Weekly in its 4 July, 25 issue wrote, “Last month the strikers on the North Western Railway marched in procession as a protest against a press statement that the strike had collapsed. They carried a red flag. Nothing unusual. But that the flag was once white. It was stained by the blood of the workers”. The other heroic resistance was that of the Bombay textile workers’ strike in the year 1925 against the 11.5% wage-cut. Popularly known as ‘Bonus strike’, it continued for two-and-half months. About 56,000 workers participated in the struggle which finally ended when the government was forced to withdraw the 3.5% cotton-excise duty that was used by the millowners as an excuse for the wage-cut. The important feature of this movement, apart from receiving international fraternal assistance, was the new elements introduced by the communists in conducting the strike struggle. ‘Strike Committees’ were formed consisting of rank and file workers which helped maintain the unity of the workers. KN Joglekar, who was associated with this movement, wrote, “I was cooperating with the strike committees and was helping and advising the Girni Kamgar Mahamandal to keep the unity of-the workers during the strike. We planned for the workers to go to their home villages and collected relief for the purpose”.[1] Upto this period the communist intervention in the working class movement did not surpass the dominance of the reformist policies of the early trade union leaders. But the period did initiate a change in the prevailing politics in the labour movement.

Communist intervention: 1926-29

The emergence of Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties in different political centres of India, viz., Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Lahore in the year 1926-27 helped the communist labour leaders in organising the Indian workers from the standpoint of class struggle. They also tried to intervene in INC politics by raising questions relating to labour in its sessions. In the Gauhati Session of the INC (December 1962), two known communist labour leaders, KN Joglekar and RS Nimbkar moved a resolution on labour demands : “The Indian National Congress should sponsor and support the class-struggle of the workers and peasants in India against the employers and the landlords. It was not accepted by the Congress official”, wrote KN Joglekar in his Reminiscences (Adhikari, Vol. III A, p-47). But the principal weapon the communists used was the mass political organisation — the WPPs in different provinces — to organise and lead workers’ struggle against the rule of capital.

Meanwhile, the sixth congress of the AITUC, held on 7-10 January, 1926 in the industrial city of Madras, passed off peacefully. The beaten track of reformism followed by the established labour leaders could not be reversed in this session. Even the Bombay Chronicle, a capitalist newspaper, in a lead article pointed out the need for more energetic work on the part of leaders of Indian labour in organising the trade unions. This session, presided over by W Giri, again rolled back to take the resolution of dominion status for India within the British empire. But the gathering storm of the workers against the foreign and native capitalist offensive burst forth in the unprecedented working class upsurge during 1927 and climaxed in 1928-29. The Rationalisation drive, i.e., speeding up, lower wages, longer hours of work and retremchment imposed by the capitalists was fought back by the workers in different industrial centres. Bombay witnessed 54 strikes with 1,28,078 workers participating, this accounted for 1,65,061 mandays lost in the year 1927. These strikes were mainly in the native-owned textile mills. This was followed by Bengal with 34 strikes where although the total strength was half that of Bombay, there was three-fold increase in mandays lost (roughly 4,64,889 days). The jute mills of Bengal were the most affected. Madras witnessed 19 strikes involving 17,905 work-ingmen and causing 1,87,441 mandays lost. Strike movements also spread to the industrial town of Jamshedpur and in the Railway sector. Philip Spratt in one estimate in 1927 showed that the number of trade unionists active in different cities were as follows : Bombay 76,000, Bengal 50,000, Madras 25,000 and in other places a few thousands and in all, a total of 1,25,000 members were there, hi the affiliated trade unions of AITUC (Philip Spratt, The Indian Trade Union Movement, Adhikari, Vol. IIIB, p.251).

Note :

1. Quoted in G Adhikari, Vol. IIIA, p 3

Before coming to the 7th congress of the AITUC, let us have a glance at the ongoing struggles of the workers. Thus we have two successive protracted strikes in the BN Railway at Kharagpur. Defying the ‘whips, lathis and butt ends of rifles and indiscriminate shooting’, in the words of KN Joglekar in his Meerut defence argument, 40,000 Railway workers resisted the retrenchment policy of State Railway Workshop Committee in February, 1927. Though the first phase of the movement ended on 10 March, 1927 after receiving some assurances from the railway authorities, it again sparked off in the month of September the same year. The authorities declared lock-out. The young communist and left leaning TU leaders who were associated with the first phase of the movement, immediately rushed to the spot and stood solidly behind the striking workers. Notable among them were Muzaffar Ahmad, Bhupendra Nath Dutta, Singaravelu Chettiar, Dharani Goswami and Sibnath Banerjee. The second phase of the movement ended in failure (8 December, 1927), But the defeat was overshadowed by the striking class solidarity and stubborn resistance shown by the railways workers.

After gaining valuable experiences from the BN Railway strike, the Communist trade union leaders took active role in Lilooah rail workshop strike (January to July, 1928), in the scavengers’ strike in Calcutta Corporation and also in the jute mills strikes of Chengail and Bauria (July, 1929). Ganabani, the Bengali weekly organ of WPP of Bengal, wrote in its 26 July, 1928 issue about the tense situation in Bengal jute mills and urged the workers to resist the onslaught of jute barons — “In most of the jute mills, zulum is committed upon tliem, and all mill-owners suck out their heart’s blood. Hence the labourers of all jute mills will have to combine and offer fight at one time and in all places. … A strike here today, another there tomorrow will hardly be of much avail. It is only when the labourers will combine and bring to standstill the jute mills of Bengal that they will be greeted with shouts of triumphs from all sides”[2].

The seventh congress of AITUC was held in March, 1927 in Delhi, when the historic B N Railway strike had just concluded. But the heat of the movemnt could not be felt inside the congress room, it was altogether a dull affair. Though the session discussed in detail the withdrawal of the BN Railway strike, the leadership took a reformist stand on it. A group of communists, comprising Muzaffar Ahmad, SV Ghate, KN Joglekar, SS Mirajkar and RS Nimbkar, participated in the session. Commenting on the proceedings Philip Spratt wrote, “Two wings were present in nearly equal strength and the “left” was able to effect favourable compromises on a number of points, though it could not do without the right. The “left” derives mainly from Bombay and Punjab. The Bengal “left” owing to the circumstances related above (i.e. pandemonium in the session — Editor) and to other quarrels decided to boycott the session, which it did, with the exception of Aftab Ali. This youngman left the meeting almost in tears on the last day threatening loudly to found a new congress. This threat was also repeated from Punjab … it indicates a view which seems to be fairly widespread, that the congress is simply a bogus affair which it is not worth joining” (G Adhikari, Vol. IIIB, p 182).

Saklatwala who was present in this AITUC session made some concrete suggestions for the Indian trade union movement : (i) A standing committee for international negotiations, (ii) A labour research bureau, (iii) District organisers, (iv) Stricter rules for affiliation of trade unions to the AITUC, (v) A permanent office of the trade union congress which could supply informations to the trade unions in the country and abroad, (vi) A central fund to enable the delegates to attend the trade union congress.

Another important resolution taken at the session was on the paramount need for establishing Workers’ and Pasants’ Parties and the session pledged to work for the creation of such a party at an all-India basis. It was accepted unanimously. SV Ghate was elected as one of its assistant secretaries. Commenting on the whole proceedings of the session, Masses of India (May 1927) wrote under the caption The All India Trade Union Congress’, “It indicates that through the left-wing representatives the congress is at last being brought a little closer to the actual revolutionary struggle of the masses” (G Adhikari, Vol. IIIB, p 151).

Meanwhile; the Extended Meeting of the Central Executive of CPI in its Annual Report, 1927, adopted a resolution on “Trade Union Congress” which urged the communist members to enter the AITUC and wrest the organisation from its present bourgeois leadership (Text IVA-2).

Just like the seventh congress session, the eighth congress of AITUC, held in Kanpur on 26-27 November, 1927 was also marked with the growing presence of an active left-wing group, mainly coming from the WPPs. They succeeded in getting discussed the issues like boycott of Simon Commission, the threat of war against USSR by the imperialists, the question of joining the League Against Imperialism etc. Communists also managed to get elected to some offices: Jhabvala became the organising secretary of the Council of Action and Dange became the assistant secretary of the AITUC.

Note :

2. Quoted in Working Class of India : History of Emergence and Movement 1830-1970 by Sukomal Sen, KP Bagchi and Co. (Calcutta, 1977), pp 266).]

But 1928 was the year of fresh workers’ upsurge. In February, Bombay witnessed a massive demonstration on the day of Simon’s arrival in Bombay. 20,000 workers came out in the streets in protest against the all-white Simon Commission. The second incident took place in December, in Calcutta. Thousands of workers led by WPP of Bengal moved into the Congress session, occupied the central pandal and took resolution on Puma Swaraj (Total independence). If these two incidents marked the growing anti-imperialist mood of the Indian workers and their ever-growing involvement in national politics, the Bombay textile workers’ strike movement of 1928 and 1929 revealed the persistent class struggle of the Indian labouring class. These movements were started against the notorious rationalisation drive with concomitant wage-cuts by the textile millowners. These movements can be viewed as the continuation of the unfinished struggle of 1924. The first strike of 1928 was of six months duration. During the course of the movement the communists came out of the Girni Kamgar Mahamandal which was by then practically defunct. The communists formed the Girni Kamgar Union (Red Flag) and developed it as a radical alternative to the moderate Textile Labour Union led by veteran TU leader, MM Joshi. This Red Flag TU was not simply another traditional TU. The communists introduced new elements of workers’ control by forming Gimi Samitis (or Mill Committees) at the grassroots level. At least 42 mill committees were actively functioning during the strikes, which helped not only in conducting it vigorously against all sorts of provocations by the mill-owners, but also helped in enrolling new worker members to the Red Flag Union, which rose to 60,000 in six months in comparison to Joshi’s union which had only 9,800 members. Even the well-established Gandhian Ahmadabad Textile labour union had only 27,000 members. This strike was so peaceful, massive and total that the governor of Bombay had to admit that, “I have been considerably disturbed by the fact that the mill owners opened a section of their mills on several occasions, and although adequate police protection was given, not a single man returned to work.”[3] The strike ended only when the mill-owners agreed to restore the 1927 wages pending the report of an official enquiry committee. The second general strike was organised in April-August, 1929 when the Faweett Committee report proved unfavourable to the workers and the mill-owners started large scale dismissal of workers. The mill-committees became ever more militant but the strike ended in failure because it was stretched too far. This failure greatly weakened the GKU which was then led by new incumbents in TU movement like S V Deshpande, BT Ranadive etc. The communist influence also spread to GIF Railway and oil depot workers. This spread of communist activities in 1928-29 in the vital sectors of Indian industry was immediately met with counter-offensive from the mill-owners and the British authorities. The government passed one bill after another, viz., the Public Safety Bill (which gave them power to summarily deport Philip Spratt and Ben Bradley, who were helping the Indian Communists in organising labour in Bombay and Bengal) and the Trade Disputes Act of April, 1923 (which had the avowed objective of banning strikes). The mill owners tried to spread casteist and communal fanaticism against the communist trade union leaders who happened to be of a Brahmin origin. The non-Brahmin Minister of Bombay, Bhaskar Rao Yadav, took the lead on this score. Not satisfied merely with these acts, the government then moved to crush the growing communist activities in the labour front by arresting all the communist and left trade union leaders and started a case against them under section 121IPC, which is known as the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929 (see part III).

Not daunted by the arrests, the communists tried to resist the capitalist onslaughts against the workers. The second strike in Bombay textile mills or the first general strike in jute mills (in July-August, 1929) under the banner of Bengal Jute workers union, which was then largely controlled by communists, were the testimonies of the undaunted spirit of the communists in the face of severe repression. Though the Bombay strike failed, in Bengal the workers successfully beat back the employers’ bid to extend the working hours from 54 to 60 hours per week.

In this backdrop, the ninth congress of AITUC was held at Jharia on 18-20 December, 1928. The enthusiasm and political fervour of the second session had already evaporated from Jharia, thanks to the reformist TU leaders of the Gandhian variety. This session was attended by 200 delegates only, representing 42 affiliated unions with a membership of 98,000.

Two important foreign dignatof ies, Mr JW Johnstone of League against Imperialism and Mr JF Ryan of Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, both communist dominated organisations, were present in this session.

Note :

3. Quoted in Modern India, op. cH., p 271.

The important resolutions taken in this session were on

    a) Aim of AITUC — To transform India into a Socialist Republic of workers.

    b) 50 delegates were to be sent to the ensuing All Parties Conference to be held in Calcutta on 20 December, 1928.

    c) An application was to be made for affiliation of AITUC to the League Against Imperialism. A delegation comprising DR Thengdi and KN Joglekar was to be sent to its coming Paris session in July, 1929.

    d) This session also took resolution condemning the Trades Dispute Bill, urged to resist it at any cost and called for one day’s general strike as a protest.

This Jharia Session witnessed the marked consolidation of communist trade union leaders as a compact and organised bloc. In one estimate of the Red International of Labour Union, out of 4,00,000 organised workers in India in 1929,1,50,000 were judged to be under the organised leadership of the Left, for which GKU (Red Flag) alone contributed 40,000-60,000 membership (RP Dutt, Inprecor 1931). Jawaharlal Nehru was elected as President, Muzaffar Ahmad as Vice President, S A Dange as one of its assistant secretaries.

This growing communist presence inside the AITUC sharpened the two-line struggle, which came to the forefront in tenth session in Nagpur held on 28-29 November 1929.
An intense debate started mainly on the following questions:

    i) The political involvement of workers in the national polity.

    ii) International affiliation of the AITUC.

    iii) Attitude to be taken by the AITUC on Royal Commission on labour in India, popularly known as Whitley Commission.

    iv) The path to be taken in the labour movement etc.

A section of veteran TU leadership led by NM Joshi, Shiva Rao, Chaman Lal, VV Giri, Bakhale etc., generally known as the right reformist group, were of the view that the workers should not be involved in political actions and they wanted to follow the constitutionalist, reformist path of avoiding struggle. The communists, on the other hand, held just the opposite view.

The sharpened two-lines struggle saw the first split of the AITUC in the Nagpur Congress.

Though the session was held when all the important communist leaders were behind the bars in Meerut Conspiracy Case, the communists led by S V Deshpande moved certain resolutions in the executive council meeting just before the open session of the tenth congress. The resolutions, which were accepted in the executive council meeting, were on questions like boycotting the Whitley Commission; affiliation of AITUC to the Pan Pacific Trade Unions Secretariat, as a counter to its affiliation to International Federation of Trade Unions (Amsterdam); no representation, henceforth, to ILO, rejection of Nehru Report which was identified as a ‘continuation of British rule in India’.

When the said resolutions were moved by Deshpande in the open session, the group led by NM Joshi opposed it tooth and nail. The president of the session, Nehru, failed to pacify the situation, and this group led by Joshi then walked out of the open session. After their walk-out the open session was held on 1 December under the presidentship of Nehru and the resolutions, except the one on affiliation to Pan Pacific TU Secretariat which was dropped, was accepted unanimously. The session elected Subhas Chandra Bose as the new president and SV Deshpande as general secretary! Just after the conclusion of the tenth congress, a manifesto signed by the new general secretary was issued to the general workers condemning the splitting activity of the right reformist group (Text IV A-3).

The group under NM Joshi immediately after their walk-out met at the residence of Mr. Joshi and formed the parallel organisation on 1 December 1929, which was provisionally named Indian Trade Union Federation with V V Giri as provisional chairman.

The period of great economic crisis (’30-early ’34) of the capitalists was marked by the following salient features :

  • By 1932, capitalist economy reached its all-time low. During 1930-33, the industrial output in the capitalist world shrunk by 38%.
  • Imperial preference followed by the British rulers caused a severe blow to Indian steel and cotton textile industries in Bombay rendering 61,000 workers jobless.
  • By 1934, 83,000 workers in jute mills in Bengal were made surplus due to the introduction of one shift from the previous two shifts operation in different mills.
  • Mass retrenchment occurred in different railways affecting 51,569 workers.
  • Under Emergency Reduction Rule of wages, 12%-20% wages were reduced in different industries of Bombay, Ahmedabad, Sholapur, Madras, Nagpur, Kanpur, Bengal and Jamshedpur.

Splits and setbacks : 1930-34

After the split in the mother organisation, a few but unsuccessful strike movements were launched by militant trade union leaders in different parts of the country, such as the GIP railway strike in February-March, 1930, though the carters’ strike in Calcutta led by communist TU leader Abdul Momin won the battle. Then came the Sholapur textile strike of 7 May, 1930 popularly known as “Sholapur Commune”, though a misnomer. The entire town of Sholapur came under workers’ control from 7-16 May, which returned to ‘normalcy’ only after imposing martial law in the town. This higher form of struggle of the workers, despite its failure due to absence of any conscious and organised leadership, absence of any strategic programme and under heavy repression, marked a higher political maturity of the Indian working class.

But in 1930, labour militancy saw a declining trend and most of the struggles, even though defensive in nature, were mostly unsuccessful. Three factors can be enumerated here as basic causes of this declining trend. Firstly, the onset of the great depression. Though the workers were greatly affected, the employed workers were comparatively less discontent. In their case struggles broke out only when the capitalists tried to shift the burden of the crisis onto them through rationalisation drives. Rather the unemployed workers, whose number greatly increased, were affected more. So, the number of functioning trade unions, the number of affiliated unions and their membership sharply decreased during this phase (1930-33). Secondly, vertical division in the national premier trade union organisation, the AITUC. While the right reformists moved more rightwards with the onset of the crisis; in the face of capitalist onslaught, the Left and communist trade union leaders moved to more ‘left’ sectarian position. They started fighting the right reformist and left nationalist trade union leaders in a partisan way. The left sectarian line of the Sixth Comintern Congress contributed much to increase and consolidate the left sectarian tendency of the communist trade union leaders. Added to this the disruptionist activities of the Roy-Kandalkar-Karnik (known as Royists in political circles) made the situation worse. They splitted the famous GKU (Red Flag) and in collaboration with the left nationalists tried to drive out the communists from the AITUC which was reflected in the eleventh session of AITUC. The ultra-left line of the communists led them to isolation and aloofness from the anti-imperialist mass political struggle of the 1930s resulting in self-isolation and pessimism. A considerable section of the communists then thought that reaction (i.e. reactionary ideology) is prevailing over the working class, so workers could not be mobilised in struggle.

In this situation the 11th session of AITUC was held on 3-7 July, 1931 in Calcutta under the presidentship of Subhas Chandra Bose. This session saw the second split in the AITUC. The initial debate started in the executive council on the question of representation of GKU (Bombay). While the Kandalkar group demanded the sole representation of GKU, it was opposed vehemently by SV Deshpande-led GKU delegates. The matter was settled in the credentials committee, where S Bose cast two votes — one as member of credentials committee and the other as president of executive council and he voted in favour of the Kandalkar group. The second debate was on the representative of Golmuri Tin Plate Workers’ Union. The president gave a ruling in favour of a person who was not at all a member of the union and bore no credential of his union, while Mr. Sethi, the delegate authorised by the union secretary, was debarred from attending the conference. The third debate was on the question of exemption of a part of affiliation fee of the GIF railway union. The GIF, a communist stronghold, was not allowed to cast its vote on a matter concerning exemption of its fees.

There occurred a pandemonium in the congress hall (Albert Hall, Calcutta). The group led by the communist Trade Union leader SV Deshpande boycotted the session and held a separate session at Metiabruz (an industrial centre near Calcutta) on 6 July, 1931 and formed the All India Red Trade Union Congress (AIRTUC). This conference elected DB Kulkarni as president, Messrs. SV Deshpande, Bankim Mukherjee and SG Sardesai as three general secretaries and Dr. Bhupendra Nath Dutta as treasurer. The parent body of AITUC held their conference on 7 July, 1931 under S Bose’s presidentship. They elected RS Ruikar as president, GL Kandalkar, VH Joshi, JN Mitra as vice-presidents, Mukunda Lal Sarkar as general secretary and S Bose as treasurer.

For the unwarranted second split in the AITUC both sides were responsible. While the Left nationalists and Royists in collaboration tried to get the AITUC rid of the communists, the communists on their part made some serious mistakes. Valia rightly said in an article in Inprecor (February and March, 1933) : “Many Indian communists identify the trade unions and the political parties. This, to some extent, is explained by the history of the labour movement in India. The first mass trade union in India — the Bombay Girni Kamgar Union — was formed before the rise of the political party of the working class. In the course of events it stood at the head of the political actions of Bombay workers in 1920-30. As a result, it happened that the splits in the labour movement were transferred to the trade unions mechanically. The communists forgot the distinction between the ptrty and the trade union and therefore succumbed tp the provocations of the national reformists with exceptional ease who successfully carried on the policy of splitting in the trade union movement. … The national reformists taking advantage of the mistaken position of the communists were able to split the trade unions and the congress of trade unions in Calcutta hiding behind the phrases of unity.”

About a year ago, the Open Letter from the communist parties of China, Great Britain and Germany had reminded the Indian communists of the rudimentary duties of TU work. In particular, it criticised the tendency of the “passive attitude of the Indian communists to the question of the all India trade union movement and repudiate the special theory that “the trade union congress is not something living and concrete for the workers, for this, as in other questions, there is shown lack of faith in the working class and local tasks are counter-posed to all-India tasks, the GKU is counter-posed to the trade union congress.”

While the national reformists were able to carry on “Unity” campaign, organised a number of All-India campaigns like Labour Day, formed a textile federation, seized the initiative on the rail roads, formed trade union councils etc., the role of the communists were very much lacking except a young workers’ league formed by the middle of 1930 and the unemployment day in Bombay and Anti-War Day observed on 15 August, 1933. This was the criticism of the three-parties to the Indian communists. But it was only partially true. Because in 1932, against the newer capitalist onslaught the Red TUC organised jute mill workers of Kelvin, Standard, Kinison and Howrah jute nulls to a successful strike movement. Similarly, the GI Railway workers in 1930 and SM Railway workers (1934) were led to strike movements.

During this period (August-September 1934) the Red TU Centre delegates met in Calcutta under the presidentship of Abdul Halim. The Bengal trade unions of Red TUC rejected the White Paper proposals of the proposed constitution by the British imperialists (Text IV A-4). It criticised the proposed constitution as a safeguard of “the interests of imperialism by strengthening the reactionary alliance of it with princes, landlords and propertied classes and for perpetuating the slavery of the Indian masses” and they urged the workers to organise “protest meetings and demonstrations all over India”. The meeting also condemned the Bengal government’s policy of allocating only two seats in the legislative council and that too only for registered unions. The meeting opined that the government should implement the Lothian Committee recommendation of “major number of seats be allocated to the working masses, moreover all the seats for labour should be given to the registered workers’ unions and other workers who are still unorganized”. They also urged that the elections should be made by secret ballot. The meeting also lodged protests against the arrests of many labour leaders of Calcutta during the anti-Gandhi agitations and urged their unconditional release.

Towards TU unity: 1935-39

With the change in the overall economic and political situation during the later part of 1934, there was greater scope of united actions by different trade union centres. It must be noted here that the pressure of the rank and file workers over the leadership facilitated this process of unity as more and more workers were becoming involved in the trade union activities during this period. One such example of united actions of the workers belonging to different trade union centres was the All-India Textile Workers’ Conference held at Kanpur in 1933. The conference, attended by national reformist (moderate section) and militant communist trade union leaders, decided to organise a textile strike throughout the country under the banner of “Council of Actions” against the direct and indirect wage-cut through rationalisation. In Sholapur the strike (February-May, 1934) caused 4,60,000 man-days lost. In Nagpur, 60,000 textile workers under the banner of Nagpur Textile Union (May-July 1934) participated in textile strikes. But the Bombay textile workers’ strike which involved 90,000 workers was much more organised. A new element in this strike was the picketing of the mill gates by women workers. Beside mass picketings, regular meetings, demonstrations and other mass activities greatly enlivened the strike. But this strike had to face prohibitory orders against holding of meetings and demonstrations and in one case the police fired upon the workers and arrested a number of leaders of the movement. The united strike committee had to call off the strike. The government then took one after another repressive measures. They introduced amendments of Trade Disputes Act with arbitrary powers to declare any strike illegal (1936 and 1938). In 1937 even the Payment of Wages Act, 1936 was amended to entitle the employers to deduct wages of workers for participating in “stay-in-strikes”.

We were talking about the process of unity efforts. The rank and file pressures, change of communist tactics to national united front in the face of growing threat of fascism, release of the Meerut prisoners, above all, the changed economic-political situation helped bringing together the splinter trade unions groups under one umbrella. The process of unity was an arduous one. An appeal was made by the Red TUC in late 1933 for trade union unity (Text IVA-5). The proposal said, “The supporters of class trade unions, seeing that during the last few years the conditions of life of the workers have been constantly becoming worse, have considered the steps that have to be taken to help the working class to organise resistance to the offensive of the imperialist and capitalist, and decided to appeal to all workers and trade union organisations to come together to organise and jointly carry out defence of the workers’ interest.

The supporters of class trade unions propose to all trade unions to organise a united front, on the basis of the following points taken from the platform of the class TU movement:

    a) To prepare, organise and carry out the resistance of the workers to the insolent and brutal attacks of the owners and develop it into a fight to raise the wages and improve the labour conditions.

    b) To consolidate and organise the unemployed workers for the struggle against hunger, misery and unemployment. [Inprecor, May 25,1934]

A similar proposal was made by Ruikar after the Nagpur executive committee meeting of the AITUC in January, 1935. The 5-point proposal ran thus:

    1. Unequivocal acceptance of the principle of class struggle;

    2. No affiliation to any international organisation;

    3. The question of India’s labour representation to the ILO to be decided annually and to be binding on the unions;

    4. Acceptance of the principle of one union in one industry; and,

    5. Acceptance of AITUC as the central trade union organization of Indian working class.

Initially, the response of Red TUC was very bitter : “Ruikar and Co. are out to kill not two but four birds with one stone. While merging into the right and swallowing the left, they desire at the same time, the credit due to unity-makers and the halo due to radicals. This is the essence of Mr Ruikar’s proposals.” (Text IV A-6 Emphasis hi the original). But there were differences even among the Red TUC leadership. However, a second proposal (see Text IV A-7) was put forward by them which highlighted complete freedom of revolutionary propaganda inside amalgamated unions, amalgamation of rival unions, a joint declaration made to the workers of rival unions to undertake immediate propaganda for struggles within specific periods on specific demands, and finally, amalgamation of NFTU, AITUC and Red TUC into a powerful all-India TUC.

In March, 1935, two representatives of AITUC held discussions with NFTU leadership. Both parties issued a joint statement deploring the split in the trade union movement and appealed for unity as far as practicable. But at first unity was achieved between Red TUC and AITUC in the 14th Calcutta congress session of AITUC (19-21 April, 1935). In this session the Red TUC merged with the AITUC into a single organisation. After this merger, the process of unity got further momentum. A joint Labour Board was formed between AITUC and NFTU in 1936 for united action at grassroots level. While highlighting the unity achieved so far, certain weaknesses of the militant section in joint TU activities were criticised in an article by RP Dutt and Ben Bradley (Text IV A-8). It pointed out that the communists should not neglect the systematic and consistent work inside the reformist trade unions which is one of the best methods for achieving unity at grassroots level and then advised them to organise a labour press for conducting propaganda en all important questions of the prevailing situation in India from the standpoint of communist ideology and politics.

The amalgamation of NFTU with the parent body of AITUC took place on 17 April, Nagpur session (1938). The conditions of unity this time were as follows :

    1. NFTU as a unit would be affiliated to AITUC.

    2. AITUC would accept the constitution of NFTU.

    3. The affiliation of NFTU to AITUC would remain in force for one year.

    4. AITUC would not be affiliated to any international organisations but its affiliated units would be free to do so.

    5. All political questions and the questions of strikes would be decided by 3/4 majority of the general council or executive committee.

    6. The official flag of AITUC would be ordinary red flag with TUC unscribed in it.

This unity move was a clear swing in favour of NFTU — both in respect of principles and organisational composition. All the important posts of office bearers went to the erstwhile NFTU leaders. Commenting on this amalgamation BT Ranadive rightly said, “… there are a number of reservations. In the first place, the NFTU affiliates as a unit, that too for one year, … one cannot explain the clause demanding a three-fourths majority for strikes and political questions.” (Text IV A-9). While the NFTU as a unit would be able to maintain relations with the Amsterdam International of Trade Unions, the AITUC would be debarred from affiliation to any international organisation, specially with the Profintern or Red TU International. This negotiation reached at Nagpur joint session resulted in a 88-member general council with each having 44 members. Dr. Suresh Chandra Banerjee (NFTU) became president and RR Bakhale (NFTU) general secretary. Three communist leaders held office-bearers’ posts : RS Nimbkar as treasurer, Bankim Mukherjee and SV Parulekar as assistant secretaries. However, the unity achieved at such a high price contained the germ of the future split in the post-war situation.

Unity at the top invigorated the TU movement in the country. Among the strikes occurring in 1935-36, those in Keshoram Cotton Mill (Bengal) and Ahmedabad Cotton Mill claimed the lion’s share of the total mandays lost. 5000 workers in Keshoram and 23,000 textile workers of Ahmedabad participated in these movements. In 1935-36, 63% of the strikes occured on the question of wages. In 1936,20,000 workers of Naihati, Jagaddal, Hooghly jute mills joined hi strike movement against police repression over the striking jute workers of Hukum-chand jute mill. In Beawar Cotton mills at Ajmer-Merwara, 4,000 workers struck work against wage reduction in July 1937. The biggest strike of the time occured in BN Railways which was joined by 26,500 workers. It started on 13 December and ended on 10 February, 1937 resulting in one million mandays lost. In one estimate it is seen that in 1935,145 strikes occured involving 1,44, 217 workers and in 1936, the number of strikes were 157 which involved 1,68,029 workers despite attempts to declare strikes illegal through ordinances and enactments.

A new surge of working class movements occurred with the formation of Congress ministries in different States after a restricted provincial autonomy was granted by the British rulers. On one side, “there was natural unrest everywhere as workers had high hopes that these governments would take up important questions for the protection of their interests”, says the Report of the General Secretary of AITUC (April 1938-September 1940). But contrary to expectations, when the Employers’ Association of Kanpur textile mills rejected the recommendations of an enquiry committee, 50,000 operatives struck work in Cawnpore Mills in May-June, 1938 in a general strike. In Bengal 2,50,000 workers plunged into a prolonged strike in 1936-37 when the Fazlul Haque ministry enforced a jute ordinance in support of the Jute Mills Association, resulting in a cut down of the already low. wages by 16%. Immediately after its promulgation, 25,000 workers belonging to various jute mills in Bengal lost their jobs. To break this strike a rival union was launched by the labour ministry. “The government operated as the willing tool of the European capitalists and directed merciless repression against the strikers and their leader” — reports the New Age (May 1938, Vol. IV, No. 12). Strikers were beaten and clapped into jail. There was firing on unarmed crowd of workers. Police entered workers’ tents and harrassed them, as reported in the same New Age. Curiously, this movement gained the support of INC, specially when the same Congress-ruled State of Assam under NC Bordoli acted in connivance with the British owned company management during the Digboi oil strike of 1939. The government also allowed the authorities to freely use the newly introduced war-time Defence of India Rules to smash the strike. No sympathy was shown to the workers by the same INC (for greater detail of workers’ movements during 1936-39. see Text IV A-10).

Before proceeding, let us take a look at the nature of the workers’ movements of 1938-39. They had the following characteristics:

    a) These were far more widespread in character and embraced even the backward workers.

    b) In contrast to 1928-29 struggles, these struggles showed the working class on the offensive.

    c) The fight for TU rights was far more determined than nine years back.

    d) The isolation of the working class, which was a patent feature of the earlier struggles, was breaking down and strikes came to be regarded as part of the democratic movement (New Age, May, 1938).

As regards the response of the Congress ministries, we begin with the draconian Trade Disputes bill of 1936 passed by the Bombay government. Though the National Congress in its 1937 election manifesto had promised that it would take suitable steps in the settlement of labour disputes and would also take effective measures for the protection of workers’ rights for trade union formation in strike struggles, under the pressure of their capitalist mentors they introduced the Bombay Trade Disputes Bill to curb the ‘unruly scenes’ in the labour front (1938). But this time the whole AICC remained silent over this draconian bill. This bill was even more repressive than the imperialist Trade Dispute Act of 1929. The basic reason behind the introduction of this bill was not far to seek. “Birla complained of the rampant ‘indiscipline’ in the Congress provinces (letter to Mahadev Desai, 4 September, 1937, In the Shadow of Mahatma p 227), and there were threats of a flight of capital from the Congress-ruled Bombay and UP to the princely states where labour laws hardly existed”.[4] The principal anti-labour features of the proposed bill were (i) to impart a compulsory character to the arbitration machinery in a labour dispute, (ii) to illegalise the strikes occurring without exhausting the arbitration machinery, (iii) to make recognition of the union conditional on the acceptance of the arbitration machinery, 1(iv) to provide more stringent punitive measures for participation in illegal strike than that was provided for in the Trade Disputes Act of 1929, i.e., the three-months’ imprisonment as provided in the 1929 Act was extended to six months in the Act of 1939. Governor Lumley described the bill as “admirable”, while Jawaharlal described it as “on the whole … a good one”.[5]

Just as in the Bengal jute workers’ strike, the communists took leading role in opposing this draconian bill (Text IV A-11). When the provincial legislature was debating hotly for 33 consecutive days over the bill, communists brought out protest demonstrations of 80-90 thousands workers in the streets of Bombay. This huge workers’ rally was addressed, among others, by SA Dange, Indulal Yagnik, Dr. BR Ambedkar. Even Muslim League activists joined the protest rally. But the Congress ministry did not retract in the face of heavy protests, instead the poice fired upon the worker’s, killing two workers and injuring many. One day’s general strike was observed in Bombay in protest against the police firing. Similar protest ralllies were organised by the communists in Calcutta, Madras, Kanpur, Ahmedabad and in several other places.

The Communist Party of India took note of the working class upsurge and formulated a 17-points trade union policy for the future advancement of the working class movement (Text IV A-12). The policy aimed to win over the majority of the working class under its fold. It highlighted the need of daily work amongst the broadest mass of workers for their “economic interests”. Fighting the trend of sheer “economism” or “pure trade unionism”, the CPI stressed the growing needs of politicisation of the workers and their involvement in the national polity. In the prevailing situation the policy stressed the tasks of bringing the Congress and the trade unions closer to one another and forging unity among them.

Notes :

4. Modern India, Sumit Sarkar, pp 361-362.

5. Markovits, p 218, quoted in Modern India, S Sarkar, p 362.