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Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian Working Class: A Historical Review | Sabyasachi Bhattacharya

21 April 2015

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The Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - L No. 16, April 18, 2015

This article is a revised version of the Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture given in Jawaharlal Nehru University on 9 March 2015.

This year being the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, I propose to look at a puzzling historical question: On the one hand a socialistic and pro-labour inclination in Jawaharlal Nehru has often been seen in his rather radical statements and activities in relation to labour–capital relationship in the pre-independence period. And yet there is a widely shared perception that in policymaking, after he became the Prime Minister in 1947, he failed to deliver to the working class what that perception promised. I do not claim that it is possible to answer this conundrum easily, but I will like to place my own findings which are strictly provisional and form a part of a book I am writing on Indian labour history.

Post-1947 Phase

I will like to begin with a quick outline of the post-independence period and then to go back to the pre-independence years. In the post-independence period what was the Nehruvian approach to the industrial working class and how did it shape state policy? There are three major themes to be studied in this regard. First, we must consider the constitutional law regarding the postcolonial state’s powers of making laws in respect of labour. In this matter Nehru, along with Ambedkar and some others, played an important role. Second, we may look at the Nehruvian policy regarding legislation in respect of the rights and entitlements of labour reflected in Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, Factories Act of 1948, Employees’ Provident Funds Act of 1952, etc. And third, what is the evidence regarding Nehru’s political approach to labour issues after 1947, in his private correspondence and public pronouncements—an approach which appears to be distinctly less sympathetic to labour than it was in the pre-independence period.

As regards the constitutional law, the most important decision of the Constituent Assembly was to allow space for labour legislation by both the central or federal government and the state governments. Labour was placed in the Concurrent List and thus Nehru’s influence on labour legislation was limited to the central government’s interventions, which were mostly made in the early years of Nehru’s tenure as Prime Minister. The Constituent Assembly gave expression to certain theoretical formulations which were derived from the pre-independence discourse of labour rights and the Indian National Congress’s (INC) declarations, for example, the resolution of the Karachi session of the Congress in 1931.

Thus in the new Republic’s Constitution the right to form trade unions was upheld, the practice of “forced labour” was prohibited under Article 23 and employment of child labour in “factories, mines or hazardous employment” was prohibited under Article 24 (clearly excluding farm labour or service sector labour from the purview of the law). Further, as objectives to be attained, under Article 41 the right to work was asserted, while Article 43 spoke of the right to a “living wage.” Needless to say many of these were rights asserted on paper and courts of law did not interpret these as legally enforceable rights. It is well known that neither forced labour nor child labour was eradicated and only feeble gestures were made towards the right to work (the latest being the rural employment guarantee scheme as late as 2005). Thus, with the exception of the right to form trade unions, the other rights were in the nature of promises to be requited in future.

In the initial years of Nehru’s prime ministership there was a spate of labour legislation. The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 was, by and large, a consolidation of labour laws already in existence. Nehru’s speeches in Parliament in the 1950s often refer to, what he considered to be, an important innovation. This was the institution of Joint Works Council bringing labour representatives from recognised trade unions into joint management decision-making. However, the trade unions did not look upon that as a real concession to labour and very few industrial establishments implemented it. That the government found the act wanting in many ways is clear from the amendments the Government of India moved in 1976, 1987, 1988 and 1996. Similarly the Employees’ Provident Funds Act of 1952 was found to be wanting by organised labour unions. The fact that less than 10% of the labour force was in the organised sector was a basic limitation of most of these legislative interventions.

Jawaharlal Nehru in his occasional pronouncement in respect of labour in the 1950s and early 1960s increasingly distanced himself from the position he had earlier taken on the side of labour vis-à-vis their employers. Nehru writes to V V Giri in May 1953: “I have been deeply interested in labour questions and all my sympathies have been and are still with labour.” But he added that since independence, as the Prime Minister he could only “distantly follow” conflicts and political controversies on labour issues.1

I am not inclined to agree with you that there has been a tendency in governments, both central and state, to look upon labour as some troublesome force which occasionally makes a nuisance of itself. This is so certainly in so far as communist activities are concerned.

There was, Nehru felt, inadequate appreciation of the fact that

conditions have changed because of the coming of independence. In a political sense labour can exercise more influence in one way. That is right. But if labour thinks of government as a hostile party, then to some extent government reacts in the wrong way also. We seem to suffer from a hangover of the old days, both politically and industrially.2

Thus Nehru himself seems to have sensed a disjuncture between the years before and after 1947.

In the early 1950s widespread retrenchment caused industrial unrest and Nehru was particularly defensive. He writes to Chief Minister of West Bengal B C Roy in 1953 that the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) should be given support by the state Congress Party and government; “the INTUC has managed to stand up to the communist unions” and “our general policy has been to give INTUC complete freedom.”3 Increasingly Nehru’s stress was on “industrial discipline.” The trade union movement, he writes in 1955, has an

important part to play in the new scheme of things. It has to represent organised labour, to defend their rights, and to work in a disciplined and peaceful way. It need no longer be considered that the only way to better the condition of workers is through conflict.4

His messages to the INTUC were on these lines consistently and he emphasised the need to raise productivity.5 The latter point increasingly became important to him, possibly because he genuinely believed that effects of general economic growth—“progress” was the word he preferred—would filter down to the working class. In his speech at Rourkela Steel Plant in 1957 he addressed the workers: “You are not here merely to earn wages, though that is also important, but you are engaged in a great national task.”6 And he spoke even more directly at a labour rally in 1958: Strikes and hartals, he warned the workers, hampered the struggle against poverty in which India was engaged.7 He was not averse to listening to labour leaders, including communists like S A Dange or Renu Chakraborty, but he was plainly not to be persuaded to adopt their approach.8 Finally, a theme he often touched upon was the “progressive participation of workers in the management of industry” through Joint Works Council. However, this idea did not work out the way he had expected.9

To sum it up, although an exhaustive enumeration of all of Nehru’s pronouncements on labour is not possible here, the trend is clear from the instances cited above. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave attention to labour issues only intermittently for he had greater things to take care of, he believed that a filtration process would carry general economic progress to the working classes and thus specific state action for labour welfare was of low priority, and he saw disciplined trade unionism as a legitimate civil right as well as a means of ensuring economic progress. An anticipation of this cast of mind is probably seen in his colleague B R Ambedkar’s remarks in the Constituent Assembly on 17 December 1946 on the famous resolution on objectives in the Constitution in respect of “Justice, Social, Economic and Political.”

Coming as it does from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who is reputed to be a Socialist this Resolution, although non-controversial, is to my mind very disappointing… I find that this part of the Resolution, although it enunciates certain rights, does not speak of remedies… Rights are nothing unless remedies are provided whereby people can seek to obtain redress when rights are invaded.10

It will be unfair to omit mention of the opinion of others in the Constituent Assembly, such as Minoo Masani, who declared themselves to be socialists and, unlike Ambedkar, were satisfied with the assertion of rights, social and economic and political, of citizens, including the working class.11 Nevertheless, there was undeniably a perception of the contrary kind expressed by Nehru’s close colleague in Constitution-making, B R Ambedkar, a perception which gathered strength and conviction in the post-independence years.

Pro-labour Socialist till 1947

What are the reasons why Nehru was “reputed to be a Socialist,” as Ambedkar puts it, in the pre-independence phase? There are two dominant approaches to the interpretation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s outlook and activities on the labour front in Indian politics in the pre-independence period. One stereotype is that Nehru’s socialistic convictions as well as his location to the left of the more conservative section of the National Congress leadership allowed—or perhaps compelled—Nehru to move closer to the Indian working classes and the labour movement than any other leader of equal stature in the nationalist leadership. The second interpretative approach to the question has been that, given Nehru’s background—his father’s wealth and education in Harrow and Cambridge and all that, as well as his unwavering affiliation with the INC-led by M K Gandhi—he could at best be a part of bourgeois liberal reformism. The question I will address is whether either of these two stereotypical approaches is adequate as an explanatory framework? And to what extent are Nehru’s political stance and agenda in respect of labour in the post-independence period pre-figured in the years before 1947?

The trajectories of Nehru’s public life and that of the labour movement in India intersected very often in the pre-independence decades. In the 1930s and 1940s there was a copious discourse, at times critical of Nehru and at times laudatory, from the left and the right. But this aspect of Nehru’s political economic outlook and his activities in relation to labour have not received much academic attention. As every historian of the modern period would know, our access to the private papers of Nehru has not been easy on account of private control over them. Further, this part of Nehru’s life and work has not been highlighted in standard biographies as much as the post-independence period. For instance in the biography of Nehru which I greatly admire, Sarvepalli Gopal’s monumental work, two substantial volumes were devoted to the years from 1947 to 1964—the last 17 years of Nehru’s life—while the first 58 years of his life, the years before attainment of independence, are covered in one volume.12

We have a substantial literature on the approach of the nationalist leadership and of Jawaharlal Nehru to the capitalist class in the works of Claude Marcovits, Rajat Kanta Ray, Aditya Mukherjee and others, but the Nehruvian approach to the working class issues in the pre-independence period has not been studied. We have detailed pictures of segments of labour history in a number of works. (For example, those of Dick Kooiman, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Raj Chandavarkar, Dilip Simeon, Samita Sen, Prabhu Mohapatra, Rana Behal, Nirban Basu, Chitra Joshi, S B Upadyaya, and in a more general vein the book by Sukomal Sen.) In course of such narratives we do get some light on the interface between the working class and Congress leadership at the regional level, but not so much on the broader question of Nehru’s approach and actions in relation to the industrial working class. That is what we shall be looking at now.13

What were the formative factors shaping Nehru’s approach to the working class before 1947? To begin with, we must remember that there was always some amount of scepticism amongst Nehru’s close acquaintances as to whether, given his social background, he was right in wading into the labour question. He was a political novice with little direct interaction with the working class when he accepted, in December 1928, the presidentship of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) at the age of 32, when venerable veterans like Muzaffar Ahmed and V B Kulkarni were his vice presidents and S A Dange his assistant secretary. A school friend of his, Charles Trevelyan, skeptical of Nehru’s activities on the labour front, wrote to Nehru: “You and I began at Harrow where we were not taught to be champions of the underdog.”14 That was very true, but at the same time it is an obvious error to assume that the personal class location of an individual will necessarily determine his or her ideological position or the political choices he or she might make.

Likewise it has been said that Nehru’s socialistic ideas were no more than the baggage he brought from England. A great many of those who emerged as leaders of the left had their first lessons in socialism or communism through associations they formed in England as students, much like Nehru. Jyoti Basu in his autobiography (in Bengali, possibly by now also translated into English) observes how there developed in England a communist group consisting of Bhupesh Gupta, Indrajit Gupta, Arun Bose, Nikhil Chakravartty, etc, as well as future fellow travellers like Mohan Kumaramangalam or Rajani Patel; their link with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) leaders was probably intermittent and weak, but their affiliation claim was strong.15 Thus Nehru was not exceptional in deriving some of his socialistic inspiration from English associates and exemplars. That was no reason to doubt the genuineness of his commitment.

What was the course of Nehru’s relationship with the labour movement since his return to India? I will try and sketch it out in broad outlines first, and then turn to the questions of interpretation or evaluation which I began with. Needless to say, Nehru was not in the centre stage of the labour movement. That space was occupied by the moderate leaders like N M Joshi, B Shiva Rao, R R Bakhale, Baptista et al and the left leadership of S A Dange, R S Nimbkar, Muzaffar Ahmed, among others. Nevertheless, the trajectories of Nehru’s political life and that of the labour movement intersected at some important conjunctures. There were three major areas of intersection: (a) first, the international labour movement and associated movements, (b) interventions made by Nehru personally at times like major industrial strikes, the Meerut conspiracy trial, etc, in defence of the cause of labour, and in the AITUC, and (c) third, cooperation between the labour leadership and the Indian National Congress in which Nehru had consistently an important role to play from the late 1920s. A detailed narrative of events in these three areas will be unnecessary here and we shall only focus upon a few major developments where Nehru assumed a role in relation to the Indian labour movement.

International Links

As regards the first of these areas, it is well known that Nehru was at the founding meeting of the League Against Imperialism (LAI), a body sponsored by the Soviet Union but also perceived by many as an autonomous body standing by itself. Nehru was keen on internationalising the outlook of the Indian labour leadership by establishing links with LAI. His correspondence shows a close relationship with the LAI, specially between 1927 and 1931. However, in 1931 Nehru was expelled from the LAI on account of his insistence on some space for an independent line of his own.

The other international link which Nehru tried to develop between the labour movement in India and other countries was through the British trade union movement. Nehru as well as many Indian labour leaders believed this to be an important source of support. We have many letters in the All India Congress Committee files requesting funds from the British trade unions at times of strike action in India. There were also appeals for political support, e g, at the time of the Meerut conspiracy trials of the top communist leadership in 1929 and the issue of the Trade Disputes Act of 1928.

Apart from the LAI and the trade union connection, was there a third international link, the British Labour Party? Actually Nehru was rather sceptical of the Labour Party from the mid-1920s. He resented the “the hectoring and offensive messages” from Ramsay MacDonald and the generally lukewarm attitude of the Labour Party journals to Indian issues. Nehru writes in The Tribune in July 1929: “Indian public opinion has seen through the thin veneer of academic socialism of Mr MacDonald and his party.” They were as much imperialists and supporters of the capitalist system as “the Baldwins and Birkenheads of the Conservative Party.”16 On the whole, Nehru was exceptional among Congress leaders in upholding the idea of working class internationalism.

Labour Movement in India

Although prominent Congress leaders attended the founding meeting of the AITUC in 1920, cooperation between the two bodies was largely symbolical. In 1920, at the Nagpur session the INC passed a resolution setting up a labour committee, but no action ensued. Participation of the working classes in the non-cooperation movement was substantial, but there was no effort to institute organisational links between the INC and the AITUC. Jawaharlal Nehru developed these institutional links from the 1920s as a result of interventions requested by labour leaders, or offered by Nehru on his own, at certain critical conjunctures in the labour movement.

As a public man Nehru was expected to intervene and lend his support to the cause of labour at times of major strikes and other forms of industrial action. As early as 1921 the Intelligence Bureau of Indian Police reports Nehru visiting and addressing the Postal Peons’ Union in Calcutta. The strike of Bowriah jute mill, led by Muzaffar Ahmad and others, was a long struggle for six months from July 1926 to January 1929.17 In his autobiography Muzaffar Ahmed recounts how Nehru visited the mill and raised funds for the strikers. In 1937, the general strike in jute mills in Bengal was another occasion when Nehru’s support was requested and obtained. The Girni Kamgar Union of Bombay, a communist-led union in cotton mills which undertook prolonged strikes in 1928–29, does not appear to seek support, but Nehru lent his support through his writings in the press.

Nehru’s correspondence indicates that there were other instances of interventions of this kind on other occasions. He acquired an image of a young radical leader from such association with labour leaders. This was an image Nehru desired because he liked to think of himself as a “socialist worker” in 1928.18

More publicly visible than these interventions in labour issues by Nehru was his appearance in the annual sessions of the Trade Union Congress. Obviously it was not so much his work as a labour leader as his position as a Congress leader which brought the media limelight on him at trade union conferences. We do not know whether he attended the founding meeting of the AITUC in 1920 but it is on record that Motilal Nehru and a substantial section of the National Congress did attend that meeting. Incidentally, this was one national-level conference which Mahatma Gandhi refused to attend. Jawaharlal Nehru’s regular association with the AITUC began in 1928 when he was elected, in absentia, President of the AITUC, the other office-bearers being Muzaffar Ahmad, S A Dange, etc. Thereafter Nehru was frequently in attendance at the annual AITUC sessions. Even in the turbulent year 1942 he was at the AITUC session in Kanpur and was nearly arrested on account of a militant speech he made there.

However, while he frequented those meetings he was perhaps perceived as an “outsider,” a bystander, by those who were actively involved in the labour movement. Further, he probably took a dim view of the conservative Congress labour leaders like Gulzarilal Nanda, known as a Gandhian, who made Gandhi’s Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association the model to follow. As the Congress Socialist Party gradually withered away and the more radical elements in the Congress opted for the left parties, Nehru was in isolation. The dominant conservative Congressmen, led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Nanda, engineered a split in the AITUC and founded the INTUC in 1946; Nehru at that time was a bystander.19 Despite that, Nehru’s admirers credited him with one great achievement, the resolution accepted at the Karachi session of the Congress in 1931 on the fundamental rights which would be part of the vision of “Swaraj” to which the Congress was committed.

As is well known, this resolution put on the agenda of the Congress three different categories of egalitarian objectives. First, the basic elements of democratic equality and civil rights were spelt out: rights of free speech, free press, free assembly and freedom of association, equality before law irrespective of caste, creed or sex; neutrality of state in regard to all religions, elections on basis of universal adult franchise, and free and compulsory education; further, the culture, language and script of the minorities and of different linguistic areas would be protected. Second, certain commitments of economic nature addressed the peasants’ expectations in respect of substantial reduction in rent and revenue, exemption from rent in case of uneconomic holdings, and relief of agricultural indebtedness, and control of usury. Third, the resolution also addressed industrial workers’ expectations in terms of their right to organise and form unions, the factory workers’ right to work for limited hours and living wages, and protection of women workers in mines and factories; in addition to that, to enable the government to control the commanding heights of the economy, state ownership or control of key industries, mines and means of transport was vaguely envisaged.

It is probable that the consensus in the Congress was far greater on the first set of objectives than the other two. Although, in later times, intellectuals on the Left were prone to applaud this Karachi Congress resolution of 1931, the contemporary and authoritative opinion of the internationally influential left journal, Labour Monthly, was severely sceptical. The resolution was interpreted as a manoeuvre to appease the youth, “who constituted more than 60% of the total number of delegates.” It was viewed as

A radical sounding resolution laying down ‘the fundamental rights of the people’ under a ‘Swaraj’ Constitution—this phrase being deliberately used throughout the resolutions instead of ‘independent India’. The object of the resolution was to make it appear to the masses that their interests were being protected, for it demanded, among other things, a living wage for industrial workers, suppression of slavery, protection of working women, prohibition of child labour, progressive income tax on agricultural incomes and legacies, reduction of land rent and taxes on the peasantry, adult suffrage, trade union rights, &c. Even though this was a mere trick to draw the workers and peasants into the Congress net, there was strong opposition to it from the landlords and the industrialists, but Gandhi forced the resolution through the Subjects Committee by 91 votes to 80, and the open Congress naturally passed that deceptive resolution unanimously.20

While this particular report might have been flawed by the assumption of “conspiracies” in the INC, its scepticism was not unjustified in respect of the Congress’s commitment to the economic agenda. Egalitarian objectives in the domain of civil rights were acceptable to the Congress mainstream—indeed those objectives pertaining to civil rights had been on the Congress agenda for decades—but when egalitarianism was translated into economic terms, as in the second set of objectives, consensus in the Congress proved to be hard to secure in the coming years. Democratic egalitarianism is one thing, and socialist egalitarianism is quite another.

Characterising Nehru

This review of Nehru’s approach to the working class raises the question we started with: is it correct to characterise Nehru’s approach to the labour movement as liberal reformist? That term was often used since the 1940s to put Nehru in his place by those who differed from him. Leaving aside name-calling according to the alignments of the moment, when the term “liberal reformist” was more seriously employed by way of theoretically defining Nehru’s position, the term demands attention to his agenda of action in the context of those times. What was reformism in labour movement at that time in India and how did Nehru’s agenda differ from theirs?

Ironically, Nehru usually took care to distinguish himself from “reformists.” By that term he meant N M Joshi and others who were against links with the LAI, in favour of cooperation with the Royal Labour Commission and eschewed popular agitation against repressive laws like the Trade Disputes Act of 1928. N M Joshi and his followers split away from AITUC in November 1929 at the Nagpur session. Nehru’s wrath against them expressed itself in many forums. He makes fun of them in his private letters as parochial ignoramuses who know little of the world. At the Bombay Presidency Youth Conference in December 1928 he was very forthright:

Ally yourself to the masses of the country—the peasantry and the industrial worker… And if you do so you will automatically avoid the pitfalls of reformism and petty compromise.21

In February 1929, in a speech at Lahore he condemned the principle of gradualism in progress towards socialism and ridiculed the government which “sees red in everything.”22 He wrote in March 1929 to R R Bakhale of his distress at the tendency of N M Joshi to “take things lying down,” meaning Joshi’s silence about the arrest of labour leaders.23 In May 1929 he issued press statements in support of the communists in the Girni Kamgar Union (GKU) of Bombay.24 In July 1929 he wrote as president of GIP Railway Kamgar Union to his secretary C B Johri: “the policy pursued by the conservatives is harmful to the trade union movement as a whole”—and he warned Johri that the moderates would soon split away from AITUC.25 In September 1928 his address to the All Bengal Students’ Conference was mainly directed against those who fear the word “socialism” out of plain ignorance.26 Thus Nehru was conducting, in the late 1920s, a regular campaign against reformism or what he sometimes also called “gradualism.”

Matters between N M Joshi and Nehru came to a head by the end of 1929. Nehru writes to Bakhale in September 1929:

Many of my efforts in foreign countries, specially England, have been counteracted by Joshi…. Obviously it is somewhat ridiculous for office-bearers of the same organisation to spend their time in trying to undo each other’s work.27

The climactic moment was the president’s casting vote Nehru used to admit GKU, a communist union, to voting status and membership in the AITUC, against the wishes of N M Joshi, Bakhale and others who complained of bogus memberships in the GKU. This activity by Nehru totally alienated the reform-minded Joshi faction which included V V Giri, B Shiva Rao, Mrinal Kanti Basu, etc, and prepared the way for their departure from the AITUC to form the separate Trade Union Federation. However, while aligning with the left radicals against the Joshi group, Nehru made his difference with the radicals clear: Nehru in his presidential speech advised the AITUC not to affiliate with the Third International and to pursue an independent path.

I have given a possibly excessively detailed account, but the object is to give a flavour of the kind of conflict that conservatives and radicals were into at that time on the ground, in political practice. As regards theory, it is true that Nehru’s position was somewhat undefined compared to the clarity and definitiveness of say Rajani Palme Dutt, or M N Roy or the leaders of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party. Nehru rarely went beyond the immediate issues which divided him from the labour leaders he called reformists. He entered into no theoretical debates of the kind Marxist critics of liberal reformism engaged in.

Theory and Practice

It seems that Nehru depended not so much on Marxist expositions of theory, as on his own inferences from with what he saw in Europe. Further, he also learned from leaders of the left and fellow travellers of those times: Harry Pollitt, Fenner Brockway, Reginald Bridgman, Henri Barbusse and the like. Therefore, compared to the clear-cut categories and linear causal interpretations of theoreticians like M N Roy or R P Dutt, Nehru’s were fuzzy categories and open-ended scenarios of historical movements he intuitively surmised. Thus he was regarded by the theory-minded as weak in theory. But this weakness might have been his strong point in securing mobilisation of political support from different sections of people. That was after all his main objective, not to contribute to theory.

The crux of the matter was not so much Nehru’s tendency to avoid the theoretical, but a conflict between his links with the conservatives amongst the Gandhians in the Congress, and the sympathy he expressed for the labouring classes. Probably this was the reason why he occasionally appeared to be indecisive or ambivalent. It has often been said that Nehru was a man of changeful moods, and hence his failure to come loud and clear and free of ambivalences. Gopal, in his official biography of Nehru, reproduces a report that Nehru wrote on his own speech in 1940: the report suggests change in the speaker’s mood three times in course of a single speech.28 This kind of self-representation by Jawaharlal created an image of an ambivalent intellectual, often unable to see his way, because he saw two sides of each debated issue more clearly than others did. It will be presumptuous of me—or for that matter anyone—to speculate what was his true self, we have only his actions to judge him by.

If one looks beyond the explanations cast in terms of his psyche, which is the explanation sometimes offered, if one were to look for the rationality of the choices made and action taken by Nehru, one has to look beyond his personality to the context in which decisions were made. A series of decisions constitute a general policy or position vis-à-vis a problem and a few decisions were, no doubt, out of line with the average. But on the whole, from 1928, when he accepted presidentship of the AITUC, to 1946, when he stood in the margin to witness the split brought about by Congressmen to create the INTUC, Nehru displayed one consistent policy stance. His sympathy for the labouring classes and his appreciation of the work of the trade union leadership notwithstanding, the scale was swayed by the mass and volume of popular support that the INC could mobilise through links with the labour movement.

Time and again Nehru made this point and he made no bones about it even when he was addressing the trade union leadership. In 1929 he wrote to D B Kulkarni,

Of course everyone knows that the Congress is not a labour organisation. It does not pretend to be one. To expect it to act as a pure labour organisation is a mistake.29

When C B Joshi of the GIP Railway Union proposed a labour organisation to be set up under Nehru’s leadership, Nehru decidedly declined: “All my activities must be through the Congress.”30 Two turning points in Nehru’s political career illustrate his total dependence on the INC. The first of these was Nehru’s silence in 1934, soon after the withdrawal of the Civil Disobedience movement, when the Congress accepted a resolution denouncing the notion of class war as repugnant to the spirit of non-violence, and recommending “healthier relationship between capital and labour.”31

The second event was at the Lucknow Congress of 1936 where Nehru in his presidential address spoke of affiliation of working class trade unions and peasant organisations to the Congress Party in a more proactive way. But as G D Birla noted: “no new commitments were made by the Congress. Jawaharlal’s speech in a way was thrown into the waste paper basket, became all the resolutions that were passed were against the spirit of his speech.”32 Nehru accepted this victory of the old guard and nominated them to the Working Committee (the only three socialists out of the 10 nominated were Narendra Deva, J P Narayan and Achyut Patwardhan).

Calculus of Political Mass

These are instances which illustrate the fact that the Congress position outweighed all other factors in Nehru’s mind. This was because he thought that the struggle for independence must have priority over all else and the Congress was the only effective instrument towards that end, whatever may be his personal difference with the party line. This was clearly articulated by Nehru in 1931 in his speech to the mill workers in Bombay:

The Congress has now became really a mass organisation and of any section of the Indian community keeps aloof from it, it will in no way do any harm to the Congress, but it will certainly weaken that section.33

That appears to be the rationale for the choice Nehru occasionally made when the choice was between his socialist sympathies and his commitment to the Congress Party. The Congress outweighed the Congress Socialist Party or the AITUC in the calculus of political mass. It is no denigration of Nehru to say that this political calculus mattered to him more than his personal sympathy for the cause of the working class. Similarly in the years after 1947 when one looks at his homilies to the trade unions to eschew the path of industrial conflict and to focus on increasing productivity, we may bear in mind his priorities: Nehru tended to prioritise in the new dispensation the objective of overall economic progress of the newly independent country, as well as the civil rights of its citizens, including the working class.

I tend to think that the personal social background of the son of Motilal Nehru is no reason to dismiss Jawaharlal’s own statements about his sympathy for the working class, because the class location of an individual does not necessarily determine his ideological position. Nor do I think that his “socialistic” inclinations are to be dismissed as just the baggage he brought from England. It will be equally incorrect to overlook his engagement with labour issues in the 1920s, and the fact that he continued to be closer to that engagement than any other Congress leader of equal stature. The Karachi Congress resolution of 1931 on the “Swaraj constitution,” authored by him and approved by Gandhi, was the high watermark of that cast of mind, promising civil rights and addressing working class issues.

Arguably, there is a disjuncture between that trend and what happened after 1947. Hence the puzzling question we began with: What accounts for the difference between a pro-labour Nehru before 1947 and Nehru thereafter? Nehru as Prime Minister gave attention to labour issues only intermittently because he probably believed that greater things demanded his attention. He believed that a filtration process would carry general economic progress to the working classes, and he saw disciplined trade unionism as a legitimate civil right as well as a means of ensuring economic progress. As it has been often said, not just labour matters but equally important issues in the area of access to literacy and primary education and public health were not accorded the priority they deserved.

How do we understand and interpret the contrast between the two Nehrus? I have tentatively suggested that the answer to the puzzle is in the political calculus of mass. I have tried to show that even before 1947, as Nehru moved into the front rank of Congress leadership, he was compelled increasingly to prioritise the agenda of the National Congress over that of labour and the trade unions, that is, to prioritise the multi-class struggle for political freedom. The political calculus prevailed over whatever may have been his personal sympathies. Jawaharlal Nehru was among the creators of history, but the creators of history are also creatures of history.


[The last time I took part in a meeting in memory of Krishna Bharadwaj was in 1992 when we organised an obituary meeting at Visva-Bharati University. I had the privilege of having her as a colleague and neighbour at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for many years. I recall that when I returned to India to join the history faculty at JNU in 1972, the School of Social Sciences had a very small faculty. We were all thrown together in a small community that JNU was, and we frequently interacted in the task of framing the School’s academic regulations, and teaching programmes allowing an interdisciplinary traffic of ideas, and the general agenda of creating a School that would not be a lesser replica of universities abroad. For two reasons Krishna’s interactions extended well beyond the department she belonged to, that is, first in the department of Political Studies and later the Centre for Economic Studies. Her intellectual interests included not only economic theory of the kind she began to look at while she was at Clare Hall, in the intellectual company of Piero Sraffa at Cambridge, but also to many themes and problems which extended to empirical studies in the production conditions in Indian agriculture and the relationship between economic theory and historical experience. That apart, in campus life at JNU Krishna Bharadwaj and her daughter Sudha were important figures. It is not generally known that in the beginning of her life Krishna was a musical prodigy in the kirana gharana of Hindustani classical music and at the age of 15 her talent was recognised by artists like Gangubai Hangal. Although in mature age Krishna would not perform in public, as her immediate neighbours my wife Malabika and I were beneficiaries of her musical talent. I am privileged to offer a tribute to her memory.]

1 Nehru to V V Giri, 23 May 1953, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (henceforth SWJN) edited by S Gopal, New Delhi: Orient Longman, Vol 22, pp 34–36.

2 Nehru to V V Giri, 23 May 1953, SWJN, Vol 27, pp 94-96; this was a response to Giri’s proposal for an Industrial Relations Bill to protect factory workers from retrenchment at short notice, without regard to their years of service and entitlement to gratuity, etc.

3 Nehru to B C Roy, 10 May 1953, SWJN, Vol 22, p 91.

4 Nehru’s message to journal Shramajivi, 2 October 1955, SWJN, Vol 30, p 159.

5 Nehru’s message to INTUC, 6 December 1957.

6 Nehru’s speech at Rourkela, 15 December 1957, SWJN, Vol 40, p 141.

7 Nehru, speech at labour rally Gauhati, 16 January 1958, SWJN, Vol 40, p 129.

8 Nehru to Gulzarilal Nanda, Labour Minister, 24 March 1958, reporting Nehru’s talks with a communist delegation led by Dange on distress in the coal mines and steel factories in eastern India, SWJN, Vol 40, pp 152–54.

9 Nehru’s speech at workers’ rally, Madras, 7 December 1957, reported in The Hindu, 8 December 1957, SWJN, Vol 40, p 123.

10 B R Ambedkar’s speech, Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol I, 17 December 1946.

11 M R Masani’s speech, Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol I, 17 December 1946.

12 Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1975, Vol 1, covers 1889–1947.

13 The peasant question is not being addressed by me, not only because of the constraint of space, but also because it was a separate stream in the nationalist discourse distinct from the politico-economic ideas and practice in relation to the industrial working class we are concerned with here.

14 Charles Trevelyan to Nehru, 12 June 1936, in Nehru (ed.), Bunch of Old Letters, Delhi: Penguin, 2005, first pub 1958, p 189.

15 Jyoti Basu, Jatadur Mone Pore (Bangla), Calcutta, 1998, p 10.

16 Nehru, SWJN, Vol 3, p 154.

17 Muzaffar Ahmad, Amar Jiban, 1969, 1996, pp 485–492.

18 Nehru, Autobiography, Delhi: Penguin, 2004, p 183.

19 Sukomal, Sen (1977): The Woking Class of India: History of Emergence and Movement, 1830–1970, Calcutta: K P Bagchi, p 409.

20 Report by V Chattopadhyaya in Labour Monthly, Vol 13, May 1931, No 5, pp 305–07.

21 SWJN, Vol 3, p 204.

22 SWJN, Vol 4, p 3.

23 SWJN, Vol 4, p 30.

24 SWJN, Vol 4, 32.

25 SWJN, Vol 4, p 33.

26 SWJN, Vol 3, p 192.

27 SWJN, Vol 4, p 43.

28 National Herald, “Jawaharlal Reports Himself,” 23 October 1940, quoted in S Gopal (1975), Vol 1, p 269.

29 All-India Congress Committee, AICC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum, New Delhi (manuscript collection) AICC Proceedings, File No 16, 10 September 1929.

30 SWJN, Vol 4, p 34.

31 S Gopal (1975), Vol 1, p 187.

32 S Gopal (1975), Vol 1, p 209.

33 Bombay Chronicle, 14 June 1931.

[Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (bhattacharya.sabyasachi at is a historian of modern India and a former vice chancellor of Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan.]


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