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Strike breaking or the Refusal of Subalternity ?

An Essay on Ethnicity, Class and Gender in Chota Nagpur

by Dilip Simeon, 11 March 2012

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Paper presented to the Second Conference of the Association of Indian Labour Historians, V.V.Giri National Labour Institute, Delhi, March 16 – 18, 2000


Late in August 1939, there took place a strike in a small iron foundry in Jamshedpur, the premiere steel city of colonial India. Its owners were a local Bengali businessman and a Marwari entrepreneur from Calcutta. The workforce consisted of a little over two thousand five hundred workers, most of them Adivasis (’tribal’ peoples) and Oriyas, with a few hundred workers from north Bihar and the Gangetic plain. A large proportion - possibly upto 40 percent, were women. The management were known for being arbitrary, even by the notoriously low standards of the capitalists of this young company town. Their workers were low paid, with virtually no security - at the beginning of the year hundreds of hands had been discharged. The President of their union was the charismatic Congressman Abdul Bari, who was also the Deputy Speaker of the Bihar Legislative Assembly. Trouble at the workplace had resulted in spontaneous demonstrations, as was not uncommon in the area in those times. In the ensuing developments the management used their links with the emerging leader of the Adibasi Mahasabha, Jaipal Singh and the Oriya Congressman Nilkantha Das to convince the bulk of their workers to remain at work. They were abetted by Bari’s chief rival in Jamshedpur, Maneck Homi, who had led a famous general strike in TISCO in 1928. By November the strike had ended and historic developments such as the outbreak of world war, the resignation of provincial Congress ministries nation-wide and the promulgation of emergency regulations in industrial areas, had pushed the plight of the foundry workers into the background of local politics.

Nevertheless, echoes of that event resounded for some time; in political overtures to Jaipal Singh by the estranged ex-President of the Congress, Subhas Chandra Bose; in the content of Jaipal Singh’s speech welcoming Bose to Chota Nagpur; and in the stance of the administration towards union leaders in the city. A close examination of the strike and its aftermath presents interesting problems for the historian, including questions concerning the delineation of historical episodes and the relative stress to be placed upon their determining elements. Was the strike a case of ethnic identities being used by the management to sabotage working-class unity? Why did prominent local personages such as Bari, Homi, and Jaipal Singh get involved? Why did workers respond to blatant instigation to strikebreaking, and did they have their own agenda? What role did gender issues assume in their motives? What was the attitude of the bureaucracy and what was the political significance of the affair? This essay attempts to unravel the layers of meaning that lie beneath the surface of a long-forgotten incident. I will argue that it be treated as the first agitational expression of Adivasi sentiment, fuelled in part by long-standing and bitter resentment amongst tribal women about the treatment meted out to them by up-country males. Such an interpretation would buttress my viewpoint about the social origins of the Adivasi estate, because the history of industrialisation and the labour movement in Chota Nagpur is interwoven with ethnic and gender issues. I will begin my account with a description of the composition of the workforce of the area during the thirties and a summary of the history of the labour movement in Singhbhum. I will then use examples and juxtapositions from other locales in the area to highlight the importance of the Tatanagar Foundry strike.

Caste and Gender among the Workers of Chota Nagpur

The Chota Nagpur plateau was the cradle of heavy industrialisation in colonial India, the home of coal mining, iron and steel manufacture and a host of other mining and metallurgical operations. By 1938 these were producing copper, manganese, limestone, mica, fireclay, tinplate, steelwire, metal castings and even a small amount of gold. Within the region itself, the adjacent districts of Singhbhum and Manbhum attracted a polyglot labouring population drawn from different parts of the country and with a heterogenous social background. Ethnic factors affected recruitment and employment patterns in virtually every industry, and often played a significant role in mobilisation. The situation was complicated by historical developments in the 1930’s and the employment in the factories of European executives, foremen and engineers. The presence of white men in positions of immediate authority (not to speak of policemen and administrative officials), heightened racial and national awareness among the workers of the region.

The coal mines of Jharia began production in 1895 and the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) which was founded in 1907, in 1911. The first World War occasioned a stable demand for coal and steel, and the encouragement given to Chota Nagpur’s industries by the state was offered with an eye to their strategic import - TISCO devoted nearly all of its capacity to the British war effort in the Middle-East. Jamshedpur was quintessentially a company town, arising in 20 square miles of land acquired under zamindary right. Its entire municipal services were undertaken by the company and its associates. Steel production increased from 3000 tons in 1911 to 800,000 tons in 1939. There was a large floating population of unemployed workers, estimated to have been at least 7000 in 1929. Allied industrial establishments in Jamshedpur and its environs included the Tinplate Company, the Cable Company, the Copper Corporation, the Indian Steel and Wire Products Company, the Tatanagar Foundry, and the workshops of the East Indian Railway (EIR) and the Bengal-Nagpur Railway (BNR), all of which employed a total of 14,352 blue collar workers in 1938.

TISCO’s entrepreneurial strategy aimed at stabilising a large skilled workforce in a modern industrial township. Jamshedpur had an intermittently employed ’coolie’ class recruited in its hinterland and a more stable skilled labour force recruited further afield. The population included a large proportion of non-Bihari immigrants (53.5% in 1931) - ’outside’ recruitment targetted skilled workers. In 1921 over half the skilled workers were immigrants, drawn from the labour pool in other industrial regions. European and American ’covenanted’ staff numbered 150 in 1925, declining to 90 in 1928. There were Germans in the Wire Products factory, and English engineers in the copper mines at Mosaboni (in Singhbhum district). Semi-skilled workers (khalasis), many of whom came from Orissa and Madras, were about equal in number to the skilled workers. About half the unskilled workers were natives of Singhbhum. Data from the 1921 census reveal that 22% of Jamshedpur’s unskilled workers were Adivasis, consisting of Bhuiyans, Bauris, Mundas, Hos, Santhals, Oraons. Mundas with 9% were the largest group, Muslims were another 9% and various other service and artisan castes made up for 6%. Women coolies (called rezas) formed 35.6% of the urban unskilled workforce and were the only women in industrial employment. The city’s manufactories had a high turnover rate: TISCO’s averaged 30.6% annually during 1925-27. Half its unskilled workforce did not work continuously even for a year. With a large number of the skilled workers and khalasis going home for several months every two to three years, a stable reserve of trained workers gradually accumulated.

In the coalfields, the Adivasis accounted for nearly 49% of the ’actual workers’ taken as a whole and together with the `Depressed Classes’ (or so-called ’untouchables’) accounted for 87% of those who cut coal. Till the 1921 census, a fifth of the coal hewers were women, as were nearly half of the coolies, loading and carrying coal above and below ground. They formed 38% of Adivasi workers and 55% of Adivasi coolies. Nearly 90% of the coolies were ’low-caste’. The overall picture is one of a coolie proletariat dominated by tribals amongst whom women were present in large numbers. But their employment was subject to change. Women constituted 37.5% of the workforce in 1920, declining to 25.4% in 1929, the year that the central government ordered their gradual exclusion from underground work. This fell to 13.8% in 1935 and 11.5% in 1938 - a trend linked to the mechanisation of loading, hauling and screening and the eclipse of Adivasi family labour - rezas were predominantly tribal. A contributory factor was the slump in coal prices in the mid-thirties, and the resultant closures of several small and under-mechanised enterprises.

In an economy with a sluggish rate of mechanization, female labour became a crucial feature of industries requiring the expenditure of large amounts of physical energy. Women workers in mining (we may assume that the situation was generally representative), were paid less than males doing the same jobs - in the 1850’s they earned two-thirds of the daily wages of male workers and by the mid-1930’s, at the height of the overproduction crisis in coal, they were drawing in some cases less than half the male wage. Their significance in the ’unskilled’ sectors of the labour process becomes apparent when we consider the reasons why the colonial government banned the employment of women underground nearly 90 years after their British counterparts were excluded from the pits. Describing the confabulations preceding the passage of the Mines Act of 1923, the author of an official treatise on industrial policy noted that although Government had long possessed the power to prohibit the employment of women underground, "the extent to which coal mining in particular depended on women’s labour had stood in the way of action, and the development of the industry which had steadily added to the female labour force had steadily increased the difficulties along the way" (emphasis added). In the main coal areas there was vigorous opposition - the provincial authorities in Bengal, Bihar & Orissa, and the Central Provinces considered the measure premature. They agreed with its desirability at some future date, "but there was strong opposition to the fixing of a date and an almost entire absence of constructive proposals".

Gender influenced the determination of jobs as well as remuneration, and was an influential factor among workers as well as management. An enquiry in 1896 reported that men generally refused to carry and load coal - in the case of the up- country miners this created a special difficulty, as many of them came to the coalfields singly, and needed the assistance of women and children of other castes to do their loading. We learn that "Sonthalis in particular are so jealous concerning their women that they will not allow them to carry coal for other coal-cutters." A survey in 1924 revealed that nearly 80% of women in the coalfields worked alongside their husbands or male relatives. The gendered gradation of work by miners themselves was not an unusual phenomenon. Before the Act of 1842 prohibiting women’s work in mines in Britain, all the carrying work in Scottish mines was done by women and girls, "as miners regarded the jobs too degrading for men".

The lives of the rezas in the mines and on the fringes of factory production were encapsulated within several layers of subalternity. To begin with, they were colonial subjects. As workers they were subject to the general disabilities suffered by the workforce of the region as a whole. As women they were relegated to jobs such as loading, slag-picking and cleaning boilers and were paid less than their male counterparts for doing similar work. And they invariably belonged to the socially stigmatised tribal and low-caste groups, a status which made them easy targets for sexual abuse emanating from up-country male immigrants to the industrial region.

Labour Relations in Jamshedpur and Singhbhum

The context of the Tatanagar Foundry strike is provided by developments in the labour movement beginning with the TISCO strike and lockout of 1928. Among the interesting features of this movement were the initiatives taken by the semi- skilled workers many of whom were Adivasis and Oriyas. Some of their meetings were addressed in Santhali (a tribal dialect), and one report quotes the speaker as asking ’Hindus and Muslims’ to join the deliberations, a request which brings out the sense of distinctness felt by the tribal population. The observations of a police sub-inspector manifest the current stereotypes about Adivasis. They also underline the capacity of the tribal sections of the workforce to act independently of establishments they viewed as alien to their interests:

The Santhals are most obstinate people and... they may take recourse to violence at any moment, unless they are properly controlled. Most of the strikers are not members of the Labour Association, and moreover do not like to be guided by them. Hari Prasad Singh explained to me (the police officer - DS) that he came to study labour problems and was simply astonished to find the coolies talking sense and fully conscious of their rights.

The khalasis of a particular department, including numbers of Adivasis, also took steps to engage the assistance of a local lawyer named Maneck Homi who helped the strikers formulate their grievances, and was to become the maverick leader of the most prolonged strike in TISCO’s history (May-September 1928). The strike ended in a settlement mediated by Subhas Chandra Bose and the Congress-affiliated Jamshedpur Labour Association (JLA). Bose spent much time between 1928 and 1931 trying to establish himself as the pre-eminent labour leader of Jamshedpur and liked to style himself a ’controller of labour’. During this period bitter struggles ensued between Homi and the JLA leadership, with the former setting up the rival Jamshedpur Labour Federation (JLF). Intricate manoueverings amongst English officials, Tatas’ executives and Homi’s political opponents led to a five year jail term for him which began in 1930. Matters concerning regional identity surfaced during this period due to the fact that many foremen and sections of skilled workers were Bengalis and owed allegiance to Bose and the JLA. This union, of which Bose became President, alienated itself from the body of workers and passed into history during the late thirties, when its leading activists joined Abdul Bari, the man deputed by the senior Bihari Congressman Rajendra Prasad to lead the labour movement in the steel city.

In September 1934 the activities of two radical activists, the dismissed hands Mangal Singh and Phani Bhushan Dutta, who had been influenced by Homi’s leadership, caused much anxiety amongst local officials. Mangal Singh and his ’assistant’, were externed from Jamshedpur on September 20 1934, for "setting up communist cells" and "particularly tampering with aboriginal labour". The Deputy Commissioner of Singhbhum reported that:

(Mangal Singh) and Phanindranath Dutta are paying more and more attention to the aboriginal labour in the bastis (residential colonies - DS) rather than attempting to hold public meetings. This action is probably more dangerous and is probably in accordance with instructions from outside. He has shown himself to be a direct active link with outside communist organisations and for this reason he should be removed.

Mangal Singh’s "Worker’s Federation of Jamshedpur" was proscribed, despite its "very deflated condition", because of its links with the Workers and Peasants Party of Calcutta, a Communist Party front. It is significant that the administration considered the spread of radical ideas among the Adivasi settlements more dangerous than political rallies.

A protest by women workers in late 1934 is also significant for the pre-history of the Foundry strike. In a memorial to the provincial authorities about the abusive conduct of goondas and dalals (hooligans and company spies) at the workplace, an activist named P.P. Patnaik wrote:

They (rezas) complain that since they all resigned their membership in the Worker’s Insurance Society... their immediate superiors... have always been deriding, chiding, and violently scolding them with very obscene language viz. sali, randi, and bhoshri* etc. throughout the whole time they work and for this they have been exceedingly disappointed and depressed in their minds...

The overbearing behaviour of superiors at the workplace was a standing complaint of workers in Chota Nagpur throughout the twenties and thirties, and repeatedly appeared as a motivating factor for protest actions. For the female component of the workforce, however supervisory abuse was only the tip of the iceberg. Many of the offending foremen were Punjabis, and judging by what we know about the composition of the workforce, most of the rezas must have been Adivasis and low- caste women. The abusive admonitions of the supervisors in this case were especially contemptuous and hurtful. It was Patnaik who drafted the memorial, but he must have been prevailed upon to do so by the offended women, whose feelings he described as disappointment and depression.

[. . .]


Strike breaking or the Refusal of Subalternity ?: An Essay on Ethnicity, Class and Gender in Chota Nagpur
by Dilip Simeon
(presented to the Second Conference of the Association of Indian Labour Historians, Delhi, March 16 – 18, 2000)
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