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Outer Space and Inner Agency: Reflections on the realm of the Outside in the labour movement

by Dilip Simeon, 17 May 2014

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Presented to the Conference of the Association of Indian Labour Historians;
Delhi, March 1998

Outer Space and Inner Agency:
Reflections on the realm of the Outside in the labour movement


This essay is a speculative exercise undertaken with the purpose of debating afresh one of the most hoary themes in the history of the working class - the question of intervention and agency. The subject is vast, and I will not pretend to have arrived at any definitive conclusion. The observations set out here are not based on an all-encompassing survey of labour history, but may be substantiated in a reading of some of my earlier research to which references will be provided. The exercise will begin with a consideration of certain well-worn positions, but will then attempt to analyse the functional notions of space and boundary inherent in the repeated use of the term `outside’, `outsider’, "from without", etc in the language of managements and unionists of different hues. I will suggest that the question of the Outside is not merely one of the origins of consciousness (to which suffixes such as `adequate’, `socialist’, `historical’, etc may be attached as per ideological preference), but also, and perhaps primarily, one of class domination and class power. Hence I will suggest an expansion of the historiographical use of the term. It is also about the types of plebeian agency and initiative, which the hegemons of labour found acceptable, versus those, which endangered their position and required to be thwarted in the immediate sense and disregarded historically.

The material upon which I shall base my generalisations is the history of the labour movement in Chota Nagpur in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Chota Nagpur, an administrative division in southern Bihar, is a demographically distinctive region, and an area, which was the location of the heaviest concentration of metallurgical and mining enterprises in colonial India. The core zones were the belt around the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur (TISCO), and the Jharia coalfields in the Dhanbad subdivision of Manbhum. Several `associated companies’ were engaged in engineering and metallurgical work in Singhbhum, which was also the site of metallic-ore mines. These included the Tinplate Company, the Tatanagar Foundry, the Indian Steel Wire Products Ltd, the Cable Company, and the mines and works of the Indian Copper Corporation at Ghatsila. Jharia and its environs contained the richest seams of superior-grade coal in India. There were also coal and mica mines in neighbouring Hazaribagh. Some 1 to 1.25 lakh workers were employed in the production and despatch of coal, the most crucial energy commodity in the colonial economy, for which the chief customers were the Railways, the merchant Marine, metallurgical industries, and industries running on steam-driven engines, including various mills.
Steel production in TISCO reached 429,000 tons in 1928 and 800,000 tons in 1939. During 1914-1918 nearly all of its capacity was devoted to the British war effort in the Middle East. Its workforce was 30,135 in 1923 24 , after which the management began to implement reductions. In the late 1920’s the local government reported a workforce of 29,000. Contractors’ `coolies’ varied in number from 4000 to 8000. Allied industrial establishments such as the Tinplate Company, the Cable Company, the Copper Corporation, the Indian Steel and Wire Products Company, and the workshops of the EIR and the Bengal-Nagpur Railway (BNR), employed a total of 14,352 blue collar workers in 1938. The population of Jamshedpur grew to 57,000 in 1921, and was 84,000 in 1931. In 1929, the pool of unemployed workers in Jamshedpur was estimated at 7000.

Our period covers the Depression and its aftermath, the advent of suffrage-based politics and the first elected Congress ministry. An examination of the labour movement during this phase illustrates the nature of nationalist political intervention, and the interaction of state, managements, unions and workers, during a period which witnessed the advent of elected ministries in the provinces and the decline of colonial power. During the eventful decade of the thirties, the workers of Chota Nagpur many of them first generation employees, underwent a painful learning process, in the course of which employers great and small, began reluctantly to concede a more democratic system of labour relations. These concessions were wrung from the capitalists in the course of bitter and often violent struggles which took place in a context complicated by the politics of nationalism and retreating imperialism. In a comment on the authoritarian nature of the managerial regimes then prevailing, Professor Radhakamal Mukerjee, a member of the Bihar Labour Enquiry Committee had this to say:

even the formation of the trade union... provokes intimidation and victimisation on a large scale from the management. Workers want to... secure the rights of collective bargaining. But the agents whom they elect or choose are dubbed `outsiders’... and treated with indifference and scorn... It is the managements’ deliberate policy of non-recognition of unions and persistent refusal to deal with (their) accredited representatives... that is one of the most frequent causes of strikes in India, and a labour union hardly ever gets recognition without the ordeal of a strike...

The struggles for democratic industrial relations and against intensification of labour were central to the history of the labour movement in Chota Nagpur, and had their own political expressions and consequences. In the context of a national movement committed to displacing the colonial bureaucracy, the insubordination of the proletarians seemed at certain moments to resonate with, and at others to diverge from that of the Indian elite, who were at pains to maintain the principle of managerial authority even as they challenged the political authority of the British; to stabilise their own rule over labour even as they sought to replace the ruling class. In such a situation, the intervention of so-called outsiders with multifarious motives and functions was a foregone conclusion. In the sphere of union activity, the appearance of this person, very often a local pleader, would suffice for managements to protest loudly about the imminent advent of Bolshevism. There are numerous instances of employers of labor claiming that their workers would have remained quite contented but for his malevolent intervention. Many initial struggles in major industrial centers were around the question of the right of the workers to be represented by such persons. One explanation is that the working class was uneducated and backward and needed the leadership of the political literati. This position possesses a certain resonance with classical Leninist epistemology, which posits the `outside’ theoretically as a pre-requisite to an adequate class consciousness. In the context of an unfolding nationalist movement with its left-radical element, the notion of the indispensability of the political outsider acquired considerable acceptance.

Although the use of the term by managements was always in the pejorative, a close study of industrial relations impels the historian to examine the mercurial roles of these persons as they were viewed from different vantage points in the spectrum of classes and indeed, to ask the question about the very nature and necessity of the implied `outside’ sphere.

The Outsider as Mediator

To begin with, the `outsider’ was cast in the role of the fomenter of strikes or the saviour of an otherwise helpless mass of working people - in either case, the assumption being that he was the real knowing Subject in the history of modern industrial relations. This carried the implication that the source of both subjugation and liberation lay in the Outside sphere, ie, beyond the control of workers themselves. For radical critics of this approach, it needed to be demonstrated that leadership could arise from Within the ranks (as in `organic’ leadership) - this would constitute adequate proof that workers could mobilise their own liberation. But this kind of critique uncritically accepts the division of Outside vs Inside, as would appear from the following observation:

The really interesting question was whether there was a possibility of the proletariat outgrowing their mentors through the development of a leadership from the rank and file of the workers, i.e., the possibility of stepping from this paradigm into another where the outsiders, members of the intelligentsia, would not have such a role..

The most common usage of the term `outsider’ was with reference to the matter of labour representation. Bhattacharya has pointed out that while the term might have emanated from the vocabulary of managers, it was acceptable to both moderate and left-wing politicians with union links - its acceptability being a reflex of a social reality. Of course, it took time for the capitalists to accept this. The Tatas, for example, were pressured by senior nationalist leaders to recognise the need for a union, this after violent conflicts had taken place in 1920 and 1922. It was only TISCO’s need for Swarajist support on the tarriff question that made conciliation possible - in 1924, Motilal Nehru and C.R. Das agreed to support their case on condition that the Jamshedpur Labour Association be recognised. In a meeting attended by Nehru, C.F. Andrews, N.M. Joshi, and C.R. Das, R.D. Tata was stubborn in his rejection of `outsiders’. Finally Andrews had to point out that a company employee could become an `outsider’ overnight, (as was the case with Gurudutt Sethi, a supervisor in the Electrical Department, who had been dismissed for his role in the lightning strike of 1922). Reacting to Tata’s language, the leaders told him that they were all `outsiders’ and `agitators’. TISCO continued to withhold recognition for some months on account of Sethi’s presence as Secretary, even though the General Manager hardly saw the irony of his own request that Andrews be President. Pointing out that the GOI had accepted the current necessity of outsiders in leadership positions in trades-unions and had incorporated this in a new Trade Union Bill, Andrews threatened to resign with a public statement of his reasons for doing so. TISCO, he said, was bound to accept the JLA with Sethi on its rolls or as an outsider. In 1924, the JLA made a point of this in its first political statement: "we... refuse to forego our elementary right of electing any one as our office-bearer and secondly the election of outside office-bearers is absolutely necessary to prevent the office-bearers of the Association being intimidated by threats of dismissal.."

The matter of outsiders took a strange turn in the upheaval of 1928, when the JLA leadership, having failed to articulate the worker’s grievances, did its best to keep another outsider, the pleader Maneck Homi from being elected the new president, on the ground that only enrolled and paid-up members were eligible for the post - an assertion radically at odds with their constitution. A sordid machination between the acceptable outsider, C.F. Andrews and the General Manager prevented the democratic renewal of the union, and laid the ground for much bitterness thereafter. The five-month long strike cum lockout in TISCO which ensued during May-September 1928 ended in a contrived settlement achieved through the mediation of Subhas Bose, the new outsider acceptable to TISCO. There now took place eruptions of post-strike unrest on the shop floor. In an appeal to the administration to deal with Maneck Homi, whom management viewed as the instigator of these outbreaks, Managing Director Peterson referred to Bose as the men’s "accredited leader", asked for Homi’s meetings to be prevented by executive order, and stated that he (Homi) was not a workman and he is not out to assist labour but to create trouble". Bose was not a workman either, but was considered `accredited’ despite the perception among workers that the official union, the JLA had prevented them from making a democratic choice during their strike.

If the animosity to the outsider on the part of managers was the mirror image of the politicist viewpoint (both assigned primary subject-hood to him rather than to the workers he was leading), the problem for the historian arises when he discovers workers approaching outsiders to lead them. In this scenario, the educated outsider remains a leader but subjecthood and agency flows back to the helpless and illiterate working class. There is ample evidence from the history of the labour movement in Chota Nagpur to suggest that this was indeed the case. Thus, the developments which led to the TISCO strike of 1928 began in February that year, when, disgusted with the JLA’s incapacity to deal with their grievances, the crane drivers went on a lightning strike and almost immediately formed a strike committee one of whose assigned tasks was to search for suitable alternative leaders. They rented an office and collected funds, demonstrating their capacity for self organization. The following month, the `coolies’ of the Rail Finishing Mill (mainly Adivasis, Chhatisgarhias, and Oriyas), struck in protest against manhandling and abuse by foremen, work intensification, and racial wage differentials, and organized meetings to drum up support among different sections of the workforce. [. . .].

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Outer Space and Inner Agency: Reflections on the realm of the Outside in the labour movement [PDF]
by Dilip Simeon
Presented to the Conference of the Association of Indian Labour Historians;
Delhi, March 1998