Report on Oral History: An Archaeology of Labour Movement|
(Anil Rajimwale, Krishna Jha and Bobby Poulose)
A lot of history is hidden among the individual participants of the labour movement. A lot has been written about and by the individuals and organisations of labour on events, incidents, movements, lives, problems and vaarious other aspects. Normally, history, individual as well collective, can be glimpsed in papers and periodicals and books. Not only the movements but the personal lives and habits of the individuals have been penned down. A huge amount of literature is available: resolutions, histories, journals, pamphlets/booklets, periodicals, books, even tapes of interviews, newspaper and other articles, proceedings of meetings, conferences, seminars and so on. Besides, there are doctoral theses available on the labour movement with lot of information. Biographies and autobiographies are there. Superficial writings as well as indepth analyses are available. There are ‘movement studies’ from various points of view, as also descriptive works with no view at all. Some claim ‘objectivity’ in their writings, while others are simply ‘sujective’. The subject/object dialectic is at play quite often. There are complaints that facts are suppressed and distorted in the description of the mainstream-movement studies. Well-known movements are studied and brought to light at the cost of the smaller movements and the role of common individuals. If at all the individual is focussed upon, it is as part of the organised movements and organisations. So, the role of the individual is predetermined, they complain. The dynamics of the individual are ignored. How does the person evolve, not only as labour but as a multi-faceted being? What about the non-movement, non-political, non-economic aspects of the individual, for example the cultural or family aspect? What is the position of the woman in the whole setting?
The movement of the labourers and the labourer himself/herself is often treated as an ‘object’ of study, draining the person of all the life. The study is often taken to the extent of ‘guinea pig’ for experiments. Consequently, the human beings are treated as devoid of feelings and life, as ‘things’, even though it may not be the intention of the researchers.
Importance of oral history:
The other major problem with the study of the labour movement is that though a big amount of printed and other tangible materials are available, for example in form of documents, much more remains hidden or unknown, which has never been put down or hardly at all. This part of history and life, the inner and outer self, is available only with the person concerned or those to whom he or she was closely known. Such persons were participants, activists and leaders of the work-places, organisations, movements, detached observers and so on. Their experiences are lost to us when they pass away. They are never able to share them with others or hardly much. Enough is not being done to retrieve and preserve this extremely material and to pay attention to the source of this information. This part of facts has not been put down in writing. There are tens of thousands of persons all over the country of all kinds at all the levels, who are mines of extremely valuable information, source of knowledge and experience, who have gone through much in their lives, have seen much in the activities known and unknown to us.
Therefore, it is necessary to retrieve all that is still available in the memory of the persons connected with the labour movement. The present work/project is being done in several stages/phases. It proposes to get in touch with the individuals, stalwarts, activists, observers, leaders, cadres, and others. Many of them have in fact gone into obscurity, and serious and intricate efforts have to be made to find them out and to talk to them.
Much of the material is available only with these participants. Only a part of what they know has gone into the documents. Documents and other materials are generally abstractions, while talks with the persons is live material reflecting not only bare facts but also feelings. They tell not only about movement/activity/organisations, but also about the individuals’ inclinations, intentions, personal disposition and perceptions. They transmit through their individuality the very dialectic of the movement. We know nothing about the personal feelings of the participants, their emotions, agonies, moments of happiness, personal initiatives and contributions, observations and so on. In many cases, they did not intend to join the movement but were dragged against their will by combination of circumstances.
We have a tendency to look upon the respondents only as a finished product, a leader or activist and cadre, secretary or president or some other office-bearer, and often ignore their actual human development, the efforts that went to create the person, his or her own pre-history, the relatively independent effort that person put in during his/her own lifetime.
Besides, the oral history work has several interconnected purposes: to dig out or to know more about the movements and organisations, their unique features, unknown or obscure facts, unknown persons and more about the known persons, greater and indepth and wider information about the labour history, its origins, evolution, disappearance of activists and organisations, their feelings and perceptions, and so on.
In the course of the extensive work of the last two years or so, we have come across a large number unknown labour leaders and activists as well as movements/organisations. We also came across many absolutely unknown facts. In some cases, they alone are the depositories of important facts. It was also interesting to see them scaling and comparing their efforts with the actual results.
All this valuable information is likely to be lost if immediate efforts are not made to cantact them. Some of the information will be lost irretrievably if contact with the prospective respondents is delayed.
Hence all the more necessity to emphasise this point.
In the course of work of collecting oral history, basically the period from the 1930s to the 70s-80s, i.e. nearly half a century, has been covered. Talking to them, the whole history and events of the period comes alive.
In this context, the following steps were charted out as part of the work:
1) Retrieve and preserve as much of information and experiences as possible, and as quickly. Contact as many of such persons as possible who are late into their lives, not keeping good health, and about to lose their faculties and memory. Many are not likely to live long, and some of them have already passed away just before and during the work. Delay would cause immense harm to the work of collecting materials of history of labour movement itself.
Contacting such persons was the first priority. Contacting persons in better health and the younger persons was the next.
2) Record personal history in the context of labour movement, their share in it, alongwith their own personal history, achievements, failures, experiences of cooperation and conflict,
their own assessment/review of their lives and work past, review of the present, their vision of the future, etc. It was also important to know the purely personal experiences, problems, agonies, difficulties, moments of happiness, role, contributions, personal inhibitions, regrets and a host of other aspects and factors.
3) Try to retrieve as much information about the relatively better known facts/movements/organisations/individuals, etc.
4) Try to retrieve as much information about totally unknown or lesser known events and organisations and experiences thereof.
5) Focus, in this phase, on railway workers’ movements, organisations and individuals. This was particularly done keeping in view the 150th anniversary of the Indian railways. At the same time contact important respondents in the textile & jute, iron & steel, coal and non-coal mining, unorganised and other sectors of industries, so that other industries are not ignored.
6) Thus, the work of oral history in this phase was done, as far as possible, industry-wise, with focus on railway; at the same time, people doing alround and mixed work, those working in the TUs in general, were also to be covered, and the facts and documents relating to them were not to be ignored.
7) More attention to be given to the women respondents.
8) Bring to light some unique forms of labour activities/organisations/movements e.g. unique mvements of railway workers and their coordination with other sections like govt and non-govt workers, acitivities in some princely states, stone quarries, salt works, ‘mathadi’ workers, rickshaw pullers, bidi workers, railway staff, chaining of workers in the mines, temple workers and ‘pujaries’, pickle-making establishments, Gorakhpur Labour Office, worker-artists, khadi, household workers, pharma/medical workers, railway stenographers, etc.
9) Try to retrieve details of the contributions, experiences and also about the life of the interviewee in the context of the labour/TU movement.
10) Retrieve/trace the facts about origins and developments of various organisations, in particular those in thee railways, related with labour and also their contributions towards the process. This would enable us research further in this field.
11) Role in evolution of labour and industrial laws and legal labour machinary.
12) Retrieve facts about underground life, movements and organisations. Quite often, date about such periods are not documented for fear of official or police action.
13) Retrieve information about interconnections and spread of movements. More often they emerge or are formed at one place and then spread out to larger areas, industries with their own inherent logistics and individuals play a significant role.
14) Phases and problems of labour movement.
15) Facts about education/politicisation of labor.
16) Impact of new technology. socio-economic, financial structural changes, structure of labour and industry.
17) Interviewee’s experiences and views on relationship of past and present day workers.
18) Relationship between labour and social movements.
Preparation of the list of respondents
First of all a tentative list of over 300 (three hundred plus) respondents was prepared as the potential interviewees and then the more important names were short listed. Now this list has grown over to 400-plus (four huundred plus). Two phases of work have been completed, covering more than 120 repondents. The present paper-cum-report is about the second phase.
The larger list was prepared on the basis of the following criteria:
Advanced age and experience, state of health, geographical spread, unique points in biography and historical records, different trade union affiliations, contributions to trade union, labour movement etc.
The shorter list, for the present phase, was prepared from the larger one, and also from outside it. It consisted of roughly 70 to 80 names, meant to be covered in six months or so. The criteria for short-listing the names were following:
1. Advance age and fragile health: Advanced age was the primary criterion as also was the state of their health. Most of the veteran participants and leaders would not live long, being well into advance age. In fact, some of them passed away unfortunately even before the project started.
Besides, many of the respondents were in ill health and getting even worse though they were not so advanced in age. It was alomst imperative to include them in the list. The preference was made according to age and state of health. We interviewed as many as possible but many are still left with valuable material at their disposal.
2. Industry-wise: The Railways were given the primary attention, particularly in the initial stages. Besides, focus was concentrated on industires like textile/ jute, iron/steel, mining, unorganised, etc. At the same time, other industries were not ignored. Simultaneously, the mixed and general trade unionists were also included, who were not attached to any particular industry.
3. Unique Biography and Contribution: The names were chosen also on the basis of the contributions made to the trade union/labour movement, in the way of novelty of methods and ideas, pioneering work under adverse conditions with steadiness and perseverence, knowledge and direct experience of unknown and lesser known pages of labour history, direct participation or knowledge and experience of participating in famous movements and organisations, and other factors. In other words, these names were very important in their own right and were often key links in the chain of labour activities. Those, who are left, have to be contacted in time, otherwise there is every danger that a valuable part of labour history would be lost alongwith them.
4. Wide Range of Trade Union Organisations: The list also takes into account the coverage of a wide range of trade union organisations. The names belonging to the AITUC, HMS, INTUC, CITU, BMS, regional, non-affiliated and independent organisations were included. In the course of work, organisations like the BKS (Bhartiya Kamgar Sena) of the Shiv Sena, and several others, also got included. The list, and the subsequent work, took into account the fact that it is the history, not of particular trade union organisations, but as the labour movement as a whole. Railway unions were given more attention in the present phase.
4. Geographical spread: The list covered basically three ‘zones’ e.g. Northern, Eastern and Western. As far as possible, all the important states/areas, from the point of view of labour movement, were covered. The Northern Zone included Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal, Rajasthan, etc. The Eastern: Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal. THe Western Zone included Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, etc. 5. Provision for new names: It was foreseen while preparing the list that in the process, new names and new facts might crop up in course of interviews in various places. Therefore the list prepared and proposed was a tentative one. New and important names would come up who would have to be interviewed then or later in an opportune moment. It may be possible that some of them have to be interviewed even before those who have been placed in the list submitted.
Methodology, and related experiences
1. Organising workshop to prepare questionnaires
This was in fact one of first tasks in this phase. A lot of preparatory work was done in order to prepare the draft qustionnaires to be put for discussion by the participants. We studied the history of the labour movement in far greater depth and scope. We went into the details of the history of the labour movement in India, industry-wise workers’ movement particularly in railways, as also in the textiles, engineering, mining, unorganised, general and so on. We collected more facts of the biographies and contributions of the various participants in the TU movement. We talked to many of them individually, and for this purpose went to their offices and venues of various meetings. We got lot of facts this way. We studies various documents and journals to gain more insight into the activities of the persons as well as into the movements and organisations. All this of course took lot of time, much more than expected. Besides, it also took time to coordinate the timings of the participants.
The following representatives and experts from the VVGNLI, Labour Archives, The IHLRP and the N.M. Jpshi Centre participated, namely: Babu P. Ramesh, Prabhu Mohapatra, Navin Chandra, Chitra Joshi, K.L. Mahendra, Gurudas Dasgupta, D.L. Sachdeva, G.L. Dhar, Anil Rajimwale, Bobby Poulose, Krishna Jha.
We are specially thankful to the Director of the VVGNLI, Shri Uday Kumar Verma for his suggestions and initiatives in this regard, as in others matters too. Though he could not attend the workshop because of his preoccupations and time constraints, his suggestions regarding industry-wise questionnaires formed its basis. He advanced several suggestions in the preliminary rounds of discussions. This helped focus our work more clearly.
The workshop discussed the draft questionnaires in detail. A large number of valuable suggestions were given, on the basis of which the questionnares could be improved.
It was decided that the main focus of the work during this phase would be the railways, not to the exclusion of other industries and sectors.
This approach was quite helpful in the work of the oral history, in most cases. At the same time we do have, on the basis of our experience, some suggestions regarding the questionnaires, which we mention towards the end.
Thus, detailed questionnaires were prepared for railways, textiles and jute, engineering/iron/steel, unorganised and general. They covered personal history of the respondent in connection with the labour movement. They also aimed to retrieve the important events, highlights and experience of the respondent. The questionnaires dealt with the reasons and circumstances in which the interviewee joined the movement/organisation, history of the organisationn main historical movements, information on obscure movements, underground movements etc. Another part of the questionnaires dealt with the views of the respondent on various aspects and problems of the labour movement, ongoing changes in industry, movement, organisation, working class structure, views on globalisation, polarisation etc. The questionnairesalso listed queries about the views on the impact of world monopolies, market and science and technology on the TU movement. It was also sought to relate the differences between older and newer generations of the workers, unification and future of the trade union movement etc.
The questionnaires were generally sent to the respondents in advance. But in some cases, particularly if some new names came up, it was given on the spot. In some cases, more than ne questionnare had to be sent because the respondent worked in the TUs of many industries or in the general TUs.
The interviews were not confined to the questionnaire, which only served as a means of refreshing the interviewws memory and systematise his/her thoughts. Once the narration began, it was generally allowed to go on except when intervention was necessary. Supplementary questions were asked to enrich the replies.
The interviews generally went beyond the scope provided by the questionnaire. Many new and unforeseen, unexpected facts kept coming up after extending the interviews.
respondents gave systematic accounts on their own. They came prepared, and did
not need much prompting or additional/supplementary questions. But many others
had to be helped in various ways, including asking repeated and direct
questions. Many respondents due to their advance age or sickness,
physical/mental incapacities, partial loss of memories, needed prompting and
repetition of questions and
reminding of their own involvement in particular events. They would often tend
to forget or mix up events, dates, incidents etc. They would often go into
unnecessary details and be repeatitive. Some of them were really difficult
2. Tape recording:
The interviews were tape recorded generally on 90-minute good quality tapes. In this phase, we used better quality tape recorder as also on old sturdy ones quite useful for long-duration recordings. The recording generally lasted for four to five hours minimum spread over whole day.
It was not always easy fixing time with the old and sick respondents , locating them, fixing up appointments with them, and yet be prepared for a last minute change in timings, postponements due to sudden attacks of sickness, in some cases even fetal. Some time the repondents were so feeble that their voices were not even audible. For fixing an appointment and then to make it materialise, quite often the stay in a particular village or town had to be extended beyond the time budget could permit. Sometimes, even locating a person itself became a problem due to vague and contradictory informations since most of them were away from the mainstream. As a result, we lost some of them in the process.
In some cases the respondents not quite clear about the oral history and wondered what it was all about despite being educated and enlightened otherwise.
It was also not easy fixing up appointments with the active and busy leaders, both young and older ones.
In many cases, the respondents took time to prepare themselves, including recalling their memory. Their mental and physical handicaps interrupted the process. Some of them had to visit the doctor in between since they were under treatment. Thus the interviews that were scheduled to be over in one day, stretched over two to three or even more days.
Usually one of us, on may occasions even two persons, went to interview one respondent since it facilitated other arrangements like preparing the recorder, changing cassettes, taking down extensive notes, checking up the recorder and accessories, asking additional questions etc. One person managing all these things alone creates sme problems, logistical and others. One person doing the whole thing tends to miss certain points/jobs leading to some mistakes. So, it is advisable that at least two persons go to conduct one interview.
Time and travel involved in the interviews
The oral history project team of the N. M. Joshi Centre (Krishna Jha, Bobby Poulose and Anil Rajimwale) visited all the identified zones and areas as per requirement. They travelled vast stretches of the country to locate and interview the respondents. While in certain cases the programme was fixed beforehand through phone calls and correspondence; in other cases, it was not possible to contact and inform the respondents as either because their address was not known or they did not have even a contact number. Some of the respondents came to light in the course of tours and during the interviews.
The questionnaires were sent beforehand, in cases possible, if addresses were available or the person’s location was known. In the Second Phase of the work (2002-03), industry-wise questionnaires were prepared and sent. The following states were visited in the present, second, phase of the work: Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Chandigarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Orissa, making it a total of 13 (thirteen) states. They were divided into three zones e.g. Northern, Eastern and Western. Names were sorted out accordingly. The three zones were covered one by one in each of the stages of Project-phase.
Many of these states are vast territories, consuming lot of travel time. Within each state, one had to go to different places far off from each other. Perhaps, it is better to identify zones of contiguous areas of the states. Long tours adversely affect the nature of work putting the members of the team to great strain. It also rushes the respondents. This time we mostly avoided visiting the same state twice, but this was not always possible. The time spent in each state depended on factors like number of interviews, contacting the new ones that cropped up in course of the interviews, the available transport facility to reach the respondents, local assistance, distance from Delhi and several others. Several visits are needed within a large state. Many of important persons still remain to be covered. Several areas within a particular state or zone have been inadequately or hardly covered, or nor covered at all. This applies to almost all the states. Jammu & Kashmir and The Andamans & Nicobar have not been covered at all. Many important big areas in other states have been left untouched. U.P. needs proper coverage. It was not in the list this time. States like Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, M.P. and others need more time and visits. Of course, the North-eastern, the Southern states, etc are marked for the next phase. Uttaranchal needs proper work.
Time spent on the visits-
Delhi: throughout the phase.
Maharashtra: four weeks (30 days approximately, including Mumbai, which alone needed a little more than two weeks, which is still far from enough); two visits. Much more time needed.
Rajasthan: one week; needs more time.
Punjab + Chandigarh: one week, more time needed.
Haryana: ten days; two visits; more time needed.
Himachal Pradesh: one day; totally inadequate.
Bihar: one week; inadequate time.
West Bengal: ten days, quite inadequate.
M.P.: Two weeks; two visits; totally inadequate.
Chattisgarh: three weeks (approx), quite inadequate.
Jharkhand: two weeks days (approx); quite inadequate.
Orissa: 10 days, one visit; totally inadequate, far more time needed.
It has to be noted that in some cases it is better to return to Delhi and then pay a second visit to the same state. This aspect may kindly be paid attention to.
Major cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Nagpur, Patna, Bhopal, Indore, Raipur, Jamshedpur, Bhubaneshwar, Cuttack, Ambala, Jodhpur, Kalka, Faridabad, Chandigarh, and several others were visited. These were very fruitful visits. Delhi was covered intermittantly throughout the project period.
The entire intiative took approximately 130 days or 18 weeks or more than four months of the project period. This was also, basically, the total time spent in tours by the three members of the Oral History Project team, if Delhi is left out. If we set aside 30-35 days (approx) of long distance travels (three members put together) by train and road, roughly 100 days or about three months so were spent on actual interviews. In this duration more than 60 respondents were interviewed and 63 interviews actually processed. Actual number of interviews are more. There were hardly any blank days, that is days on which interviews could not be conducted due to reasons beyond the control of the interviewers. The residual time was spent on processing, putting in order both the interviews and the technical material, writing biographical notes and transcriptive summaries, clarifying and comparing the material collected, etc. A large proportion of time was spent on fixing up and preparing for the interviews, especially outside Delhi.
Besides, the intervening period was also utilised to prepare phase reports and other documents, typing them out, etc. In the comparatively lean days, time was utilised to study the background material, documents and literature concerning the labour movement in the country, and of specific regions generally to gather informations and other details about the biography and activities of the repondents to be interviewed.
In the second phase of the project, the preparation of the questionnares took considerable time because of their industry-wise nature. It needed study of the labour movement in each of the industry, a chech up on their leaders and activists, their contributions, on particular problems of each section, and so on.
It took time time to explain the nature and importance of work to many of the respondents, some of whom were wondering as to what it was all about. Of course, many others could at once understand and cooperate.
It may be pointed out that the entire period of the project phase was always short of time, so much so that there was hardly any time left for rest even in the situations of sickness.
In fact the list was too demanding and schedule as a result too packed. There were other additional factors too like preparing fresh and detailed questionnaires, spending more time with the repondent than originally planned in order to retrieve quantitatively and qualitatively more information, unexpextedly severe phases of weather, etc.
Undoubtedly, the phase-work was quite satisfying, because a lot of important respondents have been interviewed, considerable material/information/history has been retrieved that has proved to be highly valuable, and otherwise would have been lost. Several important personalities, whom we could not in the earlier phase, were contacted. They include some of the most outstanding persons. Besides, some new repondents could located, who were no the part of the original list. This time many younger persons were talked to.
At the same time, the time-period is highly inadequate to cover even the most important respondents. It may be added here that many more important as well as not so wellknown names, have cropped up in the course of our work. Thus, considerable addition is being done to the original list.
Thus, a lot more, the major portion, of work still remains to be done, and many more important personalities of various affiliations, or non-affiliations, are yet to be covered.
If all them are not attended urgently, they would be soon lost to us, depriving us of a major and invaluable source of labour history. They must be attended to urgently.
Difficulties with Delhi respondents:
In Delhi, the team faces great difficulties in contacting and interviewing the respondents. The names in the list, both larger and that of the select few, are those of still active leaders. They appeared to be extremely busy and quite often complacent. It is almost impossible to fix time with them. Consequently, some of the interviews prolong for months together. Since the city itself was their work place or thee headquarters, they were found to be always in some meeting or movement. They are complacent in the sense that they would be “available any time”, and therefore the interviews would be postponed for the “next time”. Cancellation of fixed programmes were so often that an interview consisting of a total of three to four hours is spread over 4-5 months, even more than six months with a sprinkling of thirty minutes to one hour in a sitting, even less, upsetting our other schedules. The team wants to make a special mention of such problems especially faced in Delhi.
Tasks completed and targets overfulfilled:
1. Workshop held to discuss and finalise the questionnaires.
2. Around 70 or so respondents were interviewed in this phase; out of them 63 (sixtythree) have been processed. This is more than the target fixed for the project.
3. Detailed and concise biographical notes on each of the respodents have been prepared.
4. Detailed and concise transcriptive summaries have been prepared on each of the respondents.
5. Cassettes of all the interviews have been submitted.
6. Reports for each stage and for the whole of the phase work has been submitted.
7. A Paper on work and its experiences presented in a seminar in the VVGNLI.
Certain experiences and observations of Oral History Work in the Present Phase
The interviews conducted and recorded under the Oral History Project have their own invaluable significance in the country’s labour history as well as the movement itself. The interviews may be used as primary source material for research into the history of the working class and the formation and functioning of their organisations in the country as a whole as well as in various regions.
In the present phase, we have been able to get considerable material and information on the labour movement, organisations and individuals in the railways and those in other important industries like the textiles etc. Besides, lot of obscure and ‘not so important’ branches and industries were also covered.
In the process of collecting such material, we have been able to get many of the veterans in time before it was too late.
In this phase, we covered a large number of the veterans enlisted for interview, though a bigger portion remains yet uncovered. The work has been going even outside the prescribed project period, before and after. Some respondents have passed away just before or immediately after we contacted them. We may mention here that at least three or four of very important respondents could not be contacted in spite of our best efforts and passed away without our meeting them. Some others have been lost because of ill-health beyond repair.
It is tragic to lose such valuable persons and underlines the fact that we have to hurry up with the rest of the larger list (now of 400 or so). At least we should select the most urgent ones among them and record their inetrviews without delay.
Our failure may mean losing their contribution for ever and thus leaving the labour history incomplete.
Besides the above, we have also covered important younger, relatively speaking, lot of respondents who have provided valuable information. This was partly due to their better memory.
The respondents have provided invaluable, even unique, material and information for research into the labour history and movement in the country. The interviewees themselves often tended to understate or pass over their own contributions while talking about their experiences out of modesty. They had to be compelled by repeating the questions to talk about themselves and about the trade union movement in their times. They provided several inside stories, unknown or little known facts, unique events, clues and missing links for their organisations and their role in the movement role. The interviews helped clarify several myths in the labour movement. The information provided by them may prove to be the starting points for the further and deeper research.
Some of the features of labour movement brought out in the course of this phase of the Oral History Project and interviews may be listed as follows:
1) Trade union movement in various industries
A major portion of the work was related with the workers organisations and movements in the railways, both pre- and post-Independence. Those interviewed belonged to the various all-India as well as local level railway workers’ union, e.g.
AIRF, NFRU, WERU, GIP Rly Men’s Union, BN Rly, BB & CI, Railway Mazdoor Sangh, and so on. They belonged to various present-day affiliations like the AITUC, HMS, BMS, INTUC, CITU and independent or non-affiliated ones as well as to the category-wise unions. We met some living legends and stalwarts of the railway workers’ movement.
The interviews reflect the fact that the railway workers’ movement was all powerful in the pre-Independence days, and proved to be the lifeline for many other categories of workers/movements eg. textiles. Mostly, illiterate gangmen were often the core of the railway workers’ organisations. There were some memorable and important movements of the railway workers in the pre- and immediate post-Independence period. GIP Rly Men’s Union fought some tough battles in 1940-46 period in Bombay and other western and central regions. Their support for 1942 movement, textile workers’ strikes and for the RIN mutiny in 1946 played an important role. Achievement of DA for the railwaymen in the 1940s was a great victory won after long battles.
Interesting facts came up about railway workers’ movement in the Northern Zone and Rajasthan. There were militant movements in the early 1950s in Ambala-Kalka region in the early 1950s. Eyewitness account was heard from the respondents about the firings and killings of railway workers in Kalka firings of 1955. The organisations had a mixed and disparate character in the pre-Independence period, as there were some princely states eg. in the Himachal and Punjab regions. Lot of facts about the movements in the PEPSU region came to the fore.
During those days, it was not easy to present a Memorandum or charter of demands in the railways, as the managements were very tough. One of the respondents is a witness to the Memo having been sent to the management through a young boy, who then dashed back in fear to the apprehensive but cheering crowd of railwaymen standing at a distance. This incident took place in Delhi.
Another participant in the railwaymen’s activities described the locomen helping general workers (sugar workers, cement workers, etc) strikes during winter, unloading hot coal to the agitating workers to keep warm while on vigil. Such incidents took place during the British times. Loco staff used to have tough time, both working and getting organised.
aspects and facts came up about the strikes of 1960, 1968 and 1974. The first
two were also participated in by the government employees and some other
sections of the workers. Some of the respondents were themselves members of the
various action committees including at all India level. Lot of inside stories
could be had about the 1974 strike. As many various as possible versions about
the 1974 strike were recorded, and it all makes an interesting story.
Many lesser known and unknown facts about the railway workers’ movements also came to the fore. Some inner details of the NCCRS (National Co-ordination Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle) of 1974 were revealed by some of its members and other respondents. Viewpoints of various TUs like the BKS, HMS, AITUC, CITU, category-wise unions, and sections thereof were recorded. Interesting versions on the roles and contributions of Peter Alvares, George Fernandes, S. A. Dange and others were narrated by the respondents. The leaders of the category-wise unions, for example, were highly critical of the role of the national T.U.s in the 1974 railway strike, as also in other movements. They felt neglected by the national TU leaders.
According to one version, the 1974 strike was helpful furthering the cause of the railway workers’ movement. But according to another version the strike did immense harm to the movement and destroyed it. The category-wise unions had their own opinions and felt sidelined throughout.
Besides the 1974 railway strike, the 1968 and 1960 movements were dealt with in detail.
In the context of the 1968 strike, the concept of one-day token railway strike was considered by some as harmful for the workers. The 1960 movement was taken as a challenge by the government and dealt with severely. How could central government employees, railway workers and those in the infrastructure go on strike, it objected. The activists and the leaders had novel experiences during this movement.
Besides the above, several other railway workers’ movements came up in detail, such as those of mid-40s, the 1949 strike, the 1955 movement, struggles in the ’50s-’60s, those in the princely states, etc.
An interesting aspect that came up was the fact of the AITUC and the BMS friends working in the same Baroda House Railway Headquarters in New Delhi in the 60s organising their respective activities, and yet they remain on the best of personal terms to this day. They keep recommending each other for information on railway TU movement.
Textile workers’ movement:
Lot of information could be gathered about the Girni Kamgar Union (GKU) of Bombay, and about Textile Workers’ Organisations elsewhere in the country. A perusal of jute workers’ activities in Calcutta and elsewhere shows their rise literally from the ground levels of no rights to acquiring several rights after prolonged and difficult battles.
The GKU was surprisingly well-organised union, which led many crucial battles alone and/or with organisations and workers’ of other sectors. Women played an important role in the GKU activities.
Port and dock workers:
Interviews in Orissa, Bombay and Calcutta revealed several features about the strength, variety and distinctiveness of the port and dock workers’ movement. We met people who began working in the pre-Independence period. The subsequent stages of problems and organisations present a kaleidoscopic, yet severe picture of the attempts to organise the ordinary seamen and associated workers. There was close cooperation between the port & dock workers and the naval mutiny of February 1946. For example, the union at the naval dockyard in Bombay helped the mutinners of the British Indian navy to occupy the yard and use its premises as a vantage point to fight the British troops. The workers also helped to locate the water supply points cut off by the British management, and thus ensured supply of water to the naval ratings. One of prominent figures of this movement at this particular place was was Samuel Augustine, a unique and unusual personality.
In Mumbai, Puri/Bhubaneshwar, and elsewhere too, we talked to a number of pioneers of the port & dock workers movement belonging to the HMS, AITUC, independents, etc. Prominent among them were Dr Shanti Patel, Manohar Kotwal, Souribandhu Kar and some others. The various organisations/activities of the sea-farers, port mathadis, on-ship employees, wheat-loaders, port and dock hands, transporters, water-borne and foreign-lands centred workers (and their peculiar problems) and their aspects and features came up to enrich the information. Of particular note is the spontaneous and great movement of the Bombay port & dock workers in 1955, when a worker was beaten mercilessly with a hunter by the police simply because he drank water from a place objected by them. He got bloodied all over and there was a lightning strike.
The port and dock workers organisations provided a highly organised picture. They are a powerful force in the labour movement in the coastal regions.
In Calcutta as well as in Bombay, the port/dock workers’ movement, railway workers’ and the weavers’ organisations are peculiarly interlocked e.g. in Khidderpore. They easily complement each other.
Some other categories: Respondents narrated experiences of their work among some other categories of workers eg. Khadi, Lab (Laboratory) assistants, medical and govt. staff, rickshaw, municipal, household workers (servants and maid-servants), teachers, and some others.
Big Khadi employees’ movement took place in Bihar in the late 1950s and 1960s. In one of the interesting incidents of Khadi workers agitations, women workers collected huge amounts of sewage from sceptic tanks in buckets, and not only littered it on the floors of the establishments but threw it upon the fares of the policemen, who had come to arrest the leaders of the striking employees. This is a unique incident of its own kind.
Lab assistants and medical staff in Delhi and elsewhere were a neglected category. They struggled for their recognition in a tortuous manner, and there are many notable achievements to their credit. They are on educated and qualified lot, having detailed knowledge of chemical and biological processes. Therefore, they have a psychology of self-confidence, and their superiors cannot easily face or mislead them. The lab assistants often consider the more qualified as really less qualified in several fields, which is not entirely wrong. Doctors and professors have often to take the help of the empirical knowledge of the lab assistants.
Other industries: In course of the Oral History recordings, labour activities in wide range of industries, sections and sectors were covered: railways, textiles, jute, beedi, port and dock, khadi, road transport, small and househld industries, stone works, wide range of mining, child and woman labour, royal and princely estates and the palaces, press, cashew, hotel and tourism, tramways, central and state government employees, defence, electricity, road transport, public and private sectors, drugs/phermaceuticals, household helps, oil, iron/steel, engineering, mathadi, municipal, construction, salt, pickles and many other industries/sectors, areas and the workers employed in them. They all need further interviews and study.
The story of the salt workers is also both unique and hair raising. They and their children worked deep in highly salted and brakish waters even without semblence of protection. Now salt-works in many areas e.g. around Mumbai, are being reclaimed for construction, housing, industrial and other purposes. The workers there are having to migrate or to look for other jobs.
2) Coverage of various Trade Unions organisations
The respondents chosen belonged to the trade union organisations of various affiliations, like AITUC, BMS, INTUC, CITU, HMS, a section of Lohiaites, Shramik Sanghatanas of Lal Nishan Party and Lal Nishan Party (Leninist), Majoor Mahajan, Shiv Sena and independents and unaffiliated. Interesting and unusual contributions have come from some of the smaller and non-mainstream organisations. The beginning of the trade union lives of these leaders were relatively independent and many of them had taken up fight against socio-economic discrimination and mobilised the local workers forming their unions. They had formed unions of laundry boys, gas leakage workers etc. They also launched fight against beating of workers, like of those who were known as Gorakhpur workers. However these Gorakhpur workers were also used as hired goons to teach lessons to the rebelling workers and kept separately especially in Bihar and that too in the colliery areas. These leaders used to take up social/family problems of the workers.
The respondents from major trade union centres have provided huge amount of rich information on and their own analysis of, the various wellknown and not so known facts. These trade unions have different reasons and processes of emergence and evolution. They have certain distinctive characterstics , policies, methods, different bases in the industries, trends and contributions and also perspective. At the same time, they have a lot in common as trade union organisations. Some of the aspects are covered in the interviews recorded. The trade union centres do differ as to their mass bases within the working class like railways, textiles, engineering, cooperatives, public sector enterprises etc. They also display differences regarding greater or lesser emphasis on reforms, social improvements, mass struggles, long term and short term activities etc.
Besides, almost all the major trade union centres have frankly admitted and mentioned internal differences on important events and policy matters, including on the 1974 railway strike.
was a wide variety among the wide range T.U. and labour organisations covered.
The Shiv Sena-led Bhartiya Kamgar Sena (BKS) was an important addition this
time. Talks with its leaders provided lot of insight into the functioning,
structure, thinking and methods of the BKS and its relationship with the S.S.
One point that came up was that its main functionaries were appointed directly
by the Shiv Sena “Supremo” i.e. Balasaheb Thackeray. Many of their cases are
referred to the local S.S. branches to deal with. The respondents denied
carrying politics they practised in the S.S. to the BKS. The BKS has a
well-ramified organisation under strict central control in the various
industries. It is dealing with a section of engineering, textile, middleclass
employees, and other sections. It believes in keeping peace within the industry.
It also claimed it not only believed but initiated joint actions with other
trade union centres in actions like the Maharashtra Bandh and observance of
all-India days. The BKS opposes what its leaders called the “LPG” i.e.
liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, and expressed itself against
the policies of the central govt. The BKS was relatively new organisation,
formed a little more thirty years ago.
The HMS leaders and activists were extremely helpfulin providing information about the evolution of labour movement and organisations in the railways. Similarly about movements in other industries. They provided a wide range of historical information about various incidents, and about the role of the leaders like Peter Alvares, George Fernandes, Khedgikar, JP and others, about whom first-hand accounts could be had from them. Some of the HMS leaders, such as Dr Shanti Patel, Jagdish Ajmera and Manohar Kotwal, also others, described their experience and eye-witness account of the formation of the HMS. AITUC and HMS leaders in particular provided important leads to the history of the labour movement in railway, textile and other industires.
INTUC and CITU leaders were quite cooperative in providing interviews and information about the workers’ movements. They helped establish contacts with other leaders, who they thought should be interviewed. This also applies to HMS, BMS and AITUC.
In fact, it has to be noted that the leaders and incharges of one TU centre would recommend the names of the other centres. This camaraderie among them them was quite pleasant and encouraging to us.
BMS and AITUC leaders often recommended each others’ names as potential respondents.
All in all, we got very good response and cooperation from the leaders and activists of the various trade unions. We are very thankful to them for it.
Important leads about an interesting organisation known as Navjeevan Sanghatana, little-known outside Maharashtra, were provided in some of the interviews. This organisation was established by a group of radical youth in January 1943 in certain areas of Maharashtra e.g. Bombay, Poona etc. It was a fallout of the 1942 movement. This group had differences with the CPI on the question of participation in the movement. Though an youth organisation, it worked actively among the industrial workers; their work ultimately led to the formation of several TUs among the textile and other workers. For example, they organised the silk workers of Bombay and led their strike lasting for several days. Not only this; the Sanghatana led also to the formation of the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), the Workers and Peasants Party (WPP), the Lal Nishan Party and groups of congressmen and communists, who did active work among the industrial workers. They have also done considerable work mong the unorganised and decentralised workers. Its leaders like Yashwant Chavan were instrumental in organising All India Textile Engineering Workers’ Conference.
Another interesting union is the Kamgar Aghadi run by Dada Samant, elder brother of Dutta Samant of the fame of the textile strike of Bombay in the 80s. Dada Samant was earlier a PSPer (activist of Praja Socialist Party), and worked as such in the railway employees union. Since then he worked in various unions, ultimately taking over his brother’s TU. It has members among textile, stone quarries, unorganised, etc workers. His union also exists among the bus transport employees.
There are several other independent or small splinter groups of the TUs. Among them household-help workers (in Pune-Bombay), AICP/UCPI-led groups, and some others.
Among the well-organised but unaffiliated ones, mention should be made of pharma workers, Greaves-Cotton and Allied Companies’ Employees’ Union and others of this sector, banks, GIC-LIC, govt-employees, etc.
There were/are some unions jointly run by more than one union e.g. Greaves-Cotton & Allied Cos’ E.U. led jointly by AITUC and CITU, mixed organisations participated in by various TUs including the BMS, independent sanghathanas, sanghas, associations, etc, government employees organisations (non-affiliated), railway employees’ TUs which did not attach themselves to any (loco, gangmen, station master, etc), railway employees’ TU, led jointly by HMS and INTUC-oriented leaders, oor by HMS and INTUC, TU leaders owing allegiance to the UCPI, defence employees’ TU organisation, railway leaders belonging to Samata Party, independent teachers’ associations, and so on.
Besides, within each major TU organisation, conflicting and dissenting voices could be heard, who spoke openly against or differing from other leaders. This was particularly apparent in the railway segment. But not only in that. In other segments also. There were re-evaluations, re-appraisals, criticisms and even narration of inside stories in several narrations.
3) “Labour constituencies”:
This subject has not found its due place in labour history. It has almost been forgotten. But it was one of the most glorius achievements of the workingclass movement. The labour constituencies were created for the 1946 general elections, when the franchise was limited. They were a prelude and a training ground for the subsequent electoral and constitutional participation of the labouring masses in the post-independence India. S.A. Dange’s election to the Bombay Legislative Assembly was a historic event in many senses. His subsequent marathon speech in the Assembly the same year, lasting several hours, is still remembered by many people including the respondents.
It is equally interesting to find out as to how exactly workers and unions organised the election campaign those days. The workers’ constituencies were separate and several, e.g. textile, railway, etc constituencies. Members of the unions in each industry constituted the voters. Respondents in Mumbai, as elsewhere also, described as to how they would line up the workers much before the voting hours. Women were very active and enthusiastic. The workers and leaders would go through the chawls and bustees gathering the workers. They gathered in the Kamgar Maidan and other places in the night itself. They slept there and lined up early in the morning before the sunrise. Thus they ensured the victory of their favourite candidates. Preparatory meetings were held in the chawls, and at factories and the mill gates, in the maidans. Elaborate organisational preparations were made. Those days, it was not easy for the trade unionists to get elected. Hence the importance is all the greater.
We also learned interesting details of workers’ constituency in Orissa. It is a little-known fact that Baidyanath Rath was elected frm the this constituency in the 1946 elections. He had complicated battles with the opponents. The small meetings of activists in the jungles and villages outside Bhubaneshwar, formed the basis of this work. The areas today are transformed into urban outskirts, where Sh. Rath still lives recalling his olden days.
labour constituencies need lot more study and research.
4) Labour movement in the princely states and British India
A very important feature coming out of the interviews was the distinctive nature of the labour movement in the former princely states and their difference with that of British India.
In this phase, a number of interviews were conducted in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Orissa, etc, and many interesting features came to light in the process. A large number of princely states were concentrated in these areas, particularly in Rajasthan and Orissa, as also in Maharashtra. Jodhpur, Kolhapur, Dhenkanal, Nilgiri, PEPSU areas etc were among those which provided much valuable historical material.
To work and organise the working people in most of the princely states was hazardous as there were almost no labour or civil rights of any kind. Even the rights granted in British India were absent there. It was in these extremely adverse conditions that the pioneers built the labour and trade union movement in there facing severe persecution and expulsions. They could snatch some absolutely elementary rights, though that too only gradually and very tortuously. The ordinary activists and leaders we talked to, often narrated how they could see their children only when they were “asleep”, as they had to leave early in the morning and came back late, if at all they could manage to come. Thus they never saw their children ‘vertical’, only ‘horizontal’, in bed. Praja Parishads, Lok Parishads and Praja Mandals often played important roles as the initiators of the labour movement, guiding them through difficult times as other forums and rights to the workers were only marginally available. In many places railways acted as the main source to initiate and spread the trade union and labour movement in these areas.
The factories/industries took time to strike roots, and largely remained at the elementary stages. The industrial development was stunted because of the twin oppression by the feudal princely rule and the British administration.
It was reflected in both the nature of the industries and that of the labour movement. There were the railways, and textile units in parts of Orissa and Maharashtra and a few other places, press, port & dock, municipal, hospital, loading-unloading, transport, jobs. etc. These were scattered and largely unconnected due to feudal states’ boundaries. There were other limitations also.
Textile and every other category of workers had to battle very hard for even most elementary human and workers’ rights. Here it has to be explained that this part of history of labour movement has in fact been hardly mentioned in the available literature, not to talk of their documentation. As a result, entire initiative towards labour organisation, its struggles and achievements in these parts of the country remain hardly known to the outside world, only the participants and their close contacts have the facts.
There were no labour and industrial laws, not even the basic human rights. Working under inhuman conditions, the workers had no fixed working hours, and wherever they had obtained it through pressure and struggles, the hours were very long, almost following the ‘sun-rise-to sun set’ traditions or even longer. Even small children were not spared from working hard and for long. The workers would be dismissed at will as their fate depended alomst entirely in the hands of those in the palace. Any small crony from the royal palace could do anything to the workers and their families and go unpunished.
The workers in other industries, if at all they could be so called, too had no social, political and trade union rights. Even writing and distributing handbills would invite the wrath of the rulers and the activists would be dumped into the royal dungeons. The example is Jodhpur state, where the entire families including small children were arrested and kept in captivity for months.
The trade unions had to fight for the most elementary rights, and by the mid-40s, they got some of them conceded. They also brought semi-underground and underground newspapers. In case of search and persecution, they could escape into the neighbouring princely states, and in case of Rajasthan, into the ‘democratic’ non-princely British region of Beawar, which thus became a centre of labour movement and nationalist and revolutionary activities.
Orissa, Himachal, the former PEPSU areas, Maharashtra, etc, provided many additional features of the labour movement in the former princely states. The following were the princely states, to name only a few, where some labour activities took place with certain distinct characteristics: Adgad, Dhenkanal, Kolhapur, Nilgiri, Patiala, regions of PEPSU, Arki in Himachal and so on.
The present-day Orissa had 26 big and small princely states, besides the usual British areas. Out of these 26, forced or bonded labour could be first eliminated due to pressure and movement including social reform movement, in Adgad state. There was powerful states’ people’s movement in Dhenkanal, Nilgiri, Adgad and other places. They contributed a lot to the building up of the workers’ struggles, and vice-versa. When the Second World War broke out, the Japanese troops were planning to land in Paradeep and then advance upon Adgad. Workers, along with students, did guard duty against the imminent Japanese attack.
There was big people’s movement in Dhenkanal against one of the most oppressive states’ rulers in India, named Shanker Pratap. In 1942, Murhee, a subdivision in Dhenkanal, was “captured” by the famous people’s and workers’ leader Baishtam Patnaik, and it was declared a “Free Republic”.
Another interesting development took place in a small princely state known as Nilgiri, in Orissa. Nilgiri was the first princely state in India to merge with the country on 13-14 November 1947. young students, peasants and workers were the mainstay of this armed struggle, in which regular fight took place. The ruler ultimately surrendered. This movement contributed a lot to the workers’ movement subsequently. Besides, many of its leaders later became prominent labour and trade union leaders. For example, Nand Kishore Patnaik was among the direct participants and organisers of the Nilgiri movement, who provided eye-witness account of the uprising and who himself was also a prominent working class leader.
Kolhapur in Maharashtra contributed to the labour movement in its own peculiar way. It was one of the enlightened princely states in terms of education and social reforms. That helped give rise to a more open labour movement, industrial establishments and active leaderships.
Arki in Himachal saw several mass assemblies of ordinary workers in front of the Palace gates in support of their demands.
During the interviews, the role of States’ Peoples’ conferences, variously known as Praja Parishad, Lok Parishad and others have particularly come to the fore in helping growth of the trade union movement in the princely states. States’ Peoples’ Conferences were the mass political organisations in the princely states during the British period. Since generally speaking, no other organisations or parties or trade unions were allowed to function, the Peoples’ Conferences acted as the forum for the struggle against the feudal rule, and for voicing of demands of various sections of people. Consequently, in many states, like areas of what is now known as Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab Marathwada, Jodhpur, Nilgiri, Dhenkanal, Adgad, Bhopal etc, the Lok or Praja Mandals (Parishads) helped to guide and build the trade union movement and even supplied cadres , literature, materials etc. This forms an important aspect of the history of the labour movement. Some of the trade union organisations even reached inside the royal palaces. In PEPSU/Himachal areas, the borders of the princely states changed every few miles, e.g. from Kasauli to Shimla.
5) Trade union movement in various regions
Though the trade union movement all over the country has certain commonalities, each area has its own distinctive features also. The labour movement in the Northern, Eastern and Western zones display both common and distinct features.
Region-wise: The work was conducted zone-wise in the second phase of th work: Northern, Eastern and Western. It brought out some important characteristics of the various areas, cities, provinces, princely-states, etc.
Bombay and Calcutta: The richness of the traditional working class and industrial centres was clearly brought out in the interviews, stories and documents. Several unknown facts of local nature were also brought to light. Among the features that struck one about Bombay/Mumbai is that the industrial nature of the city has undergone a sea-change. Today, it is more service-oriented with lesser number of factries and mills. Therefore, the nature of the workingclass is also changing. This is presenting lot of problems to the TUs, particularly to the traditional ones. For example, this has happened with the textile industry, which has totally changed and even shifted out of the city. Most of teh traditional textile units have closed down. Production is shifting to the powerlooms. Many of them have been established in other or newer towns. Consequently, the membership and activiteis of the TUs have been affected. This was clearly admitted by the leaders of all the TU organisations we met.
Both Bombay and Calcutta have rich traditions of struggles. Our work only begins the search. Much more still remains to be done.
The fact is underestimated that the railways provided the unifying and driving force to the labour activities in and around Mumbai. They are still very active. Besides, we found the port and dock workers organisations vibrant and extremely active.
The stories of the exploits of the pharma and textile workers were very impressive. We got the impression that the textile workers’ movements were almost the training grounds for several other trade unionists.
Today, the new workers increasingly prefer independent and ‘in-house’ unions, rather than the traditional ones. One of teh reasons is that the older TUs are out of tune with the new workers.
Elsewhere in Maharashtra, new workers and employees are emerging who prefer more modern methods of functioning. Banks, insurance, engineering, household and other employees/workers are getting to solve their problems concretely.
In Calcutta too, big changes in the nature of the workingclass movement can be seen, with the traditional industries getting shut down. The good-old tram system is on the verge of collapse, whose workers had led many a historic battles. Several other important changes are also taking place.
Orissa: Despite being a backward region, the organisations and movements display their own features. Orissa had a rich and vibrant movement: press workers, the workers in the glass industry, mining, textiles, port and dock, and others. One of the features in Orissa was its initial division into several princely states. This feature deeply influenced the labor movement in the state. Orissa had some big princely states, as well as very small ones. The first struggle in India to merge the princely states with the country took place in a small state called Nilgiri, T.U. movement and its leaders played no small role in it. Activities in Barbil is another feature of Orissa. The T.U and labor leaders in Orissa have had close relationship with the literary activities.
Orissa famine: One of the lesser known facts is that Orissa was badly affected by the Great Famine of 1942-43. More than 35000 people died due to the famine. Workers and trade unions, along with other sections, did lot of relief work for the affected people.
Bihar and Jharkhand: Bihar has had a variety of activities of workers in mining, railways sugar, textile, engineering, etc. the movement there has been far richer than expected. One of the interesting movements that took place was that of Khadi Gramodyoga employees, which ultimately assumed state-wide proportions. This has been well brought out in one of the interviews of a leader from North Bihar.
Central India: Struggles of the central Indian regions of M.P. and Chattisgarh are well-reflected in the oral history work. The entire region from Indore and Bhopal to Raipur and Bailadilla is full of activities of workers in engineering, textiles, mining, etc. Normally, this is considered a backward region; but country to the expectations it was found to be highly conscious, active and organised. Ordinary, illiterate masses have played some glorious parts in the saga of the Indian labor movement.
Mining, both coal and non-coal such as manganese, workers’ movements are the backbone of the TU activities there. Besides, engineering and iron & steel workers are of crucial importance. Dalli-Rajhara, Kirandul, Nandini, and several other areas have been and are the centres of various khadan and ‘koyla’ (coal) mazdoor organisations. Valuable interviews were conducted of the active participants of SKMS and other TUs.
Cases of mine workers’ areas being surrounded by barbed wired and their being confined to the mining areas like bonded labourers in the regions of central India have also been recorded.
Northern Region: The oral history work for this region mainly covered the railway workers’organisations and movements. Historic movements of the railway workers in the Kalka-Jagadhri-Ambala region took place on several occasions inluding against the (in)famous firings on them in the Kalka depot. Railways and their workers’ organisations also turned oout to be the major source for teh initiation and growth of movements in other sectors and industries.
Besides, there was lot of handloom industry, particularly Panipat. The industrial growth and the consequent labor activity in this region is closely related with the demands of the second world war and the immediate post-Independence needs.
6) Legal machinery
Among the major achievements of the labour movement in India has been the creation of a massive labour /industrial legal machinary to address, deal and channelise the problems/demands of the labour. This has mainly been a post-independence achievement due to both to the trade union struggles and the changed favourable conditions after the end of the colonial rule. Various acts, labour courts, tribunals, awards, wageboards, committees/commissions, consultative mechanisms, participation in government sponsored and government bodies, cooperating with ILO, workers’ education, leadership training and so forth are now the part and parcel of the legal labour system.
Besides the government representatives, economists and scholars, various managements etc, the labour leaders and the trade unions have also made very important and historic contributions to this field. Some of the tallest leaders have been associated with it, who have left a deep and lasting impression with their scholarly as well as practical knowledge, study/research, suggestions, actual contributions to the formulation and articulation of the issues etc.
portions and aspects of these endeavours are to be found in the interviews, on
rationalisation, questions of DA/bonus, formulation of the various bills and
acts, laws and by-laws, suggestions on disposition of labour in the context of
upgradation and expansion of technology and industry, and several others.
This aspect is also an important contribution of the interviews conducted.
7) The 1942 movement and workers:
The ’42 movement turned out to be an important landmark from the viewpoint of the history of the labour movement. AITUC leaders like Tara Reddy worked actively for the movement and mobilised the workers for the same. Thay also opposed those in the movement who did not agree with the 1942 ‘line’. Working class formed a huge mass of the people gathered at the Chowpatty Maidan in Bombay when 1942 Resolution was announced in August 1942. Workers struck work in several factories in Bombay and other places. The ‘Satara govt’ had active contacts with the labour organisations. Railway workers’ unions in the GIP and other railways played an active role helping the ’42 movement, both underground and overground.
8) Naval Revolt of 1946 and workers’ movement:
The workers’ contribution to the RIN (Royal Indian Navy) revolt of February 1946 is one of the obscure chapters of the labour movement. Among the concrete facts thrown up by the Oral History work is that of active day to day contacts of the textile and other workers’leaderships with the leaders of the Naval revolt. For example, it was one of the GKU leaders (G.L. Reddy) who, along with others, used to conduct the leaders of the revolt to various meetings and then take them back to hidings on thedocks and the ships.
Dockyard Employees’ Union is another organisation that actively helped the
naval ratings by helping the latter to set a kind of base for their activities
in the dockyards and by restoring the water supply that was cut off by the
The GKU office at the Parel Naka in Bombay was a key centre, fromwhere active contacts were kept up with the ships in revolt. It was just nearby that two women textile workers were shot at by the marauding British troops; one of them died on the spot. The office and the bridge still stand as witness to history.
The rail terminuses and their employees were key help to the transport of the naval ratings.
9) Labour movement and armed struggle
wellknown and little-known struggles express the occasional pressures built up
by the working masses to express their grivances as well as points of view. In
Himachal, W. Bengal, Marathwada, Nilgiri, Dhenkanal and several other places in
the country, the toiling masses had been organised in the trade unions and even
armed struggles were launched to further the cause of their movement. Trade
union and Praja Mandal movements were closely interwoven. The workers’
movement in the railways, transport, mines, factories helped the anti-feudal
mass armed struggles. In their turn, they helped the growth of political/trade
union consciousness of the industrial workers in the regions. The interviews
recorded bear testimony to this. The trade unions and workers did a great deal
of practical work to send and receive the help of the underground movement. This
imparted greater militancy to the trade union movement. The armed struggle for a
limited purpose and for a short time helped the trade union movement to grow,
though in the long run, unnecessary stretching of it and its unrealistic use
without taking into account the situation greatly harmed the TU movement. Armed
periods often tended to ignore great potentials and possibilities of the open,
legal, constitutional and democratic methods, which were more and more
developing. Many unions/movements e.g. in the railways are still to fully
recover from the damage done by this attitude.
The respondents, therefore, generally refused to glorify the long-drawn armed struggles and saw, in retrospect, the faults involved. They have also drawn lessons from such experiences.
10) Underground trade union movement
This is an important aspect that has come to light during the interviews. This is a period which is not well-recorded and documented. Therefore, the importance of the oral history and recording of the personal and wider reminiscences becomes greater as they present several facts not avaialble anywhere else.
The 1942 movement has already been mentioned. The movement was helped greatly, in many secret and open ways, by the labour organisations, including railway, textile, and other workers. The socialists belonging to the CSP and others played an active role in mobilising workers for the success of the movement. This was particularly clear in Maharashtra, C.P.-Berar, Northern regions, Orissa, etc.
In fact, 1948-51 was the period when the AITUC decided to take a more militant line and oppose the policies of the government in a more aggressive way, including through armed struggles. Even the establishment of a workers’ state consequent upon the struggle was visualised. INTUC and HMS opposed this line. Later, AITUC withdrew this line.
During this period, the AITUC largely functioned semi-underground, yet it organised some important struggles in these conditions. The interviews provided a number of ‘leads’.
underground activities were also part of the 1974 railway strike, as also of the
1960 and 1968 strikes. These movements faced severe repressions. As result, the
leaders and activists of AIRF and other TUs had often to carry on their work
secretly. NCCRS and the various organisations formed, wherever possible and
necessary, a wide network of semi-underground groups and individuals to carry on
the regular work contacting, exchange of messages and instructions, transport of
literature and materials, organising meetings, keeping contacts with the Jail
Committee and the NCCRS, organising defence against police attacks, keeping a
check on the workers against police provocations, help workers tide over long
period of strike, and other activities. The 1974 strike was a well organised
effort mainly due to countrywide network of railwaymen’s organisations.
11) The days of partition:
The railway workers and trade unions played great role in providing relief and shelter for suffering people of all the communities during the communal holocaust in the wake of country’s partition in 1947. They worked day and night salvaging and helping the victims of communal riots. In places like Panipat, Delhi, areas of Punjab, Calcutta, Bombay, etc, golden chapters were written in this work. The railway unions in the north-western and Bombay regions had to struggle hard to keep the communal unity of the workers and to see that their unions were not destroyed. Similarly, the port and dock workers were also seriously affected, and their organisations struggled tenaciously against divisions.
12) Famine relief:
The role of the working masses can not be forgotten in the great famine that engulfed Orissa, Bengal and Bihar in the 40s. Grains were collected, food prepared and then distributed day and night in the food camps organised by the simple workers who worked either as coolies or otherwise. The contributions of these common workers in such moments of crisis empowered the labour movement itself. These experiences were narrated in great details by persons involved while recording their interviews.
13) Public sector
Largely after independence, the emergence and growth of public/state sector provided a strong impetus to the growth of the modern workers and their trade union movement. Railways, central and state government employees, defence, petroleum, steel, ports and docks, NCDC, nationalised banks, GIC, LIC and other nationalised sectors, oil and numerous others emerge as actively new areas/bases of the largescale trade union movement,often leading to broad-based actions leaving a deep impact on the country as a whole. Modern working class emerges as an important factor. A number of interviews emphasise these facts and add new dimensions to the study of history of the trade union movement. Important facts were provided by impoortant leaders like R.G Karnik, G.L. Dhar, Samuel Augustine and some others about the central and state-level govt employees’ movement, on how their organisations emerged and developed, on defence employees’ movements, and so on. Concrete details about the cooperation between the railway workers and govt employees in the movements of 1960, 1968 and 1974, as also in so many other ones were provided by the interviews.
Stories of working class participation in the movements like those led by the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti were related in the course of our work.
14) Small scale and household sectors
The interviews have yielded lot of information on the workers and their organisations in the household and smallscale sector industries. They bring to light, for example, several facts about the beedi workers’ organisations/movements in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana, M.P. and eleswhere. These workers fought for the most elementary rights and demands, and ultimately spread around the country as a largescale movement. Pune and Mumbai, for example, have well-organised household workers’ organisations.
15) Gorakhpur labour office (GLO)
An important contribution of the Oral History Project has been some facts on the Gorakhpur Labour Office (GLO) that have come up during interviews. Otherwise too, very little has been said and written, and is known about the GLOs. The interviews in this phase yielded some more details, which need further study and elaboration. By themselves also, they are undoubtedly a contribution to the subject.
16) Women Workers
This time several women respondents were interviewed, common activists as well as leaders. They presented several facets and sides that normally are not brought to light.
Women workers and leaders constituted on important and militant contingent of textile, mining, railway, small scale industries workers’ and other movements. For example, as some of the interviews showed, women workers were at the forefront in several textile workers’ movement in Bombay and elsewhere. The Girni Kamgar Union (GKU) and other organisations owed a lot to them. It was claimed that India’s first ‘Gherao’ was organised in 1937 in the Bitiya Textile Mills of Bombay; and this was done by the women workers mainly. The women did not allow the owner to go out for almost a day. Even his food was arranged by the workers. It was only the next day when the negotiations started that the gherao was lifted.
The women workers contributed to the militancy of the struggle by keeping up the tempo and often forced the men workers to go into action. They were by means behind the menfolk in picketing, slogan shouting, strikes, demonstrations and so on. These mostly illiterate workers were a tremendous source behind the militant actions. Some of the outstanding leaders came out of them, including at worker-cadre levels. Their histories have generally been forgotten. The chawls of Parel, Prabhadevi, Girgaumand innumerable other places were their centres of activities. They even fought off the police on several occasions. The chawls would reverberate with the sloganeering, meetings, processions and so on.
Besides, the women workers saw to it that their family duties did not come in the way of the movement. They would look after their children and families and took care of any disruptive activities. Thus, they functioned in double capacity. They also looked after the children and families of the leaders and activists, who could not spare time during struggles for their families.
During the textile struggles in Bombay in the ’30s and ’40s, for example, in the Bitiya Mills strike, the women workers refused to go home to look after their little children home, lest the gherao was weakened and the owner got an opportunity to escape! They had to be convinced that they should be going home in batches.
Women workers on the GIP and other railways were also very active in movements and could be counted upon for support. During the railway strikes of 1960, 1968 and 1974, the families of the workers had to bear the brunt of repression. The women members of the families and women workers themselves took an active part in the movement and organisation.
At one time, there were more than 60 textile mills in Bombay, before independence. Of the workforce, more than 40,000 were women. But they hardly sat in home, and were always on the move.
Women constituted overwhelming majority of the bidi workers in Maharashtra and elsewhere. Among the respondents were the leaders of the bidi workers. In one incident, the bidi workers stopped the motorcade of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, and handed over a petition. Of course, a large number of women were arrested and their court cases dragged on for long years. This incident took place in Bombay near a place called Haji Ali.
One aspect that came up was that once decided, the women workers would not backtrack from the battle, in contrast to the men, who often hesitated. Women were more decisive and forthright in their resolve, and it was not easy to convince them to go back to work, once the situation had changed.
They displayed more involvement than men.
In this context the information on pharma girl workers is important. They constituted the main segment in the unionisation of this section of workers. They were at the forefront of several militant struggles. Not only this; they did not hesitate to brave the lathicharges and police attacks on several occasions. It all shows that their militancy and energies could be channelised into the process of unionisation with right approach. These girls were also an educated and advanced section of workers, conscious of their responsibility.
This fact is important as it shows that even modern educated workers, including women workers, can take clear-cut decisions regarding TU activism and struggles. If needed, they are prepared to forego their family interests in favour of the primary interests in the factory.
In Bengal, Maharashtra and elsewhere, many people’s or worker-artists came up out of the labor movement. They were ordinary workers, who in the course of time became artists and singers singing revolutionary songs, performing popular street corner and stage plays, and so on. They played particularly important role during the upsurge in the movements. They became so popular that they could match the professional stars in the appeal and performance. (Late) Amar Sheikh was the most typical of such a category; Narayan Surve is another, who also composes songs and poetry. Their very names could attract people in large numbers, which then would be a prelude to a huge meeting.
But their importance is not confined to only being exceedingly popular. An entire generation or two and large numbers of young artists and followers were produced all over Maharashtra, who still carry on and enrich the traditions established by these worker-artists. With the onset of the use of electronic methods, they have also enetered the world of cassettes and albums. Besides, they cooperate with various other artists’ groups, both formal and informal, in composing music and organising cultural programs on particular issues.
Work to be completed
It can be seen from the report that though the target for this six-month period of the project was overfulfilled, it constitutes only a small part of what needs to be done. The number of respondents covered in both the phases together constitute only about one-third of the original list of 300 plus (three hundred plus), and only onefourth of the now extended list of 400-plus (four hundred plus). The list keeps on getting longer imparting greater urgency to the work of oral history. In the interval,a number of new and important names have cropped up. Besides, with the passing of time many have become physically ill and aged, with their physical problems getting more acute. They need to be interviewed without delay, otherwise we will lose them for ever.
The area of interviews needs to be widened to cover greater and wider veriety in terms of trade union affiliations and nature of industries and TUs. Some states remain uncovered completely or are not covered adequately because of several constraints. Those areas have been mentioned at the beginning.
Thus, this project has to be treated only as the beginning of a longer and larger work. It should be transformed into a comprehensive and continuous process of investigation/research. Several new names should be added. It is also suggested that those slightly younger leaders, like those in their 70s, should be covered as soon as possible because they are generally active and their faculties are working. They can provide lot of information through their memory. Even those in their early 70s and late 60s should also be covered. This has been partially done in the present phase.
It has been found that generally those who are in their 80s, and above, often lose af part of their memory and the facts and informations they provide get muddled. They find it taxing to recall their past and the associated events.
Therefore, it is suggested that the work of the Oral History Project should continue till at least a major portion of the names are covered, to do justice to the study and research on the subject. Otherwise, it would remain only as an incomplete initiative with the major part still unfinished.
1. Number of Interviews: It is felt that the number of interviews per phase should be reduced, or the phase period should be increased. It may sound contradictory, but we suggest that some arrangement be made to utilise the time between two phases. More suggestions have been presented below under various headings to save time on other jobs.
Much more preparatory work is involved in preparing and fixing up each interview. Consequently, in order to reach the target, some of the interviews are hurried through or done in haste.
Some explanatory exercise has to be taken to make things clear to the respondent before the interview. This is absolutely necessary. Besides, it is a rather difficult job to fix up time with them. Often it has to be changed at the last hour, when on tour, it is a serious problem because of limited time at hand. The Delhi interviews are a big problem, as mentioned at the beginning; they drag on for long periods. On the average, one interview consumes 10 days of preparatory and post-interview work. This is a very difficult situation.
On tours, several respondents drag on the interviews, in bits and pieces, to several days. Or they tend to take it lightly and change the dates and time at will, often clashing with other interviews and programs. In this way, we have lost some important people. Many important figures are still not talked to because of this very problem.
2. Therefore, it is suggested that for each six-month period, no more than 45 (forty five) interviews be fixed. Alternatively, time be increased for each phase.
To remind, it should be kept in mind that each respondent needs to be located, approached, his/her time fixed, questionnaire to be sent in advance (if he or she is known beforehand), purpose to be explained, often the interviews take place in several sittings, the person is available only if his/her health or programs permit, and so on.
3. One note instead of two: At present, we are having to submit two types of notes on each of the respondents: biographical note and transcriptive summary. Thus we have to submit at least 60x2=120 notes in each phase. Besides, the two notes often overlap. They also consume lot of time, energy and paper-work. It is suggested that the two be merged, and only one compact note be prepared with concrete points of no more than one page in 12-pt size. This will save lot of time and paper work.
As has been mentioned, this time separate questionnaires were prepared for the railways, textiles, engineering, unorganised and general to render the interviews more focused. Particular emphasis was given on the railways.
It helped in many cases, but did not in many others. So the experience was contradictory. Many respondents were confined to a particular industry, but most of the others were not. The general questionnaire was enough for them, while others used one or the other of the industry-wise questionnaire or group of questionnaires.
The point is that the overwhelming majority of respondents have worked among the workers of various kinds of industry. Even if they had primary responsibility in one particular industry, they took up organising workers of other industries too. This generally was the case at the pioneering stage or in areas weak in labour organisation or at later stages when the respondents were given responsibilities as office-bearers at higher levels, etc. There were very few who worked exclusively in the TUs of railways or textiles or other industries.
So the suggestion here would be to use the general questionnaires with sub-sections/questions put in about particular industries. It will ease the work of print-outs and dispatch, and will not create confusion. Some respondents were confused at receiving either only one-industry questionnaire or so many questionnaires. It was not always clear to us whether this particular person had worked among the workers of one industry alone or several ones. Also, a person known for work among workers of a particular industry turned out to have made important contributions to work in other areas or to have been crucially connected to the workers of other trades, industries and factories. So, he/she is confused as why a questionnaire for only one industry has been sent.
Besides, the general questionnaire should be further shortened. Some of the questions are, in practice, superfluous.
With these few suggestions, we hope we will be able to continue our work without further gap.
5. Work should restart in without further delay in the areas suggested above and for the respondents still uncovered, even if they belong to the states already visited.
We strongly want to re-emphasize that it is absolutely necessary to interview the remaining important, prominent and not so prominent as well as obscure respondents, without delay. Otherwise, we would be losing a very important and crucial source of labour history. We assure cooperation in this work in every way possible.
Anil Rajimwale, Coordinator,
Oral History Project, N. M. Joshi Centre.