Ambedkar and the Bombay Textile Workers

by Kari Kumar

A Kohinoor Mills Event in Bombay, 1918. Photo shows workers gathered around a dais. Photographer: Unknown. No known copyright. Work in public domain

The end of the 19th century brought large-scale industrial work to the subcontinent. In the Bombay Province, work was in the new textile mills that produced cotton cloth. The British had found that exporting cloth as opposed to cotton gave them a competitive edge over American slave-labor produced cotton (1). To meet the need, merchant caste Gujratis, Parsis and some trader community Muslims began establishing textile mills all over Bombay(2). Rural oppressed-caste people from all over Maharashtra, many of them looking for alternatives to the ruthless caste life of villages, migrated to the city to these new jobs. They were hoping for relief from the everyday rural humiliations and new possibilities for their future generations.

Perhaps predictably for the average reader of today, now well intimate with the trappings of the industrial revolution, they were met with more misery. Work at the mills was hard. Among the issues, hours were long, there were no cap on the hours they had to work, and often no breaks. Children were indiscriminately hired to these jobs and there was no safeguards for those who would face hazards in the workplace. The city did offer some respite, change and possibilities but there was much to be done.

The first people to organize mill workers were Jyotiba Phule and the Satyashodak Samaj (roughly translated as — The Truthseeker’s Society). Jyotiba Phule was, by then already a well-known anti-caste social revolutionary and the Satyshodaks had a strong presence through many parts of rural Maharashtra (3). They were largely non-Dalit but oppressed-caste folk who had already developed sophisticated social frameworks. They unambiguously identified the fabric of oppression they faced as caste, and understood that their economic and social woes were interwoven with it. In particular, they challenged the ruling castes that held the land, dealt out work, lent the money, set and enforced ritual hierarchy and altogether kept the oppressed castes in multi-generational cycles of near-slavery, if not slavery. So by the 1880s, they were already using the language of “Bahujan Samaj” (3) (which can be translated as, society of the masses of people, or society of the majority of people) that was only re-vitalized by Saheb Kanshiram in the 1970s, in recognition of the power of an oppressed caste population majority in India.

Photo showing both Dalit and non-Dalit workers. Despite the colonial gaze in the representation of these workers they were already quite well organized at this time, 1925. Author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

The Satyashodaks worked in many-fold ways. They helped organize workers into the very first Mill Hands Association and negotiated with the recruiters and mill owners, better hours, better treatment, holidays, and health protections(4). However, they also worked to end the ills of caste, end social oppression against women and educate people (who were restricted through caste any access to formal learning. In fact many of the Satyashodaks themselves, including Phule, were only formally educated because British missionaries, much to the ire of the elite castes, opened up convent schools and advocated admission of all).

Overall, they were a pioneering labor movement in India. One of the Satyashodak organizers, Narayan Lokhande, is remembered fondly as the first labor leader in India, and by some, even as the “(Indian) father of the trade union movement” (4).

With the turn of the century, a nationalist outlook began to take root. The movements around it were still largely oppressor caste-led. They spoke in the language of “aspiration to rule again” and this was viewed with a very healthy level distrust and cynicism by the oppressed castes, who knew too intimately what their rule entailed. But feelings against the British were easy to catch and as the influence of the Satyashodak Samajists waned out, the nationalists and communists took over and began their own unions.

Both the nationalist and communist models of worker organizing had a serious issue that Gail Omvedt, in her brilliant two-part analysis, Non-Brahmans and Communists in Bombay, points out. The leaders of these organizations were often not workers themselves. In fact, they were elite castes, often Brahmins, whose social positions did not bear any resemblance to the workers they were organizing. And the workers weren’t mute on the issue. Periods of acceptance of their leadership in organizing were always interlaced with dissension with the “outside leadership” models. Several workers, felt it unfit and there was resistance throughout. (3)

During the 6-month long strike of Bombay textile workers, in 1928, Ambedkar was annoyed by communist organizing models. Still, he decided to join the strike and stood, especially with the Dalit workers. He noticed something key then. The weaver jobs were not given to Dalit workers. In particular, the job involved the wetting of the bobbin thread with the weaver’s saliva and non-Dalit workers (also oppressed castes), refused to handle the bobbins if Dalits were working with them. Workers or not, they were untouchables still, were they not? Weaver jobs also paid more. Non-Dalit workers couldn’t imagine a world in which a mere untouchable could earn more than them. Inconceivable.

The communists did not like to open up issues on caste. It is often said that they believed in putting class first. That their ideological frameworks were based on understanding caste as only an unfortunate side effect of feudality in religion. Something that would automatically be erased with economic mobility. In my view, this is not just an attitude of cavalier economism. It is not an oversight.

If communist organizers were to realistically look at caste as the fundamental organizational structure of Indian society, they would then have to confront their own complicity in a deeply historic and personal sense. They came from very long lineages of oppressor-ship themselves. Which would mean a colder look at their own positionality as leaders of oppressed caste workers. In contrast, their class positions as petite bourgeoisie was almost acceptable, dynamic, perhaps even recent, but caste — caste is cavernous, living fossil. Bloody and blood-borne. In some ways, it might have been simply, too real.

During the strike, Ambedkar pointed out these caste differences among workers. Why were Dalit workers not allowed to work as weavers? In answer non-Dalit workers and mill owners unhelpfully pointed fingers at each other (5).

Ambedkar was full up with frustration and dissatisfaction. (Feelings unfortunately, still too relatable for many Dalits dealing with Leftist spaces). He continued to insist that for these labor movements to actually yield progress, “the division of laborers” must be addressed as well as the “division of labor”. In his magazine, Bahishkrit Bharat, he writes poignantly,

“Had Lenin been born in India he would have buried the caste system and the practice of untouchability first, and without doing this, he would not have thought of the workers’ revolution in the country”.

Throughout this time, Dalit workers continued to be members of unions with the communists, but, importantly, also do their own organizing. They worked through Phule-Ambedkarite principles to educate their population, expand their access to amenities and demand social equality (6).

By the 1930s, Ambedkar, realized that Dalits really needed their own approach to nation and labor, one that was distinctive and responsive to their actual social needs. (7) He formed the Independent Labor Party (ILP) in 1938. And with this formation Dalits and Ambedkar continued to stand for worker’s rights. When the Congress Party took steps to outlaw strikes, Ambedkar is said to have mounted a passionate challenge saying,

“A strike is not a criminal offense. Punishing workers for striking is (equivalent to) making them slaves!”

This was followed by a strike called by ILP against the bill (that included Communist Party of India (CPI) members and leaders) and ended in the revocation of the bill (7).

Ambedkar’s involvement in the Bombay Textile Workers movement is ultimately a small part of the history of labor activism he and his people undertook. But it illustrates quite neatly all the challenges of understanding and organizing labor in a caste society.

Post-Ambedkar, the Dalit Panthers in the 1970s and 80s continued a tradition, it seems, of experiencing a similar alienation in the textile movements.

Although, communist attitudes towards caste and society is changing now, there is a feeling that it is all, too little too late. Indian communist leadership continued to tread viscously in their slow-learner, Brahmin-savior mode; the lack of intention, understanding and unity, catalyzing a new turn to the right.

Kari Kumar is a Dalit lover of cats and workers movement histories.

References (and Reading List)

  1. Logan, Frenise A. “India — Britain’s Substitute for American Cotton, 1861–1865.” The Journal of Southern History 24.4 (1958): 472–480.
  2. Medhora, Phiroze B. “Entrepreneurship in India.” Political Science Quarterly 80.4 (1965): 558–580.
  3. Omvedt, Gail. “Non-Brahmans and Communists in Bombay.” Economic and Political Weekly (1973): 749–759.
  4. Pandit, Nalini. “Narayan Meghaji Lokhande: The Father of Trade Union Movement in India.” Economic and Political Weekly (1997): 327–329.
  5. B. R. Kamble (translator), Bahishkrit Bharat (A Newspaper in Marathi founded by Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar in April 1927), Part 4, Kolhapur: Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Research. Institute in Social Growth, 2012, pp. 68–69; 216–217.
  6. Satyendra More, Memoirs of a Dalit Communist: The Many Worlds of R B More.
  7. Geetha, V. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Question of Socialism in India. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Sourcelinked: The Strike that Never Ended. A detailed 5-part series on the history of Bombay Textile workers as a whole can be found here: https://www.groundxero.in/2019/06/03/the-strike-that-never-ended/

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