Cities in revolt

Issue: 106

Esme Choonara

A review of Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices (Seagull Books, 2004), £19.95

This book is an inspiring testimony to what can be achieved by the working class of a developing country in the face of repression from capitalists, right wing thugs and the state. It is a remarkable oral history and political narrative of over 150 years of labour history in Mumbai.

Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, remains today the industrial heartland of India. It is a city undergoing rapid transformation. The organisers of the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai describe it as ‘a megapolis of more than 13 million people of diverse socio-economic, cultural and political backgrounds. It is a city where skyscrapers and slums jostle for space along the sea; where great wealth and stark want exist side by side. The city has been witness to both extremes in exploitation and militant protests and trade union action in reaction. It has been the birthplace of many progressive social movements and yet, paradoxically, is today the power centre of right wing political parties like the Shiv Sena’.1

It was these contradictions that inspired Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, both political activists in Mumbai for many years, to write this book. In particular they wanted to understand the social transformations that had taken place in a city with a history of strong trade unions, secular and left traditions for it to become the centre of anti-Muslim pogroms in December 1992 and January 1993 in which over 550 Muslims were murdered.

The book consists largely of interviews with activists from the Girangaon area of Mumbai, which has been the centre of India’s textile industry since the first mills were built there in the middle of the 19th century. Today there are still over 1.3 million working class residents in the area despite the closure of many of the mills and the intrusions of wealthy land developers. The authors have added a commentary to the interviews to create a narrative that is both huge in scope and very detailed.

The book is organised chronologically, looking at five key episodes in the history of the city: the early growth of mills, the struggle for independence, the movement for a linguistic state of Maharashtra with Bombay as its capital, the growth of the Shiv Sena and the two year long strike of 1982-84. What emerges from each of these episodes is both the courage and combativity of the workers and a sense of some of the arguments over organisation and strategy that raged throughout the struggles.

The first mill was opened in Bombay in 1851. By 1892 there were over 100,000 mill workers, mostly migrants to the city. The average age of the workers at this time was 17 years old and they worked up to 14-hour shifts. There was a constant battle over working hours and conditions. The first recorded charter of workers’ demands was presented in 1890 and called for a weekly holiday, a 30-minute lunch break and rest after sundown.

Mill workers staged their first general strike in January 1919. Despite only loose welfare support groups and no real trade union organisation, 150,000 workers joined the strike and stayed out for 18 days. The beginnings of formal organisation in the mills grew out of this and subsequent strikes.

A number of different unions and political groups have organised in Girangaon over the years, but the most interesting is probably the growth of the Communists. The Communist Party of India (CPI) established themselves at the heart of the mill workers’ struggle in Bombay during a general strike in 1928 against increases in workloads and ‘rationalisation’ measures. A worker was killed very early in the strike and at his funeral thousands vowed to stay out until they won. The strike lasted for six months. Those active in the strike recall the international solidarity that they received and the impressive role of women in the strike, especially the thousands of women wielding broom handles who defended the picket lines. CPI activists also distributed grain among the strikers to boost morale. The Communists proved themselves during this strike and established a base at the heart of the struggle in Girangaon that would last for many years. When the CPI launched the GKU textile union (also known as Lal Batwa or ‘Red Flag’) in the year following the strike, over 100,000 mill workers lined up to join immediately.

The Communists faced huge repression from the mill owners and the British. Two GKU activists were hanged in 1929 for the killing of a British manager in a clash at one of the mills. In the same year 33 Communist Party leaders were charged with conspiracy to overthrow the king in a four-year trial known as the Meerut conspiracy case. The heavy sentences passed against the Communists drew protests from Albert Einstein and H G Wells among others. The CPI and the GKU were banned in 1934 though this didn’t halt the activities of the Communists and trade union activists in the mills of Bombay.

The chapter on the struggle for independence is a fascinating account of the different forces involved in the fight against British rule. There were clear class differences in the movement. Many of the Indian mill owners supported independence, though not mass movements and agitation that might affect their profits. Gandhi had close links with many of the mill owners and opposed the use of strikes as a political weapon. His strategy of nonviolence fitted the needs of a new rising nationalist class who wanted to exert enough pressure to get rid of the British but not to spill over into class conflict or revolution.2

The authors point out that ‘mainstream history largely ignores the role of the Communists, terrorist groups, terrorist actions, the contributions of peasants’ and workers’ fronts in the struggle for independence’. As several of those interviewed make clear, the period running up to independence in 1947 was marked not just by Gandhi’s campaigns of non-violence but by huge strike waves, riots, and attacks on police stations and transport links. Dr Shanti Patel, president of the Dock Labour Union, was a student during the independence struggle. He recalls both being inspired by Gandhi’s speeches and also getting involved in an underground group blowing up train tracks. Others talk of the impact of hearing about the setting up by Subhash Chandra Bose of an Indian National Army to fight alongside the Japanese against the British, and Dinanath Kamath, a Communist at the time, recalls attacking police stations, cutting electric cables and concealing bombs in shopping bags to throw at post offices.

Communist Party members were very much involved in fighting for independence but the Second World War threw them into confusion. When the British viceroy declared India would join the war, the CPI opposed the war as imperialist with the slogan of ‘Na ek pai, na ek bai’: ‘Not one coin, not one brother.’ After Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, the CPI, under direction from Moscow, changed its position on the war, rebranding it a ‘people’s war’. In 1942, just as Gandhi was launching the Quit India campaign, the Communists issued a thesis calling for support for the war effort. This included supporting calls for increased productivity and playing down industrial disputes. The British released many of the jailed Communists and legalised the CPI.

This support for the war effort was seen by the majority of Indian workers as a betrayal of the struggle and isolated the CPI from many former supporters. As one mill worker explains, ‘Ordinary people could not understand this concern about fascism. All they knew was that the Communists were supporting the British.’

The Communists regained some credibility in 1946 when they supported the mutiny of the naval ratings in Bombay. On 18 February ratings on the RIN Talwar went on hunger strike against bad food and racial humiliation. The strike spread and 22 ships in Bombay harbour joined the mutiny, raising the national flag, the Muslim crescent and the red flag jointly over the ships. The strike spread across India to 20,000 ratings on 78 ships. The people of Bombay joined the struggle, fighting their way through police to gather at the harbour in solidarity. In Girangaon workers came out of the mills in their thousands, set up barricades and fought the police and armed forces. Over 300 were killed and official figures put the injured at 1,046. While the Communists supported the mutiny, the Congress and the Muslim League were much more wary and advised the ratings to surrender, aware no doubt that they would need the army to keep order when the British left India.

Independence itself was a mixed experience. Many of those interviewed in the book express their joy and sense of victory that the British were forced to leave India, though many talk also of the betrayal and confusion of partition. According to the authors, there was less communal violence in Bombay than elsewhere, but still 162 Hindus and 158 Muslims were killed in communal riots.

Following independence the new government of India was faced with the problem of the organisation of the Indian nation. In a number of areas, including Bombay, mass movements grew up calling for a linguistic state. In Bombay this took the form of the Samyutka Maharashtra movement, which fought for a Marathi-speaking linguistic state with Bombay as the capital. One of the Communist activists interviewed pointed out that the mainly Marathispeaking workers identified the mill owners and industrialists as Gujaratis. He argues that workers of all religions and castes supported the movement as they thought that it would give workers more opportunities and more of a voice in the new state.

The movement was successful in the creation of a new state, but it left unsolved many of the problems of inequality and unemployment those involved in the mobilisations had been led to believe would be resolved. As one interviewee put it, the movement ‘succeeded in winning Maharashtra for Bombay, but jobs and opportunities did not follow’.

It was in this context that cartoonist Bal Thackeray launched a magazine which, in 1965, began publishing lists of the Marathi speaking and non Marathi speaking populations and giving breakdowns of the background of business leaders and city bureaucrats of Bombay. When Thackeray launched Shiv Sena at a huge public meeting in 1966, many young people signed up immediately to join. The Sena appealed to the young and the unemployed and to a layer of the middle class who felt their ambitions were frustrated by ‘outsiders’.

At its foundation Thackeray claimed that Shiv Sena was a social, not a political, organisation. In 1968 however they turned to elections, winning 42 seats in a house of 140. Shiv Sena had an uneasy relationship with the ruling Congress Party. The authors suggest that in the beginning, at least, Congress saw the left as a greater threat and gave support and encouragement to Shiv Sena’s attacks on the Communists.

If Shiv Sena were going to build a base, they would have to deal with the Communists. They vilified CPI members in public, also encouraging children of CPI activists to publicly denounce their parents. In 1967 Shiv Sena attacked the CPI offices, sending shockwaves throughout society. The conflict between Shiv Sena and the left escalated into more violence. In 1970 Thackeray formed the ‘Saffron Guard’, a group of young activists that travelled with his motorcade. Meanwhile, Krishna Desai, a Communist Party activist, organised a militant left wing youth movement. Several people in the book suggest that Desai was the only Communist leader capable of preventing Shiv Sena from building a base among Marathi-speaking youth in the mill area. In June 1970 Krishna Desai was murdered by thugs associated with Shiv Sena. Despite a wave of anger, the demoralised CPI didn’t respond.

Several interviews in the book give insights into the attraction of Shiv Sena. One former Shiv Sena member says, ‘Look at me, I am neither strong, nor big. But I felt strong in such an organisation.’ Several people, including the son of a Communist Party leader, mention the way in which the Communists focused only on the industrial struggle, while Shiv Sena made huge inroads into local culture.

The Communists should have been the best placed to oppose the growth of communalism and the rise of Shiv Sena. However, the twists and turns that they had made under instruction from Stalinist Russia had left them isolated. The lack of response to Desai’s murder further demoralised their members. The enthusiastic participation of the Communists and other political groups in the Samyutka Maharashtra movement also made it harder for them to politically challenge or confront Shiv Sena. The Sena were building on the logic of linguistic nationalism and taking it to its extreme.

The authors argue that, despite establishing themselves in Bombay, Shiv Sena were never able to build a mass base among the mill workers. They attribute this to the aggressive violence of the Shiv Sena, which alienated many people including some of the former members of the Sena who they interviewed, and to Shiv Sena’s cosiness with the industrialists and with Congress. They also point out the hesitation and uncertainty with which the Sena approached industrial disputes, including their prevarications in the historic strike of 1982.

Shiv Sena have continued as a major force in political life in Mumbai despite various ebbs and flows in their ability to build a base. As Dr Rajnaryan Chandavarkar points out in an introductory essay to the book, the focus of Shiv Sena’s attacks has shifted since the 1970s from targeting non- Marathi speakers to targeting Muslims.

The chapter of the book dealing with the 1982 strike is a story of mass militancy. One woman active in the strike summed up the mood of the strikers when she explained that they felt like they were ‘fighting for the wages of our blood’. 250,000 workers from 60 mills were on all- out strike for up to two years. During this time there was also a brief police strike and several riots. The government was determined to break the mill workers and the strike ultimately ended in disarray and defeat with up to 100,000 workers losing their jobs. The first-hand accounts of organisation, courage and solidarity in the face of huge deprivation remain hugely inspiring.

The book is packed with interesting details such as the many accounts of the importance of cultural expression to the growth of the mill workers’ struggles—the plays and songs, stories and sculptures. There are interviews with Jewish activists and those in mixed Hindu-Muslim marriages that give some insight into the mixture of people living together in Mumbai. There are other accounts of little known struggles and organisations such as the Dalit Panthers, an organisation of dalits, the lower caste ‘untouchables’ who continue to suffer discrimination in Indian society, inspired into direct action by the Black Panthers in the US.

One of the great strengths of the book is that it draws out at every stage the contribution of women mill workers and activists to the struggles. It is a great rebuttal of every stereotype of Asian women as passive or submissive. The authors mention that as early as 1894 women were recorded holding stoppages in the mills and pelting their managers with stones and dirt. Several women interviewed talk about organising while in prison. One woman talks about prisoners pooling together different coloured saris to make a tricolour national flag and flying it from the roof of the jail. Another CPI activist talks about how women smuggled leaflets and pamphlets into the mills. She also recalls how she knew that the CPI’s literacy classes for women were working when she found the slogan ‘Crush the mill owners into chutney’ written in the mill where she worked.

Both the authors and many of those interviewed in the book are still involved in campaigns over the future of Girangaon and over the rights of current and former mill workers. Mike Davis has recently pointed out that in the very near future the majority of the world’s population will live in cities, largely huge cities of slums such as Mumbai.3 The accounts of the mill workers and activists of Mumbai are an impressive reminder that the working class and poor of the developing world and the growing slum cities are not just victims but agents of change and resistance.



2: For more on independence, the Congress Party and the rise of the right in other parts of India, see C Harman, ‘India After the Elections: A Rough Guide’, International Socialism 103 (Summer 2004).

3: M Davis, ‘Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat’, New Left Review (March-April 2004)