Bombay’s freedom trail: Workers, strikes and a mutiny

Mumbai city news: Workers’ strikes and links between the labour class and nationalist politics were key aspects of the early years of the movement and had become common by early 20th century

mumbai Updated: Jul 12, 2017 18:10 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai city news,working class,mill workers
The textile mill workers’ earliest strikes in 1892-93 were focussed on payments and working conditions.(HT File Photo)

The collective force of Bombay’s working class citizens – dock workers, textile mill workers, labourers, small merchants and traders, the informal sector workers – had shaped the city. Their involvement in the freedom movement was natural and, for decades later, their stories became oral narratives of the movement in working class areas.

As scholars recorded, workers’ strikes and links between the labour class and nationalist politics were key aspects of the early years of the movement and had become common by early 20th century. The textile mill workers’ earliest strikes in 1892-93 were focussed on payments and working conditions but the general strikes across the industry in 1919, 1920, 1924-25, 1928 had resonances of the freedom struggle. The week-long strike of 1908 had set the tone for mill workers’ involvement.

Thousands of mill workers had grown restive in June 1908 when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested on charges of sedition. A month later, when he was convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, Bombay shut down. “All markets in Bombay city were closed on July 22 and remained closed for a week,” wrote noted historian Bipan Chandra in “India’s Struggle for Independence”, “The workers of all textile mills and railway workshops went on strike for six days…The Army was called out…16 workers lay dead in the streets with nearly 50 others seriously injured.” Hundreds of workers in the Mulji Jetha Market cloth shops, the hub of the trade, too joined the strike.

In early April 1919, as action against the Rowlatt Act gathered momentum, nearly 80 per cent of shops and businesses including the cloth, fish, and vegetable markets remain closed; merchants, small traders, peons, clerks, taxi and Victoria drivers, hawkers, street vendors, barbers and dhobis stayed off work for a day or two prompting Mahatma Gandhi to say that the hartaal in Bombay was “a complete success”, according to newspapers’ accounts.

Through the 1920-30s, large sections of the working class actively campaigned; some even lost their lives. Babu Genu Said became legendary. He and others lay down on a Kalbadevi road, in protest against imported cloth, to stall trucks laden with the cloth. He was crushed to death. The docks were an integral part of Bombay’s economy, dock workers of its politics. A large number of nationalist meetings were organised through 1920-30s in Matharpacady and other areas near Mazgaon docks. The Bombay Dock Workers Union organised boycotts of ships carrying British cloth and dumped bales of cloth into the sea.

Trade unions had enormous influence over workers and a voice in the freedom movement despite internal battles between the Congress and communists over controlling the unions. Some unions aligned with the freedom movement and Gandhi; a few participated but did not take to the Mahatma who, they felt, had not articulated their demands. But the spirit across the densely-populated working class areas of Dongri, Mazgaon, Mandvi, Girangaon, Dhobi Talao, Kumbharwada, and the mixed areas of Khetwadi, Girgaum and Thakurdwar was decidedly anti-British.

These areas reverberated with slogans and songs of freedom, and small acts of rebellion against the British. “Organisations such as the Cotton Brokers’ Association, Grain Merchants’ Association, Indian Merchants’ Chamber, Bombay Shroffs’ Association and Bombay Native Piece Goods Association supported Gandhi…the established industrialists and capitalists were cautious though they contributed to his call for funds,” write scholar Usha Thakkar and researcher Sandhya Mehta, in “Gandhi in Bombay”.

Workers also turned against the Congress in 1938 when nearly 2,20,000 of them from all trades occupied the streets on November 7 to protest the Bombay Trades Dispute Bill which sought to curb strikes. Eight years later, young ratings of the Royal Indian Navy were on the streets near the port.

They had mutinied on the signal training ship HMIS Talwar at Bombay’s dockyards on February 18, 1946, to protest against racism, poor food and working conditions. They lowered the naval ensign on the ship, replaced it with flags of the Congress, Muslim League and Communists, and signalled to other vessels whose ratings turned their guns on the shoreline. The mutiny spread to nearly 70 other ships across naval bases; this is believed to have hastened the exit of the British. The ratings were later court-martialled and dismissed. Only in 1973 were some of them recognised as freedom fighters.

(to be continued)

First Published: Jul 12, 2017 18:10 IST