Shapurji Saklatvala

India in the Labour World

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 1, November 1921, No. 5, pp. 440-451.
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

There is a vague idea that India is an agricultural country, is industrially dormant, and is only slowly awakening to modern industrialism.

But fifteen per cent. of a population of three hundred millions makes up a number of forty-five million people in India living by industrial and commercial activity. The case of Great Britain as a standard is misleading Each group of industrial workers producing outputs in immense quantities at a very rapid rate, with the assistance of scientific appliances, requires a large group of human beings employed on large tracts of land and sea, near or far, for the supply of raw materials. In all large countries, therefore, the ratio of 80 per cent. of peasantry to 20 per cent. of industrial workers is a necessary factor of modern industrial life.

Modern imperialism makes up for Great Britain what cannot be provided by nature in her island bounds. Thus alongside of the political imperialism, which can always be altered or abolished by a stroke of the pen in the legislature, there has now grown up an economic inter-relationship between Britain and the East which cannot be given up without disaster to the industrial workers of Britain. Political imperialism of Britain artificially prevented India from manufacturing her own raw products. The growing strength and demands of Labour in Great Britain created an interest for the British manufacturers to start manufacturing a limited amount of output in India. This in the course of years opened the eyes of the Indian bourgeoisie, who adopted modern industrialism for their own gain and in direct rivalry against the European concerns. This in process of time brought about a mutual understanding between the foreign and Indian exploiters, who jointly decided to speed up industrialism. The European owner of small factories in India was soon reduced to the necessity of extending and consolidating his concerns in India to keep pace with the local rivalries. He now finds that with a wise manipulation of his affairs by becoming the owner of factories and mines in India, ostensibly as a foreign rival of himself and his own concerns in Great Britain, he can obtain a controlling advantage over British Labour at home, by creating a rival cheaper group of Labour in India.

This development of the economic significance of India and England can be observed in the exultant and self-congratulatory speeches at meetings of companies registered in England which have their places of industry in the East. The new concerns registered annually in India from 1910 up to the outbreak of the war in 1914 were 245, 334, 289, 356, for each year respectively. Then came the war years with the consequent scarcity of European and American machinery and Government control over investments in private companies. Thus during the years 1914, to 1918 the above figures of new concerns in India shrank to 112, 121, 184, 276, 290. As soon as the artificial barriers of war years had been raised, the number of new companies registered in India, March, 1919, to March, 1920, was 905, and 1920, to 1921 was 965. The average total capital of the new companies registered in India year by year was approximately 12,000,0001 per year for the years 1910-1914. In the first three years of the War this average fell to 6,000,000, per year. With the revival of war industries it sprang up to 18,000,000 per year during the last two years of the war. In 1919 it assumed the enormous figure of 183,006,000, and 1920 to March, 1921, owing to the extraordinary disturbances in the exchange rate, it came up to 100,000,000. From these figures one can imagine the accelerated speed with which industrialism is growing in India. As if this was not sufficient to satisfy the ambitions of the Indian as well as the British company promoters, the cry of protective duties has not only been theoretically advanced, but is practically pushed forward by 11 per cent. and 20 per cent. duties on imports of manufactured articles.

The following are up-to-date figures of the position in leading lines of industry:—

Companies Total Capital
Cotton 264 19,000,000
Jute 76 10,000,000
Iron and Steel 4 20,000,000
Coal Mining 236 6,000,0002
Tea 300 22,000,000

All the above concerns can produce goods under advantageous conditions of native raw materials close at hand and docile labour, at least as it was before the war and before serious attempts at Labour organisation were made. Further, with cheap labour and by ignoring mass claims to education, insurance, etc., the manufacturers obtain advantages of cheap transit, cheap postage and light taxes. The selling prices of articles produced in India are always regulated by the selling prices of rival articles imported from Europe, which have to pay transport charges, sea freight, marine insurance, Customs duties. In the commercial world India had once attained fame on vague reports of her diamonds and pearls and gold and silks, but to-day, amongst the investing world, India is gaining a very substantial reputation for high dividends. Take her cotton mills. In good years Indian cotton concerns as a whole have in a single year earned fully 100 per cent. of capital as dividends, considering the earning to be made on original bona-fide investments and disregarding the bonus and presentation shares given to the shareholders out of the profits. Taking the Central India Mills—which is undoubtedly one of the most successful firms in the cotton world—its published dividend for the year 1920 has been 160 per cent.; but one has to realise that this percentage is on an inflated figure of capital of over 300,000, whereas it actually works out at 500 per cent. on the original investment of 100,000, which was all that the shareholders ever had to find for this concern. The Bombay Dyeing Mills and the Century Mills both show a dividend of 128 per cent. in 1919. The Swadeshi Mills of Bombay had a dividend of 120 per cent. each for the years 1919 and 1920, and so did the Dunbar and the Muir Mills of Calcutta divide 120 per cent. in 1920. The Pheenix Mill, the New City of Bombay Mill, and Madhowji Mills had a dividend of 100 per cent. in 1919. The Fajulbhoy Mills declared a dividend of 168 per cent. in 1920, and the New City of Bombay and the Phoenix Mills also declared 160 per cent. each in 1920, but the New Ring Mill., under Messrs. Kettlewell, Bullen and Co., of Calcutta, beat the above records by declaring a dividend of 365 per cent. for the year 1920.

Dozens of cotton mills may be cited which declared dividends between 50 per cent. and 100 per cent. in the years 1919 and 1920. And these are the concerns that after mouthfuls of talk of “reform” and “charities” for the workers still insist upon 60 hours a week and barely a shilling a day average wages, and plead poverty and shout at injustice if ever anybody offered a mild suggestion of an eight-hour day and a minimum wage of at least 3 per week.

Opening the dividend sheets of jute mills, where not only wages but the general treatment of workers can both be described as a disgrace of modern mankind, the following dividends are publicly recorded either for the year 1919 or for the year 1920:

Albion Mills 125 per cent.
Alexandra Mills 150
Alliance Mills 175
Auckland Mills 150
Budge-Budge Mills 132
Caledonian Mills 140
Clive Mills 160
Dalhousie Mills 150
Delta Mills 150
Empire Mills 200
Fort Gloster Mills 225
Ganges Mills 80
Goure-Pore Mills 260
Hoogly Mills 400
Howrah Mills 130
India Mills 220
Kamar Hatty Mills 250

and following the concerns further down the alphabetical list from the letter K to the letter W, I can assure the reader of quite a dozen concerns which have during one of the three years 1918, 1919, or 1920 earned dividends between 150 per cent. and 330 per cent.

The Dundee jute workers do not yet realise the urgent need of making the Bengal jute workers, as well as the Bengal jute growers, a part and parcel of the British Jute Workers’ Federation, demanding a six-hour day and 5 a week minimum wages, whether the factory be in Dundee or in Calcutta. The wages in Bengal jute factories are registered by the Government Commission at 14s. a month up to 38s. a month in various departments. The Dundee jute workers, to maintain this rivalry against themselves, have got to contribute not only in money towards the maintenance of the British Navy, but even in men, by supplying Scottish Highlanders to terrorise over the jute growers, as well as the jute workers, in Bengal, and to teach them obedience to a law and order which insists on maintaining the right of the masters to extract 200 per cent. and 300 per cent. dividends from the misery of the people.

To continue the list of profits from industry to industry would be an endless task. The Bengal coal mines, which are mostly under the ownership of British masters, and where the miners work from 60 to 72 hours a week on an average wage of under 8d. per day per head, show dividends rising to 120 per cent. In one case the average dividend per annum steadily for fifteen years from 1906 has been 95 per cent. Tea plantations have given average earnings between 1913 and 1919 of 20 to 27 per cent.; and this does not include the private companies’ profits, which are not published. The Bengal Paper Mills have given a dividend of 52 per cent. for the last four years, the Bengal Timber Trading Company 40 per cent. for two years, and 75 per cent. for three years. The Cawnpore Sugar Works gave 40 per cent. in 1919 and 60 per cent. in 1920. The Hoogly Docking Company has given dividends of 80, 150, and 100 per cent. in the last three years of the war. The Bombay Flour and Oil Mill Company has given 100, 70 and 140 per cent. during the last three years. Thacker and Company, a publishing firm, has declared an increasing dividend of 40, 6o, 80, 80 and 100 per cent. during the last five years.

The British worker desires his wages to be increased and safeguarded, and he would even like on this account to see the product of his toil to be a little higher in price if necessary. So far, unfortunately, he has failed to realise that the customer of the product of his toil should also be able to respond to this economic adjustment, and if the Indian workers’ wages do not rise appreciably, and the British wages aspire to rise continually, the Indian worker cannot be the customer of the British worker. If the Lancashire worker will look at the trade figures from 1905 up till 1920 he will perceive that the total money value of his goods sent to India was for the first five years 23,000,000 to 24,000,000; for the next four years it averaged 31,000,000 per year, and in the war years with the help of high prices it maintained an average of about 25,000,000 a year; and in the period 1919-1920, with booming profiteering, the value nominally was 46,000,000, but the bulk of these goods still lie unpaid for in the Indian ports. The value of woollen goods for all these fifteen years kept between 800,000 and 1,000,000. But these are figures of values, which are of interest to the profiteers, and the workers have got to study the figure of quantities, because it is the quantities that represent employment or unemployment. In the pre-war years, the cotton goods sent to India ranged from 2,000,000,000 yards to 3,000,000,000 yards a year, and during the war years this quantity fell to about 1,800,000,000 yards per year. But with soaring prices of British goods and with miserable wages of Indian peasants and workers, the quantity of Lancashire piece goods fell to below 1,000,000,000 yards per year for 1919 and 1920. Similarly, woollen goods, which were for ten years before the war about 12,000,000 yards per year, fell to 3,000,000 yards last year. This represents shrinkage of employment in Great Britain. With this shrinkage of employment in Great Britain, the consumption of the working classes in Great Britain herself must needs fall below the normal line. The report of the Co-operative Wholesale Society for this year reveals this doleful tale, where the working-class families had to buy 8 per cent. less food, 50 per cent. less clothing, 60 per cent. less draperies, and 35 per cent. less furniture and household articles during the last year owing to widespread unemployment. The part that has been played in this by the destruction of the markets of Central Europe and of Russia has already been widely pointed out; but the part that has been played by the impoverishment of the Indian workers is less generally realised. In either case the neglect of effective working-class solidarity abroad has reacted ruinously on the home position of the workers.

One of the reasons of the very long continuance of the miserable condition of Labour in India alongside the rapid strides of Western industrialism was the overlooking of the importance of Labour organisation by the Indian leaders of thought, who for a generation were completely swayed by the hypocrisies of the British Liberal Party. At a certain period the Indian National. Congress officially prided itself in being the representative of the aristocracy of wealth and talent. When the question of Indian Labour was first taken up by an official committee in England, the millowners of Bombay secured the most brilliant and promising Parsi politician (whose career was cut short by his untimely death), Dr. Bahdoorji, as their delegate, and, sent him to England to fight for Labour conditions in India to be left as they were.

The first ostensible serious champion of Labour as such was Mr. Lokhandé, of Bombay. He was, however, widely denounced as set up by wire-pullers, not for the purpose of fighting for Labour, but for the deliberate purpose of discrediting the demands of Indian politicians. Later on, during the Montagu Reforms agitation, a similar role was attributed to Dr. Nair, of Madras. The action and methods adopted by both these gentlemen did not disprove the charge against them, and they had less of a programme of Labour rights and more of a reactionary propaganda against India’s political rights. However, both were persistent Labour agitators, whatever their ulterior motives may be, and Lokhandé, of Bombay, remained in very intimate touch with the daily life of the Bombay cotton mill operatives, and at times he did expose certain conditions of Bombay labour life which commanded public attention. Whatever the direct purpose of Lokhandé, the very role that he undertook to play did a measure of good in the early stages of the first Factory Act for India, and perhaps in a lesser degree, Dr. Nair’s activities also contributed their share in the acceptance of a semblance of rights for the workers in the Montagu Scheme. Lokhandé’s agitation, and his familiarity with Bombay workers, produced another good result, in that the consciousness amongst the Bombay mill workers of their wretched conditions, and a desire for united action, were definitely created in them.

The genius of uniting together within a certain trade has always existed amongst the Indian people. For instance, the particular caste that gives hall porters and night watchmen to commercial offices and banks in large cities has been always united together in its own way for the last thirty years and has at times even put forward joint action against some grievous wrong. It was in the commencement of the present century that the European railway guards working on the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, though not possessing any regular Union, combined together temporarily and carried out an organised strike and won their point. The Indian signallers in the same railway company, following this example, but forgetting that they were not the blessed bearers of the white man’s burden, organised themselves into a regular Union and went in for a strike, with the disastrous result that the railway company, using the British Army signallers to blackleg them, broke the strike and finally dismissed them all. The Bombay cotton mill operatives have for thirty years been organised under some benevolent committee, as a society for the protection of the workers. This society has at times functioned with fair success, and it left a slight impress of its power on the Factory Commission and the Factory Act of 1911.

In 1911, a systematic effort was made in London to draw the attention of prominent Trade Union leaders here to their duty to assist in organising Indian Labour along British lines, for the mutual protection of Indian as well as British Labour; but, after a couple of enthusiastic meetings, the British Trade Union leaders decided to drop the whole matter and preferred not to arouse anger amongst the India Office authorities. From 1912 to 1915 the younger Indians in England took various opportunities to arouse an interest amongst the leaders of public opinion in India on the question of mass rights and Labour organisations. The early years of the war prevented any active operations being launched out. However, as the war developed into an unending campaign of European international jealousies, definite measures were taken in 1916 to found in London a joint body of Indian and British Trade Unionists and Socialists (the Workers’ Welfare League of India of London), with the definite object of bringing about a working connection between the workers of India and the workers of Britain in the same industries, and of demanding an approximation of legislative and economic standards for workers of both countries.

Meanwhile, on another side, an impetus was given to Labour organisation in India on European lines by the activities of Mrs. Annie Besant and those associated with her. Taking timely advantage of a strike that was being carried on by certain cotton mill operatives in Madras, Mr. B.P. Wadia, Mrs. Besant’s staunch adherent in Theosophy, and a loyal lieutenant for a long time in all her activities, headed the cause of the Madras workers and formed the strikers into a Union, after the pattern of a British Union. Mr. Wadia then came over to England and supplemented the political propaganda of Mrs. Besant with a Labour propaganda in British Labour circles. Mr. Wadia’s efforts and work for the first time aroused a general interest amongst the British. Trade Unionists in questions of Indian Labour, and indirectly solidified the floating opinion that was aroused in this matter by the Workers’ Welfare League of India working from its head-quarters in London.

Organisation rapidly extended, particularly in the Punjab and in Bombay, under the direction of Joseph Baptista, Chaman Lall and Lajpat Rai. Unions were formed of railway workers, post office workers, printers, clerks, textile workers, tramway drivers, gasworkers, and other trades. After a period of effort, during which some 600,000 workers in different trades were organised in some fashion or another under most difficult circumstances, the definite step was taken of establishing the All India Trade Union Congress. The first meeting of this congress took place in Bombay in the autumn of 1920, and its second meeting is now announced to be held in November of this year in the centre of the Bengal coal fields, in a colliery town called Jharria, round about which 400,000 miners are grouped.

The future of Trade Unionism in India will depend in its early stages upon the close co-operation of British Labour. The formal legislation legalising the right of the workers to combine is not yet forthcoming. To secure the necessary continuous co-operation between Indian and British Labour is the task of the Workers’ Welfare League of India, which has been duly accredited by the Indian Trade Union Congress as its representative. The interests of Indian and British Labour are bound up by their economic relations. If by any chance continued unwisdom, apathy or arrogance on the part of British Labour drives the Indian Labour or mass movement into open hostility against them, British Labour will have to be prepared for evil days. The extent and rapidity of the development of the movement in India will at the beginning depend upon the sincerity and support which the British workers give to the Indian movement, but very shortly afterwards the united and full strength of the organised Indian masses will play no small part in the British Labour struggle for its economic emancipation and independence.

The spirit of the international movement is conspicuously in front of the Indian organisers. At considerable cost to their popularity they have steadfastly differentiated between the international solidarity of Labour and the non-co-operative movement as a temporary political weapon in India against the imperialist exploiter. The question of international affiliations is already much agitated among the active leaders of Indian Trade Unionism. In Indian eyes the Amsterdam International is largely discredited by its imperialist associations; and at present the balance of opinion leans towards the Red Trade Union movement. It is doubtful, however, whether the movement is yet ready for international affiliation. In the meantime the present breakdown of political imperialism throws a great part to play on Indian Labour. Any set of conditions that would allow this imperialist political fight to lead to the partition of nations into water-tight national compartments, even in the realms of economic inter-relationship, would be a disaster to all the small countries like Great Britain who must economically depend upon the outside world for raw materials as well as for markets for finished products. The only solution for the workers would be to let the political disruption take its own course as a side issue, and to take immediate steps for an economic consolidation of interests of the working classes of all nations and countries.



1. For facility of European readers all money figures are reduced from Indian Rupees to British sterling at the normal rate of Rs.15 to the .

2. A considerable number of mines being private proprietary concerns, their capital is not registered and is not included in the above figures. Similarly, leather works and oil mills are not to be found in official registers.