Labour History

New Release – The Vernacularization of Labour Politics

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Edited by
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya & Rana P. Behal

March 2016
9.5 x 6.25 inches
viii + 348 pages
ISBN 978-93-82381-82-2
Rs 950

In recent times the decline of trade unionism and the absence of labour unions in the public sphere have generated much discussion. In India as well as at the global level, trade unions are generally perceived today as marginalized and ineffective in terms of political and economic intervention. It has been observed that in the era of neo-liberalism, the strength of trade unions has been steadily depleted, and they are being replaced by other institutions and alternative forms of labour organization. Surrogate labour unionism is now seen in the activities of various voluntary associations. The chief questions addressed in this volume are as follows. In labour politics today, is there a perceptible shift away from the classical paradigm of labour politics – which was derived from the European historical experience – to a vernacular discourse, in the surrogate organizations, social and cultural associations, non-governmental organizations, activities nucleating around primordial identities including ethnicity, and a great many organizations which are not explicitly trade unions of workers? In a shift from the language of class to the language of community, is the agency taken away from trade unions by a plurality of organizations which are purportedly not for employees’ negotiation with the employer, but for serving a whole range of objectives ranging from environmental concerns and women’s liberation from social oppression to celebration of festivals or welfare of residents of workers’ settlements? Is this vernacular mode totally new or were there anticipations of it in the past?

In the Tenth International Conference on Labour History, organized by the Association of Indian Labour Historians and the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, contributions by a number of scholars
have added significantly to the literature on labour politics which no longer postulates the primacy of categories derived from the discourse of the European and international labour movement since the late nineteenth century. This volume brings together, on the basis of thematic unity, some of those papers. A good number of papers in this collection address aspects of history long before the current trend of vernacularization manifested itself. It seems, however, that there is a widely shared opinion that in the late twentieth century and the twenty-first century, vernacularity has asserted itself forcefully.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, formerly Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) of the Government of India, is the founding president of the Association of Indian Labour Historians (AILH). His recent publications include: The Colonial State: Theory and Practice (2016), The Defining Moments in Bengal, 1920–1947 (2014) and Talking Back: The Idea of Civilization in the Indian Nationalist Discourse (2011).

Rana P. Behal taught history at Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi, Delhi. He is the author of One Hundred Years of Servitude: Political Economy of Tea Plantations in Colonial Assam (2014).


Towards a New History of Work

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Towards a New History of Work cover 

Edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya

March 2014

9.5 x 6.25 inches
x+ 286 pages
ISBN: 978-93-82381-35-8
Rs 575

This collection of essays is the outcome of a conference, organized by the Association of Indian Labour Historians in collaboration with the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, on the histories of work, from the long-term and comparative perspective. Why did the conference organizers and participants propose to look beyond ‘labour history’ to look at ‘the history of work’? Perhaps because at this moment of history we are in the midst of a huge change which compels our attention to turn to the notion of ‘work’ as distinct from that of ‘labour’. This change appears to us in the form of a technological transformation that affects not just our view of history, but our life itself. Every time we use the computer or the internet or the cyber networks we experience this transformation – which brings home to us the fragility of the conventional boundary between ‘labour’ and ‘work’. The information technology revolution has created a new space for some workers as a result of the relocation and dispersal of work, often to the home of the workers. In fact, this situates such information technology workers in a position analogous to that of the late medieval or early modern European artisans – an interesting recursive pattern in labour history. Moreover, in the less developed countries where capitalist relations do not exhaustively define all production relations, we have a large proportion of the economically active population without being in someone’s employment, and thus it seems that the term ‘worker’ possibly accommodates them better than the term ‘labourer’. Further, when we consider the long run of history, the same proposition holds for the workers of the pre-capitalist era in many countries – i.e. the artisans and others who remained self-employed even if they were tied to a dependency network. The term ‘labourer’ appears to be inappropriate, as some authors in the present volume have argued, to people of that class in the pre-modern period in India or elsewhere. There are many other issues which need rigorous re-thinking in the agenda of constructing a ‘history of work’. In considering how the nature of ‘work’ is being transformed, the term ‘work’ needs to be defined because in common parlance it means many things. If value addition to a marketed product or service is the criterion, a pro tem working definition accepted since Adam Smith, there are problems to sort out. For instance, there may be work which is socially useful but not marketed, e.g. the home-maker’s or house-wife’s work, a vital question from the gender history point of view. These and many other questions surface in the segment of the current discourse of ‘the history of work’ represented in this volume.

The papers collected in the present volume (to be followed by another volume of selected papers presented at the conference) have been arranged thematically into four sections in order to highlight some issues in focus at the conference and also to allow a cross-national perspective to develop. The first group of papers addresses the long run of history, extending to the late medieval and early modern period. The second section comprises papers on work communities and the development of their identity. The third group of papers looks at two of the oldest occupations in history, that of soldiers and sailors. We have here the scope to look at history of the longer range. Finally, we turn to the question: how was ‘work’ or ‘labour’ perceived by those who actually performed it? In the fourth section of the book we have essays which elaborate on that perception of work, the complexities of self-perception and the socially ascribed status of workers in different domains.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, the editor of this volume, was formerly Professor of Economic History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Vice-Chancellor, Visva Bharati University, West Bengal; and Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi. He is the founder president of the Association of Indian Labour Historians. His work ranges from economic history to cultural and intellectual history of modern India. Amongst his many books are Financial Foundations of the British Raj: Ideas and Interests in the Reconstruction of Indian Public Finance, 1858–1872 (2005), Talking Back: Idea of Civilization in the Indian Nationalist Discourse (2010) and Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation (2011).

Cover image: Ramkinkar Baij, The Call of the Mill.
Ramkinkar Baij (1906–1983), eminent sculptor and painter, was a student and a teacher at the school of fine arts, Kala Bhavana, 1925–71, in the university founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan, West Bengal; born in a ‘low caste’, he was close to the tribal Santhals whose migration to industrial employment is depicted in this sculpture entitled The Call of the Mill.

Cover design: Parthiv Shah,

Working Lives & Worker Militancy

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Edited by Ravi Ahuja

October 2013

9.5 x 6.25 inches
xviii + 330 pages
ISBN: 978-93-82381-21-1
Rs 675

In contemporary India, work for wages expands substantially as a mode of subsistence, while ‘labour’, at the same time, suffers a dramatic depreciation as a political force and as a target of state policy. This is a reversal of an earlier, little understood process that originated in the late colonial period but fully unfolded only in the years of Nehruvian rule. The six essays of this volume reconstruct this now marginalized political history of an ‘age of labour’ from various angles using previously inaccessible police records, rare autobiographical documents and other neglected material. They examine how political conflict, militancy and trade union activism were rooted in the everyday lives of construction workers and artisans, of ‘untouchable’ tanners and sweepers, of seafarers, railway staff and factory labourers, throughout the late colonial period. They analyse how transformed politics of caste intersected with the late colonial upsurge of labour politics. They reassess the complex relationships of nationalist mobilizations and labour movements, of elite politicians and an emergent group of ‘organic’ worker-intellectuals and proletarian militants. They provide meticulous reconstructions of how incidents of labour protest unfolded in India’s varied industrial spaces. They argue, in sum, for a reappraisal of Indian labour history as an eventful politi­cal history. The volume is rounded off by the political memoirs of Bashir Ahmed Bakhtiar tracing his metamorpho­sis from militant worker to trade union leader. The memoirs, originally published in Urdu, are made available in English translation for the first time and provided with a detailed introduction.

Ravi Ahuja is Professor of Modern Indian History at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttin­gen, Germany. He works on various problems of social history, including labour, urbanism, infrastructure and war.

Table of Contents
Aditya SarkarThe City, Its Streets, and Its Workers: The Plague Crisis in Bombay, 1896–98
Shahana BhattacharyaRotting Hides and Runaway Labour: Labour Control and Workers’ Resistance in the Indian Leather Industry, c. 1860–1960
Ravi AhujaA Freedom Still Enmeshed in Servitude: The Unruly ‘Lascars’ of the SS City of Manila or, a Micro-History of the ‘Free Labour’ Problem
Ahmad AzharThe Rowlatt Satyagraha and the Railway Strike of 1920: Radical Developments in the Language of Plebeian Protest in Colonial Punjab
Tanika Sarkar‘Dirty Work, Filthy Caste’: Calcutta Scavengers in the 1920s
Anna Sailer‘Various Paths Are Today Opened’: The Bengal Jute Mill Strike of 1929 as a Historical Event
Ahmad AzharThe Making of a ‘Genuine Trade Unionist’: An Introduction to Bashir Ahmed Bakhtiar’s Memoirs
Bashir Ahmed BakhtiarThe Labour Movement and Me

Cover photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. © Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images.

The picture was taken during a meeting of the Tannery Workers’ Union of Tiruchirappalli between 1946 and 1948, and was first published in Halfway to Freedom: A Report on the New India in the Words and Photographs of Mar­garet Bourke-White (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949). Most tannery workers in this region were Adidravi­das and children comprised a considerable proportion. The union was supported and influenced by communists. Demands included a minimum wage, extra pay for overtime, a weekly day off and a dearness allowance. However, more far-reaching issues such as health insurance were also discussed at the meeting. (See also the essay by Shahana Bhattacharya in this volume.)

Rethinking Work – Global Historical and Sociological Perspectives

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Edited by Rana Behal, Alice Mah & Babacar Fall

October 2011

9.75 x 6.5 inches
ISBN: 978-81-89487-85-0
Rs 400

This edited volume brings together global interdisciplinary perspectives on work from different regions of the world, including Europe, Africa and Asia, drawing on both historical and contemporary examples.  The contributions address wide-ranging theme such as work and life cycle , work transformation, precarious work, informalization of work, labour migration, labour conflict and labour relations.The book is timely and innovative in its theoretical, empirical and methodological scope, providing key insights for rethinking work through interrelated global, interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives.

Foreword by Andreas Eckert, Director, International Research Centre ‘Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History’, Humboldt University, Berlin, and Professor of African History.

Rana Behal, Associate Professor, Department of History, Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi, India.

Alice Mah, Assistant Professor in Sociology, University of Warwick, UK.

Babacar Fall, Head of the History and Geography Didactic Department, Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal.