Ravi Ahuja

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.)