1938: the year Indian workers fought for themselves

First posted May 1, 2021

NB: Today is International Labour Day, May 1, 2021. As a tribute to India’s workers, I post a chapter from my monograph on the history of the labour movement in Jharkhand during the 1930’s. It was titled The Politics of Labour Under Late Colonialism: Workers,Unions, and the State in Chota Nagpur, 1928-1939. The ongoing kisan struggle has made clear the difference between a society fighting for itself – in contrast to one that follows a doctrinally motivated sect. Be that as it may, my research revealed that there was an upsurge of workers struggles all over India in 1938, an upsurge so widespread, unforeseen and spontaneous, that political leaders as well as capitalists and the bureaucracy were at a loss to understand and control it. An overview of my research may be read in this interview which appeared in Scroll in 2015.

Contrary to the idea that the Indian national movement had no impact upon workers, I argue that it was precisely the election of Congress ministries in 1937 (under the limited franchise of the GoI Act of 1935) that sparked off an explosion of pent-up aspirations and anger of India’s workers in both the formal and informal sectors. 1938 was the year they rose up and demanded their rights. (This essay on ethnicity and gender issues in the labour movement is based upon material in the same book.)

On International Labour Day, I salute the workers and labouring poor of our country who are currently inhabiting a living hell due to the pandemic, and due to a government whose hunger for total power is matched only by its brutal incompetence. Let us hope the demand for an equitable health-care system and medical insurance now enters the vocabulary of Indian politics. Let us pay our homage and offer heartfelt thanks to health workers the world over. May India’s workers unite with their fellows across the world to rein in and bring to an end the hegemony of the corporate gangsters and the proto-fascist political thugs at present engaged in the ruination of the earth. DS


In the year 1938 workers began asserting themselves not only in industrial centres such as Bombay, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Madras and Calcutta, but in smaller towns such as Jubbalpur, Travancore, Bareilly and Dehri-on-Sone. Unionisation spread to the Jharia coalbelt, and to such sectors of the working class as bidi, pottery, coir, press, saw-mill and shellac workers, ekka drivers, lorry drivers, and rickshaw pullers. In Jamshedpur, the year opened in the shadow of the violence in Golmuri on 25 December. ML Sircar, Abdul Bari and JN Mitra met Sri Krishan Sinha on 7 January and a visit to Jamshedpur by him was arranged. On 10 January he was received by officials and managers, to whom he spelled out the ministry’s approach to labour unrest:

I am not an enemy of the capitalist. But the management ought to learn a lesson from England. In every other country of Europe there is a demand for the introduction of socialism, but England pursues its own course because she has made ample provision for the removal of the grievances of labour. We have to follow in the footsteps of England. Capital must not ignore the claim of labour. It is only thus that the cry for revolution can be ended… But labour must not depend only upon Government support. Everywhere labour unions must be formed and large numbers of labourers ought to join them… no capitalist can afford to ignore the united voice and demands of thousands of labourers….

Download the full chapter


Democracy and workers’ movements – stories from Jamshedpur