Strike-breaking or the Refusal of Subalternity? Ethnicity, Class & Gender in Chota Nagpur: The Tatanagar Foundry Strike of 1939

First posted June 14, 2017

NB: This paper was first presented to the Association of Indian Labour Historians conference in Delhi, March 2000. It refers to material presented in my book, The Politics of Labour Under Late Colonialism: Workers, Trade Unions and the State in Chota Nagpur, 1928-1939. It was also presented to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Weekly Seminar in June 2015 and to the ADRI conference in Patna in April 2017. The paper deals with a little-known event that was subsumed within much larger historical events, yet contains a story of great poignancy. This story relates to the working class of Jharkhand, especially the experiences of labouring women.

I am obliged to the V. V. Giri National Labour Institute for publishing it. The PDF may be read hereDS

Strike-breaking or the Refusal of Subalternity? An essay on ethnicity, class and gender in Chota Nagpur

Late in August 1939, there took place a strike in a small iron foundry in Jamshedpur, the premiere steel city of colonial India. Its owners were a local Bengali businessman and a Marwari entrepreneur from Calcutta. The workforce consisted of a little over two thousand five hundred workers, most of them Adivasis and Oriyas, with a few hundred workers from north Bihar and the Gangetic plain. A large proportion – possibly up to 40 percent, were women. The management was known for being arbitrary, even by the notoriously low standards of the capitalists of this young company town. Their workers were low paid, with virtually no security – at the beginning of the year hundreds of hands had been discharged. The President of their union was the charismatic Congressman Abdul Bari, who was also the Deputy Speaker of the Bihar Legislative Assembly. 

Trouble at the workplace had resulted in spontaneous demonstrations, as was not uncommon in the area in those times. In the ensuing developments the management used their links with the emerging leader of the Adibasi Mahasabha, Jaipal Singh and the Oriya Congressman Nilkantha Das to convince the bulk of their workers to remain at work. They were abetted by Bari’s chief rival in Jamshedpur, Maneck Homi, who had led a famous general strike in TISCO in 1928. 

By November the strike had ended and historic developments such as the outbreak of world war, the resignation of provincial Congress ministries nation-wide and the promulgation of emergency regulations in industrial areas, had pushed the plight of the foundry workers into the background of local politics.   Nevertheless, echoes of that event resounded for some time; in political overtures to Jaipal Singh by the ex-President of the Congress, Subhas Chandra Bose; in the content of Jaipal Singh’s speech welcoming Bose to Chota Nagpur; and in the stance of the administration towards union leaders. 

A close examination of the strike and its aftermath presents interesting questions concerning the delineation of historical episodes and the relative stress to be placed upon their determining elements. Was the strike a case of ethnic identities being used by the management to sabotage working-class unity? Why did prominent local personages such as Bari, Homi, and Jaipal Singh get involved? Why did workers respond to blatant instigation to strikebreaking, and did they have their own agenda? What role did gender issues assume? What was the attitude of the bureaucracy and what was the political significance of the affair? This essay attempts to unravel the layers of meaning that lie beneath the surface of a long-forgotten incident. I argue that it be treated as the first agitational expression of Adivasi sentiment in a working class movement, fuelled in part by long-standing resentment amongst tribal women about the misbehaviour of up-country males. Such an interpretation would buttress argument about the origins of the Adivasi estate, because the history of industrialisation and the labour movement in Chota Nagpur is interwoven with ethnic and gender issues. I will begin with the composition of the workforce during the thirties and a summary history of the labour movement in Singhbhum and then use juxtapositions from other locales in the area to highlight the importance of the Tatanagar Foundry strike… 

Download a PDF of the full paper

see also

The Politics of the Labour Movement: An Essay on Differential Aspirations

Democracy and workers’ movements – stories from Jamshedpur

Anumeha Yadav interviews labour historian Marcel Van Der Linden on workers’ rights