Tuesday, 13 May 2014

1st May, Remembering workers' struggle at Jamshedpur Tata steel plant through the writings of Mahadevbhai Desai

The purpose of starting this blog is to bring to light the lesser known History of India through different books and writings.

Mahadevbhai, the close aid and personal secretary of Mahatama Gandhi, maintained a diary right from the time he joined Gandhiji in 1917 to his untimely death in 1942. His diaries throw light not only on some of the most interesting events in the life of Gandhiji and Indian freedom struggle, but the many critical aspects of Indian history of the time. Unfortunately, such a crucial piece of history has not received the attention it deserves. 
Much of the writing of the close aides of Gandhiji is in the regional language- Gujarati and not all of it has been translated yet. Considering this, I felt it important to bring to light some crucial writings by Mahadevbhai that are less known.
To begin with, it being May 1st   (Labor Day), it would be interesting to remember an event when Mahatma Gandhi visited the Tata steel plant at Jamshedpur and interaction with the work force there as discribed in Mahadevbhai Desai’s diary as follows: 
Volume 8 (1-5-1925 to 31-12-1925), page 244 to 255:
“…Jamshedpur is the creation of Late Jamshedji Tata. Once where there was a small village, there is now a city with the establishment of Iron and steel industry and a population of one lakh six thousand. Gandhiji had a desire to see this city for many years now… When the Government faced severe shortage of iron and steel during the time of war, this industry provided lakhs of tons of material…These are gigantic industries – thirty thousand laborers work here out of which 250 are Europeans. These factories run day and night like the fire temples of the Parsees or like the platform where oblations are given to the fire (Agnihotri Ni vedni)…
‘… What if the peace experienced through religious activities and the enrichment of the soul are also possible through these industries? … Today in fact there is lack of peace…
‘Jamshedpur too is not free of the pollutants that accompany an industry… Some of the difficulties were almost inevitable. To introduce a western industry and to compete successfully with the western world, this means that there would be some dependence on the western world at least initially- western machinery, dependence on western human power, and to suffer the pollutants that emerge due to such dependence. At the end of ten years, the most difficult tasks that require utmost caution are being done by Indians too like the Americans and the British.  However as the whites have been brought on basis of a contract, they are being paid as per the contract; but those Indians who do the same type of work probably are not being paid even half of the wages paid to the whites. We saw a skilled worker of Wells in the steel factory who lifted from a hot plate with a pair of tongs a steel sheet and placed it on other machinery skillfully, like one would turn a chapatti on a hot plate.  And we saw an Indian doing the same work equally skillfully. But both do not get equal wages… The superintendents of various departments were earlier Europeans but are now Indians and they work as skillfully as the Europeans today.  But they are not paid properly. But the company is not as much as fault as it seems. To undertake exceptionally daring jobs, foreigners had to be given inducement, and so long as the contracts with them are valid, this inequality will continue …
‘The city has been planned by the company’s engineers themselves. Here too due to the contracts with the white officials there is a division between the whites and the blacks.  Availability of large tracks of land has been helpful in the planning, but the company has built houses that are affordable only to those with certain pay scale. And as houses are scarce, in a house with four rooms, many a times 3-4 families with lesser pay scales are seen to be residing…
‘The hospital for the people is by the company itself. Everyone gets free medicines… Gandhiji had gone to visit the hospital. He was satisfied with the organization and the equipments. One European patient was reading lying down. He was asked by Gandhiji- ‘Is your time being spent reading?’ That fellow said- “yes”. Gandhiji said- “If I were your nurse, I would have made you spin Khadi.”…
‘Higher officials are sitting with clubs and libraries. There is no facility for lower ranked workers. As there is no community work, naturally there is no advocacy of Kadhi. But if the Tata Company wishes, it can make Khadi available to its thirty thousand workers…
‘If one looks at the life here, it can be said that western evils have had bad influences here. In order to work in the factory, one has to wear pants, and after coming home from work in the evening, they go out as Sahibs. Two shops of local and one of English liquor has been licensed by the company itself and here thousands of rupees worth of liquor is consumed every month.  And because of the alcohol, the rate of crime is very high…
‘Therefore the Tata Company will have to execute the responsibility of the welfare of over a lakh people dependent on it along with its achievement of having stood the competition of the west and having succeeding.  
‘But instead of putting this responsibility on the company, in order that the workers themselves take up the responsibility, worker’s unions are organized in such industrial cities. Here also there was such a union. Two years’ ago it had a dispute with the company, there was a strike and unrest lead to firing too. However that is an old history. The situation was such that the company was not willing to recognize the union and the secretary of the union Shri Shet was also dismissed. And Mr Andrews had forced Gandhi to come in order to get the union recognized... Mr Tata agreed that the company would accept the constitution of the workers’ union...
‘The responsibility of announcing this auspicious development was laid upon Gandhiji. In a long speech he declared the agreement and also spoke about the relation between the workers and the owners. This being important I am writing large parts of it here…:

[Gandhiji:] It has been my great desire to see the greatest enterprise of Hindustan for many days now, but I could not refuse the insistence of the president of the worker’s union Mr Andrews who is more than my brother to me… I can never turn down his request- my relationship with him is stronger than anyone else…
“We enjoyed the hospitality of Tata’s for two days. He showed us his township with a lot of love and even now he continues to shower immense love. I am the younger brother of the Parsee community. I have spent my life with the Parsees. I doubt if any other community has given me support like that given by Parsee community. Therefore I do not hesitate/doubt to go to the Parsees. When I was in South Africa, Ratan Tata had sent me huge support- he was the first to send Rs 25000, and he had written that I could ask for more if required. Therefore I am under a great obligation to the Tatas. Even today Tata has shown a lot of love and has resolved the old differences that were going on…
“The first condition of the agreement is that your union is accepted by the company… Workers know how to create a dispute in no time but at the same time they are fearful. He desires to be a member of the union but at the same time is scared to be one. But with today’s settlement, the blessings of the company are with you...Remove the fear from your hearts. Mr. Tata too wishes your wellbeing. He told me that he feels that his workers are his children. My officials and I may make mistakes but our intentions are pure.  I desire to eat after my workers are fed. I want to be happy in their happiness. In order to prove all these feelings, he has blessed your union… The second thing is that your secretary was removed due to some doubts… Whether to keep a person or not is in the hands of the company… Mr Tata has said that he will try to take him back…
“These three decisions have been taken but what will you do? I have become a laborer so that I can recognize both the weaknesses and strengths of a worker. That is why I live and move about with you. I hope that you will serve the company with loyalty and work as per the rules laid down by your union so that it can be shown that we were worthy, Andrews was worthy of the decision taken with love by Mr Tata.  Mr Andrews does not take any monthly salary from you; he works without any selfish interest… Act as per the advice of Andrews.
“I wish to befriend the rich and that is because they can feed the poor and then can gather their money, and do not eat by keeping the workers’ hungry. That is not the rule today and so capital is afraid of labor and labor is displeased with the capital. My work is to remove such a relation and establish a relationship based on love. Do help in this.
“I ask from you one –two things. Your work is nothing compared to the work that I have been doing. You are manufacturing tons of iron but I am trying to touch the hearts of the people of Hindustan and derive gold from it. For this, money is required and for that, your help is required.  You can help my giving money and by wearing Khadi which is manufactured by villagers. You are doing labor to fill your stomach but I request you to labor half an hour more for Hindustan. Spin for half an hour more and wear Khadi. Over and above this I ask you to pledge two things. Liquor is made by Satan. After drinking workers’ forget the difference between woman/wife, mother and sister… He swears. Save yourself from the Satan, give up drinking. Give up visiting prostitutes. Liquor leads to prostitution… If you want to become the sons of the soil, if you want to serve the country, than give up prostitution. When a person becomes a Satan, the lord is displeased with him...If Satan enters you than drown yourselves or if you have the courage, pierce a dagger and kill yourselves but do not insult your sisters. If you wish swaraj, discard these two things.   If you do not wish to turn into paupers, than remain away from these two things. May God help you to understand and implement what I say to you…”

[End]
[It would be interesting to compare notes at Jamshedpur, the condition of workers and the labor unrest; Mahatma Gandhi’s engagement with workers at Jamshedpur and the stark disparity in the country as expressed in his book- A Steel Man in India – by John L Keenan.  John L. Keenan joined the Tata Company at Jamshedpur in the year 1913 and worked for the company for twenty five years. He was the general manager of the company for the last eight years of his tenure.]
Important excerpts from the book:
Page 35, 36: “…Twenty five square miles were acquired on leaseholds at five rupees…an acre around Sakchi, now called Jamshedpur. Soon Pittsburgh mills were fabricating the blast furnaces and mill buildings, the scrub forest was disappearing at the hands of one band of engineers while the other dammed the river and the Bengal Nagpur railway built a three mile spur to the works and laid a new road, fifty miles long…
‘The work did not proceed without incident, and of the kind probably peculiar to India. The local tigers became enraged at the destruction of their forest homes and killed two of the aborigines. An elephant, driven frantic by the disturbance and the noise, smashed to powder a number of huts near the dam…
‘But even after the jungle hazards were overcome, the founding of Skachi was not uncomplicated. Once Cholera swept the works and the aborigines scattered to the surrounding hills. Newcomers brought malaria with them and again many workers left overnight…
Page 36: “…A Santhali girl, working in the brick department, had the first Tata steel baby. While carrying a load of bricks on her head…she felt her time coming and she was delivered in the checker chamber. What’s more when the baby was born, she picked it up and walked off to her home with it.”
Page 82, 84, and 85:  “…there were other changes; Industrial India had been inundated with Russian pamphlets. The workmen no longer sat around the sand beds at night telling stories of the great past. They held their heads high and looked you in the eye. They talked of home rule and of a new Government. There had been a wave of strikes all over the industrial sections. Tata’s workmen had walked out without notice the preceding February and had stayed out for a month. Their grievance had been examined and they received among other things, a twenty-five percent wage increase…
‘…At the plant and in the town a great number of Indians, I noticed, now wore little muslin caps. I talked to a fine strapping fellow about it… “It is Gandhi’s idea,” he said, “a sign of the times, the beginning of an India for Indians movement…”
‘…Of all the changes I could perceive, the deepest was apparent not so much in the relations of some of the new men to the old timers, but in the attitude of the workmen in general toward the management. The old friendly spirit of affection which our laborers had felt for his foreman had been replaced by an acute distrust not far from hate... This unhappy state of things, the exact antithesis of all that the Tatas had wanted for their plant, came about as a result of the strike…
‘…Then a few of them convinced it to be a great joke on the company if they should tear up the rails connecting the works and the railway station, thus cutting off  raw materials and the coal supplies...
‘Soldiers detailed to prevent the men from destroying plant equipment ordered the prankish strikers to leave. They emphatically refused. The soldiers were ordered to load and take aim. The men, like overgrown children, laughed at the soldiers and their officer. The order was then given to fire. Thirteen strikers were killed and many more taken to the hospital…
‘Although the strike was ended not long after, the men did not forget the death of their fellows. They turned from quiet, conscientious workers to aggressive men who did just what they were paid for and not a bit more. For several years, on the anniversary of that day, the Indians observed one hour’s silence.
‘The men who had led their strike now became their official leaders. They formed a union which many of the Tata workers joined. Meanwhile there were strikers in other parts of India…labor leaders became political minded…
Page 89, 90, and 93: “…With industries flourishing and huge dividends almost a matter of course, the whole of industrial India in 1920 was ripe for a siege of unrest. Tata shares, leading the rest, rising or falling almost two to three hundred rupees in a single session of the exchange. The Bombay mills were making new millionaires every week. But the cotton mill operators still worked for starvation wages, still lived in horrible barracks, sometimes whole families of them jammed into one room. And it was early 1920, before that first strike, that the Tata management made its first big mistake, a blunder of omission which underlay the strike and a lot of subsequent misunderstandings.
‘Over a period of years the Tata workmen had received only one meager raise, a ten percent increase in 1917. .. Had the Tata American management told the men frankly that they did not intend to withdraw that ten percent war bonus, but in fact planned to add a further ten per cent raise, there never would have been any strike. And the management could have done so.  For if the entire amount had come entirely from the holders of deferred shares only, they would still have gotten a thirty-five rupee dividend, or well over a one hundred percent of their original investment…But the management was blind to the trends of the times, and the company paid heavily for their myopia…
‘…A group of anarchists, called terrorists, were making their opposition to the government, to any Government, strongly felt in Bengal. More important, through the soviet consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad in Afghanistan, near the Indian border, Russian literature filtered steadily into the country …
Page 93: ‘…When the first labor union was formed in Jamshedpur after the 1920 strike… Since it was far from being representative, the union was denied recognition until 1925, when Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru…, and C.F. Andrews came to Jamshedpur and discussed the matter with R. D. Tata…
Page 94: ‘…Mahatama Gandhi’s friend, later his biographer, C.F Andrews, chosen first president of the steel workers’ union…
‘…Thus five years after a strike which had been engineered by outsiders, some of whom cared nothing for labor, collective bargaining was won for the workmen by India’s greatest patriot, Mohandas Gandhi…
Page 164,165,166: ‘…The whole decade of the 1920’s could hardly have been plagued with more intense labor unrest, as lockouts, strikes, sit-down strikes and lightning strikes bedeviled employee and employee and employer. The spare, ascetic figure of Mohandas Gandhi was no longer unknown to the diehard British Industrialist…If strike hurt the capitalists; they also hurt the Government… Men would come to a plant prepared to work. Suddenly everybody would simply sit down for a few hours. The non-work period was called in Hindi a Hartal, or halt…
‘One man, however, could always sway a mass meeting of workers with the power of his own simple and holy faith. I saw Mahatma Gandhi address some sixty thousand persons on the grounds of the town hall…
‘When Gandhi mounted the platform and bowed to the people, a wild shout of welcome arose. “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai!” echoed against the distant hills. Here, I saw, was a great man. This frail framework of bone and muscle clothed in a few yards of homespun cloth had, through his love for his fellow men, attained the lonely grandeur of greatness. It seemed to me that this was no longer a labor meeting, but convocation of men to hear the voice of one they believed holier than they.
‘Gandhi raised his hand to still the deafening acclamation. The gesture commanded complete silence. Then he began to speak, to exhort each man to give his utmost effort in the knowledge that God would watch over him. Above all, he urged abstemiousness in all things, and complete faith in prayer. He spoke like a man inspired. I wondered what would happen in an American labor meeting if a union leader tried to persuade the men to depend on God, to offer prayers for better working conditions!
‘For a few years the management enjoyed a false sense of security…
Page 169, 170, and 171: ‘…In the middle of February 1928 the mills were running at top speed. Without warning one night all the drivers of the heavy duty cranes failed to show up at ten o’clock for the late shift… On June first, after three months of sit down strikes, lightening strikes and general bedlam, the company declared lockout…
‘…August 12 arrived, the gates were opened, and not one workman turned up…Eventually, with Subhas Chandra Bose’s offer to mediate, a solution seemed to be possible. A whole month went by in arguments and meetings which lasted until morning. Certain demands were met, others rejected…In a long list of twenty-four further conditions, the ten weeks’ maternity benefits were granted…
(The divide between the haves and the have-nots, the Capital and the Labor as narrated in the book :)
Page 191, 192: ‘…When Herman Brassert landed in Bombay in 1937, he expected and wanted to find the India of Kipling. He went to the Taj Mahal Hotel, a Tata Project, to a suite…He dined in the air-conditioned dining room to the music of a Viennese orchestra. He travelled across India to Calcutta in an air-conditioned train as comfortable as the Twentieth Century Limited. From Calcutta he was whisked to Jamshedpur in a Tata plane in less than an hour. A Rolls Royce took him to the company guest house where he sat on a divan made in Michigan, rested his feet on a Persian rug, found relief in a drink made in Scotland served by a Hindu bearer, while a Mohammedan followed up with a bottle of Schweppes.
‘He looked around for a while. Then he said, “I’ve been in this country for more than a week. And I’d like to know, where is India, anyway?” We took him to see a village of the ancient iron workings at joda…He saw thousands of little Indians attacking open mining faces and loading the ore into mining tubs…He saw the endless streams of Khol, Santhal and Ho women, the inhabitants of the district…with baskets of iron ore balanced on their heads…
Page 193: ‘…The happy friendly little hill men fascinated Herman Brassert as they had fascinated me. Their lives, with a simple, unvarying history of birth, marriage, procreation and death, are full and complete… No diversions as we know them are needed to break the monotony of living; indeed I doubt that it is monotonous… They challenge the accepted belief that what we call civilization, with its perfection of mechanics, its emphasis on material improvements, is necessarily a boon. Uncomplicated, “uncivilized” peoples are not so concerned with competition, with getting ahead of the other fellow, as to forego meditation and the search for immortality. If Heaven lies about us in our infancy, surely the little Joda men are closer to God than many of us who view the world from the sixtieth floor of an office building.
Page217: ‘…It is frequently said that the Congress party, with or without Gandhi as its head, is supported by moneyed commercial interests of India. I can only speak of the Tata attitude.  The Tata family has always been empire minded. They do, on the other hand want to see India a self – governing dominion. So, feeling that eventually the Congress party will win dominion status for India, the Tatas give the Congress a helping hand in a quiet way…’
End


1 comment:

  1. नंदिनी,

    यह काम शानदार है। इससे ऐसी अनेक बातों का पता चल सकेगा जो या तो इतिहासकारों ने अनदेखी कर दी हैं या फिर जानबूझकर भुला दी गई हैं।
    अलबत्‍ता, तुम एक बार 'गांधी शांति प्रतिष्‍ठान', दिल्‍ली से भी संपर्क कर लो। वहां हिंदी का 'संपूर्ण गांधी वांग्‍मय' या अंग्रेजी का 'Complete works of Gandhi' मिल जाएंगे, जिनमें महादेवभाई की डायरियां एवं अन्‍य स्रोत सामग्री मिल सकती है। इससे तुम अनुवाद की मेहनत से बच सकोगी। वैसे भी गांधीजी पर इससे बेहतर और प्रामाणिक जानकारी और कहीं नहीं मिल सकती। इसके विद्वान संपादकों ने भारी मेहनत करके इसे प्रकाशित करवाया था। इसके अनुवाद भी अव्‍वल दर्जे के हैं।
    और ? मजे में तो हो न ? पुणे आकर तुम लोगों के साथ रहना कब हो पाता है, पता नहीं ?!
    राकेश।

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