Existence, Identity and Mobilization: The Cotton Millworkers of Bombay, 1890-1919
By- Shashi Bhushan Upadhyay
This work is concerned with the early history of labour in the Bombay cotton textile industry. It takes into account various facets of workers’ lives—economic as well as social, cultural and political—and emphasizes both the uniqueness and commonness of the workers’ experiences with relation to the rest of the population. The author begins with a structural outline of the industry, its history and demographic specificities. The long hours of work, the struggle to reduce them, ventilation, wages, housing, liquor consumption, diseases and indebtedness are discussed with reference to various points of view—of workers, of millowners, of colonial officials of social workers and of nationalists. Numerous citations of workers’ descriptions of their working and living conditions are given both to counter the official versions as also to augment them.
The author then goes on to analyse the formation of the certain crucial identities in the modern, colonial and urban context. These were related to religious community, nationalism and class. All these were generated as a result of modern political ideas and movements sometimes based on pre-modern identities and resulted in three biggest mobilization during this period—the communal riots of 1893, the nationalist mobilization in 1908 and the protests and small mobilizations around economic issues culminating in the general industrial strike of 1919.
The chapter dealing with the communal riots of 1893 incorporates official debates and characterizations of the riots, along with the agitations by the cow-protection societies and the ideological assumptions behind census mechanisms. The nationalist mobilization is discussed with reference to the famous instance of workers’ strikes and protests against Tilak’s incarceration in 1908. The interplay of religious and nationalist sentiments, and of myth-making with conditions of life and work, is carefully developed into a complex explanation. Finally, the study deals with the emergence of class identity through the first general industrial strike on economic issues. The present work tries to explore how far these identities were ingrained in the consciousness of the workers.
Shashi Bhushan Upadhyay is a Reader of History in the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.
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