ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

The 'First City', Then and Now: Working Class Movements in Bombay

“Gandhi called Bombay the ‘first city of India’ by which he meant, among other things, that it had a highly developed, public-spirited civic culture not found in other Indian cities,” writes Bhiku Parekh in his foreword to Gandhi in Bombay: Towards Swaraj by Usha Thakkar and Sandhya Mehta.

What comes to mind on 1 May this year—Maharashtra Day and International Labour Day—is whether the city can still be described in these terms. A public-spirited culture calls for public spaces, for a spirit of well-nurtured dissent and protest, an ability to tolerate opposing views and engage in debate and discussion, howsoever passionate. Is this Mumbai’s reality today?

Mumbai has rapidly changed from an industrialised city to one dominated by services. The continuing onslaught on labour laws and thus workers’ rights to organise, and the adoption of ‘fixed-term employment’ by all industries have made the ‘hire and fire’ phenomenon an ugly reality. Given these work conditions, the commuting woes due to disappearing public transport sources and Mumbai’s abysmal housing situation, it is no wonder that the struggle to survive subsumes all other pursuits.

And as if in compensation for shrinking public spaces, Mumbaikars are offered more and more malls, the courtyards and lobbies of which are the new meeting places.

This is a city where, as early as 1908 the free-spirited mill workers showed their political consciousness by going on strike for six days to protest the sentencing of Lokmanya Tilak to six years of imprisonment for sedition. Fifteen of them lost their lives in confrontations with the colonial police force. In August 1852, what is commonly described as the “first political organisation” of Bombay Presidency, the Bombay Association was formed by the city’s leading industrialists, philanthropists and ‘merchant princes’. The remarkable Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, a follower of Jyotiba Phule was the editor of the labour weekly Deenbandhu from 1880, deposed before the Factory Commission in 1880 and founded the Bombay Mill Hands Association in 1884.

Bombay’s denizens were forever forming associations, protesting what they saw as injustice and holding public meetings. They were not shy of making demands loudly and in public.

Apart from the work of the great social reformers and freedom fighters that every schoolchild here is familiar with, the keenly fought Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and the work of the communist trade unions in organising workers, this city was privileged to be the venue of countless people’s movements and struggles. Dock workers, postal workers, municipal workers, railway workers, taxi drivers, bus drivers and conductors of Mumbai’s now threatened iconic public transport undertaking BEST, bank workers—all worked and protested and marched for one another in this city which was undoubtedly, triumphantly, a working-class city.

It is not within the scope of this blog to name the massive number of persons who contributed to its character as the “first city of India”. But some of the most iconic alternatives to the mainstream media publications were started and published from here. Leading trade union leaders, political reformists, the Indian People’s Theatre Association—this city has witnessed the dissemination of every hue of political, socio-economic, gender and cultural views. Its history is gloriously intertwined with the history of this nation and has repaid volumes of research.

But today the city is grappling with an enervating situation. Fires in illegally extended eateries and restaurants, a horrific stampede on a railway bridge, the collapse of a road overbridge—all these have chalked up a massive death toll and un-estimated psychological trauma. Apart from these, there are hundreds of deaths that occur when people fall off from overcrowded trains or while crossing railway tracks; massive traffic jams are an everyday phenomenon due to urban policies that are totally skewed towards automobile use while neglecting mass transport, and the privatisation of basic services prioritises profits over public welfare. The daily commute and working lives of its residents is a nightmare. And yet, the prominent political forces here do not find it worth their while to rally citizens on these issues.

Thousands of families can be pushed into a living toxic hell in Mahul and protest themselves hoarse. Residents around Aarey Colony can protest about the Metro 3 station on the few surviving green spots here and be brushed aside, or residents of South Bombay can frantically draw attention to the ecological mayhem that the Coastal Road Project will unleash, fisherfolk can protest what it will do to their already diminishing sources of livelihood—there is hardly any concerted agitation/protest/campaign.

That iconic site of protest, the Azad Maidan of yesteryears is well nigh unrecognisable today with the infrastructure work there. A “corner” has been earmarked for protest meetings, and anyway, as activists point out getting police permission is becoming more difficult. Hutatma Chowk was pushed off the map of protest venues in a beautification drive (obviously, fights for justice are not beautiful for the powers that be) and open spaces are falling to concretisation and private interests. Add to this the even more rapid reduction of public transport that leaves the car-less population with restricted mobility.

So this city that reverberated to the spirited slogans of the workers, the independence struggle, the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, the women’s marches not to speak of the powadas and songs of Shahirs Amar Sheikh, Annabhau Sathe, Vilas Ghogare, Vaman Kardak,  and Shahir Krishnarao Sable, and the street theatre of student groups, is gradually losing its spirit of defiance. This is not to say that there are absolutely no voices that speak of and caste and class and gender injustice. It is just that the noise of the drilling of machines for metros and flyovers is getting louder and louder.

The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the collective view from the journal.

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