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Indian Labour Movement: Colonial Era to the Global Age

This paper attempts to situate labour movements of 20th century India - agrarian and industrial - in the context of the changing contours of the country. Many scholars have focused exclusively on industrial labour, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming proportion of labour in India is predominantly agrarian. The prospect of a unified labour movement is unlikely because of the many categories and internal differences within each. This, however, does not mean that labour mobilisation and struggles will cease. Sectoral mobilisation against deprivations specific to each group will continue, and along with equity, identity, security and dignity will be important for the labour movement(s).


Indian Labour Movement: Colonial Era to the Global Age

T K Oommen

This paper attempts to situate labour movements of 20th century India – agrarian and industrial – in the context of the changing contours of the country. Many scholars have focused exclusively on industrial labour, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming proportion of labour in India is predominantly agrarian. The prospect of a unified labour movement is unlikely because of the many categories and internal differences within each. This, however, does not mean that labour mobilisation and struggles will cease. Sectoral mobilisation against deprivations specific to each group will continue, and along with equity, identity, security and dignity will be important for the labour movement(s).

This constitutes the text of the Seventh Comrade Parwana Memorial Lecture delivered on 8 September 2009 at the School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi, instituted by the All India Bank Employees Association. I thank C H Venkatachalam, General Secretary, AIBEA for granting permission to publish the text of the lecture.

T K Oommen is professor emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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et me start with a few terminological clarifications. This is necessitated by the prevailing imprecision in the use of terms such as “labour” and “movement”. Many scholars (Pandey 1966: 14-39; Papola 1994: 117-43) confine themselves to industrial labour while discussing and analysing labour, some f ocus only on the working class, and their movements. This is mistaking a part, indeed a small part, for the whole, particularly in a predominantly agrarian country like India. It is also a fallacy of misplaced concreteness because the labour movement in industrialised countries was mainly made up of the industrial working class. The model for India was indeed Great Britain not only because it was the first country to industrialise but also because of the colonial connection. But given that even by 2001 barely 30% of Indians lived in urban settlements it is clear that the overwhelming majority of labour in India was non-industrial. Admittedly, labour in India is predominantly agrarian, a fact which cannot be ignored in an analysis of the labour movement in India. The labour force was 317 million in 1991 and of this 75 million were agricultural workers and 110 million small and marginal farmers who also worked as labourers (Dutt 1997: 5). That is, nearly 60% of the Indian labour force is agrarian.

Even those who analyse urban-industrial labour leave out the vast majority of urban labour because the usual tendency is to focus on the mobilisation of organised labour, which is workers organised into trade unions. Generally speaking, trade unions function in the organised or formal sector, which accounted for only 8.5% in 1991 in India. More recent statistics show that the size of the formal sector has declined slightly and the informal sector accounts for 93% of the total workforce (NCEUS 2007: 4). Thus labour movement studies tend to focus on a small section of urban labour which is a small fragment of the total labour force in India. This tendency needs to be corrected.

The second terminological clarification relates to the tendency to conflate movement and organisation (for example, see Singh 1965). Most labour movement studies focus on trade unions which are the organisational weapon of the movements. A trade union is an organisation in which a member has to be enrolled formally, pay the prescribed fee regularly, and follow the rules and regulations. That is, boundary maintenance is jealously guarded in the case of trade unions. In contrast, the participants in movements belong to a wide variety because movements have frayed edges and loose textures; there are leaders and core p articipants, while the majority is made up of followers, a few are fence sitters and mere sympathisers. Technically speaking, m ovements do not enrol participants and collect membership fees. While recognising trade unions as the organisational core of the labour movement it is necessary to insist that several trade unions are likely to be formed under the aegis of the labour movement. To put it pithily, those who attempt to study labour movements have to cover a much wider canvass than merely analyse trade unions.

The third clarification which needs to be made relates to the differences in the orientations of labour movements and trade unions. Trade unions are organisations which bargain for the betterment of the workers’ living and working conditions within the framework of the system; they pursue change in the system so that the conditions of workers improve. In contrast, the goal of the labour movement is change of the system; it challenges the present arrangement which favours those who own and control the means of production. This is not to deny the possibility of an incremental revolution by trade unions if they succeed in establishing distributive justice. But they are often constrained to pursue goals and means which are endorsed as legitimate by the State, capitalists and the management. In contrast, the objective of the labour movement is radical and it may not endorse goals and means always acceptable to those whom they confront. In the light of this discussion I suggest that labour movements should be seen as purposive collective mobilisations, informed of an ideology to promote change or stability, using any means – violent or non-violent – and functioning within at least an elementary organisational framework (cf Wilkinson 1971).

I have hinted at the proclivity of most analysts of the labour movement in India to ignore agrarian labour and focus on industrial labour. The reason for the cognitive blackout of the agrarian proletariat from India’s labour movement studies is not exactly academic but indeed political. To understand this we need to r ecall the perception of a few important leaders and parties across a wide political spectrum about the agrarian proletariat. Acharya Narendra Dev, the well-known socialist leader articulated thus in 1946:

If romantic conceptions were to shape our resolves and prompt our actions, we should aspire to organise first, the agricultural labourer and semi-proletariat of the village….The peasants in the mass would, in that case, remain aloof from the anti-imperialist struggle and we shall thus lose a much more valuable ally than the village poor….Our task today is to carry the whole peasantry with us (1946: 46).

The Communist Party of India (CPI) in its document 220, in 1955 stated:

…while the party should never cease to fight for the demands of the poor

peasants and agricultural labourers…the party should see to it that ques

tions which affect the middle and rich peasants, the rural and urban mid

dle classes, the traders and industrialists, are all taken up and fought for.

Such a strategy of fighting for all categories is a necessary compulsion of electoral politics which indeed compromises the interests of the poor in general, the agrarian poor in particular, in predominantly agrarian countries such as India.

After the CPI split, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI(M) was in the forefront in mobilising the agrarian proletariat. And yet, A K Gopalan who was spearheading the agrarian movement on behalf of the party confessed in 1968: “We have to make them (the landless labourers) the hub of our activities. Reluctance to take up their specific demands, fearing that this will drive the rich and middle peasants away from us, will have to be given up”. But he adds “we shall continue to voice the demands of other sections of rural toilers, viz, middle peasants, rural artisans and even rich peasants” (Gopalan 1968:5). As I noted above such an approach is a compulsion of electoral politics and that takes the focus away from the agrarian proletariat.

Political Expediency and Agrarian Labour

Finally, the confl ation of the peasantry and the agrarian proletariat as conceptual categories also took away attention from a gricultural labour. The Agrarian Relations Committee of the All India Congress Committee endorsed the maxim “land to the tiller”, as early as 1935. But the tiller was wrongly operationalised in the context of the numerous agrarian legislations in most states in independent India. As is well known there is a broad coterminality between caste clusters and occupational categories of rural India. The upper crust consisting of the twice-born caste Hindus owned but did not cultivate the land. The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) did cultivate land as small owners and tenants but did not till the land. The real tillers of land were and are the scheduled castes (SCs) who did not own land. But in the process of operationalising the notion of the tiller the SCs, the real agricultural labourers, were left out and the OBCs who actually supervised the work of tillers were defined as tillers.

I suggest that this was also done because of political expediency. The numerical superiority of the OBCs (estimated to be around 50% of the total population as compared with 15% of SCs) compelled all political parties to harness their electoral support. Further, the OBCs occupied a crucial position in the rural power structure thanks to their demographic advantage and ownership in land and other resources. As compared to them the SCs who are landless and occupied the lowest step in the caste hierarchy could be ignored. These factors in conjunction led to the neglect of the agrarian poor as a political category in India. And, unfortunately the Indian academia did not show the intellectual fortitude and moral courage to challenge this politically biased n eglect of the agricultural labour in India. This accounts for the cognitive blackout of the agrarian labour movement and the t endency to treat agrarian labour as a part of the peasantry. There were however, two agrarian movements which pursued the objective of making the tiller the real owner of the land; the non-violent Bhoodan-Gramdan movement started in the early 1950s and the violent Naxalbari movement started in the mid-1960s. But neither succeeded in its objectives (Oommen 1972; Dasgupta 1974) and the agrarian problem remains basic and fundamental to this day.


Having indicated the familiar fallacy of equating labour with industrial labour in India, although the country remains largely agrarian even today, and identified the motive behind neglecting agrarian labour movement as a theme of research I propose to situate the labour movement in its macro-perspective. I argued three decades ago that an appropriate framework for the study of social movements should take into account the dialectics between historicity (past experiences), social structure (present existential conditions) and the vision about the future of society. The i nterlocking of the past-present-future implies that social movements reflect the confluence between the persistent, changing and evolving elements of

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a system (Oommen 1977: 14-37). In what follows my attempt is to situate the Indian labour movement in its macro context.

Social movements including labour movements in a society are conditioned by three factors: (1) The core institutional order (CIO) of society, (2) the principal enemy as perceived by the deprived, and (3) the primary goal pursued by the society, all of which change over a period of time. That is to say, the nature and objective of the labour movement keep changing as these features of society change. I propose to focus on the trajectory of the labour movement in 20th century India which provides an appropriate canvas for the present analysis. The first half of the century was the colonial period (1900-47), the referent here being the Indian subcontinent. The second phase, 1947-89, little over four decades, was the phase of nation-building/modernisation and the third, that is the present phase, (1990 –) globalising India. This is not to suggest that the earlier phases have been completely displaced by the later ones; to be sure modernisation is not replaced by globalisation and streaks of colonialism reappear in new avatars.

During the colonial period the State constituted the core institutional order, the principal enemy was the British coloniser, an outsider whose racial, religious and linguistic identities totally differed from those of the Indian “subjects” and the singular goal pursued through the anti-colonial movement was to transform colonial subjecthood to citizenship of an independent sovereign national state. An overwhelming majority of the people of the I ndian subcontinent perceived the coloniser as a common enemy, which facilitated the crystallisation of a massive movement. Many analysts cognised the anti-colonial movement as a totality and ignored the specifi c interests and motivations of a wide variety of social categories who participated in it. They have seen the woods but missed the trees. At any rate, they denied autonomy to the movements of women, peasants, youth, workers, religious communities, caste groups, tribes and other social categories (for example, Bipin Chandra 1979).

There is a diametrically opposite view according to which, the movements of specific social categories were autonomous; even as they participated in the anti-colonial movement, they pursued their specific interests. This rendition missed the forest for the trees; it denied the existence of an overarching anti-colonial m obilisation (Low 1977). This perspective accorded complete a utonomy to specific social categories ignoring their conjoint concern, namely, achieving political freedom. It is not true that movements of different social categories were mere tributaries of the anti-colonial movement and because they maintained a certain level of autonomy they were completely independent of it. That is, reciprocity and autonomy were implied in the relationship between the anticolonial movement and the movements of numerous social categories (Siddiqui 1978 for the case of peasantry; Oommen 1985 for a general analysis). And hence the density of their reciprocity and autonomy varied across time, regions and communities. Only such a perspective will help us to understand why the intensity of the labour movement varied across linguistic regions in India.

Once freedom arrived the primary goal became “nation- building”; but not only did the “nation” get divided, the meaning of nationhood also changed. The people who fought together against the British were divided into two “nations”; secular India and Muslim Pakistan and became instant enemies. National citizenship became

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the new central identity as against the erstwhile colonial subjecthood. After the arrival of freedom several movements were kept in suspended animation. For example, the undivided CPI temporarily suspended mobilisations of peasants and workers to provide an opportunity to the national government to set things right. That is, there came about a sea change in the historicity of context, occasioned by the replacement of the c olonial state by a national state.

Internal Colonialism

The national state through the adoption of an innovative and progressive constitution, the launching of five-year plans, adoption of universal adult franchise, decentralisation of polity and similar measures unleashed forces of social transformation. The national state became the core institution; fighting illiteracy and ill health, poverty reduction, rapid industrialisation without i gnoring the interests of labour that is, development with justice, became the new goals. Although equality became the central value its translation into reality remained a great challenge. In the meantime self-definitions of the constituting elements in the “nation” changed with the exit of the coloniser. The idea of a common peoplehood gradually eroded, energising the plurality of identities kept in suspended animation, manifesting in mobilisations of primordial groups-religious, regional-linguistic communities and caste and tribal groups. Most of the mobilisations by these categories combined the twin goals of equality and i dentity; they were directed against “internal colonialism”.

However, another set of mobilisations focused primarily on equality piloted by/through civil collectivities. Movements of i ndustrial workers, peasants and agrarian proletariat exemplify this. But the vitality of the movements of these civil collectivities has been substantially eroded by the mobilisations of primordial groups. It is important to note that political parties through their front organisations initiate much of the mobilisations of labour, industrial and agrarian, in independent India. And their primary purpose was to wrest justice from the State and the dominant groups – industrialists, landlords, employers and managements.

Till the declaration of the Emergency in 1975, the State had considerable legitimacy in independent India as the initiator of social transformation and as the prime mover of economic development. From the latter half of the 1970s onwards the centrality of the Indian state came in for interrogation; Citizens’ for Democracy, People’s Union for Civil Liberty, People’s Union for Democratic Rights and several other civil society organisations emerged during this period. Paradoxically enough, the State also came to recognise the crucial role of non-governmental orga nisations (NGOs) in implementing development programmes. This is evident from the importance accorded to NGOs from the Seventh Five-Year Plan onwards for the efficient delivery of development benefi ts.

There is yet another momentous development which occurred in the 1980s. The very idea of state-sponsored, capital intensive, hi-tech driven model of modernisation came in for interrogation. This approach to development caused considerable displacement and deprivation particularly among the rural poor who sought refuge in urban India. The discontents of modernity unleashed a series of mobilisations, which highlighted the issues of deteriorating ecology and environmental insecurity. The net result of this was the erosion of legitimacy suffered by the State and the civil society gaining in importance leading to the crystallisation of numerous mobilisations against the State by the civil society. The widely held assumption that primordial identities will be dissolved in the cauldron of modernity was belied. In practical terms this led to the splintering of labour movements and mobilisations based on religion, caste, language, gender, etc, crystallised.

The third phase (1990 –) is the globalising phase initiated by the liberalisation of the economy. The distinguishing features of this phase are: minimalisation of the role of the State in economic development, enlarged role of civil society in social transformation and centrality of the market in the economy. As the market became the core institutional order, the consumer assumed central identity sidelining citizenship rights. This is so because the State is often incapable of ensuring citizenship rights against the rapacity of the market. Understandably, human rights formulated by trans-state organisations and promoted by civil society assumed saliency. Thus discontents of globalisation had started giving a new orientation to labour activism.

Economic Recolonisation

The core institutional order of the global age being the market, both capital and consumer got privileged. India being capital poor it has to be enticed from capital rich foreign countries, which are prone to dominate the national bourgeoisie. The current protests against foreign capital both from the Hindu nationalists and the political left are to be understood in this context. The economic recolonisation of India through foreign capital has led to the reinvention of swadeshi of the colonial times. Similarly, globalisation is drastically influencing lifestyles and consumption patterns particularly of the middle class, which is often the reference group for the labour class. This alien cultural invasion is perceived to be eroding the cultural specificity of India. Both these – economic recolonisation and cultural invasion – are i nducing sporadic collective mobilisations, although they have not yet crystallised into sustained movements.

The rise of the feminist movement has also affected the labour movement. In the conventional understanding, labour movements paid no attention to the specific problems of women workers. The assumption was that united by their common class background both men and women will conjointly fight for equity and justice. But women workers faced problems rooted in biology and gender which needed special attention. Reluctance to take cognisance of this by the male-dominated leadership often leads to tension between male and female workers weakening the l abour movement.

Finally, there was/is no archetypical class movement in India as in the west; the equivalent of that was the anti-colonial movement. A large number of movements pursuing equality crystallised in independent India but these were movements which interrogated gender, religious, tribal, caste and rural-urban in equality or environmental degradation. Also these movements pursued equality and identity simultaneously. Therefore they are comparable to the new social movements (NSMs) of the west but their contexts are vastly different from that of the west (Omvedt 1993; Oommen 2001: 1-16).

India has been and continues to be a classic land of cultural diversity. At the same time India had/has a unique system of inequality legitimised and institutionalised by tradition. This is a l ethal combination. Republican India attempted to overcome this traditional defi cit in Indian society by bringing the concept of equality to centre stage. But according to some, the principle of distributive justice recognised as an important aspect of planned economic development has been relegated to the background with the launching of globalisation. These processes inevitably provide new grounds for protest and mobilisation, diluting the class-based labour movement in India.

I have attempted to situate labour movements in 20th century India – agrarian and industrial – in the context of the changing contours of the country in the previous century. Presently I will try to indicate as to why overarching movements of agrarian and industrial proletariat did not crystallise in independent India. One familiar explanation is that labour movements were and are sapped of their potentials for collective action because they functioned as adjuncts to political parties which eroded their vitality and autonomy. While this explanation is partially helpful to u nderstand the absence of flourishing labour movements in independent India it does not exhaust it. To understand this, the analyst needs to focus on the internal social milieu of these categories. Since the existential conditions of agrarian and urbanindustrial labour vary substantially I will discuss them separately.


The question that has frequently been posed by analysts of social reality is: What is the primary reality in rural India – caste or class? Consequently, one finds the answer one seeks depending upon one’s value assumptions and methodological preferences. I suggest that the question is wrongly posed and, at any rate, in order to understand the nature of participants in mobilisations in rural India we must recognise that three identities are simultaneously salient: primordial/ascriptive (caste, religious, linguistic, etc), class/occupational, and political/ideological. The tendency to ignore this multiple identity of participants and to emphasise only one of these identities has cluttered our understanding of the real character of agrarian movements. Insofar as the participants in agrarian movements are drawn from a multiplicity of castes and identifi ed with different political groups/parties even when they belong to the same class category, it will be nearly impossible to mobilise all of them into class-orientated collective actions. The sources of their deprivations vary and consequently their perceptions of enemies and styles of protest too vary. For example, the dalits were and still are deprived on three counts: cultural oppression, political subjugation and economic exploitation. There seems to be a hierarchy of deprivations in their cognitive map and it is no accident that the earliest mobilisations by dalits were collective actions to fi ght untouchability followed by the demand for political rights, currently graduating on to class actions (Oommen 1984: 45-61).

Agrarian movements in India are not simple and straightforward mobilisations of specific agrarian categories possessing certain class/occupational attributes. The class confrontations that take place in rural India are often conflicts between caste/ religious collectivities which share certain class attributes; insofar as the congruity between caste and class is not uniform, class actions often breakdown in concrete situations. One of the problems that social analysts of empirical realities often face is

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the ordering of data in a meaningful fashion so as to see some pattern in the wide variety of facts they observe. And they often r esort to typification of the phenomenon studied as a preliminary step. While a typology can provide an all-embracing framework to fit the massive data collected or available, it should not ignore significant deviations from the general pattern. The present e ffort is to understand the phenomenon of political mobilisation of agrarian classes and to that extent the crucial factors to be utilised for typology-building are the class/occupational structures of rural India and the awareness based on deprivations stemming from this objective fact – class consciousness. But for a population which is enveloped in age-old social hierarchy and cultural oppression (through the caste system), it is impossible to understand their existential conditions exclusively in class/ occupational terms. This is the reason why many of the agrarian movements in India are also caste/communal mobilisations.

Broadly speaking, agrarian classes in India have been analysed from two perspectives: those who took a macro-perspective, looking at it from above, and those who pursued a micro-perspective, viewing it from below. Analysts employing the grand evolutionary schema usually invoke aggregate data and speak of the transformation from the feudal to capitalistic to socialistic agrarian relations (in future). Here the equivalent identities are those of peasant/feudal lord, proletariat/capitalistic farmer and free worker. Admittedly there is lack of a perfect fit between this schema and the empirical realities on the ground in India which has often prompted those who undertook field studies to invoke native categories of agrarian class structure. One of the earliest to use such a conceptual scheme were the Thorners who referred to malik, kisan and mazdoor based on their observations in Uttar Pradesh (Thorner and Thorner 1962). A large number of analysts have since invoked native categories to describe the agrarian class situation in different parts of India.

Problematics of Native Categories

However, there are several difficulties in adopting these native categories. First, given the size and diversity of India there are too many native categories and these would vary not only from state to state but even between the cultural regions within a state. Therefore, for an analysis even at the state level, not to speak of the all-India level, these categories become dysfunctional. Second, the data available is usually based on administrative (state) and revenue (district, taluka, etc) units and the native categories are essentially folk conceptions rooted in cultural regions. The lack of isomorphism between the native categories rooted in cultural regions and the conceptual categories based on administrative and development units create difficulties in their application and limits their usefulness. Third, while these categories are useful in describing the agrarian world view of the people, they do not illumine as to why they hold it and how they come to formulate it. Finally, native categories cannot cope with the substantial rural social transformation taking place in contemporary India. To illustrate, in Kerala, a state characterised by tremendous change in agrarian relations, the erstwhile jenmie (feudal lord) has been replaced by capitalist farmers; the former tenants (kanakkaran) and sharecroppers (vethakkaran) have been replaced by ownercultivators and the traditional attached labourers (adiyans) have

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been replaced by agricultural workers. The new labels in use are indicative of the changes in agrarian relations which do not seem to be specifically “native”, but share a much wider context. This increasing “standardisation” of agrarian relations therefore not only demystifies the native categories but makes macro analysis plausible. On the other hand, the problematic of the categories such as feudal, capitalistic, and so on, is that they are essentially one-dimensional and ill-suited to comprehend the Indian rural/ agrarian social structure, particularly because the issues of identity and mobilisation of participants are crucial while considering the relationship between agrarian classes and political mobilisation.

As I have noted earlier in the context of Indian agrarian movements, three identities coexist and interpenetrate: status (caste), class (economic and occupational) and ideological (party/ political). But there is no one-to-one correlation between these and this renders the empirical reality extremely complex, indeed vexatious. Conceding the inevitable risk involved in attempting a “neat classification” of such a complex phenomenon, I propose to chart out the interpenetration between these three identities. This is necessary to answer the question, who participates in what kinds of agrarian movements?

Notwithstanding the multitude of jatis and their regional variations in India, we can speak of three major caste groupings based on their traditional status: the twice-born varna categories (“upper” castes); the traditional peasant castes, the shudras who occupied the ritual status above the pollution line (“middle” castes); and the ex-untouchables, those who suffered from social stigma and degradation of the worst form (“low” castes). Similarly, in spite of the overlap between the class-rural categories (e g, the landowner could also be a tenant; the small ownercultivator may also be a labourer), we can speak of three basic agrarian categories in India today: landlords/capitalist farmers, peasants/owner-cultivators and agricultural labourers. Finally, the multiplicity of political formations apart, and in spite of the imprecision involved, we can speak of three types of political parties based on their ideological orientations: rightist, centrist and leftist. While the central identity of participants in the context of agrarian movements is certainly their class/occupational identity, the empirical situation in rural India prompts us to consider the other two – status and party – identities as well: the substantial congruence between caste and class and the fact that most agrarian movements in India are nothing but mobilisations sponsored by political parties through their agrarian frontorganisations lends empirical credibility to such a perspective.

As there are three basic identities and there are three subcategories in each of these, we can logically work out 27 different combinations. But our purpose is not to undertake a logically rigorous exercise in itself (which may be empirically meaningless) but to identify empirically plausible categories informed of logical rigour. Under conditions prevalent in contemporary India, particularly in those areas characterised by political mobilisation of agrarian categories, we can postulate eight different cate gories (Table 1, p 86).

Incongruity between Caste and Class

Those who tend to analyse agrarian mobilisation invoking caste ignore the incongruity between caste and class and merge the categories of 1 and 2; 3, 4 and 5; and 6, 7 and 8. They ignore not only the class element but also the ideological orientation of movement participants which renders their categorisation irrelevant for the analysis of collective mobilisations. In contrast, those who pursue “class analysis” based on aggregate data merge the categories of 1, 3 and 6; 2, 4 and 7; and 5 and 8. In this they a ssume class-caste incongruity and possibility of class-ideology congruity. It is certainly important to recognise the centrality of class identity of participants in agrarian mobilisations. But the fact that they are likely to be drawn from different caste categories which would adversely affect the chances of universal mobilisation of class categories (as their cognitive maps and perceptions are shaped by the structure of their deprivations and lifestyles) should be squarely recognised by an analyst who does not want to sacrifice and mutilate facts for the elegance of theory and/or propagation of political ideologies. Those who opt for the elegance of theory tear up the total human being into pieces, r educing him/her to statistical fragments, devoid of human qualities. Those who pursue political ideologies sacrifice the accuracy of complex empirical reality to uphold their convictions.

Table 1: Identities of Agrarian Categories and the Types of Mobilisations

those who share common attributes and hence could be potential participants or even sympathisers of the movements.

Finally, as is evident from Table 1, the fact that the agrarian population is differentiated in terms of class and ideology points to the possibility of different types of mobilisations. Basically, these are movements of and by the agrarian proletariat, peasants and capitalist farmers, with specific interest and goals. Those who speak of “peasant movements” invariably ignore the mobilisations by capitalist farmers and club together the m obilisations of peasants and proletariat, as if the latter two belong to a blanket category. This does gross violence to the empirical reality. In contrast to this, not only should we recognise d ifferent types of agrarian movements, but also the possibility of the same agrarian category getting politically divided and o rganised under the auspices of different political parties or ideological groups.

The Real Tillers

Let me now identify the major patterns of mobilisation in the case of agrarian classes in independent India. To begin with, it may be noted that their demands have drastically changed over a period of time. The slogan “land to the tiller” is scarcely heard now; it is widely believed

Category Status Identity Class Identity Ideological Identity Size of Actual or Typical Issues

Potential Participants that there hardly exists any possibility of

Low caste Proletariat Leftist Substantial Land to tiller, better working conditions.

Low caste Middle peasants Leftist/centrist A few Better subsidies, higher prices.

Middle caste Proletariat Leftist Substantial Land to the tiller, better working conditions.

Middle caste Middle peasant Leftist/centrist Substantial Better subsidies, higher prices.

Middle caste Landlord/rich farmer Rightist/centrist A few, but likely to Better subsidies better be supported by prices, low wages for middle peasantry labour.

High caste Proletariat Leftist A handful Land to the tiller, better working conditions.

acquiring excess land from landlords to be distributed to the landless. The anti-tenancy mobilisation has practically stopped, although tenancy exists – oral and hidden. More importantly, tenancy has taken on a new pattern; it is no more the poor peasant alone who leases land for eking out an existence but also the rich capitalist farmer. This diffuse class base of “tenants” makes any mobilisation against tenancy a near

7 High caste Middle peasant Leftist/centrist Substantial Better subsidies, higher impossibility. While “intermediaries” in prices.

agriculture, that is, superior tenants who

8 High caste Landlord/rich farmer Rightist Substantial Better subsidies, higher prices, low wages

leased-out land to peasants, have disapfor labour. peared as a result of agrarian movements

It is important to note that of the three identities the status identity is the most common in rural India in that nobody can escape this; one is born into one or the other caste or religion and the consciousness anchored in this ascriptive status crystallises almost naturally. But all differ in terms of their material possessions, inherited or acquired.

This fission within the caste coexists with the possibility of fusion with others drawn from other castes but sharing the same material base. But those who share these material attributes remain a mere statistical entity (class-in-itself). In order that they should become a class (class-for-itself) they should be endowed with class consciousness. Again, all those who share the same material base do not necessarily develop the same class consciousness, not even a trade union or interest group consciousness believed to be appropriate to their category. Therefore, only those who share the same material base and share consciousness appropriate to it become participants in mobilisation. Thus, movement participants are necessarily much smaller in number and size as compared with

and land reforms, sharecropping continues based on oral lease. And even the efforts of left state governments have not been hitherto completely successful in eradicating this exploitative practice. In spite of this there is hardly any evidence of anti-sharecropping mobilisations being crystallised.

Perhaps the basic problem here can be traced to the conceptualisation of “peasantry” in India (including that by the left parties), which was, and still is, anti-feudal and pro-capitalist. A peasant was defined as a person who “cultivated” land directly and in the Indian context this invariably meant supervising farm operations. The real tillers of land were not tenants or sharecroppers. Consequently, the ex-tenants drawn mainly from the middle castes, who actually supervised farm operations, secured land in the wake of land reforms and the actual tillers of the land continued to be mere labourers mainly drawn from the SCs. In the meantime, the availability of state subsidies and the manner in which they were administered facilitated the emergence of a class of capitalist farmers.

Given this situation we can identify three major agrarian classes participating in the mobilisational process. For brevity

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the details are presented in Table 2. I must add a few clarifi cations. First, until recently the landlords as a category rarely

o rganised for collective actions. This is so for two reasons: (a) no political party or even NGO seems to be willing to support them unequivocally, and (b) given their small proportion in the population, any effort by them at mobilisation is not likely to have much impact. However, this does not mean that the landlords do not indulge in oppression of the agrarian poor any more. This they do with the aid of locally hired toughs to harass the poor peasantry and agrarian proletariat. Additionally, they also secure the “cooperation and help” of the police, and the bureaucracy.

Table 2: Agrarian Classes and Political Mobilisation in India

class/occupational factor is more salient in the case of industrial labour, the primordial/ascriptive factor is less important in their case as compared to agrarian labour. The political/ideological factor is common to both the categories but in the case of industrial labour it has a longer history and is more pronounced. The critical factor in the urban context which erodes the collective action potential seems to be the sharp difference between urban labour in the organised sector and those in the unorganised sector which intersects with the class-occupational factor. Let me elaborate.

First let us discuss the impact of the political/ideological d imension. I have noted at the very outset that trade unions

Category Identities Mobilisers Main Issues Chief Enemies
I Agrarian proletariat drawn mainly from dalits, adivasis and backward classes. Political parties such as CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML) and radical NGOs. Higher wages, better working conditions, political rights, cultural oppression, human rights. Landlords and rich farmers, drawn from upper and middle castes, and politically right wing; the bureaucracy and the police.
II Middle peasantry drawn mainly from middle and upper castes. Parties such as CPI, CPI(M), Indian National Congress. Higher prices for agricultural products, subsidised agricultural inputs. The rich farmers/landlords (as they corner much of the subsidised inputs); petty revenue and developmental bureaucracy.
III Rich farmers, drawn from upper and middle castes. Parties such as Congress; politically “independent” organisations such as Punjab Zamindari Union, Tamil Nadu Agriculturalists Association, Shetkari Sanghatana in Maharashtra, etc. However, left parties such as CPI and CPI(M) also extend limited support. Higher prices, subsidised inputs; disciplining of wage labourers and if possible reduction of wages, etc. The state; agrarian proletariat; industrial-urban India.

Second, while the agrarian proletariat and middle peasantry are mobilised into collective actions mainly by political parties, in the case of rich farmers a few independent organisations have emerged in those states where capitalist development in agriculture has been strong and visible, such as Punjab, Haryana, M aharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The main plank of these organisations is the disparity and unequal exchange b etween rural and urban India.

Third, the schizophrenic attitude of the left parties such as the CPI and CPI(M) is evident from the fact that they support the m obilisation of not only the agrarian proletariat and peasantry but even the c apitalist farmers. This, in effect, is a continuation of their old policy of class collaboration and indicative of electoral compulsions, to which I have referred earlier. Clearly this diffuse orientation leads to the dissipation of focus on a grarian proletariat.

Fourth, the agrarian category which suffers from multiple deprivations is the proletariat drawn mainly from among dalits and adivasis. While economic deprivation anchored in their class status is an important element in their mobilisation, unless their political and cultural deprivations too are attended to simultaneously, it is unlikely that they will repose confidence in political parties. That the erosion of confidence is taking place is already indicated by the emergence of several exclusive adivasi and dalit militant organisations. This poses a genuine dilemma with r egard to what should be the axis around which mobilisation should be attempted – caste/tribe or class. But one thing seems to be clear: if the dalits and adivasis are to be involved in class actions, a c ultural revolt is a prerequisite.

The three identities – class/occupational, political/ideological and primordial/ascriptive – are also applicable in the case of industrial labour in urban India but with differing intensity. While the

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constitute the organisational weapon of the industrial labour movement in India. However, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) founded in October 1920, preceded the birth of the CPI in 1925. Subsequently AITUC became the labour wing of the CPI and continued its consolidation during independent India in the private sector. But the policy of the Indian state to launch industries in the public sector gave rise to unionism in the public sector also. The phenomenal increase in the number of registered trade u nions from 4,623 in 1951-52 to 11,614 in 1961-62 (that is the fi rst decade of planned economic development), is a standing testimony to the heightened unionism (Venkataratnam 1996) among urban industrial labour. The ruling Congress Party started making inroads into industrial labour through its union the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) started in May 1947. While the announced purpose of both the labour unions was and is the welfare of industrial workers, they functioned as political rivals which understandably reduced the bargaining capacity of the labour movement vis-à-vis the class of owners and managers (Kennedy 1966).

The role of the State in determination of wages, regulation of work hours and the welfare of workers in general was pronounced during the first three decades of independent India. The prevailing mood among the workers was to believe that it was not r ational economic factors but political and institutional considerations which determined decisions favouring them (Fonseca 1964; Jackson 1972). Thus, in the perception of the industrial worker what mattered was political patronage and not their own collective actions. The splits which occurred in the unions in the 1960s – the socialists within the Congress Party and the radicals within the CPI left their parent unions

– reinforced this perception. The economic crisis which followed during the 1970s i ncreased the dependence of the industrial labour on the Indian state. Paradoxically collective actions by industrial labour manifesting in strikes, lockouts and gheraos substantially increased, finally culminating in the all-India railway workers’ strike of May 1974. The declaration of Emergency during 1975-77 witnessed the mobilisation of industrial labour for the cause of restoration of democracy, keeping in suspended animation the typical demands of labour movements. These factors in combination eroded the potentiality of organised urban labour in India to challenge the state’s centrist ideology and politics and to pursue a left-led classbased movement (Rudolph and Rudolph 1987).

Parochialisation of Labour Activism

India witnessed the incipient stage of globalisation by the 1980s, which was intensified by the 1990s with the adoption of the structural adjustment programme. Paradoxically, globalisation of the Indian economy led to the parochialisation of labour activism leading to the gradual demise of any all-India prospects of mobilisation of industrial labour. A comparative study of labour- management relations in major cities of India reported significant intercity differences (Ramaswamy 1988). While in the case of Mumbai there was a steady decline of trade unionism based on ideology, in Kolkata it was highly politicised thanks to the CPI(M). Bangalore had witnessed the rise of plant and firm-based unions because of variations in the levels of skill and education across firms. This indicates the decline of the urban labour movement as an all-India phenomenon.

The structural adjustment programme has also accelerated the informalisation of the labour force in urban India. According to the 1991 Census data, which was collected before economic liberalisation was launched, only 8.5% of the labour force in urban India was in the formal sector (Davala 1995). The Census of India 2001 reported that the size of the labour force in the formal sector was 7.5%, registering a decline. More importantly the wages of those employed in the formal sector is substantially higher as compared to those in the informal sector; one estimate is that the wages in the formal sector are four to five times higher than that in the informal sector (CMIE 1989) which has gradually widened. Thus globalisation is increasing the income disparity among the urban-industrial workers resulting in the emburgeoisement of the workers in the organised sector and pauperisation of those in the unorganised sector (Oommen 2008: 345-70) creating a deep wedge between them. Consequently the prospect of a unifi ed l abour movement in urban India is becoming dim.

More importantly, the workers in the informal sector contend with inferior employment conditions; usually they do not have any proof of being employed, are often subjected to subcontracting, denied the right to unionise, have irregular working hours, and diminished number of employment days. The proclivity of the management to prefer women workers who are perceived to be less inclined to unionise leads to feminisation of the urban l abour force which is also in tune with informalisation. Further, problems such as lack of parity in wages with male workers, nonavailability of basic amenities such as separate latrines for women and crèches for children, sexual harassment by male colleagues as well as supervisors are rampant in the case of women workers (Sudershan 2004). The internal differentiation of the urban i ndustrial workers based on organised and unorganised sectors and the reluctance of the labour movement to champion the causes specific to women workers are serious obstacles in the consolidation of an all-India urban labour movement.

Generally speaking, the number of unionised workers is very low. The verification done in 2007 shows that the total membership of the 12 central trade union organisations, that is national federations of trade unions, is around 25 million. This is much higher than the figure of the 1987 verification, according to which the total membership was little more than four million. This belies the view that unionisation has slackened after liberalisation of the economy. And yet, the membership in trade unions is only around 5% of the total urban labour force. More importantly, the number of employees covered by collective wage agreements works out to be a mere 1% of the labour force (Venkataraman 1994: 6). Paradoxically, the unionised workers in the formal s ector are more vocal in spite of their much better conditions as compared with those in the informal sector. Thus the wretched among the Indian labour force are hardly touched by the labour movement!

Does this mean that labour activism has completely disappeared or will disappear from urban India? The answer is certainly not in the affirmative. As noted above, the vast majority of the labour force is not enrolled as members of registered trade unions. This, in turn, means their grievances are not taken up by the labour unions of the organised workers. This institutional vacuum is increasingly being occupied by civil society organisations, that is, NGOs. But the NGOs do not have the striking power that the trade unions have; they can only conscientise the workers regarding entitlements that the State has provisioned and the non-conformity by the market institutions to the existing provisions. Viewed thus, NGOs are not real substitutes for the labour movement but pale surrogates. They often function as facilitating agents between the State and the market with reference to p articular plants and rarely foster labour movements.

Informalisation often leads to dispersal of the labour force into smaller units usually located at different sites. This erodes a vital feature of industrial labour which is usually concentrated in large numbers at specific spots facilitating large-scale collective actions. Informalisation of labour takes collective action away from the site of the firm or its premises thereby reducing, if not nullifying, its impact. The impact of collective action is further reduced b ecause the informal sector politics is delinked from trade unions and hence from political party politics (Kalpagam ed 1994).

Decentralisation of the labour force has yet another consequence for the urban labour movement. The workers tend to cluster in specific residential localities, usually slums, where infrastructural facilities and supply of essential goods and services are not available. The thrust of labour activism then gets directed against the State for improvement of living conditions in their residential areas rather than against employers for improved working conditions (RoyChowdhury 2003: 5277-84). Also, some categories, particularly women and children, and SCs and scheduled tribes (STs) often appeal to newly constituted official commissions for redressing grievances specific to them. Admittedly, part of the energy conventionally tapped for invigorating labour movements gets dissipated adversely affecting the m omentum of labour mobilisation.

Globalisation is also taking labour activism beyond the borders of the national state. The strategy is to pressurise the manufacturers through the consumers located in different parts of the world by preventing use of proscribed raw materials, employing

december 26, 2009 vol xliv no 52

child labour, etc. The NGOs are the communicators in this context as compared with urban labour. As for security its meaning would as they pass on relevant information to the foreign consumers. vary for these categories; for the l abour in the urban informal sector The process is facilitated because of developments in satellite security would be primarily economic in content but for the rural communication, particularly e-mail. Incidentally, worldwide net-labour it would envelop the entirety of everyday life. In the case of works are frequently invoked to organise global protests in par-women workers in the i nformal sector of urban India, the protection ticular sites where political leaders and economic managers meet from the depredations of male workers and managers constitute an and take decisions which are contrary to the interests of primary important a dditional aspect. The issue of dignity is particularly perproducers. Such collective actions are a far cry from the conven-tinent for women labour force in urban India and the dalit and aditional labour movement. To put it pithily, globalisation leads to vasi labour, both men and women, in rural India. To put it sharply, both parochialisation and universalisation of labour activism. the recognition of the fact that the labour force is internally differen

tiated would also mean the acknowledgement of the differing struc

tures of deprivation of each of the subcategories. An effort to incor-I have argued that the prospect of a labour movement which porate all of them into one single uniform and unified movement is e ncapsulates the rural-agrarian and urban-industrial labour in not yet visible in the horizon of labour movement in India and it India is bleak as their existential conditions drastically vary. Fur-may not crystallise in the prevailing conditions. ther both of these labour categories – agrarian and industrial – Finally, the labour movement in India cannot escape the i mpact are internally differentiated and therefore the possibility of these of globalisation. While, “capital is global; as a rule labour is local” categories being mobilised as totalities is also limited. This how-to recall Castells’ (1996: 475). If that be so the specificity of the ever does not mean mobilisation of labour will cease to exist; the local labour will necessarily affect the nature of the labour moveprospects of their sectoral mobilisation for deprivations specifi c ment in India. But the characteristics of the local, that is I ndian to them will continue. It should be emphasised here that four fac-labour vary substantially in cultural terms. The Tamil, Bengali, tors in conjunction would determine the intensity and direction Maharashtrian or Punjabi labour vary in terms of their cultural of their mobilisations – equity, identity, security and dignity. This characteristics and the labour movement cannot be analysed is indeed a paradigm shift from the motif of the conventional ignoring the specificities of these groups. Herein lies the imporl abour movements which tirelessly harped on equity. tance of guarding ourselves from falling into the trap of methodo-

In the Indian context these aspects will function in different per-logical nationalism, to invoke the pregnant phrase of Anthony mutations and combinations in the agrarian and industrial l abour Smith (1979), that is the proclivity to assume that the phenomenon movements with differing intensity. For example, while equity was under observation is conditioned exclusively by the polity in which and will continue to be a motive force in the case of the different it is occurring. Culture matters in the analysis of labour movement categories of labour – rural and urban – and sub-categories within particularly in India precisely because the making of Indian polity them – identity is likely to be more salient in the case of rural labour is not that of a nation state. But that is another subject.

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