Working Class Upsurge – 1946
DURING the period of the Second World War, the number of industrial workers in India had increased by a little more than 50 per cent. After the end of the war (1945), workers expected that their condition would become better. On the contrary, their problems increased. The Communists, who were leading many of the unions and in the All India Trade Union Council (AITUC) stood in the forefront in taking up these issues and organising huge struggles.
Two main problems confronted the working class after the end of the war – large-scale retrenchment of the war-time recruits and reduction of wages. According to an estimate published in The Times, London, five to seven million workers engaged in different trades, professions, employment, right from industrial workers to government employees and army men, were retrenched after the end of the war. On the top of it, the cost of living index rose by 15 per cent between January and September 1946. The cost of living bonus that the working class secured during the war was not at all sufficient to compensate this rise in the prices. Moreover there was a shortage of food grains in the country, the burden of which was once again thrown on the toiling sections through drastic cuts in ration supplies.
Working class responded to this onslaught by rising in huge wave of struggles across the country. The phenomenal rise in the number of strikes in 1946 was an indication of the stiff resistance put up by the working class. In that year alone, as many as 1,629 strikes, involving 19,61,948 workers took place. This was nearly double the number of strikes that took place in 1945 and two and half times the number of workers who had participated in those strikes.
The terrific fighting spirit of the striking workers was on display when they responded to every national and anti-imperialist issue. When the strike ballot was conducted in the railways, 100 per cent of the workers voted in the affirmative. Almost all sections of employees, bank clerks, peons, primary teachers, government servants, participated in the strikes. A notable feature of the series of strikes launched during the post-war years was that a large section of middle-class employees, including government servants, had entered the strike movement. Neither the trade union workers nor the government employees had ever thought that it was possible to link the agitations and struggles of the government employees with those of the organised working class.
The Communist leadership in the AITUC played an active role in giving an organised shape to the growing resentment and discontent among the workers. They raised the demands of retrenchment, merging dearness allowance in basic pay, minimum wage, eight-hour working day, health insurance, old age pension, unemployment allowance and several other social security schemes.
Workers of different industrial centres in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Punjab, Bombay, Madras, the United Provinces, etc, embarked on a series of strike struggles. In some of the places, like in Patna, Begusarai even policemen, struck work on their economic demands.
To suppress these militant working class actions, the government took recourse to police firing and other severe repressive measures. Many workers lost their lives, several hundreds injured and arrested. These valiant working class struggles inspired in furthering the anti-imperialist upsurge among the masses.
The most important struggle that shook the entire country and evoked widespread solidarity during this period was the strike of the workers and employees in the posts and telegraph department. The struggle of the posts and telegraph workers was part of the determined resistance put up by the working class against the multi-pronged attack on their livelihoods. The scanty wage structure and unsatisfactory working conditions forced the postal workers to go on a strike. They had submitted a 16-point demand charter to the government, which included among others, a demand for pay hike. The government refused to heed to their demands and declared the strike illegal. Undeterred, the lower grade staff of the postal union went ahead with the strike. Simultaneously, the all India Telegraph Union also called for a strike. The RMS workers too joined the strike call. The strike call given by the lower grade staff of the postal department, soon engulfed the entire posts and telegraph department and spread throughout the country.
The strike was particularly successful in Bengal, Assam, Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Rajputana, Central Provinces, Berar, Sindh and Baluchistan. The striking workers considered their protest action was part of the mighty protests being waged against the hardened anti-labour attitude of the British administration. The working class and the fighting masses considered this struggle as an inseparable part of the peoples’ anti-imperialist upheaval and their active support elevated this economic strike to the level of anti-imperialist national struggle.
Communist Party and its leaders played an active role not only in the strike in postal department, but also in mobilising solidarity with these striking workers. Student organisations and other mass organisations in which the communists were in leading positions also joined the solidarity actions. Though all sections of the Indian people stood in support of the strike, the Congress did not express its support for this struggle. Moreover, Nehru appealed to the workers to call off the strike as it was causing inconvenience to the public and in ‘national interests’.
In spite of the reluctance of the Congress leadership, bowing to the enormous public support to the strike, the government was forced to concede the demands of the striking workers. They had accepted twelve demands and agreed to spend ten million rupees as ‘good conduct pay’ to the post and telegraph workers. The strike was ultimately withdrawn in August 1946.
Another important working class action that shook the entire country was the strike of the railway workers. In August-September 1946, workers of South India railways went on a strike. The authorities let loose cruel repression against the striking railwaymen, as a result of which nine workers were killed and more than a hundred injured in the police firing. Over 400 workers were arrested. The AITUC gave a call to observe September 18 as a day of solidarity with the striking railwaymen. In response, rallies and demonstrations were held in different parts of the country and funds collected to help the workers on strike. This strike lasted for about a month and ended only when, Asaf Ali, the minister of railways in the interim government, assured the workers that their demands would be met.
During the same period, workers of the North Eastern railways also launched a strike. In this strike too, communists and the AITUC stood in the forefront. The communists were able to win over large sections of the workers to their side due to the committed role they had played in these various struggles. They were able to surge ahead of all other unions, including the union led by the Muslim League in North Western railways. Workers under the leadership of the communists courageously fought against communal riots during the period of partition in the north western region.
Other notable working class actions took place among textile workers in Bombay, Kanpur, Dhaka and Nagpur, coal miners in Giridih in Bihar, Kolar gold mines in Mysore, port workers in Calcutta. Besides, the upsurge of working class actions in the princely states was more extensive than ever before. Strikes were launched in Tranvancore, Hyderabad, Mysore, Indore and in other princely states. They were linked with the political movements that were being conducted in these states. Working class struggles in Travancore and Hyderabad played a significant role in the Punnapra-Vaylar and Telangana movement respectively.
The Congress and non-Congress governments formed during this period, instead of taking steps to mitigate the problems of the workers, compounded them by opposing them. They counseled the workers not to resort to strikes. This reflects the overall attitude of the bourgeoisie leadership of the Congress and Muslim League. The Congress government in Bombay went a step ahead and enacted the Industrial Relations Act, 1946, which was thoroughly anti-democratic and anti-working class. Naturally, trade unions resented this move and strongly expressed their opposition.
The growing political consciousness of the working class frightened the bourgeois leadership of the Congress and in order to protect their class interests they moved towards splitting the trade union movement. As a first step, Congress working committee in December 1946, directed for the removal of all communists from inside the Congress organisation. The culmination of this process was the formation of the INTUC, splitting the AITUC.
Despite all these attempts, in the elections to the provincial legislative assemblies held in 1946, the communists secured 1,12,376 worker votes, as against 3,21,607 votes polled by the Congress. The Communist Party was emerging among the working class as a party of their choice.