Santosh Kumari Devi: A Pioneering Labour Leader
THROUGHOUT the second half of the 19th century anti-imperialist national consciousness in Bengal was gaining in depth and clarity. As early as 1876-77 the leaders of the Indian Association were touring the major cities of India to popularise the then national demands and to give the organisation a truly all-India character. In 1878 the first embryonic national protest against the British misrule took place in the shape of country-wide protest meetings against the Vernacular Press Act. By 1880 serious efforts were being made by the radical sections of Bengal nationalists to organise the peasantry and at least seek amendment of the tenancy laws. But few, very few among them, had turned towards the working class, although there were quite a large number of jute, engineering and railway workers as well as tea garden labourers in Bengal.
Two Brahmo reformers, Ramkumar Vidyaratna and Dwarkanath Ganguly, at great personal risk to themselves, went to Assam and exposed oppression of tea garden coolies.1 However, they were moved by nationalist and humanist motives and there was no question of a scientific approach to the working class and its problems. A little earlier in the 1870's other Brahmo reformers had started papers for uplifting the condition of our working men. Notable among them were Keshab Ghandra Sen's Sulav Samachar and Sashipada Bannerjee's Bhcirat Sramajibi. The latter also formed a kind of working men's association called Bharat Sramajibi Sangha.2 There was a spate of strikes in the last decade of the 19th century and even more working class actions during the anti-partition struggle of 1905-1908.3
However, it was only in 1919-1920 that a significant but small number of militant and radical nationalists (some of whom very soon turned communist) started organising the working class movement in right earnest. The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was born in Bombay in 1920 with Lajpat Rai, the Congress leader, as its president. In Bengal, a handful of followers of C R Das also opted out for the working class movement. Among them was young Santosh Kumari Devi, the first woman to take up working class movement as her main sphere of activity, certainly in Bengal if not in the whole of India.
Born in 1897, Santosh Kumari, at 86, is quite agile and alert. Even now her whole being lights up when she describes vividly her activities in the working class movement. Her childhood was spent in Moulmien in Burma. Her mother roused in her strong patriotic