Social Scientist. v 14, no. 156 (May 1986) p. 15.


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SIDDHARTHA GUHA RAY^

Tram-workers of Calcutta : Some Reflections On their Unionisation and Political Experience 1920 to 1930.

THE YEAR 1920 is rather significant in many ways, in the history of working class struggle in modern India. It was from about this time that the working class of India began to be involved in the broader stream of the nationalist politics. Although Bombay workers had launched a political strike in 1908 to protest against Tilak's arrest and Gandhi made his enigmatic experiments with the Ahmedabad mill hands in 1917-18, the labour force in India began to come out of the orbit of narrow economic demands to associate itself with the outsiders for organising itself only from 1920.

In 1919 the Indian National Congress at its 35th session in Amritsar urged its provincial Committees to secure for the working class "a proper place in the body politic of India".' In 1920 the first federation of Indian trade unions, the All India Trade Union Congress (A.I.T.U C.), had its birth and its inaugural session witnessed the presence of eminent Congress leaders, though this whole process took place much against the wishes\of Gandhi2 The strike wave of the early 20s in different industries throughout India saw the working class emerge as a significant force. This obviously accelerated the process of interaction between the Indian National Congress and the working class. Despite the efforts of the Indian National Congress to win over the support and sympathy of the workers, the latter in many industries rallied behind the Communist Party of India (C.P.I.), after its genesis in 1925. The case of the tramwaymen of Calcutta also tells a similar story. They were trying to get themselves organised against their employers with a view to redressing their grievances and at this Cx acial phase, important Congress leaders of Bengal came forward to unionise them in 1920. Eventually disillusioned over the experiences of the early 1920s, the tramwaymen, however, gradually began to switch over from the Congress fold to the Communist forum. This essay attempts to look into the whole process of unionisation of tramworkers as well as to examine the factors responsible for their disillusionment with the Congress leadership, and their gravitation towards the Communist party. It will also be shown how the Communists inspired them to fight not only on rudimentary economic issues but also to respond to events of political significance.

* Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.



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