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Vol. XXVIII No. 4, June 1-15, 2018

Labour in Madras

- Karthik Bhatt

From India’s Digital Archives

The Digital Library of India (DLI) project, an initiative of the Central Government, aims at digitising significant artistic, literary and scientific works and making them available over the Internet for education and research. Begun in 2000 by the Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India and later taken over by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, it has to date scanned nearly 5.5 lakh books, predominantly in Indian languages.

The archives of the DLI contain a huge collection of books on old Madras and various institutions that were/are part of its landscape. While these include the more famous ones, such as the Madras Tercentenary Commemoration Volume, Story of Madras by Glyn Barlow, and Madras in the Olden Times by James Tallboys Wheeler, several out-of-print publications too are part of the collection. This column will profile some of these.

Amongst the many distinctions that the city has to its credit is the fact that it was here that the first organised labour union in the entire country, the eponymous Madras Labour Union was founded in 1918. Commemorating the centenary of this pioneering movement, the book featured in this issue traces the origins and the early days of the Union through one of its torchbearers, noted Theosophist BP Wadia.

With the expanding industrial landscape of Madras in the late 19th and early 20th century, labour started voicing out its concerns and agitating against what it felt were unjust working conditions. As early as 1889, the workers of Binny’s Carnatic Mills went on strike demanding that Sunday be made a weekly holiday. Over the course of the next few decades, labour unrest would manifest in the form of sporadic incidents of agitations, such as the one in the Perambur Railway workshops in 1913.

In his foreword to the book, Wadia says that the idea for an association that would fight for the rights of the labour took seed when one day in early 1918, two workers from the Buckingham and Carnatic mills met him and complained about the insufficient time allowed to them for lunch in the factory. On observing the conditions, he found it fit to take up their cause and use it as an opportunity to form a movement that would be the voice of the labour class.

On April 13, 1918 the workers of the textile mills assembled under the auspices of the Venkatesa Gunamrita Varshini Sabha (probably a religious and cultural organisation) on Perambur Barracks Road. BP Wadia addressed the gathering and promised to study their troubles in full and arrive at a resolution. Two weeks later, at the meeting on April 27, it was decided that an association called the Madras Labour Union would be formed. A subscription of one anna was fixed and it was resolved that the Union would not be restricted to the workers of the textile mills alone. It was also resolved to invite several leading figures of Madras to visit and address the meetings. Wadia found a resolute comrade in the fiery orator, Tiru-Vi-Kalyanasundaram Mudaliar, who would translate the speeches into Tamil.

In a special note addressed to Tiru-Vi-Ka in the book, Wadia acknowledges his mighty contribution towards the growth of the movement.

The book, published in 1921 is a fascinating account of the early days of the Union through the speeches of BP Wadia. The formation of the Union had unsurprisingly evoked a sharp response from the administration. While the Madras Mail, for long the voice of the Madras Chamber of Commerce wrote against the movement, the Governor of Madras Lord Pentland met Wadia and expressed his reservations on the grounds that the B&C mills were engaged in war work and that this would only serve as a means to disruption. It is interesting to read that at every meeting, Wadia exhorts that workers ought to cooperate with the management and not give them an opportunity to allege that the Union was instrumental in bringing about indiscipline.

Apart from Tiru-Vi-Ka and Wadia, mention also has to be made about the contributions of G Selvapathy Chetty and Ramanujulu Naidu, two businessmen who would be the first general secretaries of the Union. Selvapathy Chetty is remembered even today in a park named after him in Strahan’s Road, Pattalam. A striking feature of the park, which was opened in August 1948 is its beautiful art-deco clock tower. The Union’s own building, which stands in a derelict state even today was inaugurated in 1931 and is named the Selvapathy-Ramanujulu building. Another interesting piece of information, which is recorded in the Madras Labour Gazette of 1959 is that in a tribute to Ramanujlu Naidu, 12436 out of 14721 workers of the B&C Mills struck work on October 2, 1959 for less than a day to mourn his demise.

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