People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 29

July 27 , 2008


Centenary Of First

Political Strike In India

Kanai Bannerjee

THE year 2008 marks the centenary of one of the most momentous events in the history of our national movement as well as the working class movement in India. One hundred years ago, in July 1908, the city of Bombay, then the second largest city of British India with sprawling growth of industries, witnessed a unique spectacle which could never be dreamt of earlier. Thousands and thousands of mill workers came down on the city streets, along with other sections of population, erected barricades and fought pitched battle against the armed forces of the Raj. Was it a struggle for protection of their job? Was it for increase of wages? For reduction of working hours? No, it was against the arrest of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of the tallest leaders of Indian national movement and known as an extremist, who was sentenced to six years rigorous imprisonment. The historic significance of the event is that it was the first political strike and militant political action of the working class in India.

Full significance of this memorable event was not understood by anybody in the country, even perhaps by the workers themselves. Historically it was not possible for anybody to understand its full significance. At the time the central political issue was country's freedom. Though Indian National Congress was born in 1885 it was yet to emerge as the premier organisation mobilising the vast masses for a decisive battle with the British imperialism in order to achieve freedom of the country. The elitist leadership even did not care to declare freedom as their goal, instead they indulged in organising annual meets and petitioning the British government for some limited rights within the British empire. In the early years of the twentieth century Swadeshi movement developed as a powerful wave swept over many parts of the country heralding a new phase in the national movement. Its main weapon was economic boycott "which was the only possible effective weapon at the time". Congress proclaimed the aim of swaraj. In the wake of this movement there appeared a section of leadership in the Congress who were labeled as "extremists" as distinct from the "moderates", who associated themselves with and fearlessly led the movement. Most prominent were the three leaders Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal affectionately referred to as Lal-Bal-Pal. Tilak was the most dynamic leader of the time. Influence of extremists grew as the movement acquired a relatively radical character and the government intensified repression. It is in this situation that Tilak was sentenced to six years imprisonment for an article published in his news paper.


The movement of the working class also was developing in the atmosphere of national awakening. However, as elsewhere, working class movement in India also had its beginning as struggle of the workers in individual factories against their direct employers, the owners of factories. There was hardly any coordination among struggling workers of different factories. A common national organization of workers was still a far cry. (AITUC was established only on 1920 as the national centre of working class or trade union movement.) The surging wave of national movement of the first decade of the twentieth century had its influence over a wider section of the population. The workers were not immune from it. Besides, while many leders of national movement had no interest in the workers' movement, some of them were sympathetic to the workers and associated with the movement of the working class, often helped and led them. Tilak was the most active among them. It is the impact of the mighty wave of the national movement combined with Tilak's role in the emerging working class movement which led the Bombay working class to play the historic role.




The struggle against Tilak's imprisonment totally transformed the consciousness of the workers. Prior to this as stated above with most elementary trade union consciousness they had been fighting their employers in isolation from others. But when they struck work in thousands in different mills and factories and came together in the battle ground, to participate in the street fighting, no longer they were workers engaged in different factories, they became the working class of Bombay fighting together as a class against impeirlaism. The workers and their leaders were not fully conscious of this historic role. It is because the workers were yet to be acquainted with its own scientific theory and ideology. But it did not escape the notice of Lenin the leader of the socialist revolution in Russia who was later described as a mountain eagle which while soaring high yet notices the minutest thing on earth. His historic comment on this event was "The Indian proletariat has already matured sufficiently to wage a class conscious and political mass struggle and that being the case the Russian style methods in India are played out."


Apart from its historic significance as the first major political struggle of the working class in the country, the wide sweep and intensity of the struggle, the heroism and sacrifice of the workers, have few parallels in history. Unfortunately this event has not found its rightful place either in our written history or in popular narration of our fight for independence (D C Home quoted by Sukomol Sen). This is how the struggle began and developed: Tilak was arrested at Bombay on June 24, 1908. On the charge of sedition for an article appearing in a news paper published by him. People of the country could not be deceived. They did not fail to understand that the arrest was made "in a bid to halt the rising tide of revolutionary struggle. After a show of trial Tilak was sentenced to six years of imprisonment." The arrest of Tilak and his imprisonment evoked country wide upsurge.

"But the most important feature that marks this movement" writes Sukomol Sen in his classic 'History of Working Class Movement' was the Bombay Workers' political strike and hartal in July 1908. Sukomol Sen tells us that the first clash occurred on June 29 between the armed police and the crowd waiting outside the court. Clashes intensified when the trial actually started on July 13. All roads leading to the court were blocked by the police. Despite this, large sections of the workers of Greaves Cotton & Co mills downed tools and walked out. The British government ordered the army to surround the mill areas, but the agitation continued. On July 17, workers of several important mills struck work and came out in procession. On July 18 police opened fire on the workers. On July 19, 65,000 workers of 60 factories struck work. On July 20 workers were again fired upon and the movement spread among other sections of the population. Dock workers joined the strike on July 21. Railway workers also joined (Gopal Ghosh). On July 22 the court pronounced its "judgement", from July 23 the first complete strike was observed in Bombay - the Bombay proletariat began its first political strike as 1,00,000 joined the strike "The broadest section of the city population came shoulder to shoulder with the proletariat in its political action. From July 24 the entire city of Bombay reverberated with pitched battles. With unflinching courage and heroism, the workers of Bombay with only bricks and stones battled against the heavily armed troops."



The comments of R Palme Dutt in his famous book "India Today" are very much relevant here. Referring to Lenin's prophetic statement on the historic role of the working class in the struggle against Tilak's imprisonment that this heralded the doom of British rule in India, Dutt writes, "Today the truth of this insight is being borne out by the power of events. The history of the Indian national struggle has shown, with each succeeding stage, the increased weight and importance of the role of the working class."


"In the pre-1914 period the role of the working class was still in the background. It followed, rather than proceeded the national movement; the only outstanding political action was the Bombay general strike against the six years sentence on Tilak", Tracing the historical process of development of the working class of India in the course of a series of strike struggles at the different stages of history into an independent class conscious political force, Dutt concluded. Since the outbreak of the second world war, the working class stands out more clearly than ever before as the decisive force of the future in Indian politics.

History has confirmed the truth of this statement too, though the working class will still have to go a long way before it can become the decisive force in politics in the country as a whole. We are to pledge ourselves again for that task on the anniversary of this momentous event.