Although large-scale capitalist industry in India was located mainly in large cities, this was not always the case – the Tata Steel works were in a remote region of southern Bihar that was not hitherto urbanised, and railways by their nature encompassed town and country. This was a rapidly growing area of economic life. Between 1892 and 1923, the number of factories in India increased from 956 employing 316,816 workers to 5,985 with 1,409,173 workers – an increase of 626 per cent of factories and 445 per cent of workers. The largest single industry involved spinning and weaving of cotton textiles. The sector consumed large amounts of coal, and the railways were crucial for carrying the coal and its raw materials and then distributing its manufactured products. Bombay City was the foremost centre for the cotton industry, followed by Ahmedabad (where the sector grew particularly rapidly between 1900 and 1914) and Madras, and then to a lesser degree by smaller cities such as Sholapur and Kanpur.

In 1921, Bombay – a city with a total population then of 1,244,934 – had 606 cotton mills that directly employed 16.2 per cent of the male and 9.2 per cent of the female population, with a yet larger number depending on this industry in indirect ways. Engineering workshops serviced these mills, leather workers provided belts for machines, sawmills and wood-workshops provided spindles and bobbins, and electricians and blacksmiths carried out repairs. Tailors stitched the textiles unto clothing. In times of high demand, mill-manufactured yarn was supplied to city-dwelling handweavers to process on temporary contracts. In this way, the cotton industry had by 1921 come to dominate the economic life of certain cities more than any other single sector.

As with cotton in Bombay, Calcutta City became renowned at this time for jute production. The boom years for this industry were from 1890 to the 1920s, with huge profits being earned during the First World War One. By the 1920s, there were about 300,000 workers employed in the jute mills of the city and adjoining areas.

The railways employed large numbers, both in workshops and in operating trains. For example, in Bombay City, the railway workshops were among the largest industrial employers – the Great Indian Peninsula Railway employed 5,000 in the locomotive works and 6,000 in their carriage and wagon departments, and the Bombay, Baroda, and Central India Railway employed about 5,000 in their locomotive and carriage shops. These assembled imported steam engines, and manufactured carriages and various parts. As demand fluctuated, a lot of this labour was employed casually. The more skilled workers had the most secure employment, as there were fears that they might be recruited by rival concerns if made jobless.

Coal was vital to power the steam engines that were being used increasingly in India during the
19th century for transport and industrial production, and for military purposes, which included steam-powered ships. Coal extraction started in Raniganj in the Burdwan District of Bengal in 1814. The Jharia coalfield of southern Bihar was surveyed in the years after 1860, and mines were opened there in the 1890s. It soon became the most productive coalfield in India. Between the late 1890s and the 1916–20 period, coal production in India increased from 4.7 to 19.3 million tons. Steel was also a vital requirement for modern industry, with most of it being imported until the early 20th century. The Bombay-based firm Tata began to manufacture steel at a factory that it constructed at Jamshedpur in southern Bihar in 1907 – an area with plentiful supplies of cheap iron ore – and production took off in a major way as demand increased during the First World War.

These industries were owned by both European and Indian capitalists, and generally run by managing agencies that operated across several sectors. This system allowed for the capital to be raised from diverse sources, and then placed in the hands of professionals to carry on the day-to-day running of complex factories. Thus, the capital could be Indian, while the factories themselves were managed by Europeans. In Bombay Presidency, the capital underpinning the cotton mills was largely Indian, and although many top managers were also Indian, Europeans were also hired in this role. In Bombay City, most of the mills were owned and run by Parsis, Bohras and Bhatias, all Gujarati speaking groups. The Parsis were the first major group to open mills, and among them the Petits and the Wadias were the greatest of such magnates. The Currimbhoys were the most important of the Bohra mill-owning families with a chain of factories. The firms of Mulji Jetha, the Tairsees, the Khataus, and Goculdas were ownedb y Bhatias. The Bombay Mill Owners’ Association acted as a lobby group for their dealings with the state, and to press for their interests against those of Lancashire.

However, according to Kumar, the mill owners “were a disorganised and opportunistic group”, working in their own interest first and foremost and often refusing to cooperate with other mill owners. They were incapable of responding strongly as a group. At best, those of a common caste or community might try to work together. In the Bombay mills themselves, the lower managerial grades and higher supervisory posts were dominated by Europeans, largely from Lancashire, and Parsis – who were regarded as being close allies of the British.

The relationship between the workers and these superiors was, according to Chandavarkar, riven with “suspicion, jealousy and antagonism”. In this, the workers could understand the way that they were oppressed within an imperial system. In Calcutta, the jute industry was dominated by both British capital and a dozen or so British managing agencies, who were able to defend their interests with much greater solidarity. The cotton industry was dominated in Madras by two mills that were established with British capital and run by the British-controlled Binny managing agency. About half of the coal industry of eastern India was controlled by seven British managing agencies that were also involved in jute production in Calcutta and tea plantations. Indians generally owned and ran the smaller and less important mines. The railways, on the other hand, were largely Britishfinanced and run, with Europeans in the top managerial roles, and Anglo-Indians as lower-level managers and train operatives. What this meant was that Europeans played a leading role as either capitalists or managers across modern industry. Indian industry and British capital were thus tightly entangled, though more so in the east and south of India than in the west.

The central role of Europeans in management and supervision created a situation in which the Indian workers were often treated in a racist manner. Physical punishment was frequently meted out to workers who were seen as slow in their work or insubordinate. The Europeans felt empowered as they were considered members of the ruling race, were paid so much more than the Indian workers, and lived in far superior conditions. This was the case in the two Binny mills in Madras, where the European supervisors were renowned for their arrogance and brutality toward workers. Over the years, there were occasional fracas when Indians who could bear no more retaliated with violence.

One such case in 1918, saw the weavers in one of these factories, the Carnatic Mill, demanding that they be both paid more and treated with greater respect. When their demands were ignored, they attacked an unpopular European spinning master, and then a few days later stoned the European mill manager. Binnys closed the mill until the anger had dissipated. Similarly in the railway workshops, the managers and supervisory subordinates were recruited mainly from Britain, while the lower-paid workers were Indians. The foremen were usually British, and the chargemen Anglo-Indians, Parsis and Goanese. There was considerable racial discrimination on the railways in relation to appointments, pay, promotion and the allocation of housing, all of which created continuing animosity. Even in the Indian-owned Tata steel works, there were, in 1920, five hundred European staff who were paid far more than Indians in similar positions. The European supervisors often beat the Indian workers to force them to work longer hours in this often-dangerous work. In September 1920, the European staff on higher salaries were granted a 20 per cent increase. This infuriated the workers, as they had been told that the company could not afford to pay them more. During the rest of 1920 and 1921, there were several walkouts and even physical confrontations with the European supervisors.

The workers were in most cases migrants from rural areas who retained firm links to their villages of origin. In Bombay City in 1921, for example, 84 per cent of the population had been born outside the city. It was, in other words, a city of migrants – and this phenomenon went well beyond the working class itself. Many returned to their villages for the harvest or when field-labour was required. The insecure nature of employment in the city encouraged workers to maintain strong connections with their villages as a fall-back. Most in any case withdrew from the workforce after ten to 15 years, as the work was physically gruelling, and would then return to their villages if possible. In general, the workers were recruited from the villages by intermediaries who acted as jobbers. Once in the city, the jobbers determined when and where they would be employed, and the workers paid a commission for this service. Workers often took money-advances from the jobbers and obtained accommodation through their help. The jobbers employed their own strongmen who might use violence to force workers to repay their debts and rents. The jobbers tried to maintain good relations with the management of the factories and negotiated pay-rates for the workers with them. All of this made the workers highly dependent on the goodwill of their jobbers.

From the start, there was a history of strikes by workers – particularly in the cotton textile mills of Bombay and Madras. Most lasted only a day or two, with just a fraction of the workers being involved. A common grievance was the reprimand or dismissal of a jobber by the mill management. As the workers were under the sway of the jobbers, they would protest for them if told to do so. Such strikes were at short notice, with demands that were not thought through, and confined often to one department of a factory. The first labour union in India was the Bombay Mill-Hands Association, founded in 1890. This was a loose body with no clear aim or constitution. It mainly acted as a pressure group on government. Before 1918, workers in general lacked any strongly established unions that could coordinate strikes across entire industries. Unions tended to come and go, lasting for the duration of a strike only.

Extracted with permission from Noncooperation in India: Nonviolent Strategy and Protest, 1920-22, David Hardiman, Context/Westland Books.