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340 FROM PLASSEY TO PARTITION AND AFTER Muslim League, Nehru launched his Muslim Mass

Contact paign to bring in the Muslim masses into Congress fold. But the endeavour failed as the
Hindu Mahasabhites sabotaged it from within. 16 The Muslims, particularly in the minority
provinces, had now ample reasons to be afraid of Hindu domination. There were numerous
complaints of discrimination against Muslims by the Con _ gress ministries. Whether true or
imagined, these reflected the Mil s _ lim sense of missing out from the patronage distribution system
created by the new constitutional arrangement of 1935.17 The class approach in Congress policies,
and its emphasis on individual citi_ zenship, in other words, failed to satisfy the community-centric
con- cerns of the Muslims It was this collective sense of fear and dissatisfaction, which was politically
articulated by Jinnah, who came back to India in 1934 after a short period of self-imposed exile in
London, to take up the leadership of the Muslim League. But between 1934 and 1937 Jinnah was still
willing to cooperate with the Congress at the centre with a view to revising the federal constitutional
structure provided by the Act of 1935.18 The election results, however, put him in a dis-
advantageous position, as Congress could now comfortably choose to ignore him. What Jinnah
wanted at this stage was to make the Muslim League an equal partner—a third party—in any
negotiation for the future constitution of India. The passage of the Shariat Appli- cation Act in 1937,
with spirited advocacy by Jinnah in the Central Legislative Assembly, provided a symbolic ideological
basis for Mus- lim solidarity on a national scale, transcending all divisive internal political debates.19
He launched a mass contact campaign and pressed the ulama into service, while the emotionally
charged Aligärh stu- dents further galvanised the campaign. In November 1939 when the Congress
ministries resigned in protest against India being drawn into World War Two without consultation,
Jinnah decided to celebrate it as a "Deliverance day". By December 1939 the Muslim League
membership had risen to more than 3 million20 and Jinnah had projected himself as their "sole
spokesman . Within this political context of estrangement and distrust, another idea gradually
germinated and that was the notion of Muslim nationhood. In 1930 Sir Muhammad Iqbal, as
president of the Mus- lim League, ohad proposed the constitution of a centralised territory for Islam
within India, by uniting the four provinces of Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and
Baluchistan. The idea was further elaborated by the Cambridge student Rahmat Ali, who in 1933
vaguely talked about 'Pakistan' to be constituted of the four Muslim provinces and Kashmir. It was,
however, at the Karachi

MANY VOICES OF A NATION 345 colonial policies that imposed a particular pattern on political mod-
ernisation in India. Initially, it was some princely states like Mysore or Kolhapur which in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centu- ries introduced the system of caste based reservation of
certain pro- portions of public employment for people of non-Brahman birth, in order to
compensate them for their past losses. Gradually, the colo- nial administration too discovered the
gap between the high caste Hindus and others, particularly the untouchables, now described as the
"depressed classes". It took on the latter as its special ward and initiated a policy of "protective
discrimination" in their favour. It meant provision of special schools for their education and reserva-
tion of a share of public employment for such candidates and finally, provision for special
representation of these classes in the legislative councils. This provision was initially through
nomination in the Act of 1919, and then through the announcement of separate electorate in the
Communal Award of 1932. What all these measures resulted in was a relatively greater dispersal of
wealth and power across caste lines. There were now larger discrepancies between caste prescribed
status and caste irrelevant roles, and this limited social mobility led to several contradictory
responses First of all, there were signs of "Westernisation". Because of im- proved communications,
there was greater horizontal solidarity among the caste members, who formed regional caste
associations. There was also a growing realisation of the significance of the new sources of status,
i.e., education, jobs and political representation and awareness that those new sinews of power
were monopolised by the Brahmans and the upper castes. This led to organised demands for more
special privileges and reservation from the colonial state. This involved conflict and contestation,
particularly when the edu- cation of the dalit groups was concerned, as the colonial bureau- cracy,
despite the much-publicised policy of supporting dalit education, often showed ambivalence in the
face of caste Hindu opposition. It required the dalit groups to protest—like the Mahar students in
Dapoli in Maharashtra sitting on the verandah of the local municipal school—to actually induce the
colonial civil servants to take measures to ensure their educational rights. In this particular case,
however, they were ultimately allowed to sit in a classroom, but at a distance from the caste Hindu
students.43 These efforts at Westernisation" were not therefore just attempts at imaging them-
selves in the light of their colonial masters, but to claim their legiti- mate rights to education and
other opportunities from a reluctant state bureaucracy, On the other hand, these upwardly mobile

MANY VOICES OF A NATION 347 the Sudras and assisted them in resisting Aryan assaults. But this
emphasis on Kshatriyahood also led to a diminution of interest in the mobilisation of In other words,
while this Kshatriya iden- tity was constructed to contest the Brahrnanical discourse that ascribed to
them an inferior caste status, it also inculcated an exclu- sivist ethos that separated them from thc
dalit groups, who were once treated as brothers-in-arms in a previous tradition inspired by Phule's
own inclusive message. Ironically, such indigenous conqtruc- tions of identity also impacted on
colonial stereotyping, as the dalit Mahars and Mangs were no longer treated as "martial races", i.e.,
of Kshatriya lineage (for more on this theory see chapter 2.4), and therefore were excluded from
military service from 1892.46 The non-Brahman movement in Maharashtra, as Gail Omvedt (1976)
has shown, developed at the turn of the century two parallel tendencies. One was conservative, led
by richer non-Brahmans, who reposed their faith in the British government for their salvation, and
after the Montagu—Chelmsford reforms of 1919, organised a sepa- rate and loyalist political party,
the Non-Brahman Association, which hoped to prosper under the benevolent paternal rule of the
British. But the movement also had a radical trend, represented by the Satyasodhak Samaj, which
developed a "class content" by articulating the social dichotomy between the "bahujan samaj" or
the majority community or the masses, and the "shetji-bhatll — the merchants and Brahmans.
Although opposed initially to the Brahman-dominated Congress nationalism, by the 1930s the non-
Brahman movement in Maharashtra was gradually drawn into the Gandhian Congress. The power of
nationalism, the growing willing- ness of the Congress to accommodate non-Brahman aspirations,
the leadership of the young Poona-based non-Brahman leader Kesavrao Jedhe and his alliance with
N. V. Gadgil, representing a new brand Of younger Brahman Congress leadership in Maharashtra,
brought about this significant shift. In 1938 at Vidarbha, the non-Brahman movement of the Bombay
Presidency formally decided to merge into Congress, providing it with a broad mass base. 47 If in
western India the non-Brahman movement was associated with the Kunbis and the Maratha
identity, in Madras Presidency it was associated with the Vellalas and a Dravidian identity. It arose in
a late nineteenth century context where the Brahmans constituting less than three per cent of the
population monopolised 42 per cent Of government jobs. Advanced in their English education, they
valo- rised Sanskrit as the language of a classical past, and showed a pub- lic disdain for Tamil, the
language of the ordinary people.48 This
350 FROM PLASSEY TO PARTITION AND AFTER Brahman priests, more and more incidents of public
burning of Manusmriti and attempts to forcibly enter temples which denied access to low caste
people. Eugene Irschick (1969) has shown how the non-Brahman move_ ment in Madras gradually
took the shape of an articulate Tamil regional separatism, particularly when in 1937 the Congress
govern- ment under C. Rajagopalachari proposed to introduce Hindi as a compulsory school subject
in the province. There were huge demon _ strations in the city of Madras, identifying Hindi as an evil
force try- ing to destroy Tamil language and its speakers, and with this the Tamil language
movement spread from elite circles into the masses.56 This political campaign slowly propelled into
a demand for a sepa- rate land or "Dravida Nad". In August 1944, the Justice Party, of which
Ramaswamy was now the president, changed its name into Dravida Kazhagam (DK), with its primary
objective supposedly being the realisation of a separate non-Brahman or Dravidian land. But in its
essence, E. V. Ramaswamy's concept of nation, as M.S.S. Pandian has recently claimed, was "not
constrained by the rigid territoriality of the nation-space". He visualised "equal and free citizenship
for the oppressed in the anticipatory mode", i.e., in a relentless strug- gle, and for him "Dravidian"
was "an inclusive trope" for all the oppressed people living across the territorial and linguistic
bound- aries.57 In other words, the social equality movement nurtured a mil- lennial hope of a
society that would be free of caste domination, 58 untouchability or gender discrimination. Dalit
protests in India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries followed somewhat different—
but not entirely dissimi- lar—trajectories. As the Christian missionaries started working among the
dalits and the colonial government sponsored special institutions for the spread of education among
them, not only was a small educated elite group created among these classes, but in gen- eral a new
consciousness was visible among the masses as well. How- ever, it should be emphasised here that
the colonial bureaucracy, as we have noted earlier, often vacillated in implementing the pro- fessed
public policies on dalit education and it required the dalit groups to protest and assert themselves to
get their rights to educa- tion protected. Similarly, the Christian missionaries were not always the
aggressive agents of improvement among the dalits, as they too often succumbed to the pressures
of an intolerant traditional society and an ambivalent bureaucracy. It is often believed that one way
Of protesting against the caste system was conversion to Christianity, as dalits took recourse to this
method in large numbers in some parts Of

362 FROM PLASSEY TO PARTITION AND AFTER cent of the workforce became unemployed. In
January 1927 majority report of the Indian Tariff Board recommended an increase in import duties
from 11 to 15 per cent on all cotton manufactures other than yarn. But the decision was put on hold
by the Govern- ment of India because of vehement opposition of the Lancashire lobby.113 In the
1920s, the Indian industrialists were not only being re- buffed by the Government of India that
remained insensitive to their economic problems under pressure from London; but their relation-
ship with expatriate capital in India too was gradually deteriorating both in Calcutta and Bombay. As
Maria Misra (1999) has shown, ever since the reforms of 1919, the attitudes of the British capitalists
in India, insistent on their racial exclusivism and autonomy, hard- ened towards their Indian
counterparts, as they were averse to granting any concessions either to Indian politicians or
businessmen. In 1921 the European trading organisations formed an apex body called the
Associated Chambers of Commerce (ASSOCHAM). In response, in 1927 the Indian capitalists, despite
their differences and clash of interests, formed their own organisation, the FICCI, with
Purushottamdas Thakurdas at its helm. The battle lines were further drawn as the depression
touched India with all its fury in 1929. This time it was interpreted in terms of the failures of
government poli- cies; the agricultural prices plummeted and the situation was wors- ened by
conservative fiscal and monetary policies. The government, now in a desperate financial situation,
needed additional sources of revenue and looked once again to cotton duties. In the Cotton Pro-
tection Act of March 1930, the cotton duties were raised from 11 per cent to 15 per cent, but were
limited only to non-British goods, thus giving preference to Lancashire. This introduction of the sys-
tem of imperial preference irked the Indian industrialists and drew widespread protest from the
nationalists, with a number of them re- signing from the legislative assembly, including Birla and
Thakurdas. The other irritant was the currency policy of the government and the artificially fixed
high rupee-sterling exchange rate of Is 6d pre- scribed by the Hilton—Young Commission in 1926.
The government tried to maintain this high exchange value of rupee in order to ensure the flow of
remittances from India and to maintain India's creditworthiness. The high rate favoured the English
exporters to India to the disadvantage of the Indian importers; it also affected adversely, it was
argued, the agricultural producers and the indus- trial workers, In September 1931, Britain went off
gold standard with rupee linked to the sterling at the rate of Is 6d. The resultant

MANY VOICES OF A NATION 363 release and outflow of domestic gold from India helped Britain, but
did not benefit Indian interests. Business groups demanded a lower rate of Is 4d as best suited to
Indian economic recovery and a Cur- rency League was formed in 1926 in Bombay, with the
blessings of Gandhi and Patel. This currency debate, in other words, was draw- ing the businessmen
and the Congress closer together on a common platform against the government. Traditionally, the
business groups favoured constitutionalism and "pressure group politics" and this explains why they
maintained their distance from the Non-co- operation movement in 1920—21.114 But as Congress
reverted to constitutionalism, the representatives of the Indian business also came closer to the
swarajists and started cooperating with them in the legislative assembly on various national
economic issues. For instance, issues such as revision of government purchase policy, the repeal of
the cotton excise duty, raising of duties on cotton piece- goods against Japanese competition,
opposition to the system of im- perial preference and the currency policy. Businessmen also donated
generously to Gandhi's constructive programmes and to the swaraj- ists' campaign funds.115 Yet,
many of them still had their lingering doubts about throwing their lot in favour of agitational politics
under a Gandhian Congress. Although depression had made their condition desperate and cre- some
kind of a "groundswell of ated, according to Sumit Sarkar,116 opinion" in favour of participating in
the Civil Disobedience move- ment, this drift, as Markovits (1985) points out, was by no means
simple or without complexities. To many of them, agitational poli- tics was still too risky a
proposition—a possible fertile ground for civil unrest and Bolshevism; yet others believed that it was
their only chance to wrest some concessions from an insensitive government. They were heartened
when Lord Irwin announced his proposal in November 1929 for a Round Table Conference which
promised a constitutional resolution of India's problems. But their hopes were dashed by Congress
intransigence, as its Lahore resolution, passed in December, demanded purna swaraj or complete
independence, which sounded too radical to the business groups. The other provi- sion of the
resolution repudiating debt had serious repercussions in the share market in Bombay and the Indian
securities market in Lon- don, and therefore, was not quite palatable to the business groups either.
Yet, they remained with the Congress, according to many his- torians, for fear of communism and
the threat of continued labour unrest. This period witnessed a series of strikes in 1928 and 1929,
under the leadership of trade unions like Girni Kamgar Union,

366 FROM PLASSEY TO PARTITION AND AFTER Agreement of August 1932, although it promised
some real benefits to Indian business, was greeted with a hostile reaction from the FICCI and the
nationalists. But the condemnation was not unani- mous, as Bombay big business began to take a
more conciliatory atti- tude to British capital and preferred to ally with British companies against
competition from non-British goods. On labour policy, lead- ers like Tata and Mody even preferred
to collaborate with expatriate capital, and formed in 1933 the Employers' Federation of India. But
this experirnent did not go much further, as British businessmen in India were less enthusiastic
about collaborating with their Indian 123 counterparts. The political opinion of the Indian big
business was clearly divided at this juncture on the issues of imperial preference and nationalism
and this became manifest once again around the Lees—Mody Pact of October 1933. Under the
leadership of Mody the Bombay cotton mill owners, who produced coarse cotton, were prepared to
accept preference for Lancashire, but the Ahmedabad mill owners were not, as they more directly
faced competition from Lancashire in the market for finer cotton goods. Yet, despite their protest,
the pact was signed inviting condemnation from the nationalists as well as all the business
organisations, except the Bombay big business. But as the split in the business community widened,
it also became clear that business lobbies on their own had little power to change any govern- ment
policy. This was evident when the Reserve Bank bill was passed and sugar excise duties were
irnposed in 1934 despite business pro- tests. This created a compulsion to retain links with the
Congress, despite reservations about its confrontational stance and agitational politics. So when the
Civil Disobedience movement was formally sus- pended by Gandhi in April 1934, the decision was
welcomed by the Indian business cornmunity, who were relieved by the return of constitutionalism
to Indian politics. Loyalty was duly rewarded by the government, as the TISCO got the Steel
Protection bill passed in the assembly, and the Bombay textile industry benefited from the Indo-
Japanese treaty providing for a quota system for the sale Of Japanese goods in India. The major
dilemma, however, was for those who had sided with the Congress, as they were alarmed by the rise
of socialism under Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Bose and Jaya- prakash Narayan, who formed in
October 1934 their Congress. Socialist Party. However, as Aditya Mukherjee (1986) has emphati-
cally argued, this red scare did not throw them into the arms Of imperial authorities. Their strategy
to contain socialism was to

368 FROM PLASSEY TO PARTITION AND AFTER policy, which resulted in the passage of the notorious
Bombay Trades Disputes Act, passed in November 1938. It aimed at prevent_ ing both strikes and
lockouts, but was tilted heavily in favour of the capitalists. This new anti-labour mood was visible in
other provinces too, where industrial disputes gradually began to decline from 1939. This marked
shift in Congress ideology and policy towards indus- trial relations dispelled capitalist fear and
brought about a rapproche- ment between the two. But once again, it is difficult to generalise about
business attitudes, as some businessmen in the United Prov- inces and Madras still had their
reservations about Congress, while the Muslim businessmen on the whole remained alienated.125
Throughout this period and after, the Indian businessmen on the whole maintained a strategic
relationship with the Congress. Most of them were not averse to nationalism; but they preferred
constitutionalism and feared insurrectionary revolutions. Just four days before the launching of the
Quit India movement some leading industrialists of the country, like Thakurdas, J.R.D. Tata and Birla
wrote to the viceroy that the immediate solution to the Indian crisis even dur- lay in the "granting of
political freedom to the country ... " 126 But when the Quit India movement actually ing the midst of
war . started with this same demand, they were extremely reluctant to support and assured the
viceroy of their opposition to it. However, once the storm was over, they returned once again to the
side of the Congress and when the negotiations for the transfer of power began there was even
more eagerness to cooperate. The Congress too after the defeat of the Quit India movement came
under the control of a conservative leadership, which preferred collaborating with the cap- italists
and remain strictly within the path of constitutionalism. Equally significant is the fact that some of
the business leaders actively participated in the economic planning process initiated by the socialist
thinking of Jawaharlal Nehru. When the Congress under the presidency of Subhas Bose constituted
its first National Plan- ning Committee in J 938, it included prominent business leaders like
Purushottamdas Thakurdas, A.D. Shroff, Ambalal Sarabhai and Walchand Hirachand. Interestingly,
two of them—Thakurdas and Hirachand—were the signatories to the 'Bombay Manifesto' of 1936
that had expressed serious disapprobation of Nehru's socialist ideals. In the changed circumstances,
however, the commitment of the Indian business to the idea of planning was further evinced when
in 1944 they independently produced what is known as the 'Bombay Plan'. Its eight signatories
represented "a wide cross-section of India's business world"127 and it anticipated in a real sense the
Five Year plans and the industrial policies of the future Congress governments.

VOICES OF A NATION 369 Thus, throughout the period under review the relationship bet- ween the
Indian capitalists and the Congress remained strategic, issue based, and even pragmatic. The
former's commitment to na- tionalism was not certainly above business interests, and support for
Congress was strictly conditional. But they were neither loyalists nor unpatriotic; and they agreed,
despite reservations, with many aspects of the Congress programme. In this complex, continually
evolving, multi-faceted relationship, it is difficult to identify any consistent ideology. 7.4 WORKING
CLASS MOVEMENTS The gradual industrialisation of India did not only bring the Indian capitalists
into the foreground of public life, it also created an indus- trial working class. The growth of tea
plantations in northeastern and southern India and the beginning of an infant iron and steel industry
since the early nineteenth century, the commencement of railway construction from the middle of
the nineteenth century, mining in eastern India from the same period, and the spectacular growth of
two industries, the jute industry in and around Calcutta and the cotton industry in Bombay and
Ahmedabad since the time of World War One (see chapter 2) saw the formation of an industrial
working class in the organised sector in India. There was a vast increase in the size of the working
class in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. According to census figures, in a
popula- tion of 303 million, the number of workers in the organised industry was about 2.1 million in
1911; to this another five hundred and sev- enty five thousand were added between 1911 and 1921.
In addition to these, there were workers in the so-called 'informal sectors', such as those who
worked as casual labourers in docks and markets or as domestic servants, about whom we have very
little information. This growth in the size of the urban industrial working class was sustained by a
continual rural-urban migration, caused, according to some historians, by the 'push' factors. The
rural poor were pushed out of their villages because an overstretched agrarian economy could no
longer support a surplus labour force. The growing num- bers of "landless laborers and submarginal
peasants constituted a large part of the potential labour force for the Bombay cotton mills argued
Morris D. Morris.128 And in eastern India, in the words of Ranajit Das Gupta, the "ruined artisans,
labourers failing to get ade- in the rural economy, agriculturists unset- quate employment tled by
the changes taking place in the agricultural economy and

MANY V(mcvs OF A NAT 373 as "communal riots" were not entirely communal in character. In runny
of the riots, including the Talla riot, the principal targets of attack were the police, and therc were
instanccq of cooperation across religious lines. And like Calcutta, in Kanpur too, like the Plague
rbanccs of or the Machli Bazar riot of 1913, the tnatn grievance was against an intruding state. mer
was caused, as in the sinular Ibombay or Calcutta disturbances of 1898, by the ctlforcclncnt of Plaguc
regulations that compron)iscd the religious codes of privacy and thc latter by the demolition of a
tnosque by road construction projects. On the other hand, it should also be noted that the workers
often used their informal community ties and religious institutions like mosques or gurdwaras to
forge inter-communal class solidarities to further their class interests and demands and at times of
confrontation used religious idioms and slogans to boost flagging morale.151 However, at the other
end of the spectrum, there is no reason to assume uncritically that the working- class mentality was
always governed by their religion. The levelling effects of the urban workplace also led to the
undermining of older loyalties and to the bonding of new connections. Even, as Janaki Nair finds
among the workers at the Kolar Gold Fields in Mysore, the growing tide of rationalism and atheism
won many converts . 152 In the face of low wages, improper working conditions and often
subhuman living environment, the usual mode of workers' response was what one scholar has
described as "disaggregated resistance", meaning withdrawal and absenteeismlS3 of which there
had been plenty of instances throughout the industrial scene. But other than that, there had also
been a series of successful strikes in Indian indus- tries despite very limited growth of trade
unionism. And this hap- pened because of the informal community ties mentioned earlier. The
Bombay, textile workers struck eight times between 1919 and 1940, each time their industrial action
lasted for more than one month and in 1928—29 lasted for more than one year. 154 And not just in
Bombay, such strikes took place in Ahmedabad (1918, 1923, 1935, 1937), in Sholapur (1920, 1928,
1934, 1937), in Calcutta (1920-21, 1929, 1937), in Jamshedpur (1920, 1922, 1928, 1942), in Nagpur
(1934), in Madras (1918, 1921), in Coimbatore (1938) and in the railways (1928, 1930). It was
actually through these moments of confrontation, as we shall see later, that trade unions were
actually born. It is, therefore, in this complex matrix of com- munity, class and workers' collective
action, that we will have to locate their relationship with the colonial state and nationalism. The
workers' attitudes to colonial state were shaped by their ear- lier experience with the authorities in
the villages. There they

MANY VOICES OF A NATION 377 Congress (AITUC), which was constituted in 1920 to elect an Indian
delegation to the International Labour Organisation. Although num- ber of trade unions affiliated to
it began to increase in the 1920s, its national existence remained "largely fictional", except in 1929
when there was a communist threat of take over.174 Gandhi's aver- sion to Al TUC was well known,
as he asked the AT LA, ever loyal to him, not to join it. Making "use of labour strikes for political pur-
poses", he argued, would be a "serious mistake" 175 Since 1918, he was developing the philosophy
of harmonious capital-labour rela- tionship expressed in the rhetoric of family bonds. The Non-
cooperation resolution adopted by the Congress in 1920, therefore, talked about oppression of
workers by foreign agents, but failed to mention that the Indian employers also perpetrated similar
atroci- ties. 176 As a result, the management in Indian owned industries re- garded trade unions
dominated by Congress leaders, like the ATLA or the JLA, as the more desirable legitimate channels
of negotia- tions. Seth Mangaldas of the Ahmedabad Millowners' Association thought that the
"primary duty" of such labour organisations was to inculcate "a sense of discipline among its
members", thus increasing productivity. The workers, on the other hand, often had little faith in such
organisations. In Ahmedabad, there were series of strikes in 1921—22 which the union failed to
control, while after the failure of the 1923 strike, in which the union had taken the initiative, the
membership of the ATLA rapidly declined.177 In Jamshedpur, after the strike of 1928, the JLA leader
Subhas Bose had to be escorted by Gurkha police, as his own supporters turned against him because
of the compromise settlement he had arrived at with the TISCO man- 178 agement. Yet, despite
organisational apathy from the Congress, the working class in various parts of the country
participated overwhelmingly in the nationalist movement. Their direct participation in the Gandhian
agenda was selective, but what was important, they often integrated the nationalist agitation into
their own struggles and industrial actions. The strike waves in the Bengal industrial centres in 1920—
21 were directly motivated by the new spirit and enthusiasm generated by the Khilafat-Non-
cooperation movement.179 The strikes in the Assam tea gardens, the Assam-Bengal Railways and
the steamship employees at Chandpur in May 1921 were also directly related to 180 In Ahmedabad,
during the latter part of Non- this movement. cooperation movement there was at least one strike
per month in the textile industry, and some of them were organised around quite radical
demands.181 The striking workers in the Madras cotton mills

MANY VOICES OF A NATION 379 rise in industrial unrest in 1937—38, causing panic among the
Indian industrialists. This only resulted in a decisive anti-labour shift in Congress policies, which we
have discussed in the earlier section. It may be noted here that in a non-Congress province like
Bengal, the Congress leaders were only too happy to support the general jute mill strike in 1937, as it
was an ideal opportunity to discredit the Fazlul Huq ministry and to hit at the "white bosses" of the
IJMA. Nehru even went so far as to claim it to be 'sa part of our freedom movement" 189 Yet at the
same time, in the Congress provinces like Bombay, Madras and UP, their governments were using
similar strong-arm tactics to control industrial unrest. The same Nehru, known for his socialist
leanings, during the Kanpur textile strikes of 1937, while condemning the victimisation of workers
also defended the mill manager's "right to dismiss a worker who does not do his work well. "190 By
this point, the Congress appeared to be too closely allied with the Indian capitalists, the passage of
the Bombay Trades Disputes Act in 1938 being an unmistakable marker of that growing friendship.
All parties except Congress condemned it and the pas- sage of the bill was immediately greeted with
a general strike in Bombay. One of the obvious results of this Congress dilemma was the increasing
influence of the communists in the labour front. The Workers and Peasants Party in Bengal,
organised by middle-class communist leaders, began to mobilise mill workers from around 1928 in
the Calcutta industrial belt. 191 The jute mill strike in 1929 gave rise to the Bengal Jute Workers'
Union, and the strike of 1937 to the Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union, both organised by educated
bhadralok communist leaders, some of them trained in Moscow. 192 In Bombay, the Girni Kamgar
Mahamandal was developed among the Bombay cotton mill workers through the bonus disputes in
the textile mills in 1924; the Bombay Textile Labour Union was born through the strikes in the
following year. And finally, the militancy generated by the general textile strike in 1928 resulted in
the ascen- dancy of the Girni Kamgar Union, now overtly dominated by the communists. However,
as Chandavarkar has argued, this "twlorking arise simply from a class support for the communists did
not fusion of shared antagonisms towards the capitalist class and the state" 193 Their consistent
opposition to the state was of course one reason behind the popularity of the communists. But
being outsiders and excluded from the workplace, they also had to take account of the existing social
relations among the workers in their neighbour- hoods, and present themselves as alternative
sources of patronage

382 FROM PLASSEY TO PAR'rlTlON AND AFTER misleading to suggest that these male reformers
lacked sympathy or compassion for their womenfolk. But they treated them as subjects of their
modernising project and could not imagine them to be their conscious equals claiming agency for
their own emancipation (for details, see chapter 3.1). And then, this reformism brought forth a
virulent Hindu backlash when the Age of Consent Bill in 1891 sought to push the age for
consummation of marriage for women from 10 to 12. The proposed reform, by trying to restrain the
conju_ gal rights of a husband over his wife, invaded what was hitherto recognised as the only
remaining site of autonomy for "native mas_ culinity". The child bride therefore became a symbol of
Hindu glory; the control over her was the indigenous male privilege that could not be allowed to be
tampered with by an alien state (for more details see chapter 5.2). Thus the nineteenth century
ended in a shift from a modernising project to a Hindu conservative assertion of patriarchal control
over the women's domain, which now consti- tuted an essential part of the nationalist agenda. It is
difficult to defend an indigenist argument that the condition of women was better in pre-colonial
India. Indeed, women's status in ancient India was never static or uniform: in the words of Romila
Thapar, it varied widely from "a position of considerable authority and freedom to one of equally
considerable subservience".200 Their plight began to deteriorate decisively with the development of
peas- ant societies and the evolution of states. In Hindu society the central organising principle of
caste hierarchy came to be integrally con- nected to the ideology of patriarchy; both Sudras and
women were debarred from access to Vedic ritual rites. While the public space became the sphere
of activities for men, women were confined to the household. The ancient Hindu lawgiver Manu
prescribed a per- manent dependent status for women, to be protected by their fathers, husbands
and sons at different stages of their lives. Coming down to more immediate pre-colonial period, an
eighteenth century text indicates that women were groomed to become good wives, serve their
husbands as their supreme gods, and expected to give birth to sons. If they became widows, they
were meant to spend their lives in strictest discipline of celibacy, cherishing memories of their dead
husbands.201 However, if this was a fact of life, it was also true on the other hand, that seclusion of
women was not a universal prac- tice, as there is evidence of high public visibility of women, both
rich and poor, in certain regions in the eighteenth century. The royal courts of the Mughal successor
states were no strange places for ambitious and powerful women, some of whom exerted

384 FROM PLASSEY TO PARTITION AND AFTER women in other parts of the country, certain famiiies
like the Bilgramis in Hyderabad, the Tyabjis in Bombay and the Mians in Lahore, or a few
organisations like Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-lslam, the Anjuman-i-lslam or the Nizam's government in
Hyderabad took sig_ nificant initiatives. The colonial government from the administra_ tion of Lord
Dalhousie (1848—56) also took particular interest in female education. J.E. Drinkwater Bethune, the
law member in the governor general's council opened in 1849 what eventually became the most
well known girls' school in Calcutta. Between then and 1882 when the Hunter Commission was
appointed, female educa- tion in India had progressed very little, as 98 per cent of women in the
school-going age remained uneducated. Hence the commission recommended liberal grants-in-aid
and special scholarships for women's education. During the next two decades significant im-
provements were seen in women's enrolment in both universities and secondary schools, although
compared to the total female popu- lation of the country the figures still remained insignificant. 208
However little might have been the rate of progress, the fact remains that at the turn of the century
a number of women in middle class Indian households were educated, either formally or infor-
mally. But this did not improve the conditions of their social exis- tence very remarkably. The answer
to this puzzle may be found if we look at the motivations behind the education movement, which
was never the emancipation of women. The colonial government wanted female education as it
wanted the Indian civil servants to be married to educated wives, so that they did not have to face
the psychologi- cal trauma of a split household. Also English educated mothers were expected to
breed loyal subjects.209 The educated Indian middle- class males, on the other hand, dreamt of the
Victorian ideal of com- panionate marriage. In Bengal, the educated bhadramahila (gentle- woman)
appeared as the ideal companion to the enlightened Hindu bhadralok. This new concept of
womanhood was a fine blending of the self-sacrificing Hindu wife and the Victorian helpmate.
Educa- tion thus far from being emancipatory, further confined women to idealised domestic roles
as good wives and better mothers.210 If igno- rant and uneducated women were perceived as
impediments to progress or modernisation or bad for the welfare of the family, chil- dren,
community and nation, "wrongly educated or over-educated women, negligent of household
chores—or more precisely, western- ised women—were considered to be threats to the cherished
moral order.211 And although there were some differences, the Muslim bhadramahila also shared
significant common grounds with their

390 FROM PLASSEY TO PARTITION AND AFTER scrupulously avoid such allegorical references to
Ramayana and would simply ask them to make sacrifice for their country and for Islam. He accepted
what he called the "natural division of labour" between the sexes and believed that women had a
duty to look after the hearth and home. But from within their ordained spheres, they could serve the
nation by spinning, by picketing at foreign cloth and liquor shops and by shaming men into
action.235 For him, men and women were equal, but had different roles to play and in this, as Sujata
Patel has forcefully argued, Gandhi remained within the Indian middle-class tradition of
conceptualising womanhood. He accepted women's biological weakness, but turned that weakness
into power by glorifying their strength of soul. He did not seek to invert the doctrine of two
"separate spheres" of private and public space, but redefined political participation by creating
space for pol- itics in home. In other words, what Gandhi did was an extraction 236 and
reformulation of received social ideas in moral terms . It was first in South Africa in 1913 that Gandhi
had for the first time involved women in public demonstrations and realised the huge political
potential of the Indian womanhood.237 Back in India, during the Rowlatt satyagraha of 1919 he
again invited women to participate in the nationalist campaign; but it was withdrawn before any
significant advancement in this direction could take place. When the Non-cooperation movement
started in 1921, Gandhi ini- tially prescribed a limited role for women, i.e., that of boycott and
swadeshi. But women claimed for themselves a greater active role. In November 1921 a
demonstration of a thousand women greeted the Prince of Wales in Bombay. And then in
December, Basanti Devi, the wife of the Bengal Congress leader C.R. Das, his sister Urmila Devi and
niece Suniti Devi, stunned the nation by participating in open demonstration on the streets of
Calcutta and by courting arrest. Gandhi was concerned about their physical safety and chas- tity, but
endorsed their move, as it had a tremendous demonstration effect. Similar movements took place in
other parts of the country, and this involved not just women from respectable middle-class fam-
ilies. Gandhian appeal was now seemingly reaching down also to the marginalised women—the
prostitutes and devdasis (temple wornen), for example—although Gandhi himself was not too keen
to involve them.238 It was during the Civil Disobedience movement that the floodgates were really
opened. Gandhi once again did not want to include women in his original core group of volunteers
on the Dandi march. But on his way he addressed meetings attended by thousands of women and
when the movement actually took off, thousands of

MANY VOICES OF A NATION 393 Among the Muslim women too, there was the rise of a new "femi-
nist" Urdu literature in the early twentieth century that contested the traditional boundaries and
ideologies of gender relations. But it also refrained advocating any "dramatic change" and privi-
leged "the image of the Muslin) everything such contradictions were more clearly visible in the space
by the growing nunlber of women's organisations of the time. From the beginning, women's
participation in politics took place from a vari- ety of women-only organisations, which constituted
in Gail Pearson's terminology an "extended female space", that lay somewhere in between the
segregated family household and the wider public arena.249 These organisations ranged from
various local social organi- sations, girls' educational institutions to a number of political bod- ies,
such as the Rashtriya Stree Sangha or the Des Sevika Sangha, which acted as auxiliary bodies of the
Congress. Then in the early twentieth century, there came into existence a number of women's
organisations, which operated more actively in the public arena and focused more directly on
women's political and legal rights. At the all-India level, the first to appear in Madras in 1917 was the
Women's Indian Association, started by enlightened European and Indian ladies, the most important
of them being Margaret Cousins, an Irish feminist, and Annie Besant. In 1925 the National Council of
Women in India was formed as a branch of the International Council of Women, and Lady Mehribai
Tata remained its main spirit during the early years. Then in 1927 the most important of these
organisa- tions, the All India Women's Conference came into existence, ini- tially as a non-political
body to promote women's education, with Margaret Cousins as the main inspirational figure.
Eventually how- ever, it got involved in nationalist politics and lobbied for all sorts of women's rights,
from franchise to marriage reform and the rights of women labourers.250 At the provincial level too,
various organisa- tions started functioning around this time for a multitude of women's issues. Sarala
Devi Chaudhurani's Bharat Stree Mahamandal, which had its first meeting in Allahabad in 1910,
opened branches all over India to promote women's education. In Bengal in the 1920s, as Barbara
Southard (1995) has shown, the Bangiya Nari Samaj started campaigning for women's voting rights,
the Bengal Women's Educa- tion League demanded compulsory elementary and secondary edu-
Cation for women and the All-Bengal Women's Union campaigned for a legislation against illicit
trafficking of women. However, instead of mobilising mass agitations in support of these Issues,
these women's organisations petitioned the government and

394 FROM PLASSEY To PARTITION AND AFTER appealed to the nationalists for support. The
government intervened reluctantly, if at all, and often preferred compromise formulae, as it
believed that the majority of Indian women were not yet ready to use their rights properly. For
example, the Montagu—Chelmsford Reform in 1919 left undecided the question of women's
franchise, which was to be determined later by the provincial legislatures. The nationalists, on the
other hand, seemed more sympathetic to the women's question since the 1920s, as they needed
their participa- tion in the nation-building project. Women too privileged this "pro- cess of
universalization"251 by placing nationalism before women's issues. As a reward, all the provincial
legislatures between 1921 and 1930 granted voting right to women, subject of course to usual
property and educational qualifications. The Government of India Act of 1935 increased the ratio of
female voters to 1:5 and gave women reserved seats in legislatures. The Congress and the women's
organisations did not like the idea of reservation and had preferred instead universal adult franchise.
However, once provided they accepted it and this helped a number of women to launch their legis-
lative careers after the election of 1937.252 On the other hand, unlike the Age of Consent bill of
1891, the Child Marriage Restraint Act or the Sarda Act of 1929, which proposed to fix the minimum
age of marriage for females at fourteen and males at eighteen, was passed with overwhelming
nationalist support. Apart from that, in the cen- tral and provincial legislatures a whole range of bills
were passed in the 1930s to define women's right to property, inheritance and divorce, to restrain
dowry and control prostitution. But did all these legislations improve gender relations and the
quality of life for women in India? If we take the Sarda Act as a test case, we find that soon both the
government and the nationalists found it impossible to implement; before long the Sarda Act was
dead for all practical 253 purposes. To get back to our earlier point, the developments of the early
twentieth century—the birth of a new consciousness, new organisa- tions and the politicisation of
women—did bring in some remark- able changes for some women—the more enlightened, middle
class and urban variety, who had effectively claimed for themselves a niche in the public space.
Towards the end of the colonial period many of them were in higher professions like medicine and
law, earning lucrative salaries and enjoying social respect. But they too constantly juggled between
their new public roles and the onerous demands of housewifery and childcare, without much
audible pro- test. And for the rest of the Indian womanhood, the changes were