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HomeOpinionAmbedkar’s fight wasn’t just against caste. Scholars have overlooked his labour activism

Ambedkar’s fight wasn’t just against caste. Scholars have overlooked his labour activism

In the early 20th-century Mumbai, Communists and radical anti-caste Dalits under Ambedkar’s leadership fiercely opposed each other over ‘labour question’.

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The recent years have witnessed the ‘mainstreaming’ of B.R. Ambedkar in India. While mainstream political parties from the Right to the Left are desperately trying to appropriate him, in academia, Ambedkar has become a fashionable subject. As a result, the present engagement with Ambedkar does not challenge the prejudiced lenses that have hitherto invisibilised his writings as well as his social and political interventions.

This is evident in the case of Ambedkar’s engagement on the labour question. It is still common to find scholars and activists arguing that Ambedkar merely addressed the “caste question” and ignored the “larger” “class question”. Such a view overlooks the conditions of the early 20th-century Mumbai, which saw the emergence of Communist politics and the consolidation of radical anti-caste Dalit politics under Ambedkar’s leadership. These two forces fiercely contested against each other over “labour question” but also collaborated on a few occasions. The diverse engagements brought to the fore, the limits of “working-class unity” as well as possibilities of associated engagement.

Also read: Columbia University teaches Ambedkar’s biography, but few in India have even read it

The textile strikes

During the initial years, Ambedkar’s labour activism was carried out through his association with the Bombay Textile Labour Union, which was formed in 1925 by the moderates such as N.M. Joshi and R.R. Bakhale. In the textile mill weaving departments that paid the highest wages, Dalits were excluded from working due to “pollution”. During the weaving process, each time the weft bobbin required a replacement, workers had to wet the thread with their saliva to tie the knot. The Maratha caste workers argued due to this process, Dalits working in the weaving department would result in ‘pollution’ for them. They took that as the pretext for not allowing Dalits in weaving departments.

Ambedkar highlighted this issue during the famous 1928 Bombay Textile strike. In fact, he threatened the Communist leaders that in the list of demands, if his demand for Dalits’ access to all jobs in the mill did not find a space, then he will dissuade Dalit workers from joining the strike. His demand was accepted – although very reluctantly. While Ambedkar supported the 1928 textile strike, he opposed the 1929 strike. He even facilitated Dalit workers’ entry inside the textile mills during the strike.

Left critics have used this instance to argue that Ambedkar not only broke the “workers’ unity” by bringing in ‘caste’ but also got involved in the anti-labour act of supplying ‘blacklegs’ inside the mills. Ambedkar contended that the 1928 strike had pushed Dalit workers towards indebtedness and extreme indignance. Moreover, unlike the non-Dalit workers, Dalits did not have farmlands to rely upon during long drawn strikes. Therefore, Dalits were not in a position to join yet another long-drawn strike.

Ambedkar also opposed the 1934 Bombay textile strike organised by the Communists for similar reasons. However, this did not prevent him from defending the striking leaders in the court of law. It was Ambedkar’s defence for a labour leader, which eventually resulted in the acquittal of all Communist leaders arrested for their involvement in the strike.

Also read: How Gandhi made Ambedkar a villain in his fight to be the real representative of Dalits

Against ‘involuntary servitude’  

Ambedkar established the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1936 with an agenda to fight the social, economic and political rights of the working class. The ILP also stated that it did not represent any single caste or religion, and there was no difference between touchable and untouchable, Brahmin and non-Brahmin, Hindu and Muslim. Following its success in the 1937 provincial elections, the ILP remained at the forefront in opposing the Industrial Disputes Act of 1938. The said Act made conciliation compulsory and workers were to be penalised with six-month imprisonment for participating in illegal strikes.

While opposing the bill in the Bombay Legislative Assembly in 1938, Ambedkar argued that to punish workers for participating in the strike was “nothing short of making the worker a slave.” And, “slavery” Ambedkar stated further, “was nothing else but involuntary servitude.” Outside the Assembly, Ambedkar-led ILP opposed the bill by successfully organising one-day strike on 7 November 1938, and he welcomed the support extended by the Communists and Socialists for this agitation.

Also read: Ambedkar said protests were unconstitutional. But what about protests to restore Constitution?

Challenging rural socio-economic structure

While much of Communist-led labour politics was urban factory-based, Ambedkar waged a struggle against the Mahar Watan in the countryside and challenged the caste-based occupational order. The Mahar Watan was land granted as an entitlement to the Mahars in the village socio-economic structure. The entitlement was offered in exchange for extensive and exploitative obligatory services from the Mahars.

Ambedkar stood for the abolition of the rural economic structures of servitude that were deeply embedded within the caste system. In fact, Ambedkar argued that the campaign against untouchability would not be complete without fighting a battle against these structures. In 1928, Ambedkar introduced in a bill to abolish the Mahar Watan in the Bombay Legislative Council. He proposed that the government should recognise the Mahar Watandars as public servants and suggested the remuneration to be paid by the villagers. While non-Brahmins initially supported the bill, they increasingly became hostile towards it. They were apprehensive as to who will do the demeaning and stigmatised labour done by the Mahars.

Ambedkar’s close associate A.V. Chitre founded Shetkari Sangh, which stood for the eradication of the Khoti system — a form of land revenue arrangement prevalent in the Konkan region. The Khoti system exploited small and marginal farmers and perpetuated forced labour by exacting four times more the amount of tax to be paid to the colonial government. The Khots (landlords) were predominantly Chitpawan Brahmins, a few high caste Hindu Marathas and Muslims. The tenants, on the other hand, were Marathas, Other Backward Castes such as Kunbis, Bhandaris and Agris, and among Dalits, a few Mahars.

The conservative nationalist B.G. Tilak staunchly opposed the colonial government’s early attempt to abolish the Khoti system. Ambedkar organised agitations and conferences in the early 1920s against the Khoti system. Later he introduced the Khoti abolition bill on 17 September 1937 in the Bombay Legislative Assembly. In fact, Ambedkar was the first legislator in the provincial assemblies to introduce a bill for the abolition of serfdom of agricultural tenants. As a Labour Member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council during the Second World War, Ambedkar introduced several labour welfare measures, which had a profound impact on the formulation of labour policies in the post-Independence period.

Also read: In Ambedkar’s ‘Proposed Preamble’ to Indian Constitution, there was no ‘equality’ clause

Brahminism an equally bigger enemy

While Ambedkar agreed with the Communists that capitalism was the enemy of the working classes, he argued that Brahminism was an equally important enemy. Also, unlike the Communists, he did not opine that the destruction of capitalist order will automatically remove the perils of the caste system. For Ambedkar, the removal of social discrimination was an essential condition for fighting against capitalism. The battle against capitalism, Ambedkar argued, was only possible by introducing parity in the labour market whereby Dalits had equal access to it. One of the ways to achieve this was replacing caste-based recruitments influenced by Brahminism with market principles that negate them. This will resolve caste and religious antagonism among the workers, which acted as a barrier for working-class unity.

Ambedkar also challenged the narrower focus of “class” on material relations or economic exploitation alone. Ambedkar argued that non-economic modes of domination and exploitation are vital too, as they fed into capital-labour relationships. Moreover, he argued that non-economic modes also deprive people of those basic goods that are essential for the constitution of a confident self, a life of mutual recognition and participation in collective affairs. Ambedkar’s interventions on the labour question, thus, has much to offer for contemporary India as caste, gender and religion continue to influence individual’s life choices.

The author is Associate Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University. Views are personal.

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  1. Nein !

    He did not declare ABSOLUTE WAR on Hindoism and Brhamins – and lost a unique opportunity to lead 300 million destitutes. He was just not made to be a quasi messiah. dindooohindoo

    The Brahmins doomed Shiva


    It is all the evil of the Brahmins !

    These BRAHMINS cursed and abused Shiva as he was black skinned and violated the Vedas !

    If they did not spare Shiva – what would be the worth of the Dalts

    “The Brahmins will not sacrifice to you along with the other gods, for Siva has defiled the path followed by good men; he is impure, an abolisher of rites and demolisher of barriers,[who gives] the word of the Vedas to a Sudra. He wanders like a madman, naked, laughing, the lord of ghosts, evil-hearted. Let Siva, the lowest of the gods, obtain no share with Indra and Visnu at the sacrifice; let all the followers of Siva be heretics, opponents of the true scriptures, following the heresy whose god is the king of ghosts.” – Brahma Purana 2:13:70-73; Garuda Purana 6:19; Bhagavata Purana 4:2:10-32.

    Wait – there is more !

    भवव्रतधरा ये च ये च तान् समनुव्रताः

    पाखंडिनस्ते भवन्तु सच्छास्त्रपरिपन्थि

    मुमुक्षवो घोररूपान् हित्वा भूतपतीनथ ,

    नारायणकलाः शान्ताः भजन्तीत्यनसूयवः

    One who takes a vow to satisfy Shiva or who follows such principles will “certainly become an atheist and be diverted from transcendental scriptural injunctions”.
    Those who vow to worship Shiva are “so foolish that they imitate him by keeping long hair on their heads”
    When initiated into worship of Lord Śiva, they “prefer to live on wine, flesh and other such things.” [Bhagvatapuran 4/2/28-29]

    तस्माद् विष्णोः प्रसादो वै सेवितव्यो द्विजन्मना,

    इतरेषां देवानां निमल्यिं गर्हितं भवेत् .

    सकृदेव हि योsश्नाति ब्राह्मणो ज्ञानदुर्बलः

    निर्मल्यिं शंकरा दीनां स चांडालो भवेद ध्रुवं

    Dwijas (Brahmin, Khatriya, Vaishya) should only eat the Prasad offered to Vishnu, not of any other deity. If “any foolish Brahmin, even once, will consume the prasad of Shiva”, it is “certain that he will be born as a Chandal (outcaste)”


  3. Sumeet many many thanks for writing on many of the forgotten contributions of Dr Ambedkar. It is a continuation of the attitude which talks of him as a Dalit thinker and not a national thinker. He organized the first all-India railway strike which was ruthlessly supressed by the first home minister of India, the Iron Man Sardar Patel.

  4. Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Jayanti Quotes
    THE ANNIHILATION OF CASTE…/ 1. “Cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence.” 2. “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity.” 3. “Life should be great rather than long” 4. “Men are mortal. So are ideas. An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Otherwise both will wither and die.” 5. “Religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It cannot be a matter of rules. The moment it degenerates into rules, it ceases to be a religion, as it kills responsibility which is an essence of the true religious act.” 6. ”The Duty must be performed, let the Efforts be successful or not, let the work be Appreciated or not. When a man’s Sincerity of purpose and Capacity are proved even his enemies come to respect him” – B.R.AmbedkarAmbedkar quotes: Here are a select set of quotes from Ambedkar, quotes of inspiration, quotes on religion, philosophy of life and purpose of human existence inspire99.com5 Brilliant Quotes And Thoughts By Ambedkar – Ambedkar Quotes On Ambedkar Jayanti – Inspire 99Ambedkar quotes: Here are a select set of quotes from Ambedkar, quotes of inspiration, quotes on religion, philosophy of life and purpose of human existence Learn to live in this world with self-respect. Freedom of mind is the real freedom. A person whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains, is a slave, not a free man. One whose mind is not free, though he may not be in prison, is a prisoner and not a free man. One whose mind is not free though alive, is no better than dead. Freedom of mind is the proof of one’s existence. Constitution is not a mere lawyers document, it is a vehicle of Life, and its spirit is always the spirit of Age Caste is a state of mind. It is a disease of mind. The teachings of the Hindu religion are the root cause of this disease. We practice casteism and we observe Untouchability because we are enjoined to do so by the Hindu religion. A bitter thing cannot be made sweet. The taste of anything can be changed. But poison cannot be changed into nectar. Cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence. My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organize; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can loose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality. The relationship between husband and wife should be one of closest friends. If I find the constitution being misused, I shall be the first to burn it. Freedom of mind is the proof of one’s existence. For a successful revolution it is not enough that there is discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights. If you believe in living a respectable life, you believe in self-help which is the best help! A people and their religion must be judged by social standards based on social ethics. No other standard would have any meaning if religion is held to be necessary good for the well-being of the people. Man is mortal. Everyone has to die some day or the other. But one must resolve to lay down one’s life in enriching the noble ideals of self-respect and in bettering one’s human life. We are not slaves. Nothing is more disgraceful for a brave man than to live life devoid of self-respect. Justice has always evoked ideas of Equality, of proportion of compensation. In short, Justice is another name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. If you study carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason. There is an element of flexibility inherent in it, which is not found in any other religion. We must begin by acknowledging that there is a complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane we have an India based on the principles of graded inequality, which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. Caste is not just a division of labour, it is a division of labourers. Every man who repeats the dogma of Mill that one country is no fit to rule another country must admit that one class is not fit to rule another class. Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them. Men are mortal. So are ideas. An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Otherwise both will wither and die. The Hindu civilisation is a diabolical contrivance to enslave humanity. Its proper name would be infamy. What are we having this liberty for? We are having this liberty in order to reform our social system, which is full of inequality, discrimination and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights. It is disgraceful to live at the cost of one’s self-respect. Self-respect is the most vital factor in life. Without it, man is a cipher. To live worthily with self-respect, one has to overcome difficulties. It is out of hard and ceaseless struggle alone that one derives strength, confidence and recognition. I prefer Buddhism because it gives three principles in combination, which no other religion does. This is what man wants for a good and happy life. Neither god nor soul can save society. In Hinduism, conscience, reason and independent thinking have no scope for development. For an individual as well as for a society, there is a gulf between merely living and living worthily. For an individual as well as for a society, there is a gulf between merely living and living worthily My definition of democracy is – A form and a method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the social life are brought about without bloodshed. That is the real test. It is perhaps the severest test. But when you are judging the quality of the material you must put it to the severest test. My definition of democracy is – A form and a method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the social life are brought about without bloodshed. That is the real test. It is perhaps the severest test. But when you are judging the quality of the material you must put it to the severest test. Lost rights are never regained by appeals to the conscience of the usurpers, but by relentless struggle….goa ts are used for sacrificial offerings and not lions. Majorities are of two sorts: (1) communal majority and (2) political majority. A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of communal majority are made by its own members born in it. The sovereignty of scriptures of all religions must come to an end if we want to have a united integrated modern India. Equality may be a fiction but nonetheless one must accept it as a governing principle. Democracy is not merely a form of Government.
    It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.
    It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards our fellow men. I feel that the constitution is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peacetime and in wartime. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us. The basic idea underlying religion is to create an atmosphere for the spiritual development of the individual. This being the situation, it is clear that you cannot develop your personality at all in Hinduism. Religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It cannot be a matter of rules. The moment it degenerates into rules, it ceases to be a religion, as it kills responsibility which is an essence of the true religious act. For an individual as well as a society, there is a gulf between merely living and living worthily. To fight in a battle and live in glory is one mode. To beat a retreat, to surrender and to live the life of a captive is also a mode of survival. The question is not whether a community lives or dies, the question is on what plane does it live? There are different modes of survival. But all are not equally honorable. History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them. Political tyranny is nothing compared to the social tyranny and a reformer who defies society is a more courageous man than a politician who defies Government.
    B. R. AmbedkarDiscover B. R. Ambedkar famous and rare quotes. Share B. R. Ambedkar quotations about liberty, constitution and life. “I measure the progress of a community by…” azquotes.comTOP 25 QUOTES BY B. R. AMBEDKAR (of 53) | A-Z QuotesDiscover B. R. Ambedkar famous and rare quotes. Share B. R. Ambedkar quotations about liberty, constitution and life. “I measure the progress of…Discover B. R. Ambedkar famous and rare quotes. Share B. R. Ambedkar quotations about liberty, constitution and life. “I measure the progress of a community by…”

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