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.
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.
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.
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.
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.