Conflicts at work in Bombay

The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India
September 22, 1995

In view of the economic liberalisation in India, and particularly the changes taking place in the stagnant textile industry, this study of the social processes underlying the labour economy in Bombay in the early 20th century is an interesting read. It is refreshing in that it focuses on subordinate workers rather more than entrepreneurs, unlike most studies of capitalist development and industrialisation.

The book brings out well the way in which Bombay grew as the centre of working-class political action in the 1920s and 30s, seething with nationalist agitation and anti-colonial politics. The relationship between the colonial state and Indian capital came under growing pressure in this period, producing a frustrated bourgeoisie: the millowners (whose collaboration the colonial state highly valued).

It also brings out some interesting contradictions in colonial policy, for instance the contradiction between encouraging the development of Indian resources (for great empires cannot prosper on bankrupt colonies), and discouraging the consequences of rapid social change. The same applies to the current economic liberalisation.

Chapter 1 - a neat formulation of the framework of the study -and the latter half of the book are the most enjoyable sections. The last four chapters bring out the processes of labour force formation and conflicts with capital which shaped the patterns of capitalist development. It is interesting to note how effectively the leaders of trade unions and political parties made inroads into the traditional loyalties of the working class. The power relations they fostered and the patterns of association which they forged significantly influenced their bargaining power and the structure of authority at the workplace.

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 look at the interplay between workplace and the neighbourhood which was crucial to the social organisation of Bombay's workers (Bombayites in their sixties and seventies will probably react to these chapters with nostalgia!). Industrial development heightened the sectionalism of the workers. These differentiations did not simply derive from the village, ethnic, religious, caste or kinship ties marked by their rural origins and peasant character (which have often been taken for granted by western scholars), but were an integral part of the development process itself.

The book describes the patronage networks which operated within neighbourhoods. Frequently the working classes competed ferociously with each other, but sometimes they forged links during general strikes (there were eight such general strikes between 1919 and 1940 as well as thousands of smaller ones, mainly under communist leadership from the late 1920s). The neighbourhoods were an arena of bitter antagonism during this period; Bombay was engulfed by communal riots between Hindus and Muslims with growing frequency, and these not only affected industrial action, trade-union politics and national agitations, but were sometimes stimulated by them.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 - the setting of Bombay, the structure and development of the labour market and of migration - are not so worthwhile. Most of the arguments and detailed discussions are found in similar books by authors such as Meera Kosambi. Nevertheless, the book assembles and analyses a lot of issues and debates which are of value to any scholar or student wanting to understand Bombay and industrial India in the fields of history, economics, development studies, sociology and political science.

Vandana Desai is at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. She was born and brought up in Bombay.

The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940

Author - Rajnarayan Chandavarkar
ISBN - 0 521 41496 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 468

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