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Dock Workers in Bombay

Role of the Nationalist Movement and Beyond

Shubhankita Ojha (shubhankita.ojha@gmail.com) is a research scholar at Delhi University. 

The Bombay dock workers struggle was galvanised by the Congress during the Indian National Movement. However their agitation for labour rights continued even long after the nationalist movement and shaped the Mumbai port as we know today. 

How did the Bombay dock workers’ contribute to the independence movement during the then dynamic political situation of Mumbai? While the Mumbai textile mill workers participation in the struggle for independence and its politics has received a lot of attention by scholars there is relatively less academic work on dock workers. Therefore, it is essential to look at other categories of labour, like dock workers as well as transport workers who played an equally crucial role.

Tides of Dockers’ Protests

The nationalists took advantage of the growing awareness of trade unionism among workers and sought to assimilate them in the freedom movement. The involvement of the dock workers in the articulation of labour rights and overall political climate of the country can be attributed to the neighbourhoods they lived and worked in. As Dange pointed out, most of the nationalist meetings took place in working class neighbourhoods like Shantaram chawl in Girangaon, Elphinstone Mill maidan, down to the Fort area in Azad Maidan and also in the open space at Matharpacady near Mazagon docks[i].

Apart from residing in chawls in areas like Dongri, Mandvi and Mazagon because of their proximity to the docks, workers also lived in mixed working class neighbourhoods of areas like Kumbharwada, Khara Talao, Dhobi Talao, Khetwadi, Girgaum and Thakurdwar. These were densely populated working class areas in general and promoted strong class solidarity among workers.

The Bombay Dock Workers’ Union, which was founded by M R Shetty, Maniben Kara and others in 1932, was one of the most militant organisations of dock workers in that era, when organising a trade union was considered by the British government as a conspiracy. The union was founded to help the freedom struggle under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

In response to his call for boycotting British goods, a massive agitation was launched in the docks by workers[ii]. One such patriot worker was Babu Genu who lied down in front on the road of the Masjid Bunder railway station to prevent trucks laden with British goods. He sacrificed his life in this agitation when he was crushed under the truck by the police.

M R Shetty under the aegis of this union, organised the boycott of ships carrying British cloth and dumped bales of cloth into the sea (Bogaert: 36) He organised the dock workers in the port of Bombay to boycott ships carrying British goods. In fact the first ever strike in support of the freedom struggle was organised under the banner of Bombay Dock Workers’ Union for nearly three weeks in 1932. The British government adopted repressive measures against dock workers and in the process the Bombay Dock Workers’ Union was also made defunct and little was heard of it till about 1946. Later the union was revived as Transport & Dock Workers’ Union by Placid D Mello.

The Congress realised the need to claim adherents from among the dock workers as they realised the significance of the working class in the struggle against the colonial state. If dock workers could be properly assimilated in the freedom movement, the Congress believed, their strike had the potential to completely disrupt trade and hence the colonial administration. To this end, the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee opened their branch office at Keshav building at Carnac Bunder, close to where these workers worked and demonstrations were made to popularise Congress ideals among the workers[iii].

They targeted the dock workers in their various campaigns, being fully aware of the centrality of the docks. The Congress started a picketing campaign urging workers to boycott foreign cloth. In order to intensify its struggle against the importation of foreign cloth, the Congress volunteers targeted the port trust warehouses where all goods would be stocked before delivery to the respective consignee. The plan that these volunteers adopted was of persuading the dock workers not to touch foreign cargo[iv].

In 1931, when the Bombay Coal Merchants’ Association passed a resolution banning all foreign coal as an important step towards promoting swadeshi, an appeal was issued to mukaddams (chiefs) and dock workers not to handle the banned coal. When one of the firms tried to take delivery of an order placed for foreign coal from Natal, the association passed a resolution not to help in anyway and advised all stevedores, boat owners and mukaddams not to render any assistance in the unloading of the banned cargo[v].

However, despite all these attempts, the firm Nazir and Sons proceeded to unload the cargo with the help of their own mukaddam and street labour which compelled the other dock workers and Congress volunteers to resort to methods of satyagraha[vi].

Interestingly the workers were supported in the swadeshi initiative by the port trust itself. Purshotamdas Thakurdas, the chairman of the Bombay Port Trust persuaded the directors to accept the tender of a local firm for the supply of cement even though the price of the Indian produce was higher than the Belgian produce that was otherwise tendered with competitive rates[vii]. The gesture certainly was to protect Indian industries.

The Bombay docks witnessed a lot of activity also during the boycott of Zanzibar cloves which was said to have begun at the end of 1937 as an effective measure to help Indians in Zanzibar who had to suffer heavy financial losses owing to the unjust decrees passed by the Zanzibar government, giving complete internal and external monopoly of the clove trade to a corporation, known as the Clove Growers’ Association of Zanzibar[viii]. The Clove Boycott Committee, under the chairmanship of Vallabhbhai Patel declared a complete boycott of foreign cloves[ix]. This stringent boycott of imports found resounding support from dock workers who refused to unload ships carrying these cloves. There was extensive picketing at the docks by Congress volunteers to dissuade other workers employed by the merchants to carry on work. These merchants had to make arrangements for the cargo to be unloaded at ports of Calcutta and Mormugoa shifting the entire centre of trade to these ports[x].

At times, the employers and the traders tried to take advantage of the differing identities of these workers to break their solidarity. On 7 April 1938, MK Baraporewalla, an agent of a clove dealer Abdul Latif Hasham, tried to take delivery of 50 bags of cloves but the Congress pickets succeeded in persuading the coolies to refuse to handle the cloves. On 11 April, Baraporewalla tried to engage some Muslim coolies including a few Pathans to take delivery of his cloves. This led to an acrimonious exchange of words between the Muslim coolies and pickets[xi].

On 12 April, a Muslim coolie went to one of the sheds and began abusing the Congress pickets alleging that the Congress was unnecessarily interfering with trade and depriving the poor of their daily bread. He also claimed to ensure the delivery of goods to clove dealers in spite of all odds if he was paid handsomely by them[xii].

As the Congress struggle with the boycott intensified, merchants tried to divide the workers furthermore. The workers brought in by the merchants were asked to walk over the prostrate bodies of Congress men and other workers who lied down in front of the clove bags to persuade the workers not to handle the cargo. The coolies became so aggressive against the pickets that they threw bags of cloves on the bodies of these volunteers[xiii]. Nevertheless, dock workers extended a huge support to the movement and the docks were witness to the enactment of the vigorous political struggle going on in the city and the country as a whole.

Around the 1940s, there were rising concerns from labour itself, especially after it lent support to the Government’s war effort, about their conditions of work. One major protest to follow right after the war was the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny by the seafarers. Various establishments and ships took out a procession near the docks in support of the mutiny that broke out on board the ship HMIS Talwar on 17 February 1946 against the bad quality of food provided, less pay and the ill treatment meted out to Indian ratings on the ship. There was a lot of trouble at the docks where most of these men incited the ship’s companies to carry out a “sit down strike” and considerable sympathy was shown by dock workers (Government of India 1946). Very soon it attracted and came to be supported by many other sections of the working class like the mill hands, railway workmen and others who participated in huge numbers to take processions out through the streets of Bombay causing disorder and disturbance. That it attracted various communities of workers in support of the RIN ratings is suggestive of the fact that such grievances about food, racial discrimination, ill treatment and pay produced a general discontent which was shared by most and this lent fuel to the already volatile political situation of the country.

While positioned between the land and the sea, dock work it offered an interaction of dock workers with workers employed in the city as well as sea faring men at sea—a unique interaction among workers globally. Their support for the struggle of Indonesia against Dutch imperialism at the same time when they were involved in a struggle against the British is a glaring example of the same[xiv]. Similarly, during the Indo-Pakistan conflicts of 1965 and 1972, the port and dock workers played a commendable role by efficiently handling defence cargo and maintaining port operations despite the blackout restrictions and other security measures in force at the time and the boycott of ships and shipping lines carrying arms, ammunitions, military hardware or spare parts to Pakistan.

Conclusion

The participation of the dock workers in these movements was rooted in social conflicts that existed even before the Congress campaigns. The momentum provided by the Congress leadership directed these grievances towards the conditions of labour and the agitation continued even long after the Congress struggle. This lent a dynamics of its own to the dock struggle in India and was responsible for the various developments in legislation that dock unions won for itself in subsequent times.

Notes

[i] Transcript of SA Dange, Acc no  823, NMML, p 66

[ii] Address by S R Kulkarni, President of All India Port & Dock Workers’ Federation at the 70thBirthday felicitation of Krishna Kumar Bajpai, 12 May 1998

[iii] Bombay Chronicle, 10 September, 1930, p1

[iv] Bombay Chronicle, 2 October, 1930, p1

[v] Times of India (1980): “Unloading of Natal Coal in Bombay,” 16 September, 1931, p 8

[vi] Times of India (1980): “Unloading of Natal Coal in Bombay,” 16 September, 1931, p 8

[vii] Bombay Chronicle, 6 August, 1929, p 6

[viii] Home(Special), File no 543(13) B(2), 1938

[ix] Bombay Chronicle, 7 March, 1938

[x] Times of India (1938): “Bombay loses its trade in cloves,” 28 March

[xi] Extract from Commissioner of Police’s Weekly confidential letter dated 11 April, 1938 in Home(Special), File no 543(13)B(2), 1938

[xii] Extract from Commissioner of Police’s Weekly confidential letter dated 19 April, 1938 in Home(Special), File no 543(13)B(2), 1938

[xiii] Bombay Sentinel, 23 April, 1938

[xiv] Times of India (1945): “Indian Congress Attitude: Maulana Azad’s View,”, 20 October,  p 7

References

Bogaert, Michael (1970): Trade Unionism in Indian Ports: A Case Study at Calcutta and Bombay, New Delhi: Shri Ram Centre for Industrial Relations.

Government of India (1946): Report of the RIN Commission of Enquiry, New Delhi, Serial No 6, Part 1, pp 52-54.

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