Sunday, March 1, 2015

Democracy and workers' movements - stories from Jamshedpur

This interview has appeared in The two parts may be read here and here.

The Modi government has issued a special coin to commemorate the 175th birth anniversary of the Tata Group founder, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. In honouring him, what is the message the government is seeking to convey to the people?
The government may have honoured other corporate houses in some other manner, but to take out a commemorative coin of the Indian Union honouring a corporate house is indeed unique. I suppose the message is that the Tatas are model employers, builders of modern India, in short, to take on board everything the Tatas would probably like to say about themselves.

Isn’t this also linked to Modi’s Make-in-India project?
Perhaps the message being conveyed through the commemorative coin is part of a political agenda. This is because the Tatas are supposed to be a national industry. In the 1920s, there was much talk about how the Tatas needed to be patronized by the Indian national movement. In 1924, they obtained Swarajist support (from Motilal Nehru and CR Das) for tariff protection in the Central Legislative Assembly, in return for their recognition of the first workers union, the Jamshedpur Labour Association. However, at other times such as in the 1930s, the Tatas would assume a less national demeanour because the extreme tension between the colonial government and the national leaders made it wise for them to maintain a distance.

When the coin was issued in early January, both Modi and the Tata website spoke of Jamsetji’s vision of making India an industrially strong country. To what extent do you think this is true? Could his vision, however defined, have been executed without the help of the British?
To be fair, the two things are not necessarily counterposed to each other. It may well be that Jamsetji was a visionary industrialist. I won’t go into the background of Tata Sons, which began as a shipping concern in the nineteenth century and was involved in the opium trade with China.

But it is claimed that the opium trade was legitimate and, therefore, it wasn’t ethically wrong for the Tatas to have got into it?
Fair enough, and we don’t have to go into that debate. The two positions, as I said, may not necessarily be contradictory – that Jamsetji was a visionary and he also took the assistance of the British. If however you were to go deeper into it, you will realise that strategic interests influenced the British support of the Tatas in every possible way, including securing land (Jamshedpur) located close to coal mines and iron ore deposits and the river, all of which were necessary for a steel plant.

The construction of the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) began in 1907, and it began production in 1911. Soon thereafter, World War I broke out. Almost 100 per cent of the steel that TISCO was producing went towards the British war effort. I presume these were consumed by the railways or for the manufacture of building materials, armaments etc. One can see that for strategic-military purposes, the British were clear about maintaining a strong industrial base in India. 

In other words, the Tatas had no option but to work with the British?
They had to. Let us have no illusion – if you want to build a gigantic steel plant like TISCO with geo-strategic importance, which requires infrastructure such as railways, then you have to work with the power that exists. We cannot fault the Tatas for doing that. They had to do it.

Did this prompt the British to extend special privileges to the Tatas? For instance, Jamshedpur was acquired under zamindari rights. Your book says they got 25 sq miles in return for paying Rs 12,000 as compensation to the raiyats. The Tatas were also not required to pay revenue to the government. Was the compensation money adequate?
Frankly, I would need to do more research to figure out whether or not Rs 12000 can be classified as adequate compensation. But you can figure out – 25 sq miles and the Rs 12,000 payment for loss of livelihood involving thousands and thousands of people. It was arguably not adequate.

Was it extraordinary for the Tatas not to pay revenue?
It was extraordinary. The land was granted to them under zamindari right, and zamindars were normally required to pay revenue to the government. The Tatas were exempted from that payment. They were also given full municipal control over the city.

Was the Tatas’ architectural conception of Jamshedpur remarkably unequal, in contrast to the relatively more recent accounts about the family’s intrinsic humanity? You talk of executives residing in bungalows lining the boulevards and TISCO employees living in makeshift houses in the bastis.
The attitude of the elite and the industrialists then was that, well, they were doing a favour to people by giving people jobs. That attitude persists even today. For instance, people in Bawana, in Delhi, live in near-destitute conditions right now. So a hundred years ago, workers of Jamshedpur might even have been slightly better off than they are today.

 Having said that, yes, they did have a very elitist approach to the architectural layout of Jamshedpur. The areas designated for housing workers soon got overcrowded because of the vast influx of informal labour.

Your book mentions high incidence of dacoity, killings…
This was because there was a huge growth of population with the expansion of TISCO and other ancillary industries in Jamshedpur. There was a large influx of people from outside Singhbhum district, in which Jamshedpur is located.

As I found out from the records, the Tatas had a deliberate policy of hiring people from all around the country. In fact, Jamsetji suggested that the Tatas follow a policy of recruiting workers from a wide catchment area in order to prevent strikes. This was the same attitude that the East India Company adopted vis-a-vis the army after 1857, that is, they didn’t wish to raise an army composed of soldiers speaking the same language and who could congregate. At least partly, the Tatas’ hiring policy was aimed at ensuring that the workers did not combine easily.

However, as it happened, the workers did unite and combine despite the best efforts of Tatas. Questions of language, region, caste and religion did not matter to Jamshedpur’s working class. From my studies of over 20-25 years of Jamshedpur’s working class, I can say that they were not subject to the divisiveness of caste and community.

Your book talks of managerial despotism in TISCO’s early years. The American TW Tutwiler, who was TISCO’s general manager between 1916 and 1925, was particularly notorious. What was this despotism all about?
The philosophy was that the manager ought to be able to throw out a workman at will, anytime. The hiring and firing of people on the spot was what, in essence, managerial despotism meant, so that people could never assume that they had a stable job. This became part of managerial culture in Chota Nagpur and lasted till the early forties. The manager’s right to hire and fire workers conduced to an atmosphere of anxiety and fear.

For instance, it was known those days that Tutwiler could not tolerate anyone overtaking his car. Of course, people remarking upon that time say that this was typically the robust attitude of managers in those good old days. But how all this must have appeared to workers is quite another matter.

In his book The Story of Tata Steel, Verrier Elwin notes, “But perhaps it (despotism) was the only way to get the Steel Works going.” Do you agree with Elwin’s view?
I don’t think the managerial attitude at TISCO would have been markedly different from industry in other parts of India. Managerial despotism existed everywhere in the country. It took the workers many years to win job stability and the right to choose their own leaders.

So the Tatas were behaving just like anyone else?
Yes, there was no exceptional virtue in the management style of the Tatas. From my studies of the early phase of TISCO’s life, the Tatas were quite despotic in those days, even afterwards. There was nothing remarkable in their attitude towards workers. Over the years, of course, things got tempered because there was a national movement, and there was pressure on management from within a section of the national movement. But the rights that the workers won were all hard fought for. It was not because of the generosity of the Tatas.

 From 1920 onwards, labour-management relations in TISCO deteriorated, largely because of the mutual suspicion between them. From you narrative, it appears that among the initial triggers was RD Tata’s duplicity – he claimed the company’s finances didn’t permit an increase in wages, yet the balance sheet, published in 1922, showed a net profit of Rs 88 lakh. Why did the Tatas take recourse to such a lie?
I cannot answer this question specifically. I’d need to study this more because it involves the very specific issue about profit and the capacity to pay wages and so on. But if we shift a little ahead, say, to the late 1920s, then it is a fact that there was unrest among workmen and on the other hand, the Tatas were keen on shedding a proportion of their workforce. There is evidence that the Tatas were keenly aware of the monetary advantages that would accrue from a strike. The managers expected an increase in profits, and the police noted that the directors would rather welcome a strike. I’ve placed the historical evidence for this in my book.

Are you saying that the Tatas were letting strikes happen?
Not exactly. To begin with, there was only one major strike, between May and September of 1928. Trouble was brewing from 1927 – I won’t go into previous cases of workers unrest, in the early 1920’s. But 1927-28 was when they were seized of the requirement to reduce the wage bill. This was because the demand had dipped after the first boom period during WW I. Then the British were purchasing almost all the steel that TISCO was producing and there was profitability. In addition, the early phase of construction, when large numbers of workers had been hired, was long over. The Tatas were therefore keen to reduce the workforce.

Simultaneously, there was tension at the workplace – between workers and supervisors. Some of the cane-drivers were particularly militant. Archival data shows that behind the scenes, TISCO management was keenly aware of the advantages that might accrue to them if a strike were to occur. So we can’t say that the 1928 strike was absolutely inevitable. The strike did happen and ultimately, a certain proportion of the workforce was reduced and the Tatas did indeed achieve their main goals.

So did the Tatas tacitly encourage a section of workers to strike? Or was it that they, by design, refused to accept the demands of workers in the hope they would strike?
Historians have to stick to facts as far as possible. Let me say that such situations are always very complex, as are motivations. One can’t even come to a conclusion about motivations simply by reading documents. You have to have intuitions. One intuition I have is that the workers’ leader Maneck Homi, and the Tatas had a special animus towards each other. The workers chose Maneck Homi as their leader. We can understand this as the desire of workers to be represented by someone whom Tatas disliked. People used to refer to TISCO as a Parsi industry. Homi was also a Parsi. A counter-Parsi to the Tatas.

The situation got exacerbated because the Tatas didn’t want to have anything to do with the strike committee led by Homi. Management said they would deal only with the Jamshedpur Labour Association (JLA), which was itself the creation of workers, but which, over time had been domesticated, shall we say. In addition, it’s clear that workers were becoming too ‘intractable and impertinent’, as a senior police officer noted. In one noting the General Manager complained that ‘even the sweepers say they should share in the Company’s profits... men are talking of having their own committees which must be consulted in giving increments, promotions… in other words, pucca Bolshevism.. they must be put back in their proper place.” It is interesting that apart from economic interests, emotional, psychological factors could also be seen at play in the tension between workers, managers, supervisors and leaders.

Despite the Leninist mythology that workers are incapable of thinking about their actions, and need political guidance, the evidence from the history of TISCO tells another story. In 1928 its workers formed a strike committee when they realised the JLA was not willing to or able to represent their interests.  They realised they needed someone who was literate in English, who could read and draft documents, who was a lawyer, who could take on the Tatas. They found Homi.

What was Maneck Homi all about? Why did the Tatas dislike him?
Maneck Homi’s father was a mechanical foreman and Tata employee. He fell foul of the Tatas and was dismissed in 1925. I assume the young Maneck must have heard embittered comments about Tata management. Homi himself went to study iron and steel manufacturing in America. He was denied financial assistance by the Tatas; nor did he secure a job with them upon return.

Who knows, TISCO managers may have turned down Homi because they didn’t like his father. One can’t surmise, but it is a possibility. Thereafter, Maneck became a bitter critic of the Tatas. He appeared before the Tariff commission, which dealt with the levying of governmental duties on export and import, and made adverse remarks against the Tatas. Ironically, he even suggested reductions in the workforce.
In March 1928, the workers got in touch with Homi and requested him to represent them. There was tension between the JLA and the strike committee. But the workers weren’t keen on displacing the JLA. As a speaker said at one of the strike meetings, “we must mend it, not end it.”

Then things began to get worse with departmental strikes, including sweepers and boiler-men. On May 1, 1928 TISCO locked out 4000 workers, and activist workers congregated around Homi’s leadership. They demanded that management negotiate with him. But the Tatas refused to negotiate with the strike committee. Shortly afterward, 1500 skilled workmen were dismissed – the District Commissioner JR Dain thought this to be a deliberate provocation. TISCO said they wouldn’t negotiate with any committee which had Homi as its leader. Then it became a question whether or not workers had the right to be represented by an outsider. And Homi was an outsider. However, outsiders had represented workers before.

This question of whether the workers had the right to choose their representatives, regardless of them being insiders or outsiders, became an ego issue between them and the management. The workers resented the management’s refusal to deal with Homi.

 So they saw in Homi a person in whom they could repose faith?
They had full faith in Homi. The workers loved him for the forthright position he took, for the manner in which he expressed their demands.  Moreover, the workers were denied the chance to bring about a change in the JLA leadership, by electing new office-bearers. The management achieved this through a secret deal with CF Andrews.

Why did CF Andrews jump into Jamshedpur?
CF Andrews was then the secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and was responsible for organising internal elections in unions affiliated to it. I am an admirer of Andrews, but the fact is that as AITUC leader, for reasons best known to him, he thought it necessary to postpone the JLA’s internal election. The need to protect a ‘national industry’ from avoidable militancy was probably uppermost in his mind. The problem was that the workers were genuinely agitated. I have seen managerial correspondence to the effect that they had arranged for the ‘LA elections’ to be ‘postponed indefinitely’. This meant that the radical faction of workers could not elect those whom they wanted to represent them. It led to a schism – the workers went ahead with the strike committee, which the management saw as communists. The GM was now saying this was “a fight as to who is going to run the place – Management or the Communists.” His refusal to negotiate with the workers preferred leader prolonged the strike. Ultimately, the only solution was to rope in someone else to mediate.

This was when Subhas Chandra Bose stepped into the picture?
Yes. Those were the days Subhas Bose was trying to emerge as a strong labour leader. I’ve found remarks wherein he refers to himself as a “controller of labour.” Since the Tatas were unwilling to negotiate with the strike committee, it was arranged to bring Bose into the picture. This was brought about by Tata management and national leaders. He came to Jamshedpur in August-September 1928, and began by asking the Bengali clerical staff to strike work, thus demonstrating that he was on the side of the strikers. The Bengali clerical staff dominated the JLA. Bose took them on board, made some fiery speeches, and then negotiated a settlement with the Tatas. Strike pay was not given (the Strike Committee called it lock-out wages), and many workers lost their jobs.  

Bose said that the settlement was the best that could be had at that point of time. The workers however, felt that the settlement didn’t match their expectations – whether in terms of emoluments, supervisory behaviour, layoffs, or redundancy. As a result, the advent of Bose simply proved to be a way out of the impasse, by which everyone managed to save face.

So the Tatas, the management and Bose were all playing a game?
Whether or not it can be called a game, the complex pre-history of the strike shows that there were energetic calculations and maneuvers amongst managers, colonial officials, and national leaders to defuse the crisis, use it to achieve managerial ends, and after that, to get the workers back to work. This was achieved at the expense of workers. There was a lot of tension at workplace after the strike ended.

When the commemorative coin in honour of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata was issued in January, the Tata website noted that it was because of his vision the group introduced pension and gratuity schemes way back in 1877.  Yet, in a speech delivered to TISCO workers on Oct 17, 1931, you quote Subhash Chandra Bose demanding, among other things, the introduction of gratuity and pension schemes “promised for years.” Would you say the Tatas have re-written history?
Yes, this speech may be found in the Netaji Collected Works. What is interesting is the background against which Bose made the statement.  For a while, Bose became leader of the JLA and he’d come regularly to Jamshedpur. In the immediate aftermath of the strike, the workers had realised that the JLA had served to end the impasse. Within a matter of weeks, Homi set up the Jamshedpur Labour Federation (JLF). There was now another union within TISCO, again, a product of the working class movement. In 1929, the JLF became very popular.

Then came an upsurge of the national movement. On 26 January 1930, Homi had joined a national flag-hoisting ceremony. This may indicate a signal towards Bose, and also that workers were drawn towards the independence struggle, so Homi couldn’t keep aloof from it.  Meanwhile 1930 saw two cases instituted against him. In one case Homi was accused of embezzling Union funds; in the other case he was accused of intimidating a supervisor. In the 1980s, I interviewed one supervisor, an elderly gentleman, who had retired as a middle-level Tata employee. He told me that these cases were fabricated.

That was the time Bose made the statement. In 1930 he had already made conciliatory moves towards Maneck Homi. He must have said these things on the basis of fair knowledge of the workers’ grievances. Certainly, the claims made by the Tatas (of gratuity and pension schemes) would not have been correct for TISCO at that time. They may have introduced it for certain sections of their employees; or in their concerns elsewhere. It was not a norm in Jamshedpur.

What happened to Homi? You said the Tatas fabricated the cases against Homi?
It’s a complicated story, and the devil is in the detail. I have put down all the evidence I could collect in police files and other records - you could study them if you are interested. It does appear that some people fabricated cases against Homi; and it is inconceivable that the Tatas had nothing to do with all this. They took a keen interest in Homi’s fate, and a senior police officer reported the GM’s anxiety at Homi’s popularity. A case of cheating had been registered against him in the neighboring princely state of Seraikela, whose peasants had been gathering around Homi. About this case, the IGP reported the managements’ opinion that “if he be convicted, labour would settle down.” In addition, Homi is said to have threatened a TISCO supervisor called Kutar, whom workers believed to be an arranger of goondas.
The atmosphere at the workplace was tense and rough. Kutar reported Homi for threatening him, and a criminal case was filed against Homi. Be that as it may, in 1930, even Homi’s rivals in the JLA were repeating his allegations that management were engaging rowdies to break up labour organizations.

Your book suggests the Tatas backed the persecution of Homi.
Yes, the Tatas’ lawyer, Manecksha Poachkhanawalla coordinated the anti-Homi campaign. He was also advising the management about how to deal with the unions. Without question Tatas were interested in seeing the back of Homi.

What about Bose’s meeting of 1931 which was attacked and disrupted? Were the Tatas behind it too?
By mid 1930, Homi had been convicted and disappeared from the scene. Convictions in different cases put him in prison for four years, but his jail-term was extended by another nine months. Meanwhile the Great Depression had set in, and the workers were under severe hardship. Bose visited Jamshedpur then, a time he was making conciliatory sounds about the JLF. After all, the JLF leader was in jail, and Bose was aware of his tremendous popularity among workers, who thought him to be suffering on their behalf – which he was. Bose alleged the Tatas had put away the workmen’s leader and were hand-in-glove with the British. During different phases of the national movement, Tatas would shift their political stance. In this period, their approach was distinctly pro-British. At a time of political upheaval, some directors may have felt this to be necessary in order to combat the threat of communism.

It was during this time that Bose said the “Tatas’ concern in Jamshedpur is much less national than even the textile mills of the Indian industrial magnates for whom ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ is often a convenient excuse for robbing the public.” His statement showed the distance that now existed between TISCO management and the man who had helped them settle the 1928 strike. Tatas now feared Bose was the new threat. They therefore decided to disrupt one of Bose’s meetings. I have a fair amount of evidence about this from the CID reports as well as from the personal correspondence of TISCO’s General Manager JL Keenan and others. Keenan, in fact, made it clear that he had met that section of workers whom the police used to refer as “anti-party”, which was their name for a gang known for breaking up workers’ meetings.

Bose’s meeting of 20 September 1931 was violently disrupted. But this time it was not one-sided. An eyewitness from those times, the activist Moni Ghosh, reported in his memoir, Our Struggle that 300 drunken hooligans had arrived at the maidan, determined to disrupt the meeting. He said “everyone in Jamshedpur knew that the big officials of the Steel Company were connected with this hooliganism. One of the hirelings frankly admitted to Subhas Babu that it was the Steel Company's doing. Subhas apparently sent him to the General Manager, who took no notice. Ghosh further reports that the hooligans’ lathies were met with retaliation, and that “Subhas Babu stood firm”, as the fight went on for an hour. He goes on to say that “this was perhaps the first time that the Steel Company's hirelings were injured in their attempt to break labour meetings. This gang had driven out Homi from his meetings... they had made the Federation powerless, humiliated Mangal Singh... but the table was now turned.

Bose had no doubt as to the managements role in the affray, and explicitly warned them, in a press note issued a couple of days later. He also recounted the event in an article written in 1935, entitled ‘Labour in Jamshedpur’, wherein he spoke of TISCO’s “ruthless policy towards workers.”

Let me add here that we are not in a court of law. We are historians. We can only go by historically relevant evidence, or rather, whatever part of it is accessible to us. This includes official and managerial archives, interviews with people who remember those events, written memoirs, and newspaper reports. We are not trying the Tatas in court. They are not up for conviction. As historians, we can only report what the evidence tells us.

And the evidence tells you what?
The evidence tells me that the disruption of Bose’s meeting was brought about by Tata management. In my book, I have cited evidence of General Manager Keenan’s involvement in the incident. For example, the District Commissioner reported there was good reason to believe that the disruption had been arranged by Tatas’ land officer SC Gupta. The police were proximate to the management and tended to see workers unrest as a communist conspiracy. From their light-hearted attitude towards the 20 September fracas, it seems they were in concert with management and wanted to humiliate Bose. Humiliated he indeed was. As a matter of fact, I found a statement of an English officer who said, “Subhas Bose is reported to have been hit on his posterior with a lathi, but I have not been able to confirm this information yet.” You can see almost feel the glee in the officer’s report. Bose was not very active thereafter, mainly because of involvement elsewhere, but he remained very angry with the Tatas for some years.

But the Tatas and Bose did patch up subsequently?
They patched up during Bose’s president-ship of the Congress. In 1939, he was elected for second term, but had to resign. Between the end of his first term and his resignation after re-election, he made conciliatory moves towards the Tatas.

At the time, the Congressman Abdul Bari, Deputy Speaker in the Assembly, was the most popular leader of workers in Bihar. In 1939, he was bitterly opposed to the centenary birth anniversary celebrations of Jamsetji Tata. By contrast, Bose was asking trade unionists to be responsible, saying that the Tatas were great industrialists, and citing their contribution to the nation. Bari, on the other hand, was saying what Bose had said eight years before – that the Tatas were exploiting patriotism to rob the public. Bose had thus changed his position once he became Congress president. Perhaps he had no option.

The Tatas seem to be propping one labour leader after another. Yet they were not able to overcome the resistance of workers.
 To understand this, we must take into account what happened after 1931. For three or four years, there was quiet in TISCO. Bose had lost his leverage with the Tatas, Homi was in jail, and workers were somehow coping with their travails themselves. Into this vacuum jumped VV Giri, who later became the president of the country. He was a railway unionist from Madras. What he did was to set up a union in Jamshedpur. It was called the Metal Workers’ Union. Strangely enough, in his two-volume memoir, Giri didn’t mention this union. But it got the attention of the police. Giri had a very dubious role in Jamshedpur. The Metalworkers’ Union main role was to keep tight control over the workers. They were closely aligned with management.

Homi was due to be released in 1934. TISCO management was alarmed, as it was the time of year that bonuses were paid. Management feared that Homi would take the credit for getting bonus, that he would once more muddy the waters for them. There is evidence that TISCO was acutely aware of their need to manipulate the standing of this or that union leader.

Your books says the Tatas conspired to keep Homi in the jail.
Yes, the Tatas wanted to keep Homi in jail for as long as possible. They arranged it by seizing upon an opportunity – Homi had gone on hunger-strike in jail and they used this to indict him under section 52 of the Prison Act which deals with ‘heinous offences against prison discipline’. I can’t see how a hunger strike may be deemed a heinous offence, but there you are.

Homi was in Seraikela jail, in a principality that bordered Jamshedpur. Sometime in April 1934 GM Keenan lunched with the governor of Bihar & Orissa and obtained a reassurance that the government did not favour an early release for Homi. Keenan then went ahead with a plan to get the ruler of Seraikela to reject Homi’s appeal for an early release. Thereupon Homi embarked on a series of hunger-strikes, the third of which Keenan got wind of. He then leaned upon the Raja to extend Homi’s jail-term by nine months under section 52. In fairness, I should add that one of Tatasons directors , Sir HP Mody, disapproved of the company’s taking ‘such an extreme step’.  But the plan was set in motion.

There is an entire report on this episode, which was sent by the local TISCO official on the spot. This official wrote to JRD Tata saying he had met the Raja of Saraikela and that the raja, ‘after a few minutes of whisper’ (sic) with his advisors, agreed to extend the jail-term. The raja extracted some concessions from TISCO regarding those of his Adivasi residents who worked in Jamshedpur and who might try to ‘stir up trouble’ for him in Seraikela. You can say it was a case of judicial corruption. The Tatas had used their clout to influence the judicial process for achieving their goals. Homi underwent a further nine months of rigorous imprisonment.

But Homi was ultimately bought over, wasn’t he?
Homi was released in November 1935. Soon after, he made his peace with the Tatas. This was the time Bari was the rising star. As far as I know, Homi was the only non-communist labour leader to have undergone five years RI for his work as a trades-unionist. From then on, he played a conciliatory role. Maybe his spirit was broken.

What happened to Homi? Did he remain in Jamshedpur?
Homi remained lived in his house in Mango area in Jamshedpur till the 1970s. He died there. He had a nephew, whom I met during my research in the eighties. I got Homi’s photo from him, but he was still scared enough to say he didn’t want any acknowledgement.

So Bari replaced Homi as the most influential leader of the TISCO workers.
Bari became the favoured trade union leader of the TISCO management through the intervention of Rajendra Prasad and later also Sardar Vallabbhai Patel. Bari was a fiery speaker. He was among the few Congress leaders to have attacked the Bombay Trades Dispute Act of 1938. But he was a loyal Congressman and very close to Rajendra Prasad. The Congress leaders prevailed over the Tatas to accept Bari. He became the accredited leader of the Tata Workers Union, the successor to the JLA.

What was the controversy over the centenary celebrations of Jamsetji’s birth?
The Tata management had made workers’ participation in the celebrations mandatory. They were forced to stay overtime, do marches, appear in events. They rebelled against it. In the preparation phase there was already a lot of tension. Bari was very contemptuous of the management’s attempt to regiment workers. Bose came out with a public statement in patronizing language regarding Bari. Mind you, both were in the Congress and Bose was the president. Bose said he was very happy to see Bari emerge as the labour leader, and take so much interest in workers, that however, labour leaders should be responsible and moderate and pay homage to the great Tata for setting up such a great industry, generating wealth for the country etc. Bari being the man he was, countered that it was sad to hear Subhash babu make such statements, that the Tatas were riding roughshod over the workers, that it was a regimented affair. As regards the JLA, he said it had been defunct for years ‘despite the best efforts of Subhash Babu’. Anyway, the celebrations were boycotted after the first day.

Did the TISCO workers teach liberalism to the Tatas?
Right through the late 1920s and the 1930s, one finds that the TISCO was engaged in unsavoury machinations to crush the workers’ movement, refuse to recognise workers’ leaders, or work with the administration to restrain or control these leaders. Their actions can’t be categorized as liberal. If they learned some liberality, it was because of the severe resistance of workers. It was they who compelled TISCO to accept their leaders, as they eventually had to with Bari. I suppose, by then, the Tatas had learnt a lesson in democratic practices. The force and power of the working class movement made the Tatas aware of the need to be conciliatory.  

How nationalist was the Tatas’ project?
If we imbue the words national and nationalism with virtuous content, then of course it wasn’t. It’s the vocabulary we use that causes the confusion. Nationalism is ambiguous – it can include good as well as unsavoury elements. TISCO made use of national feelings when it was convenient, when their connection with the national leadership could be of use to them. This happened in 1924, and I have already pointed out how they got Subhas Bose to Jamshedpur in 1928. In the 1930’s, however, Tata management were closer to the colonial administration than to the nationalists.

Enterprises of this nature cannot be evaluated in ideological categories. They exist for purposes of self-expansion, and negotiate their political stances along the way. Profit is the highest value, everything else is incidental. That’s the truth about capitalist society, which workers get to learn in the school of industrial labour. It’s a bitter experience, and yields no degrees. I got my PhD, but all I can do is to salute their memory.