Tata Steel

On his first visit to Jamshedpur in 1925, Mahatma Gandhi did something that was unthinkable to large sections of the workers of Tisco. Not only did Gandhi agree to attend a grand reception arranged for him by the Tatas, he even accepted a steel casket containing a purse. What angered and saddened the workers the most was that Gandhi should have done what he did at a time of great tension between the management and the workers. The strikes of 1920 and 1922 were still green in the minds of the workers. As it turned out, three years later in 1928, there was to be another massive strike about which Sukomal Sen, the labour historian,  writes : “A protracted strike of 18,000 workers of Tata Iron and Steel works commenced on 18 April 1928, and lasted till the middle of September of that year. The manner of the settlement of the strike of 1922 could not mitigate the discontent of the workers, rather it started growing with the passage of time. The smouldering discontent ultimately burst into a long-drawn-out strike in 1928.”

The incongruity of accepting a purse from the Tatas who were being far from friendly to the workers, did not strike Gandhi, but it provoked someone living thousands of miles away from India to write a strong dissenting letter to the man called ‘Bapu’ by his followers. In 1927, a Parsee Communist member of the British Parliament by the name of Shapurji Saklatvala wrote to Gandhi criticizing his acceptance of the purse. In his long letter, Saklatvala, sometimes called ‘the Red Indian’ on account of his strong sympathies for the working class whether in India or in Britain, wrote : “I remember in London we all read the description of your royal reception at Jamshedpur and your acceptance of an address in a steel casket with a purse, as if in that Jamshedpur under-feeding, bad housing, underclothing do not go on; as if deaths which are preventable under modern scientific principles are not daily taking place; as if men were not driven to resort to strike through the unreasonable obstinacy of their employers? And as if even military operations against workers have not taken place. I have confessed above that I have looked at this picture of your performance with disappointment from a long distance…”

From the mid-1990s to the first half of the first decade of the new century, Tisco flooded the Indian print media with an advertisement that calls for critical ‘reading’. The advertisement in question carried photographs of six well-known Indians and a few sentences against each photograph stating the person’s association with the steel company in concept or in reality. Two of them – Swami Vivekananda and J. N. Tata – died before the company was born and thereby do not qualify for discussion here. The third, J. R. D. Tata, also need not be discussed because it is understandable, if not acceptable, that the company should use only hyperbole to describe its own chairman. So, this essay is an engagement, albeit somewhat cursory, with the remaining three personages – Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose – who had a direct or indirect, favourable or not so favourable, connection with fashioning the labour movement in Jamshedpur in the turbulent 1920s and 1930s.

Perhaps, taking a leaf out of his mentor’s book, Nehru, too, was inclined to take a favourable view of the Tisco management in its relations with the workers when existing realities should have made him take a sterner view of the former’s performance. In fact, Jawaharlal’s father, Motilal, too, was in the habit of giving glowing certificates of good conduct to the Tisco management even when he was in the full know of what was happening in Jamshedpur. Perhaps, there is a lesson here for all of us that there is a historical background to the political class ganging up as one behind big capital. Tatas, Birlas, Bajajs, Singhanias and the like ‘invested’ in the nationalist movement financially and in other ways only to reap ample dividends after Independence. Remember Sarojini Naidu’s telling statement that “it costs the nation (read the Birlas, in particular) a lot to keep the Mahatma in his poverty”. If the Tatas were more circumspect in the way they went about supporting Gandhi or Tagore, it only shows that they were far more sophisticated in their methods of appropriating for themselves a part of the turf available to big capital.

The Tisco advertisement said of the younger Nehru : “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru continued the patronage of his father, Pandit Motilal Nehru, towards the Indian steel industry. He first visited Jamshedpur in 1925, with Mahatma Gandhi, and remained a friend of the Tatas and, on becoming India’s first Prime Minister, paid a visit to Jamshedpur in 1958, the golden jubilee year of Tata Steel.” Participating in the golden jubilee celebrations, Nehru spoke admiringly of the steel company and the Tatas. Historians of the future will perhaps have a thing or two to say about the fact that it was in that golden jubilee year that Tisco brutally suppressed the massive strike about which I have written earlier.

Compared to the effusiveness that characterizes Gandhi’s or Nehru’s thumbnail entries in the advertisement, there is a noticeable matter-of-factness about the entry relating to Subhash Bose’s association with the Tisco management and labour. Perhaps, this is because Bose had his own style of functioning which did not always go down well with the management. When the spirit moved him, he could be severe, though it is on record that overall, his relationship with the management was cordial. The entry says that Bose “took charge of the Jamshedpur Labour Association in 1928 and provided leadership to the steel company’s labour till 1937. He took up successfully with the steel company’s management the need to infuse qualified Indian engineers into covenanted positions”.

If it is true that Subhash Bose worked towards the Indianisation of the upper echelons of the Tisco workforce, it is equally true that he did not always take kindly to his deputy, Professor Abdul Bari’s ceaseless efforts to let not a single instance of victimization of a lowly worker go unchallenged. Oral history has it that things came to a head when, in the heat of the moment, Professor Bari once called Jehangir Ghandy, Tisco’s first Indian general manager, “Parsee ka launda” at a public rally in Jamshedpur. (Launda is at worst an inelegant expression to use, and is by no means an earthshaking  gaali.)

There was another aspect to the incident that perhaps calls for examination. Bose could be dead serious in dealing with a complaint by the management against a deputy who had practically mortgaged his life to protecting working-class interests, but that same attitude was not always in evidence whilst dealing with far more serious misdemeanours by the management of the steel company. Which brings us to the question whether a ‘class mentality’ wasn’t in operation here. A long line of nationalist leaders – from Gandhi, C. R. Das, Motilal Nehru and C. F. Andrews, to Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Bose – very often belonging to the educated, urban-bred, upper classes, often gave the benefit of doubt to the Tisco management, to the dismay of the workers and their local leaders who had to face the fury of organized capital all through the year, the foremost of whom was Professor Abdul Bari.

There is one more thing. The big names who descended on Jamshedpur once in a long while with the avowed intention of solving the workers’ problems, were all outsiders with little or no knowledge of the daily trials faced by the working class. As such, it was easy for them to pontificate and leave after a stay that rarely extended to more than a few days at best. Worse still was their keenness to assess the management in laudatory terms which it certainly did not deserve, considering the lengths to which it went to make the workers’ life a nightmare all through the 1920s, the 30s and a part of the 40s.

When we are witnessing for ourselves today the role of the entire political class bending over backwards to sing praises to big capital and its supposed role in the development of the Indian nation and society, we must not forget that there is a history to it which goes back at least a century. The enthusiasm of the leaders of the nationalist movement to periodically issue ‘honours cards’ to the so-called patriots in the ranks of indigenous capitalists, should leave cold anyone with an iota of historical sense.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)


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One Comment

  1. Sumanta Banerjee says:

    As far as I know, Shapurji Shaklatvala himself belonged to the Tata industrial family – but was disowned by the family and was disinherited of his share of the family’s fortunes, because he dared to become a Communist while living in Britain. He was to become the first Communist (and an Indian at that) to be elected to the British Parliament. He on his part, disowned
    his Tata associations and antecedents – as evident from his letter protesting against Gandhi’s acceptance of a purse from the Tatas. But then, Gandhi had no scruples in accepting financial patronage from unscrupulous industrial houses which exploited poor workers – the Birla house being the best example !

    Sumanta Banerjee