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Heroic role of women in Indian working class movement since generations

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Dr. BV Vijayalakshmi, National Secretary, AITUC

Apart from Indian Freedom struggle, the movements for development of our nation, had been entangled with glorious history of AITUC. We have to pave the way and by strengthening it, we should also continue to strive to reach yields of those struggles & movements to future generations as well. We have to take forward by strengthening these foundations in order to take the inspiration of these movements by future generations. AITUC was founded through it’s first conference on 31st October 1920 in empire theatre of erstwhile Bombay which was presided over by Lalalajpat Rai. Among many other resolutions include embargo on export of food grains, proper registration of unemployed, accident insurance facility be provided, privilege and sick leaves be provided and put an end to barbaric attacks of police on workers and employees. Apart from these resolutions an important resolution was pertaining to arranging facilities for welfare of the infants of the Working women. To everybody’s embezzlement still we are demanding welfare centres for infants. That shows even in the period of hundred years the ruling classes do not have the honesty to redress the grievances of women and children. Though AITUC has completed it’s hundred years officially, many working class movements were started by several of our comrades from the previous century itself. Industrial revolution in the world has started much earlier but it has come to India after much delay. One reason was India is an agricultural country and another important reason being India was subjugated to export raw materials in order to make the country dependent on finished goods. In our country the first industry was established in 1850s in Bombay i.e. cotton textile mill. Aftermath of this in Bombay alone several textile mills have come up. Jute mills in Bengal and coconut Fibre/coir industries in Kerala in big numbers have been started. Slowly many other industries also sprang up. In India working class movement is being considered by historians as in three stages. First stage is from the middle of 19 th century upto First World War. Second stage is from then onwards till the independence of our nation. Third stage is being there after. In first stage though there was no organised Trade union, struggles have started with a class approach in order to solve the issues. First and foremost Trade union was started in textile mill of Bombay in 1851. Subsequently another trade union was started in 1854 in jute mill of Calcutta. In 1879 itself a commission was established to study the living and working conditions of Indian working class. In 1891 first Industrial Act was achieved. That has not served any purpose. In 1890 a huge protest demonstration was held with 10,000 workers. Along with other demands , demand of weekly off which was proposed by working women was also included. After this throughout the country, in every mill and in every sector unions were formed. Working women in big numbers have become part & parcel of the unions. Women have joined in big numbers in areas where industrialisation took place. In 1913, in Bombay the workforce constituted about 22,402 women workers out of 1,10,033 workers, which was 20 percent of the total workforce. The conditions prevailing in those mills were very pathetic. There was much exploitation of human labour, as there were not any kind of labour legislations. The working hours were unlimited and with weekly offs and wages were very low. Hence spontaneous struggles and strikes have erupted. In all the industries along with men, women along with their children used to work. In all these struggles women were participating with full enthusiasm. There used to be many atrocities & threats on women. There was no job guarantee. Inspite of it women workers were never frightened of the situation and used to stand in the forefront of each and every struggle. In 19th century alone in Kerala manufacturing of coir from coconut fiber was started and major portion was getting exported to other countries. In Malayalam language coir means string. The word “COIR” in English got established that way. The carpets made of coir of Kerala were very famous in England and elsewhere in 1840s. These carpets were being used in Europe too in big numbers. Exports to foreign countries were to the tune of ₹ 6 lakhs in 1860, which has grown to ₹43.6 lakhs by 1864-65. In 1901 carpet looms industry was started in Aleppy and 1100 were employed. By the time of First World War exports were reached to it’s peak level. But aftermath of the War, situation has changed. There was a shortage of workforce in the industries. Hence they used to go to rural area and pleaded with the farmers and agricultural labour to come and work as industrial workers. By 1930 in Aleppy alone had 1,33,000 workers in industries and about 32,000 in cottage industries of raw materials manufacturing. Travancore Labour Association (AITUC) was started in 1922, and became the strongest union with in short span of time. According to historians, these leaders of the trade unions and the workers were fighting not only for their economic issues but they have become well trained matured political personalities. They took up movements as disciplined working class. Since 1931 managements have started cut in their rightful wages. Lack of job security began. There were two kinds of coconut coir industry. First one is preparation of raw material which was in unorganised sector. Second one is transforming raw materials into finished products which were in organised sector. In unorganised sector 90 percent were women and in organised sector, Women were more than 25 percent. Day by day wages were being reduced, increased working hours, most unhygienic working places which has resulted in intensifying the struggles. Organised working class under the leadership of strong unions has demanded for labour legislations. Ultimately there was a call for statewide General strike. Strike began on 21st of October 1938. Everyday there was a confrontation and struggle. Women took part in big numbers. On 24 th October 1938 military fired guns on striking workers. In that ghastly incident one Ammu & Subhodha, two women workers have lost their lives. Inspite of it, all the women continued their struggle with much more vigour and determination. With their sacrifice and determined struggle many demands could be achieved. Strike was withdrawn on 15th November 1938. Aftermath of this strike, women committees were formed in every industry. With these committees initiative was taken to give proper training to women workers in order to organise themselves in a big way. In the same sector, one more heroic woman emerged and played a historic role and it was K. Devayani. She Struggled with several problems till her last breath. In 1936 at the age of 15 years, she formed a union called Kaarya roopiri thojivaari union for the women workers in Aleppy Taluq. In a very short span of time she realised the benefits of larger movements and joined the main stream of trade union movement and was successful in mobilising and activising women in huge numbers. Along with her friends Meenakshi, Dhakshayini and Bhavani led a commune life and were conducting training camps for activists. Women coir workers were attending those training camps after their duty is over. Apart from the industrial women workers she organised agricultural labour as well. She has awakened the women agricultural labour of Kollarcode agricultural fields and organised a strike which was successful. Six Annas wages was the a achievement and a rest of half an hour in the afternoon. Slowly Police attacks on her started increasing. One day she was compelled to stay in a graveyard for the whole night in order to save herself from police chasing. Her daughter Radhammal died of poverty. This incident took place in Karivellore struggle period. Movement had recognised her as the first martyr of that struggle. Subsequently Devayani has mobilised women in Punnapra Vayalur struggle. She has struggled with poverty along with many other problems. As almost all the women workers were illiterates, they were enthused with revolutionary (Thiruvathira) songs. Women leaders have toiled to a great extent in order to make women to join the unions. Another important industry in the premier industrial areas was Jute industry of Bengal. In the then Calcutta city there were many jute mills in Baranagar area. In search of livelihood many families from different parts of the country reached Calcutta. Similarly, in 1930 from Madhya Pradesh, Dukhmath Didi along with her husband joined a jute mill in Calcutta. Both the wife and husband used to work in the machine room as workers. They used to get six Annas as wages. There were another six to seven hundred working women. They were victims of exploitation with low wages and without job security. Angered Dukhmath didi began to organise workers. She has taught them to be united and launch struggles against suppression. Instead of succumbing to such suppressions it will be better to die in struggle. Thus she awakened the workers. In 1946 in jute mill of Baranagar 14000 workers went on strike. Manager’s car was gheraoed by workers at the gate of the company. Dukhmath has played a militant role along with the other 700 women workers. Ultimately they could succeed to an extent. Aftermath of Independence in 1947, in order to take part in the discussions on matters pertaining to factory, there was a pressure to conduct elections & to recognise trade union representatives committee which was finally agreed by the management in the year 1950. First time as Part of that committee, Dukhmath was elected as the AITUC representative. In 1953 in Dalhousie area of Calcutta, main office of Indian Jute mill Association was surrounded by 20,000 jute mill workers. Dukhmath led this struggle. She propagated her entire life that class struggle alone can liberate the workers from a capitalist society. She has relentlessly worked for the wage increase, medical facilities for those injured in the accidents, for compensation, maternity benefit, allowances, pension facilities etc. She was not only leading the workers of Jute mills, but was also active in other social issues. When there was a famine all over the country, she mobilised many women and aroused consciousness among them to work for the social causes like food problem and other issues of dire necessities. The police were after her and surrounded her office with a big force to arrest her. But she was so brave that she could easily escape in front of their eyes in a male attire. She lived a very simple life in a slum along with other workers in a small room, which was resembling a dark cave in Baranagar jute mill area. There is no family of her own. She used to feel that the workers of that slum are her family. Her slogan was “March forward unitedly-and resist”. She was born in a working class family and toiled as worker and led class struggles among thousands of jute mill workers. She was a militant leader of working class. People of that area used to call her affectionately as Dhukhmath Didi (sister). She passed away in 1994 at the age of 84 years. There were many more heroic women organisers like Dukhmath Didi who could awake, organise, mobilise and lead militant class struggles. That is how the strong trade unions emerged and could survive and succeed. In the state of Andhra and Nizam’s Hyderabad state, in 1956, prior to the formation of Andhra Pradesh, there were several industries. Jute, textile, tobacco & beedi were the largest. Women were working in huge numbers in these industries. The work atmosphere in these industries was very unhygienic and harmful and they were paid very low wages. But, still the women were compelled to work there, because of their pathetic conditions of poverty. Women workers used take their children to workplaces along with them. Mothers and children used to suffer with chest diseases frequently. In Hyderabad apart from textile mills, other industries used to exist. Cottage industries like matchboxes, Beedis, bangles, pharmaceuticals, Cigarettes etc in which big chunk were women. In Hyderabad several industrial estates have come up. Apart from these many were working in unorganised sector. Along with other industries, in tobacco industry working women were in big numbers in Andhra region. In ITDC tobacco godowns of Gollapudi area outskirts of Vijayawada, Joshyabhatla Subbamma tirelessly worked to organise women workers. She has brought them into the fold of AITUC organisation and also struggled for the redressal of their grievances. She was quite successful in bringing them into the main social stream. Many struggles were conducted for equal pay for equal work for women agricultural workers. In Guntur there were several tobacco godowns in which thousands of women were working. Many women leaders worked to organise them. Among them Bhagyamma was one such leader. She has played an active role in the trade union movement and at the same time enthused the women to be militant in their struggles both at home and outside. Though several governments have changed, but, the problem remained unsolved. But the relentless pursuit of AITUC and Agricultural labour union are continuing their struggles. Prameela Tai Mahendra was an able, efficient worker during the Telangana armed Struggle. She was working as a courier and several times she was very audacious in supplying arms. She was very brave and intelligent. Later she worked in the industrial area and built up the trade unions with same efficiency. She has tirelessly worked for the rights of young women in biscuit industries, by forming AITUC unions. Another heroine of Telangana armed struggle Com Brijrani Gour though she was working in Mahila Samakhya she was organising many women in the unorganised sector. She has tirelessly worked for achieving their rights. She has led very simple life while living with her husband Dr Raj Bahadur Gour in a colony meant for sewerage workers. Padma Naidu (Nayudamma) was working in state road transport corporation. She has mobilised many working women in trade union activities apart from taking part in many social activities. Along with her Rukmini & Shanta played an active role. In 1960s there was a long drawn strike in APSRTC. Padma Naidu not only participated actively in the strike by mobilising the workers, but, also organised family members and children of the colony in the strike. At that time there was brutal lathi charge on her and was kept in jail for ten days. The pain and the bruises continued for more than a month. As many common women inspired by freedom struggle stood in the forefront, similarly many class conscious women activists have made many sacrifices in trade union movement. Many women working in different sectors were very successful in strengthening the trade union movement. Medical employees union of both the Telugu states constituting about 70% of women employees is very successful in achieving their demands for the last 70 years. Our Beedi unions, where only women toil the whole day and night are working very hard. Unorganised sector women workers are being unionised, but, everywhere many could not come to the leading positions. Though the reasons being evaluated as their family responsibilities, but, the all pervasive patriarchal mindset is the root cause to a great extent, which has to be overcome by developing the class consciousness among the working class. Even in the days in our Indian society, when the women were not supposed to step out of the house, our women have proved their efficiency in several fronts breaking the glass ceiling. Though, many of the middle class women and women employees still feel it as degradation to participate in agitations, but the class conscious women are not lagging behind to come forward to the forefront of the movement. An incident should be remembered. The biggest tea estate Kannan devan hills plantation is on Moonar hills of Kerala. In September 2015 nearly 5000 women workers were on a lightening strike demanding an increase in their wages. There was peaceful strike for many days. They did not have any organised Trade union. They could achieve their demands with their organised force. Ultimately negotiations were fruitful. In September 2016 central government has imposed certain restrictions on withdrawal of their own money from their provident fund accounts. As soon as the news spread, one lakh twenty thousand women workers of garments factories of Bangalore have came on the streets. With in hours workers and employees of other industries also joined them. These working women of Bangalore paralysed the city. Ultimately central government was compelled to withdraw their decision. With this experience we can understand, that, if women understand their issues, they are having the natural character of responding unitedly. Hence we should encourage them to bring more and more into the organisation and the agitations. Particularly in unorganised sector the problems are immense. There is no wage, social and employment guarantee. There is no “ worker “ recognition to the millions of agricultural labour, retail sales persons, domestic Workers, anganwadi workers, Asha, midday meals employees and other scheme workers. They are being exploited with lowest wages. They are in the forefront in all the struggles. With their relentless struggles, they could achieve some of their demands to a very little extent. There are many heroic struggles to their credit. But, still, much is awaited. They have to be get prepared for still larger struggles in the present scenario of anti people government. It is the responsibility of all of us to inspire, enthuse and encourage them to carry forward their struggles. There are eminent leaders of AITUC at the level of international fame of leaders like Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxembourg, Mary Jones etc. They are Parvathi Krishnan, Roja Deshpande who served the working class from the grassroots to the national level.

Parvati Krishnan had participated in national freedom struggle and worked with Coimbatore textile mill workers. She was elected to parliament thrice. Though she has born in a rich family of having assets of 5000 acres of land, has left every thing and dedicated her entire life for the cause of working class. She served as the Vice President of AITUC at national level. She passed away on 20th February, 2014 at the age of 94 years.

Another heroic leader being Ushathai Dange of Mumbai who led several militant trade union movements. Mill manager was gheraoed for the whole night by women workers under her leadership. In another incident in 1929 while participating in the biggest textile mills strike, she laid her infant baby at the gate in order to stop the mill owners from entering the factory. That infant was Roja Deshpande, who grew with same fighting spirit as her parents.

Later, she became the eminent trade unionist of Mumbai. Mumbai citizens call her as “Red rose” with affection. She has led many trade unions of textile mills and pharmaceutical industries. Workers of pharmaceuticals industries know that their conditions have been improved because of her. Earlier in Pharma companies, only unmarried women were employed and once they get married, they would be sacked from the job. This was the connivance of the management to avoid giving them the maternity benefit. Such condition was prevailing in Air India also. She fought against such inhuman conditions tirelessly. Ultimately managements had to came down. That was her fighting spirit. In 1994 she got elected to parliament with thumping majority. She was her usual powerful and vociferous speaker even in the parliament which attracted many. Her speeches were inspiring with content. She has passed away on 19th September 2020 at the age of 91 years. Till her last breath, she was active with her studies and library work. Not only the popular heroic women leaders, but, there are many unknown leaders with rank and file of the organisation, who had brilliant fighting capacities in annals of the history of trade union movement.This hundred years history of trade union movement is full of sacrifices. One has to be dedicated and sacrificing towards the toiling people. We have to prepare workers as disciplined soldiers of class struggle without any discrimination of men and women.



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