Formation of the Working Class During British Rule in India

Arora IAS Class Notes


The Industrial Spark (Mid-19th Century):

  • Modern industries emerge, employing thousands in railways, coal mining, textiles (cotton & jute).
  • Working conditions mirror European exploitation: low wages, long hours, poor hygiene, child labor, no amenities.
  • Colonial twist: facing both foreign and domestic capitalist exploitation.


Early Struggles (Pre-Unified Movement):

  • Moderate Nationalists:
    • Indifferent to labor’s cause.
    • Feared division within the independence movement.
    • Opposed labor legislation (seen as harming Indian industry).
  • Philanthropic Efforts:
    • Isolated attempts to address specific grievances.
  • Early Leaders (1870s-1890s):
    • Sasipada Banerjea (workingmen’s club & newspaper).
    • Sorabjee Shapoorji Bengalee (better working condition bill attempt).
    • Narayan Meghajee Lokhande (newspaper & worker association).


Signs of Unity (Late 19th Century):

  • First major strike (1899): Great Indian Peninsular Railway (supported by Tilak’s newspapers).
  • Nationalist leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal and G. Subramania Aiyar advocate for worker reforms.


The Working Class Movement in Colonial India


Swadeshi Upsurge (Early 20th Century):

  • Workers participated in broader political movements.
  • Leaders like Ashwini Coomar Banerjee organized strikes in government press, railways, and jute industries.
  • Attempts at forming trade unions had limited success.
  • Subramania Siva and Chidambaram Pillai led strikes in south India.
  • Largest strike followed Tilak’s arrest.


World War I and After:

  • Wartime factors (increased exports, inflation, low wages) fueled worker discontent.
  • Gandhi’s leadership emphasized mobilizing workers for the national cause.
  • International events (USSR, Comintern, ILO) influenced the movement.


The AITUC (1920s):

  • Founded in 1920 with Lala Lajpat Rai as the first president.
  • Initial influence from British Labour Party’s social democratic ideas.
  • Gandhian philosophy (non-violence, trusteeship) had a strong impact.
  • Gandhi helped organize a successful textile worker strike in Ahmedabad (1918).

The Trade Union Act (1926):

  • Recognized trade unions as legal entities.
  • Set regulations for registration and activities.
  • Provided immunity for legitimate trade union actions (with limitations on political activities).

Late 1920s:

  • Rise of communist influence brought militancy and revolutionary ideas.
  • Significant strike in Bombay textile mills (1928) led by the Girni Kamgar Union.
  • Emergence of communist groups with leaders like S.A. Dange and Muzaffar Ahmed.
  • Government repression: Public Safety Ordinance (1929), Trade Disputes Act (TDA, 1929).
  • TDA restrictions: mandatory dispute resolution processes, strike limitations in essential services, curbs on political activity.


Meerut Conspiracy Case (1929):

  • Arrest of 31 labor leaders, including Dange and Ahmed.
  • Lengthy trial with international attention, but weakened the movement.


  • Workers participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
  • Split in the AITUC (1931):M. Joshi led a corporatist faction to form the All India Trade Union Federation.
  • Communists rejoined the AITUC in 1935, forming a left front with Congress socialists and leftist nationalists.

Under Congress Ministries (1937):

  • AITUC supported Congress candidates in the 1937 elections.
  • Congress governments in provinces generally supported worker demands.
  • Favorable labor legislation enacted during this period.


The Working Class Movement: World War II and After

World War II:

  • Initial opposition to war (pre-1941).
  • Communists shift to supporting the war as a “people’s war” after USSR joins Allies (1941).
  • Dissociation from Quit India Movement and advocacy for industrial peace.


Post-War (1945-1947):

  • Active worker participation in national movements.
  • Dock worker strikes against supplying troops in Indonesia (1945).
  • Strikes in support of Naval Ratings (1946).
  • Increased worker strikes across sectors in the final year of British rule.



  • Alignment of working class movement with various political ideologies.

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