Calcutta General Strike

views updated

Calcutta General Strike

India 1953


India gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947. In the years that followed, the country faced numerous problems that ranged from extreme poverty to a rapidly growing population. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to overcome these problems and transform India into a modern, developed country. Among the issues that posed particular problems for India was the situation of the working class. Just as India and Pakistan had split at independence, the Indian labor movement was divided at independence, with four major labor federations competing for the loyalty of the country's workers. Often, these unions and federations resorted to strikes as a means to achieve their goals. In 1953 in particular, there was a wave of strikes in India. Among the most significant was a general strike in the city of Calcutta in July that resulted from increased streetcar fares.


  • 1932: Charles A. Lindbergh's baby son is kidnapped and killed, a crime for which Bruno Hauptmann will be charged in 1934, convicted in 1935, and executed in 1936.
  • 1937: Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
  • 1942: Signing of the Declaration of the United Nations occurs in Washington, D.C.
  • 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders to the Allied powers. Later in the summer, the new U.S. president, Harry Truman, joins Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam to discuss the reconstruction of Germany. (Churchill is replaced in mid-conference by Clement Attlee as Labour wins control of the British Parliament.)
  • 1947: Establishment of the Marshall Plan is intended to assist European nations in recovering from the war.
  • 1949: Soviets conduct their first successful atomic test. This heightens growing cold war tensions, not least because the sudden acquisition of nuclear capabilities suggests that American spies are passing secrets.
  • 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
  • 1952: George Jorgenson travels to Copenhagen and returns as Christine Jorgenson. (This is not the first sex-change operation; however, it is the first to attract widespread attention.)
  • 1955: The Warsaw Pact is signed by the Soviet Union and itssatellites in Eastern Europe.
  • 1957: Soviets launch Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. This spawns a space race between the two super-powers.
  • 1962: As the Soviets begin a missile buildup in Cuba, for a few tense days in October it appears that World War III is imminent. President Kennedy calls for a Cuban blockade, forcing the Soviets to back down and ultimately diffusing the crisis.
  • 1967: Racial violence sweeps America's cities, as Harlem, Detroit, Birmingham, and other towns erupt with riots.

Event and Its Context

India After Independence

In August 1947 the independent states of India and Pakistan emerged from British colonial possession. Despite the celebrations that marked India's break from Great Britain, however, the path to independent statehood was not an easy one. Hindu and Muslim leaders had been unable to reach an agreement by which to keep British India unified after independence. After independence, numerous outbreaks of violence erupted in response to ethnic and religious strife that affected the new countries. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the unrest, with millions more forced to move from their ancestral homes. Indeed, an angry Hindu refugee assassinated Mohandas Gandhi.

The person charged with smoothing India's transition to independence was Jawaharlal Nehru. Greatly influenced by the West, the nationalist Nehru sought to facilitate quick transition to a modern and prosperous India upon taking office in 1947. He hoped to achieve economic development for his country while also maintaining a sense of social justice. However, Nehru faced a number of daunting problems that would prove difficult to overcome.

One problem was that India was a large and diverse country. It was divided by geography, language, culture, religion, and caste. Furthermore, India was a predominantly peasant society that continued to practice traditional ways of life and work. It would be difficult to convince many in India to modernize. The country's growing population was another key issue that Nehru had to confront. At independence in 1947, the population was around 400 million and was growing by as many as five million every year. Such a large population contributed to high unemployment in India. By 1951 there were some two million unemployed in the cities and another 15 million in rural areas. High unemployment was exacerbated by widespread illiteracy and a lack of education and training. Furthermore, unemployment reflected and contributed to India's poverty, as low wages and malnutrition were common throughout the country. Many of the poor lived in India's growing cities, with Calcutta being home to some of the largest and poorest slums.

The Nehru government was forced to design an economic plan to deal with these many issues. Although Nehru left most established industries in private hands, the government came to control public utilities and many new projects, such as steel plants and irrigation systems. To this end, the government created a planning commission in 1950, reflecting the belief that the best way to raise the standard of living in India was to develop industry. The planning commission, chaired by Nehru himself, devised a series of five-year plans. The first five-year plan went into effect in 1951. This first plan was modest and cautious compared to subsequent plans. It emphasized several projects such as agricultural production, transportation, and communications. In general, the first five-year plan was a success, as national income grew faster than the population, food production increased, and output of capital and consumer goods grew. However, despite these impressive gains, India remained poor and unemployment continued to rise. Furthermore, the labor movement continued to agitate.

The Labor Movement in Post-independence India

The period immediately before and after the independence of India in 1947 was marked by much labor activity. In the year before India achieved its independence from Great Britain, there was a significant amount of labor agitation. In June 1946 a railroad workers' strike was averted at the last minute. In July 1946 post and telegraph workers struck for three weeks to demand wage increases. Some 40,000 teachers also went on strike in Utter Pradesh. There was further agitation among dockworkers, electrical workers, and textile workers in places such as Madras and Bombay.

After independence, the new Indian government inherited a situation of much pent-up labor unrest. Efforts toward a unified labor movement had failed. Instead, most workers and their unions were divided among four main labor federations in India. First was the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). Formed in May 1947, INTUC was directly linked to the Indian National Congress. INTUC members included some 200 unions with about 575,000 members. Its nucleus was the powerful Textile Labor Association of Ahmedabad and its 55,000 members. INTUC sought to resolve workers' issues peacefully without resorting to the use of strikes.

A second major labor federation from the independence era was the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, or Indian Workers' Association. This group was formed by socialists who broke away from the INTUC in 1948. They did so because they felt that INTUC's close association with the Indian National Congress and the government was not in the best interests of the working class. Rather, the goal of the Indian Workers Association was to bring about a socialist state. Often, therefore, this federation was critical of government labor policy. On the other hand, at times the Indian Workers Association collaborated with INTUC and the government when their interests and goals coincided. At its formation, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha consisted of 427 unions representing more than 600,000 workers.

United Trade Union Congress, a third federation of trade unions, formed in 1949. This federation generally held leftwing political views and was often critical of the government's labor policy. It called for a socialist state of workers and peasants. It also sought nationalization of industries. The United Trade Union Congress sought to carry out these goals through peaceful and democratic means, using strikes only as a last resort. It had some 250 affiliated unions with nearly 332,000 members.

The fourth major labor federation was the All-India Trade Union Congress, one of the first modern trade associations in India. The oldest of the federations, AITUC was founded in 1920 by leaders of the Indian National Congress. Its purpose was to provide representation for India at the League of Nation's International Labor Organization (ILO). Furthermore, AITUC was an outgrowth of India's growing labor movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Throughout the 1920s communists gained a great deal of control over the AITUC. By World War II they had gained complete control of the federation. They lost some backing when they decided to support the war effort on the side of the British, which caused AITUC to split between reformist and revolutionary factions. Nevertheless, at independence, AITUC, like some of the other federations, called for a socialist state and nationalization. AITUC was the biggest of the four federations in the late 1940s, with more than 600 member unions and nearly 800,000 members.

Events in Calcutta, July 1953

An example of the unrest in India during 1953 was the result of an increase in streetcar fares in the city of Calcutta during the month of July. On 1 July the city raised the fare for the second-class passage on Calcutta's streetcars. Many of the city's residents refused to pay the higher fare. By 3 July most streetcar service had been suspended as the situation grew violent. On that day, protesters twice attempted to set fire to streetcars. As the disorder increased, demonstrators threw fireworks at police and at a bus, injuring one child.

In response to the growing protests, authorities decided to arrest anyone who refused to pay the fare or leave the vehicle. This reaction in turn prompted a "resistance committee" to erect barricades throughout the city to inhibit streetcar service. Police had arrested some 300 people by the early afternoon even while the protestors threw stones at them. Among those arrested were three members of the West Bengal legislature, including two communists. Although service was restored by 3:00 P.M. to carry rush-hour traffic, there was no streetcar service after 6:30 P.M.. The communist-led "resistance committee" called for a strike to take place the following day to continue the protest.

The hartal, or general strike, virtually shut down the city for the next several days. On 5 July several policemen and demonstrators were injured in a number of confrontations. Notable among them was when the West Bengal police fired into a crowd of thousands protesting near the airport. The protestors had barricaded all roads approaching the area and stoned the police. Other demonstrators tried forcibly to prevent passengers from boarding the streetcars. As the police dispersed the crowd, they set fire to a railroad car. Police arrested more than 500 people that day for picketing, throwing bombs, and nonpayment of streetcar fares.

The situation worsened 10 days later when another general strike shut down Calcutta's stores, markets, and restaurants, once again to protest the increased streetcar fares. Protestors again impeded streetcar and bus service, attacking the vehicles with bombs, acid, and stones. Police fired on a crowd at Jadavpur, killing one person and injuring five others. Twelve policemen were injured by stones. Authorities arrested some 250 people on 15 July. Unrest grew that night and early the next morning, as strikers looted, set fires, and attacked police. Overnight, protestors uprooted the streetcar tracks and cut the overhead wires. Police again resorted to the use of force, firing on crowds and using tear gas. The police commissioner prohibited the assembly of five or more people. As tensions mounted, the government called in troops on 16 July to relieve a weary police force. The presence of the troops calmed the situation in the city, although sporadic violence still occurred over the next several days. For example, on the evening of 19 July, police refused to allow the demonstrators to hold a meeting. Protestors responded by barricading roads and breaking streetlights. In addition, the streetcars remained out of service for several days, impeding normal business activities in the city. Finally, by the end of the month, a semblance of order was restored to the city when the government suggested that the streetcar company suspend the fare increase until a tribunal could rule on the issue.

Key Players

Nehru, Jawaharlal (1889-1964): One of the leaders of India's independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, Nehru became the first prime minister of independent India in 1947. He sought to modernize the country so as to achieve economic and social development. To do so, he implemented a series of five-year plans. Despite some successes, India continued to face numerous problems such as poverty and unemployment. Many of these problems contributed to a strike wave in 1953.

See also: All-India Trade Union Congress; International Labor Organization.



Brecher, Michael. Nehru: A Political Biography. London:Oxford University Press, 1959.

Raman Rao, A. V. Indian Trade Unions. Honolulu:University of Hawaii Industrial Relations Center, 1967.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 4th ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

—Ronald Young