Voices through a Hundred Years

New book on Bombay's textile district

Glimpses from the History of Bombay's Textile District

About the Authors
Meena Menon has been a trade union activist for the past twenty years, and is currently Vice President of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Mill Workers Action Committee), the most active union of textile mill workers in Bombay. She also writes and does research for television.
Neera Adarkar has been active in the womens' movement for the past twenty years. She is a practising architect and a visiting professor in two architectural colleges in Bombay. She is a founding member of Majlis, a legal and cultural centre, and has also been associated with Stree Uvach, a feminist publishing group.
Both of the authors have been active in Bombay's mill areas, and involved in the struggle of the local people against displacement. They also play leading roles in citizens' initiatives addressing urban development issues.

The history of central Bombay's textile areas is one of the most important, if also least known, stories of modern India. Covering a dense network of textile mills, public housing estates, markets and cultural centres, this area covers about a thousand acres in the heart of India's commercial and. financial capital. Its residents offer narratives of the growth of colonial capital and industry, the emergence of working class politics and popular participation in the movements for Independence and linguistic statehood, and attest to the unique cultural milieu of Bombay City. With the advent of globalisation, the cultural and political survival of these over 1.3 million people, their culture and history, has been up for grabs. In a city where space has always been precious, the new economic policies of the Indian Government have sought to style this moribund industrial metropolis into a centre for global business and finance. In the past several years, the six hundred acres of prime real estate on which stand the decaying textile mills and their workers, have become the object of a new kind of class struggle. The middle classes and business elite are anxious to turn this space into offices and entertainment centres, and redevelop its land into high-rises and boutiques, integrating it with the business district in the south of the city and the suburbs to the north and west. The working-class residents face displacement after more than a century of constant habitation, and the social rhythms and cultural economy of this area face an impending destruction. The people of the area are demanding their legal and human right to live and work in the city, to preserve and maintain their livelihood, which is inseparable from this space. Hence the need to document the history and remember the struggles of these people, whose narratives speak to the heart of India's modernity. This book comprises over a hundred testimonies by the inhabitants of Bombay's textile mill districts, and are a window into the history, culture and political economy of a former colonial port city now recasting itself as a global metropolis. The book traces the events fifty years before and after Independence. While following the major threads of national and international events, we try to render the history of central Bombay not through the lives and philosophies of leaders, but through the narratives and perceptions of the people. Through this we hope to cast a new light on the processes of history as they were experienced by the working classes - the contesting ideas of what a free India would be; the growth of industry and labour movements; the World Wars and their impact; the complex politics of regional and lingustic identities in Bombay and Maharashtra; the eclipse of the organised Left and the rise of extremist communal politics.

Besides the Introduction and Conclusion, the book has a total of four chapters, which will come to a total of about 120,000 words. It will include 3-4 maps and about 20 photographs.


Chapter One (Genesis)
This chapter records the beginnings of the textile mill industry in Bombay City. It traces the emergence of a vibrant working-class community and its institutions. The cultural and social forms which arrived with migrants to the city from different regions of Maharashtra provided the underpinnings for a distinctive working class culture, a regional identity in a cosmopolitan idiom. We study the adoption and adaptation of these cultural forms in different political movements, and how these processes affected the attitudes of the working classes towards the dominant culture. The attitude of the Left parties towards the popular Ganeshotsav festival is a case in point. While most of the parties participated in the week long programme during the festival, differences existed as to whether it was correct to do so in what was a community event, yet one with a decidedly religious character. This chapter engages in debates around culture and religion, between propaganda of groups and popular cultural movements, the role of and relationship between dominant and subaltern cultures, and the events that led to the takeover of popular cultural forms and festivals by communal and parochial parties. An important conclusion drawn from the testimonies is that local organisations like the Ganeshotsav Mandals, the village Mandals, and other popular institutions are often autonomous of the parochial purposes to which they have often been mobilised, and what seems to be an appropriation by communal and religious groups is not quite as complete as may be imagined.

Chapter Two (Red Star over the Mills)
This section contains testimonies of those who participated in the struggle for Indian Independence, and in the Communist movement. The Left developed a strong and significant textile workers' union which played a vital role in the Indian trade union movement as well as the freedom struggle. Our informants narrate incidents connected with important but uninvestigated events like the Mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy, and the battles fought in the streets of Bombay by Subhash Chandra Bose's Azad Hind Fauj. The Communist Party's stand during the Second World War, when following the Soviet Union, it joined hands with the Allies; their subsequent their boycott of the Quit India movement; their aloofness even from trade union action during that period are viewed from the point of view of the ordinary cadres and the workers who were members of the union. Recorded testimonies from the movement for Independence also put paid to the notion that the freedom struggle was fought by purely peaceful and non-violent means.

Chapter Three (The War for Bombay)
This chapter deals with the Samyukta Maharashtra movement in the late fifties and early sixties - the post Independence struggle for the creation of the linguistic state of Maharashtra, and the inclusion of Bombay City as the capital of the State. The Left played an important part in the agitation for creating linguistic states out of the old colonial Presidencies, not only in Maharashtra but in Andhra Pradesh and Madras as well. Through spearheading these movements, they broke out of the isolation they suffered following the support to the British in World War II and the dominance of the Congress at Independence. Uniting with other parties while remaining at the forefront of the demand for Samyukta. Maharashtra, they forced Nehru's Government to concede their demands for linguistic statehood and the inclusion of Bombay in the new state, on the fear that the city and state would be taken over by the Communists. A majority of those who came out on the streets and laid down their lives in this struggle were people from the mill areas, mainly the workers led by the Communists. The ruling Congress Party manoeuvred itself back in the saddle by creating the state on one hand, granting Bombay to Maharashtrians, and then exploiting the differences between the Communists and Socialists. We discuss this. important and uninvestigated episode in the history of the Indian Left and provide insights into why, despite the strength of the left, they. were not able to retain their power.

Chapter Four (From Red to Saffron)
Of great contemporary interest, this chapter narrates the further displacement of the Left in the working-class areas of Bombay through the sixties and seventies by the emergent Shiv Sena. Through its effective use of nativist and communal slogans, cultural populism, demagoguery and violence, the Sena captured the old preserves of the red flag and turned them into saffron bastions. Based on narratives of this process, we derive insights into the possible reasons for the eclipse of one of the most powerful Left bastions in postcolonial India, and how this change was effected. Riding on the powerful linguistic and regional sentiments generated by the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, it built a mass movement out of an originally apolitical agenda of social service. This chapter contains testimonies of many of the trade union members and even children of communists who became members of the Shiv Sena. We have also interviewed activists and middle level cadres of the Sena, who later left the organisation because they felt betrayed by the party's move away from a regional agenda to a Hindu nationalist posture.

Each of the above chapters starts with a historical background of the particular historical phase,. which is followed by testimonies.

Although there is no dearth of material on the history and politics of Bombay, recent trends have suggested a revision of our historical perspectives to include the experiences of dominated or subaltern groups. The book therefore will be of interest to historians, sociologists, and other academics interested in the Indian Left and the labour movements, the processes of urbanisation and democracy, and generally in modern Indian history. For the general reader too, it offers a fascinating episodes from the history of a great city, simply and readably told.

For further information, contact Shekhar Krishnan, 58/58A, Anand Bhavan, 201, Lady Hardinge Road, Mahim, Mumbai 400016, Phone 91.022.4462728, E-Mail kshekhar@bol.net.in.

Posted: 20 April 2000