Centenary of the political awakening of Indian working class

Marking the centenary of the event, Mathew Abraham, brings to life a glorious chapter in the anti-colonial struggle when the working class of Bombay rose up in a political general strike, heroically facing British guns, against the incarceration of Lokamanya Tilak.

Marking the centenary of the event, Mathew Abraham, brings to life a glorious chapter in the anti-colonial struggle when the working class of Bombay rose up in a political general strike, heroically facing British guns, against the incarceration of Lokamanya Tilak.

When Curzon announced the partition of Bengal in 1905, it was not Bengal alone that rose up in revolt, but the whole country. The non-cooperation movement and movement to boycott British goods intensified. The colonial rulers intensified their oppressive policies by banning of Vande Mataram and other slogans of the popular struggle. They took over the control of the printing presses (June 1907) through the Press Act. While some leaders of the Congress Party tried to suspend the noncooperation movement, other leaders like Lokmanya Tilak called upon the people to intensify the struggle.

However, in the midst of all this a youth threw a bomb at a district magistrate in Muzafferpore, Bengal at the end of April 1908, which exploded near two English ladies and killed them. This was followed by the call for revenge by the Anglo Indian Press. The Government adopted a series of repressive measures all over India. Many nationalist newspapers were blacklisted and prosecutions started against them. Already in November 1907 the Government had passed the Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act under which the clause defining a public meeting was made so wide that even gatherings in private houses could be considered public meetings.

Now after the explosion, the Government passed two more measures of repression on June 8th 1908, the Explosive Substances Act and the Newspaper (Incitement to offenses) Act. The latter Act empowered a District Magistrate to confiscate the printing press of any newspaper which in his opinion, contained an incitement to acts of violence.

The year 1908 saw the Government following a ruthless policy aimed at suppressing the nationalists both of the constitutional and of the revolutionary schools. Student organizations were proscribed, national schools and swadeshi shops were forcibly closed down, public meetings dispersed.

In response to the rising repression, Tilak wrote two articles in Kesari “The Countries Misfortune ”and “These remedies are not lasting”. He attacked the Government, and appreciated the youthful enthusiasm of the revolutionaries in Bengal , without supporting their violence, and he pleaded with the Government to understand the changed psychology of the people. He drew parallels with the situation in Russia where the Czarist tyranny had driven people to take to violence and to the formation of secret societies.

The Russian Government had tried all manner of repressive measures-hanging, deportation to Siberia, imprisonment and confiscation of property- but the agitation by the people went on. The revolutionaries continued to throw bombs and to commit political murders. Even The Times, London, wrote that when constitutional agitation does not bring the desired results, the people have no option but to resort to bombs and bullets. As Tilak put it, “The most mighty Czar of Russia, too, had perforce to bow down before the bomb, and after making repeated attempts to break up the Duma, was in the end obliged to establish it as a matter of course…”. Further, “The Government has passed the Newspapers Act in order to stop the process of awakening; therefore it is possible the disappointment may take on a more terrible form and turn the heads of even the most thoughtful and intelligent people. The real and lasting method of stopping bombs is to make a start with granting important rights of self rule to the people. It is impossible for measures of repression to have a lasting effect on the people of India.”

The Government issued a warrant of arrest on June 24th 1908 in Bombay and charged Tilak with “bringing or attempting to bring into hatred and contempt, and exciting or attempting to excite disloyalty and feelings of enmity, towards His Majesty and the Government established by law in British India”.

The trial began on July 13th before Justice Davar and a jury consisting of seven Englishmen and two Indians On July 22nd at 10 o’clock in the night the trial came to an end, with the jury delivering a verdict of guilty by seven to two. The two Indians on the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” . Needless to say the trial was a farce and Tilak was refused permission to call witnesses of his choice. Tilak was sentenced to six years transportation. After the verdict, Tilak calmly said, “All I wish to say is that in spite of the verdict of the jury I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of things and it may be the will of providence that the cause which I represent is to prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free.”

From the next day, July 23rd to July 29th for six days, one day for every year of his sentencing, the mill workers of Mumbai struck work. Cloth, freight and share markets were all closed, which culminated a month long agitation.

On 25th June thousands of workers and people clashed with the police in front of the court where Tilak was to be produced. The confrontation between the workers and the colonial government once again intensified on 13th of July when Tilak’s trial started. Many textile mill workers declared strike and descended to the court area. They were joined by other people of Mumbai. Army was deployed on the streets of Mumbai in large numbers to stop the workers. From 14th to 16th July, workers from other mills also joined the strike. On 18th July police opened fire killing several workers.

The workers retaliated by throwing brickbats. On 19th July, in Mahim area of Mumbai, 65,000 workers declared strike. From dock workers to small shopkeepers, people came on the streets. Meanwhile, on 22nd July along with Tilak, five leaders of the workers were also sentenced. Tilak was given a prison sentence of six years. In spite of heavy rains, thousands of workers were present outside the court, which forced the authorities to take Tilak out from the back door of the court.

The strike began. By 23rd July it had become very widespread and had assumed the character of a general strike. The Anglo Indian Press said that Tilak was sentenced after a fair trial and protest by the textile workers is protest against the Government and insult to the court. They demanded that the Government must intervene to crush the strike. 23rd July to 28th July were six tumultuous days when more than a lakh of workers were on strike. On 24th July there were clashes between the striking workers and the army in which several workers became martyrs and many were wounded. On 27th July many people from the middle class and unorganized workers joined the strike. On the last day of the strike there were clashes with the police in which domestic servants fought shoulder to shoulder with the workers.

“… The infamous sentence pronounced by the British jackals on the Indian democrat Tilak … this revenge …. by the lackeys of the money-bag evoked street demonstrations and a strike in Bombay. In India, too, the proletariat has already developed to conscious political mass struggle – and, that being the case, the Russian-style British regime in India is doomed!”—V I Lenin, Inflammable Material in World Politics published in Proletary of 5th August 1908.

More than 200 workers and people were killed by the government actions and thousands were wounded. The British government was able to suppress the struggle by unleashing violence and with the help of their agents within the leadership of in the Congress party. However, they could not suppress the political awareness that was kindled in the minds of the workers.

Dr Mathew Abraham is a reputed chemical engineer and a social activist.

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