Archive for the tag “Book Review”

Plantation Capitalism and the Working People: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

An informed reader may find a few interpolations here vis a vis Behal’s published articles. A book length exposition of the subject is interspersed with certain improvisation of methods. Behal collects a couple of private papers, diaries, recollections and reportages of some planters. Cambel’s and Cotton’s reportages support the thesis of abuses of ‘coolie’, ill-treatment meted out to them and ‘discriminatory protectionism’ administered to them. Behal uses this archive to analyse world views of the planter and their graduation to the ‘coolie driver’. Planters considered the worker as ‘jungley’, inferior humankind, sub-human species, persons of low intellect and indolent animal. They regarded the provision of penal contract, below-subsistence wages and ostentatious flogging as necessary measures to deal with such native labour. #Author

Cover of Reviewed Book

Cover of the Reviewed Book

By Dhiraj Kumar Nite

Plantation Capitalism and the Working People: A Book Review

The Indian subcontinent established itself as the largest exporter of tea on the international market between 1890s and 1947. The rise and growth of tea plantations in the Brahmaputra Valley, Assam since the late-1830s, was the mainstay of this history. It was the biggest agro-industrial venture and, equally, the largest employer of workforce. The book of our discussion presents exposition ofthe plantations under ‘capitalism of its colonial variant’, its labour-management relationship, and the way the young European planter graduated to the ‘coolie driver’, and labour resistance.

Behal suggests, qua Walter Rodney (1981), the plantations developed as capitalist economy in the colonial context. Labour servitude, the dependency relationship and ‘the appallingly low’ standard of living of workers characterised the labour regime.Behal modifies the thesis that the indenture labour was ‘a new system of slavery’ (Hugh Tinker 1974). He highlights the elaborate ways, which planters devised in the midst of indenture legislation to create generational servitude of workers. They improvised newer methods of control for perpetuating the dependency relationship in the post-indenture era as well.

The plantations adopted a labour-intensive method of production. Workers were subject to legal cum extra-legal and non-market cum market methods of coercion and restrictionwith a view to securing maximum labour during the era of penal contract [Indenture] labour system (1863-1919). Planters often paid workers ‘below subsistence’ wages, provided them little medical, sanitary and educational facilities, and offered nominal maternity and sickness benefits. They asked for heavy nirik(task) that was linked with the pay. They flogged workers for attempts of absconding, non-compliance, defiance and on charges of unsatisfactory performance; at times, flogging resulted indeath of the victim. They were emboldened by the scenario: the bureaucracy and judiciary administered ‘unequal and discriminatory justice’ in their favour.The Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act (1859-1926), additionally, gave supports to labour servitude. The time-expiredand other local workers were contracted under the concerned Act. Here, planters treated the bonus of Rs 12 paid to workers as advances and,practically, adjusted it with workers’ wages.

In the era of so-called free labour since 1927, planters increased employment ofthe faltu/basti labourers (ex-garden workers settled on the government and private lands) at lower wagesthat helped depress wages in general. They continued to deploy the benefits of service tenancy, easy advances, credits and subsidised rice for creating a dependent, bonded workforce. They also devised newer ways of immobilising labourers and restraining the formation of labour market. They adopted a wage agreement among themselves in order to keep wages uncompetitive since 1929. Faced with the impending threat of trade-union movement from 1938-39, they imposed a mechanism of the conditional recognition of labour organisation,promotion of artisanal unions, and repression of agitators. They successfully allied with the new Congress government since 1946-47, and suppressed the Communist-backed agitation. They patronised the Congress-sponsored INTUC activity upon the promise of not upsetting the existing labour-management relationship (p. 308).

Such labour relation was responsible for the crisis of reproduction of humankind and extremely unequal, roughshod social milieu. Planters continuously recruited migrant labourers in the range of 30,000 to 40,000 a year, i.e., more than two million [distant] migrants during 1860s-1940s. However, it could have a workforce of approx. 400 thousands in the 1900s and over 800 thousands in 1934-1947. Women constituted about 45 percent of the workforce. The plantations witnessed high rates of mortality of the recruit in the course of transportation and in the tea gardens as well as desertion. A low birth rate, high abortion and morbidity rates, and absenteeism to the tune of 25 percent further compounded the difficulty.

Behal’s exposition debunks the revisionist historiography. The latter underplays the lack of freedom involved in indenture and gives primacy to the economic rationality of a system, which supposedly benefited employers and labourers alike(DavidW. Galenson1984; P.C. Emmer 1986).Behal highlights the practices that structured the indenture contract, dependency relationship and conditions of live and resistance. However, the history of 1840-61, the period before the indenture system when labour servitude was not a defining moment and the Katcharisworkers did strike in 1848 and others did the same in 1859 for higher wages and fair treatment, calls for a historical imagining that may not dovetail well with that of the ‘hundred years of servitude’.

The indentured labour system was an integral part of capitalism in the colonial context. Its essence (cheap, coerced labour) remained largely intact within the dependency relationship, which was noticeable for long even after 1947, suggests Behal (pp. 328, 335). This tension-ridden assertion provokingly lingers on. It calls for a split between the colonial/capitalist form of exploitation, on one side, and, on the other, its specific mode of power?

The policy of laissez faire maintained by the colonial state actually meant, Behal argues, that the state assisted European capital. It transformed the migrant labourer into the coerced labour through a legal framework. It offered huge acreage to capital at the throwaway prices;invested in the construction of railways and roads for capital accumulation; financed the R&D for improved productivity and a standardised product; and donated fund for the expansion of export market.It did not bother much, Behal argues, for curbing the planters who often did not pay the statutory wages to workers, forced workers to do more than nine-hour long workday and full Sunday work, and discriminatory unequal justice was a rule than exception. Behal’s findings strengthen the thesis that ‘the visible hand of the state’ was a crucial factor responsible for economic growth / underdevelopment at all historical phases (Deepak Nayyar 2013: 119-121). It would critique another revisionist argument: the British state adopted sympathetic approaches on both fronts of addressing the grievance of capital against shortage of labour and indiscipline labour and workers’ complaints of abuse and torture in the ‘coolie trade’ (TirthankarRoy 2008: 987; Peter Robb 2005).

Planters maintained handsome dividends for the investor despite the falling prices in the 1870s-1900s and fluctuating prices in the subsequent period. They deployed various means to intensify labour, suggests Behal. Workload roughly increased by 25 to 30 percent in the 1890s (p. 259). The labour productivity continually rose in the 20thc. New scientific inputs became available from the R&D activity to reduce the number of workers per acreagein the 1930s-40s. What was the connection, if at all, between those two economic phenomena, on one side, and of theirs with workers’ resistance to intensification of labour, on the other? Not explored. Behal clubstogether ‘extensification of labour’ and appropriation of absolute value with ‘intensified labour’ and appropriation of relative surplus. The reinforced supervisory efforts and ticca (additional pay for extra work) benefits helped secure, underlines Behal, continually intensified labour. Ian J. Kerr (1997) modifies the marxian understanding (1863) from his study of a similar socio-economic phenomenon: mechanisation is not a necessary vehicle of intensified labour and relative surplus; and appropriation of absolute surplus and relative surplus could be coeval.

The bookintegrates the experience of workers and labour resistance with the study of political economy. The tea gardens hosted three starkly unequal, divergent and, yet,interconnected life worlds of the European planter, the Indian worker (called ‘coolie’) and other clerical and supervisory staff. The latter group has not received sufficient attention. Workers were not gullible, ignorant and mute victims of labour servitude,highlights Behal.The ex-tea garden labourers displayed an increasing tendency to settle as tenant cultivators on the government cum private land and become service tenants on the plantation land. Behal does not read off whatsoever workers’ resistance to miserable proletarianisation and the desire for a modicum of respectable tenant life. The book shares the dominant discourse that the aboriginals and tribal represented economically and socially the most marginalised strata of the labour catchment area; they constituted 50 to 60 percent tea labourers. Other unprivileged castes constituted 30 to 40 percent. Further, 10 to15 percentlabourers belonged to the underprivileged castes. The book,unnecessarily,reproduces the planter’s pejorative terms, like ‘jungly’,‘coolie’(p. 257).They got dispossessed owing to excess revenue and indebtedness that pushed them to migration(p. 257). This minor point is not exact reference, despite Behal’s claim, to the conclusion of PrabhuMohapatra (1985: 291-97). The latter maintains that the combination of ecological condition in the shape of attacks of famine and drought on the peasants involved in expansion of the arable land, fluctuation and instability in food supply, costlier credit and little savings at the peasants’ disposal, and little investment in irrigation infrastructure undertaken by the colonial state, made emigration as an alternative.

Workers preserved their diverse caste and ethnic identities; yet, they forged solidarity to undertake regular collective protests (p. 277-8). How did they maintain diverse identities beyond the practice of endogamous marriages? What accounted for the co-existence of diverse identities and collective political actions? Oh!Not sufficient elaboration. Was the former resistance to degrading proletarianisation in terms of breaking away from the traditional community and kinship ties and adoption of an abstract individualiation in the social realm? The import of ‘new social history of labour’ seems minimal here. Consequently, the analysis of workers’ notions of indignity, income, reproduction and resentment over it surface as a synchronic entity of fixed texture, which were wrapped in time. The wage struggle simply comes out as a matter of gap between earnings and the cost of living index. The fight against sexual harassment and flogging of women and boys does not come up as a pointer to the social ethic of workers collective.

Women performed household chores and wage work. They were also subject to sexual demands of planters; the latter at times forced women to share a polyandrous relation in the service of labour stability. Placed in a subhuman existence they negotiated the reproduction burden through abortion (p. 260). Behal does not take any issue with Samita Sen’s (2005) finding that women at times saw an opportunity in sexual liaison with the garden sirdar. Needless to say, we are still waiting for a more focused examination of women’s experiences on the plantations.

Workers showed a great deal of awareness of their rights, lodged complaints and increasingly undertook subterranean as well as organised resistance, underscores Behal. Weapons of the weak included the actions, such as Jhumar folksong, which expressed workers’ critique of abuses in labour recruitment, daily drudgery, coercion, and their feeling of disappointment. It accompanied other individual and collective forms of protest. Workers’ attempts of desertion shot up in the 1880s; assaults on the manager frequented in the 1890s onwards. The mass exodus in the 1920s and strikes and trade-union movement in the 1930s on joined the repertoire of protest. Behal suggests that workers articulated grievances and demands in a clearer language by the late 1930s; their demand now became economic-in-nature. Workers’ awareness of the rights, notions objectionable issues and resolutions to the problem did emerge and develop, it could be said, in a sequential manner that unfolded with own historical specificity. Damn! We still wait for this history to come. A notion of dastur(customary practice)and its violation prompting workers’ protest also seems to have been at work.

The history of workers’ awareness and resistance should have been, it could be said, interwoven with the earlier discussion, where the planters looked as despotic ruler and workers as servile, reflexive persons.Such split, as it is, in the narrative structure conveys an impression that workers’ resistance had little impact over the planters’ behaviour pattern – excepting the fact that the abolition of the penal contract labour system in 1908 and Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act in 1926 partly owed to labour resistance. For instance, following brawls and riots between workers and managers, complaints were brought to the magistrate by labourers and planters in the 1890s on (p. 282). After 1908, the manager abused labourers; he apprehended retaliatory assaults and sought prosecution by lodging legal case against the labourers (p. 285).Therefore, a slippage like this occurs: ‘The planters enjoyed unquestioned control over the labour force’ (134). An analytical framework is needed, where the social struggle is the vehicle of development.

No unified labour organisation developed across the gardens. Behal explains it: Planters succeeded in immobilising workers, restricting and regulating access of outsiders, and securedsilence/apathy of the Assamese nationalist towards garden labourers. Nationalist leaders enjoyed links with native planters and maintained social and cultural distance with garden workers (p. 310).

An informed reader may find a few interpolations here vis a visBehal’s published articles. A book length exposition of the subject is interspersed with certain improvisation of methods. Behal collects a couple of private papers, diaries, recollections and reportages of some planters. Cambel’s and Cotton’s reportages support the thesis of abuses of ‘coolie’, ill-treatment meted out to them and ‘discriminatory protectionism’ administered to them. Behal uses this archive to analyse world views of the planter and their graduation to the ‘coolie driver’. Planters considered the worker as ‘jungley’, inferior humankind, sub-human species, persons of low intellect and indolent animal. They regarded the provision of penal contract, below-subsistence wages and ostentatious flogging as necessary measures to deal with such native labour. Jean Breman (1989) and Michel Taussig (1985) have studied the effect of ‘estrangement’ shared by planters on their brutal cum cruel attitude towards workers. DipeshChakrabarty (1989) has underlined the co-existence of modern/capitalist arrangement of production, on one side, and precapitalist/premodern form of power, on the other. The latter explains, argues Chakrabarty, the fact that the manager conducted public violent punishment to discipline and control the labourer. Behal shuns such distinction; instead, Behal’s findings reveal the cultural locus of ‘mode of power’, which planters wielded.

Behal suggests that the language of sources distorts our view. His narrativeundertakes in-itself a judicious assessment of divergent view-points and roles of the different actors available in archive; which juxtaposes various types of source; underscores fudging of figures. This is par excellence over the history of wage and wellbeing. It discovers substantial underreporting of those of workers’ attempts of desertion that got caught up and punished in the garden. Such cases were not reported to the police and labour inspector (p. 231). The imperfect [i.e., low] official statistics of desertion cum prosecution, as it were, led T. Roy (2008: 988) to conclude that neither wages nor the quality of life were actually worse on the plantations; that historians have exaggerated reports of the involuntary nature of migration. Behal’s narrative applies ‘a close reading of conventional sources’, including a better-known Jhumar(folksong of the teagarden) for especially writing about the notion and perception shared by workers and their self-activity.

Behal, Rana P, One Hundred Years of Servitude: Political Economy of Tea Plantations in Colonial Assam, Delhi: Tulika Books, 2014.ISBN-10: 9382381430.

Dhiraj k Nite Dhiraj Kumar Nite, A Social Scientist, University of Johannesburg, Ambedkar Univeristy Delhi. You can    contact him through

पढ़ने वाले की आँख निकल कर पेपर पर गिर पड़ती है: पीयूष राज

‘वह भी कोई देश है महाराज’ की समीक्षा लिखते हुए स्तंभकार, पटकथा लेखक और अभिनेता मयंक तिवारी कहते हैं कि अनिल यादव का लिखते रहना हिंदी में एक नयी जान फूंक सकता है. बीबीसी के वरिष्ठ पत्रकार राजेश जोशी का भी यही मानना है. ज्ञानरंजन तो लगभग फतवे के अंदाज में कहते हैं कि अनिल किसी बने-बनाये पथ के अनुगामी नहीं हैं और उनका मन  इस किताब (वह भी कोई देश है महाराज) को तरह-तरह से प्रचारित करवाना-करना चाहते हैं. यह किताब सचमुच में  हिंदी की पैठ को गैर-हिंदी और साहित्येत्तर इलाकों में करवाती है. इसके क्या कारण हो सकते हैं? पीयूष राज ने सुरेन्द्र चौधरी के बहाने सच ही कहा है कि ‘इस किताब में व्यक्त यथार्थ बिल्कुल भिन्न तरह का  है , जो सत्ता और जनता के अंतर्विरोध के साथ-साथ जनता के आपसी अंतर्विरोधों की प्रस्तुति करता है . प्रख्यात आलोचक  सुरेन्द्र चौधरी के शब्दों में यह ‘समकालीन यथार्थवाद’ है ‘ यह पुस्तक सत्य और असत्य, पक्ष और विपक्ष जैसे पहले से अवस्थित रूढ़ प्रारूपों के कहीं बीच रास्ते  बनाती हुयी  निकल जाती है. 
सूचना है कि अनिल यादव इन दिनों एक उपन्यास लिखने में व्यस्त हैं, तिरछिस्पेल्लिंग की तरफ से उन्हें शुभकामनायें, और पाठकों के अधीर होने से पहले पूरा करने की गुजारिश भी है. 

'वह भी कोई देश है महाराज' के आवरण पृष्ठ

‘वह भी कोई देश है महाराज’ के आवरण पृष्ठ

मधुमक्खियों के डंक झर तो नहीं जाते

(‘वह भी कोई देश है महाराज’ की समीक्षा )

By पीयूष राज 

क्या आप साहित्यिक विमर्शों से चट चुके हैं ? वैचारिक आग्रहों के बोझ से लदे चमत्कारपूर्ण वाक्य-विन्यासों से आपका सिर दर्द हो रहा है? और हर रोज बाज़ार आ रही नई-नई किताबों की तूफान में भी आपका दम घुट रहा है ? ऐसी स्थिति में अनिल यादव की किताब ‘वह भी कोई देश है महाराज’ ऑक्सीजन की सिलेंडर की तरह तुरंत राहत प्रदान करेगी . ऐसा इसलिए नहीं कि यह पुस्तक किसी पुरानी साहित्यिक जमीन को तोड़ती है और कुछ असाधारण रच देने का भाव लिए हुए है . बल्कि यह साधारणत्व के सौन्दर्य का पुनः सृजन है . इस किताब का अनूठापन इसी में छिपा है . लेखक के कथनानुसार यह यात्रा-वृतांत है (अगर इस तथ्य को उजागर नहीं किया जाए तो यह पुस्तक किसी लम्बी कहानी या उपन्यास की तरह है) और पूर्वोत्तर भारत पर केंद्रित है . यह यात्रा लेखक ने पुस्तक रचना के क़रीब दस साल पूर्व छः महीने की अवधि में की थी .पुस्तक पढ़कर ही यह समझा जा सकता है कि छः महीने के अनुभवों को समेटने में दस वर्ष का अन्तराल क्यों है . मुक्तिबोध के शब्दों में कहा जाए तो यह अन्तराल ‘संवेदनात्मक ज्ञान’ के ‘ज्ञानात्मक संवेदना’ में परिणत होने में लगा अन्तराल है .यह पुस्तक भावों के ठोस और पके रूप का सुन्दर उदाहरण है . इसके बिना यह पुस्तक पूर्वोत्तर की  कोई सामान्य सी यात्रा-वृत्तान्त  होती, बिल्कुल आज कल  अखबारों और पत्रिकाओं में छपने वाले यात्रा-वृत्तांतों की तरह जो  रूमानियत भरी अखबारी  रिपोर्टिंग से अधिक नहीं होती . अपने देखे-सुने और अनुभव किये भावों अर्थात् ‘संवेदनात्मक ज्ञान’ को रचनात्मक रूप देना एक कठिन कार्य होता है और पुस्तक के लेखक ने दस वर्षों में इस कार्य को सफलतापूर्वक अंजाम दिया. लेखक की पूर्वोत्तर यात्रा का सीधा उद्देश्य वहाँ की रिपोर्टिंग करके अपने पत्रकार कैरियर की बेरोजगारी समाप्त करना था. लेकिन बहुधा ऐसा होता है कि अपने पूर्व ज्ञान के आधार पर आपने जो सोच रखा था या किसी खास भौतिक परिस्थिति के बारे में आपकी जो बनी बनायी धारणा थी , आप उससे भिन्न परिस्थितियों का सामना करते हैं . संचित और शास्त्रीय सत्य  से ‘आँखिन देखी’ सत्य  के कारण उत्पन्न ज्ञान-भंग एक रचनात्मक तटस्थता का निर्माण करती है . इसके कारण अवलोकन का प्रस्थान बिंदु पूर्व निर्मित चेतना, विचार या विचारधारा की जगह भौतिक परिस्थिति हो जाती है. पूर्वोत्तर की यात्रा में लेखक के साथ भी यही रचनात्मक प्रक्रिया घटित हुई . इस पुस्तक में पूर्वोत्तर का इतिहास, संस्कृति, राजनीति, भूगोल, पर्यावरण सब कुछ समाहित है लेकिन ये किसी विषय की तरह अपने उपस्थित होने का आभास तक नहीं देते. पुस्तक को पढ़ते समय आपने कब लेखक के साथ-साथ राजनीति से इतिहास और इतिहास से लोककथाओं , मिथकों  से गुजरते हुए पूरे पूर्वोत्तर भौगोलिक-सांस्कृतिक और राजनीतिक यात्रा कर ली , इसका भान भी नहीं होता. किसी  त्रिविमीय फिल्म (थ्री डी मूवी) की तरह यहाँ पाठक भी यात्रा का सहभागी महसूस करता है .

           दरअसल  यह  पुस्तक का बहुकोणीय चित्रों की एक श्रृंखला का निर्माण करती है. हर चित्र अपने आप में संपूर्ण भी है और इसमें क्रमबद्धता भी है. उदाहरण के लिए पूर्वोत्तर के विभिन्न राज्यों और जगहों के वर्णन में उनकी अपनी अलग पहचान भी  है और एक अंतः संचरित एकता भी . यह पहचान और एकता पूर्वोत्तर के अपने विशिष्ट अंतर्विरोधों के कारण हैं . सामान्यतः यह माना जाता है कि पूर्वोत्तर के राज्यों का भारतीय शासन व्यवस्था से मुख्य अंतर्विरोध है . ‘पेट्रोल , डीजल , गैस , कोयला ,चाय देने वाले पूर्वोत्तर को हमारी सरकार बदले में वर्दीधारी फौजों की टुकड़ियाँ भेजती रही हैं’. इस तथ्य से किसी को इंकार नहीं है , परन्तु पूर्वोत्तर भारत का यह एक मात्र सत्य या अंतर्विरोध नहीं है . वहाँ की जनजातियों के आपसी अंतर्विरोध और भी गहरे हैं . एक जगह जो समुदाय शोषित-पीड़ित दिखता है दूसरी जगह वही  शोषक भी है . इस यथार्थ की खूबसूरत प्रस्तुति लेखक की रचनात्मक तटस्थता के कारण संभव हो पाई है. यह यथार्थवाद बिल्कुल भिन्न तरह का यथार्थवाद है , जो सत्ता और जनता के अंतर्विरोध के साथ-साथ जनता के आपसी अंतर्विरोधों की प्रस्तुति करता है .प्रख्यात आलोचक  सुरेन्द्र चौधरी के शब्दों में यह ‘समकालीन यथार्थवाद’ है . इस तरह के यथार्थ को रचनात्मक रूप देना लेखकीय तटस्थता से ही संभव है . विचारजन्य आत्मीयता की जगह परिस्थितिजन्य आत्मीयता से लेखक ने पूरे पूर्वोत्तर के दर्द को इतिहास, संस्कृति और भूगोल के माध्यम से पाठक के सामने मूर्त रूप दिया है . पूर्वोत्तर की बदलती संस्कृति ,नए-पुराने , भीतरी-बाहरी इस सब द्वंद्वों को पाठक भी महसूस करता है  .इस प्रक्रिया में  रस के सभी स्थायी भाव पाठक के ह्रदय में उद्बुद्ध होते हैं . उत्साह , क्रोध, जुगुप्सा , रति , विस्मय ,भय ,शोक , शांत जैसी भावनाओं का  निरंतर गतिशील प्रवाह पाठक के भीतर चलायमान रहता है . ऐसा वर्णन के लिए आत्मीय भाषा के प्रयोग से ही संभव हो सका है . एक पौराणिक कथावाचक या सूत्रधार की तरह लेखक आपके सामने प्रकट होता है और कथा का पात्र होते हुए भी परिदृश्य से गायब हो जाता है . शब्दों के माध्यम से लेखक पाठक का सीधा साक्षात्कार पूर्वोत्तर से करता है . पाठक को ऐसा भान होता है कि लेखक नहीं बल्कि वह स्वयं यात्रा पर है .

     इस पुस्तक की एक अन्य खासियत यह है कि बहुत दिनों बाद सामान्य बातचीत की भाषा की शक्ति का उपयोग साहित्यिक भाषा में किया गया है . उदाहरण के लिए ब्रहम्पुत्र मेल बाहरी आवरण के वर्णन को पढ़ने से उत्पन्न जुगुप्सा के बाद शायद ही आप उस ट्रेन से यात्रा करना पसंद करें –‘अँधेरे डिब्बों की टूटी खिड़कियों पर उल्टियों से बनी धारियाँ झिलमिला रही थीं जो सूख कर पपड़ी हो गईं थीं.’ लेखक द्वारा गौ मांस खाने का वर्णन भी अद्भुत है .यहाँ परम्परा-संस्कार टूटने की भावना को संवेदनपूर्ण शब्द प्रदान किया गया है . मनुष्य-मनुष्य के द्वंद्व को ही नहीं बल्कि प्रकृति और मनुष्य के द्वंद्व को भी लेखक ने उसी आत्मीयता से शब्द दिए हैं . माजुली, नामदाफ, चेरापूंजी और लोकटक को बिगाड़ने, बचाने और संवारने की कवायद की निरर्थकता को यह पुस्तक बहुत ही सामान्य भाषा में बयान करती है .इस पुस्तक की भाषा के बारे में अगर एक पंक्ति में कुछ कहना हो तो इसी पुस्तक का एक वाक्य सटीक है कि ‘पढ़ने वाले की आंख निकल कर पेपर पर गिर पड़ती है.’

यह पुस्तक राजनीति, इतिहास, वर्तमान ,भूगोल, परम्परा, संस्कृति , मिथक, लोकगाथा आदि का साहित्यिक अन्तर्गुम्फन है .पुस्तक पढ़ते समय आप कब कहाँ हैं , निश्चय नहीं कर पाएँगे . ‘सजल वैशाख’ के विस्मय से शुरू हुई यात्रा ‘रबर के बागानों की मधुमक्खियों के डंकों’ के विस्मय पर समाप्त  होती है , परन्तु विस्मय का अंत नहीं होता क्योंकि पूर्वोत्तर के बारे में हमारे संचित ज्ञान भंडार को यह पुस्तक विस्मृत कर देती है . इसके बाद पाठक सिर्फ यही कह सकता है –‘मारिए वह भी कोई देश है महाराज !’

पीयूष राज

पीयूष राज

पीयूष राज भारतीय भाषा केंद्र, जवाहरलाल नेहरु विश्वविद्यालय के युवा शोधार्थी हैं, छात्र राजनीति से गहरे रूप से जुड़े हैं और छात्रसंघ के पदाधिकारी रह चुके हैं. उनसे , मोबाइल नंबर -09868030533 , ईमेल आईडी – piyushraj2007@ग्मैल.com पर संपर्क सम्भव है.   


पुस्तक परिचय – वह भी कोई देश है महाराज , लेखक- अनिल यादव , अंतिका प्रकाशन , गाजियाबाद , मूल्य-सजिल्द संस्करण 295/-

The Earliest Global Labourer: Predicament, and Cosmopolitanism: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

Balachandran, G. Globalising Labour?: Indian Seafarers and World Shipping, 1870-1945, New Delhi: OUP, 2012.

A Review By Dhiraj Kumar Nite

The seafarer was a man of the world. Indian seamen, officially called lascar (coolies or manual workers) employed by British shipping companies were the earliest global workers in the subcontinent. Their working life spanned from Calcutta and Bombay ports, engine-room and deck of ships, and to other Asian, African, British and American ports. They were nearly 44000, i.e. one third of total employment on British vessels in 1937.

Balachandran brings to us a lucid and elaborate account relating to the world of Indian seafarers. This account makes exposition of the condition of existence, experience, and agency of these men, and of their relationship with the employer, the colonial government, British officials, recruiters (the Ghat Serang or broker), supervisors on ships (the Serang), and seamen who hailed from other Asian and African nationalities. This area has been under-researched in historical studies of labour. Six chapters and an epilogue of this book present a couple of arguments to further the studies of labour and South Asian history.

Like all other colonial labourers Indian seafarer was cheap labour at the disposal of shipping companies. They worked longer hours – seventy to eighty-four hours a week were not unknown. The Geneva Maritime Conference of the ILO reduced their work hours in the 1930s. Indian seamen continued to sweat longer hours, and received time-off in place of any overtime wages. They shared crammed accommodation on ships. The availability of this labour helped the ship owner resist the demand of unionised British crews for wage increases frequently made from the 1890s.

Balachandran reveals the ways employers secured and maintained such cheap labour until the late 1930s. Social constructivism and agency focused explanatory tools come to his service. The employer, like the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O) discursively worked out an image as coolie/lascar of Indian seamen. The latter were classified as unskilled, trepid, lacking independent competence, and Asian race of lower necessaries for their living. The racial discourse diminished the constant and everyday challenge and hazards of their work. Such workmen did not deserve, the employer insisted, any substantial revision of wages, accommodation on ships, food supplies, workday, compensation, rescue equipment, and of the practices of flogging and penal contract. The demand of National Union of Seaman (NUS: composed of British seafarers) for a comparable facility for Indian seamen was fatal philanthropy. Such racialised work hierarchies and attitude, Balachandran suggests, was an expression of colonial difference. The societies in Southern Africa, for instance, witnessed a similar racial attitude and discourse without any proper colonial difference. I wonder how much colonial difference reveals or obfuscates an explanation of the racial labour relationship.

The discursively diminished stature of Indian seafarers was never a sufficient perquisite to maintain the lascar – employer relationship. Employers maintained the authoritarian environment on ships in order to put in effect the discourse of denial. They enjoyed favour of the metropolitan and colonial state-power. The racial attitude of British seafarers reinforced their privileges and the image of coolie. Employers and officials invested in the second trope of heroic masters bearing the necessary wisdom, experience, and manner to subdue hopeless and potentially threatening rabble into useful. They invented, manipulated and entrenched a new image of the serang as a traditional, village-based headman who would control the seamen. Balachandran suggests that the serang was not any jobber or sardar of traditional authority. One of the earliest demands of the Indian Seamen Union was to eliminate recruitment through intermediaries and the abuses and corruption it gave rise to. The ship serang was also a victim, not a beneficiary of corruption.

The authorities externalised the costs of labour reproduction to ‘subsistence agriculture’. They wove nexuses with the broker (Ghat Serang) known for providing advances, and owners of boarding houses at the ports. Such nexuses worked to stabilise the maritime worker as habitually unattached, dissolute, unstable, and nominally free labour force. The latter entered into cohabitation and irregular family life and bore its unhealthy marks in their pursuit of satisfying emotional necessaries. Seamen burdened by debts to crimps and under pressure from them to ship out, also had little chance of holding out for better wages. These were wages of success of the navigation industry.

The author suggests that racial and cultural fluidity and cosmopolitanism characterised the dockside. The seafarers belonging to many communities (India, Arab world, China, and East Africa) interacted and explored opportunities for income. They devised ways to maintain their niche despite an opposition to their employment on British vessels articulated by the British NUS from the turn of the 20thc. The cosmopolitan environment crumbled at British ports in the aftermath of the world war one (WWI). The post war scenario lent a sharp jingoistic edge to the opposition. Race as a marker of identity and citizenship turned out popular in the public discourse, hence the endorsement to the campaign of repatriation and restriction. A similar development occurred at Indian ports in the aftermath of the partition. The concept of cosmopolitanism appears to me as loosely applied and that too more a descriptive than an analytical category. What the author highlights is the spirit of seamen and the ways that they improvised to subvert the new exclusionary regulations. This made the authorities finding it impossible literally and metaphorically to tie many seamen down to place, nation or category. The new regime faced the resilience and solidarity of seafarers in case of South Asia in 1947-1965. Thus, the author challenges the historical description which suggests that a subcontinent rent apart at one blow in 1947 rather than one whose divisions were realised piecemeal over at least the next two decades.

Unlike Chinese and African seamen Indians were not known for desertion until the 1920s. Such propensity emerged amongst them to draw a flack in the midst of the great depression. They did so despite the increased risk involved in doing so owing to tightened immigration control. A perverse co-relationship appeared between desertions and the scenarios of regulation. This shift owed to the distressed hope of peasant standing of these men in colonial India. Such Indians looked out for an opportunity on vessels involved in Atlantic trade. Those who could not succeed in it became peddlers in neighbourhoods of British working poor. A reciprocal sympathy between colonial peddlers and working poor was noticeable. The anti-black campaign and the principle of only-white of the NUS drove many British seamen and activists close to the left-wing organisations in the 1930s. This fact stands with unease across other arguments of the author related to the hardening of identities in the aftermath of the WWI.

The seafarers noticeably developed the spirit of unionisation in the 1920s. Indignities of the WWI (the refusal of fair war compensation and corruption in actual disbursal of compensation money) borne by them were responsible for the drive of unionisation. Balachandran underlines the fact that well before unions seafarers produced and led collective lives through the traditional collective bodies and held a wage strike in 1914 at Bombay deck. The Indian Seamen Union (ISU) followed the rank and file rather than led them when seafarers staged militant strikes at Indian and British ports in 1938-39. Alongside economic demands they began mobilising idioms of international working class solidarity in the hope of countering racial attacks and breaking out of the coolie lines. They displayed astute awareness of themselves and the world emerging around them in the 1940s. They expressed solidarity with the liberation struggle of Indonesians. They refused to work ships ferrying troops and arms in support of the Dutch reconquest of Indonesia after the WWII. Through these actions they challenged the stereotypical image of trepid, peasant-cum seaman, and made a shift from their ascriptive image of coolie to worker. This transformation of coolies into workers was, Balachandran argues, thus heavily mediated (by protests) and profoundly hybridizing (conjunctural to the owner and British officials).

The seamen staged carefully chosen protest methods. The latter embodied seamen’s awareness of the power relations, and assessment of success and failure (the regulated nature of maritime employment, the coercive power of the state, and the isolated and disaggregated forms of action of Indian crews) in pursuit of a better deal. They rooted their actions within the law. They had few protest action on board, and looked out for opportunities to renegotiate unsatisfactory engagements. Desertion and flight were an expression of such negotiations. Yet, such action meant a withdrawal of labour: an industrial action rather than reinforcement of peasant traditions of resistance. Opposed to the existing three historiographical positions, Balachandran argues that seamen were not victims of an ‘original mentality’ (peasant traditions) and a workplace culture where they could not explore or deploy norms of bourgeois legality. They improvised informal (and formal) modifications in the rules of engagement. These were the function of a careful weighing of costs, benefits, and opportunities. Balachandran questions the implicit naturalness found in the structuralist historiographies about the formation of the working class whether through an emphasis on objective conditions or subjective orientations. These historiographies obscure the negotiations and other constitutive processes that helped establish at any given time, the boundaries of the category on the ground, and its rules of closure. This non-determinist and non-essentialist line of reasoning of the author, I suggest, needs to address a question: what accounts for a particular notion and manner of appreciation of benefits, opportunities, and costs?

Some methodological niceties make this book engaging and tangible. About half a dozen short life histories are interspersed in the larger narrative. They enliven and uplift the mood of the reader. The application of a good number of maritime photographs is in-itself telling. The archival sources do not come simply as raw materials, which an author conventionally processes externally to present final points. The very processing of primary sources is integral to the narrativisation and analysis. It further adds cogency to the account. Some of the pronouncements of authorial judgment on historical developments seem careful of resisting a sensibility of sterileness.

Dhiraj Kumar Nite, A Social Scientist, University of Johannesburg,  Ambedkar Univeristy Delhi.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: