IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions | South Asia

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Labour and Nationalism in Sholapur, Western India, 1918-1939

On 7 and 8 May 1930, in response to Gandhi's arrest, the industrial city of Sholapur witnessed violent disturbances, which led to a complete breakdown of civil order and culminated in the imposition of martial law. The stoning of the District Magistrate and the police, followed by the gutting of liquor shops, murders of policemen, and the burning of the District Court buildings, symbolized an open insurrection against the state, and stood in sharp contradiction to the Gandhian message of offering passive resistance.

by Kamat


However, these incidents did not necessarily culminate in the promulgation of martial law. Sholapur, throughout the 1920s, had been influenced by Swarajist Congress politicians from Poona who had never quite come to terms with the Gandhian programme since the demise of Lokamanya Tilak in August 1920. Moreover, the Non-Co-operation Campaign in Sholapur had been an elitist and lukewarm affair. It therefore seems paradoxical that the Deccan city of Sholapur should have responded so dramatically to Gandhi's Civil Disobedience movement. Recently, in a completed doctoral project, I have investigated this puzzle.

The Sholapur disturbances have been variously described, for instance as a working class upsurge against the state. We are also led to believe that in reaction to Gandhi's arrest, the textile workers of Sholapur, the dock labourers of Karachi, the transport workers of Calcutta, and some mill workers of Madras, acting as a unit, clashed with the government during the movement. The results of my research have contested these claims, and propose instead that the Sholapur disturbances were much more than a 'reflex action' in response to Gandhi's arrest. Indeed, the industrial and communal tensions experienced by the city during the 1920s were redirected towards the state, with the stimulus provided from the outside by Gandhi's call for Civil Disobedience.
It is also important to note that while the textile workers of Sholapur played a predominant part in the rioting of 7 May, it was the city's trading classes and the working poor who were worst affected by the trade depression, who joined in the next day to commit further acts of violence. This brought about a paralysis of the civil administration and culminated in the declaration of martial law. Nationalist currents had, therefore, come to be locally defined at Sholapur and the responses to them were shaped by the local political context. In the decade that followed, these responses appear to have been controlled, partly due to the role played by the state in the aftermath of martial law and also owing to the transformations occurring within the Congress.
The attacks on police and police stations, a characteristic feature of the Sholapur disturbances, evoke parallels with the Chauri Chaura episode of 4 February 1922 when policemen were burnt alive in a police station by peasants in the Gorakhpur district of the United Provinces, northern India. It has been argued that the peasants' ideas about Gandhi's 'orders' were at variance with those of the local Congress-Khilafat leadership. In the case of Sholapur, this dichotomy is completely indiscernible. Given the uncertain local context, the riots were a delayed response to the mixed messages imparted by the Sholapur Congressmen in the months preceding Gandhi's arrest. While both Chaun Chaura and Sholapur invited instant government repression, in the latter case culminating in martial law, the Congress strategy in May 1930 was markedly different from that in February 1922.

Martyrs

Following the violence at Chauri Chaura, Gandhi called off the Non-Co-operation Campaign and his decision was endorsed by the Congress. In 1930, Gandhi's political strategy was flexible enough to accommodate sporadic instances of violence and he seemed unwilling to risk calling off the movement, as he had done on receiving news of events in Chauri Chaura. The Sholapur riots were, indeed, condemned by Gandhi, and the Congress expressed regret at the outbreak of 'mob violence'. However, towards the end of May 1930 there was a distinct shift in the Congress strategy. The Martial Law Regulation banning the Congress flag at Sholapur was magnified into a question of national honour and the Congress made it an issue for the launching of a 'non-violent' flag satyagyaha. The Congress satyagrahis ritualizing the ban on the flag, by offering passive resistance, were mocking the Sholapur episode. They also illustrated the discrepancy between the Congress agenda formulated from the outside and the local definition which Civil Disobedience had acquired in Sholapur.
Another facet my doctoral project dealt with was the nature of the Congress legacy in Sholapur today. While the riots have been forgotten, the excesses of martial law and the 'martyrdom' of the four Sholapur prisoners hanged in 1931, forms an important part of popular memory. The bronze-coloured busts of the four 'martyrs' erected at Balidan Chowk personify the Civil Disobedience movement in Sholapur. The construction of a monument at Chauri Chaura to commemorate the nineteen hanged men, it has been suggested, shows the coming to terms of the nation with the violence of 1922.
However, while the 1930 incidents at Sholapur are richly documented in bulky governmental files and publications, the subject has been largely neglected in existing historical writings. Imam Muchale, a press worker who participated in the riots, or Tulshidas Jadhav, the Secretary of the District Congress Committee in 1930, and many others are still alive for historical probings. My attempt has been to build up a picture of the riot and its dynamics, by putting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together without heavily emphasizing the strengths of any one source. A vital technique in this regard has been to ask what a particular document or informant was not telling me rather than the information I was being offered. History writing on the basis of present-day oral accounts is equally fraught with dangers as is the conventional dependence on the official archive.

Metamorphosis

An investigation of this nature into the unusual incidents at Sholapur, which broke with prevalent norms, may help to shed light on why disparate groups come together in an attempt to destroy symbols of state power, without any direction from the Congress or any other established locus of power. A study of Sholapur in these critical years also enhances our knowledge of the workings of the colonial state in moments of exceptional crisis, like that of Sholapur in May 1930. Perhaps, the divergent Congress strategies towards Chauri Chaura and Sholapur will illuminate our understanding of the metamorphosis within the Congress in particular and the nationalist movement in general.
My project has also tried to serve another purpose. Sholapur was the third largest centre of the cotton textile industry in the Bombay Presidency. Yet apart from a single study which focuses on trade union organizations in the city, the working classes of the Deccan city have been ignored by historians interested in labour. A study of Sholapur labour, therefore, contributes to our understanding of the Indian working classes and eases the way for a comparative analysis between different centres before we proceed to make generalizations based on a few major case studies. My thesis has sought to situate workers' politics in Sholapur in the local political context and investigates workers' responses to the nationalist movement and the economic changes affecting the Sholapur cotton textile industry between the two world wars. Such an investigation is crucial to an analysis of the 1930 disturbances and the developments thereafter, in the locality and the nation.
Manjiri Kamat completed her PhD, in History, from the University of Cambridge in 1997 and is currently a Research Consultant to a Wellcome Trust funded project carried out by the School of Cultural Studies, Sheffield Hallam University. She can be contacted at 10 Satyabhama Nivas, 369 V. P. Road, Mumbai - 400004, India, tel.: +91-22-3828177).

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions | South Asia