From the 1918 influenza pandemic time and Gandhi’s role as an Arbitrator.

A hobby of reading books reaps incredible benefits. This Covid-19 pandemic lock-down season lends me the luxury time to read plenty of books. This week I randomly chose to read this book from my bookshelf. I particularly cannot remember when the book was brought home, but I am enjoying the incredible information it has. I found a few interesting paragraphs which speak about the plague-ravaged towns during the 1918 Flu and role played by Mahatma Gandhi when he participated in resolving the crises between the workers and the mill owners.

I thank author Shri Bidyut Chakrabarty to have recorded this episode of Gandhi’s life and brought to us in this book. I hope you enjoy this read too.

An extract from the book: Mahatma Gandhi, The Historical Biography. Page 60 to 63. Chapter 1: Articulation of a new ideology: Gandhi, Sathagraha and Ahimsa. The book is authored by Shri Bidyut Chakrabarty, published by Lotus Collection in the year 2007.  

During the Kheda Satyagraha, Gandhi also participated in Ahmedabad textile mill strike of February – March 1918. This was a different kind of experiment involving the workers. The successful campaign in Champaran had catapulted Gandhi to centre stage of nationalist politics. When the workers in Admedabad became restive, Ansuyya Sarabhai, the president of the Ahmedabad Mill Owner’s Association, invited Gandhi to intervene and resolve the crisis. What triggered off the strike was the withdrawal of ‘plague-bonus’ to the workers, equivalent in some cases to 80 per cent of wages that was paid to dissuade them from fleeing the plague-ravaged towns. Once the epidemic was over, the mill owners decided to discontinue the monetary benefit. For the workers, this decision hit them adversely simply because of spiralling price-rise due to the outbreak of the War.

Drawn on his belief that there was no major contradiction between capital and labour, Gandhi sought to defuse the crises through dialogues with mill owners. The mill owners appeared to be adamant and characterized Gandhi’s intervention as ‘unwarranted’. On 22nd February 1918, the mill owners locked out the labourers despite Gandhi’s repeated requests. With the closure, Gandhi decided to champion the workers’ cause though he asked them to tone down their earlier demand of 50 per cent wage hike to 35 per cent. Although the workers agreed to his suggestion, the mill owners did not relent and workers seemed to have lost morale. It was at this juncture that Gandhi began the ‘first’ of his seventeen ‘fasts unto death’ on 15 March 1918. This fast that lasted for three days appeared to have forced the mill owners who deeply respected Gandhi to come to an agreement with striking workers. As per the agreement suggested by the arbitration board, the workers’ demand was partially fulfilled because they got 27.5 per cent wage hike instead of their original demand. So, the compromise formula looked like a face-saving formula and a tactical defeat and a tactical defeat for Gandhi as he forced the mill owners to accept the principle of arbitration in which workers’ representation along with their employers had a say.

A unique event in Gandhi’s political life, the Ahmedabad strike added a new chapter to Indian nationalist movement. Though critical of Gandhi’s ‘obsession’ with ‘passive resistance’, the Bombay Chronicle appreciated the principle of arbitration as a ‘turning point in labour-employer relations in Ahmedabad’ in particular and a novel system of ‘resolving industrial disputes’ in general. Similarly, the Times criticized Gandhi for ‘blackmailing’ the mill owners who happened to be his ‘admirers’ by his ‘fast unto death’ though it hailed role in articulating ‘arbitration’ as an ‘effective device’ to break the impasse between the workers and industrialists.

These three movements [Champaran Satyagraha (movement), Kheda Satyagraha (movement) and the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Strike during plague epidemic] projected by Gandhi as an emerging leader with different kinds of mobilizing tactics. What was common in all these movements was the fact that, a) they were organised around local issues; and b) in mobilising the people for the movements the importance of the local leaders cannot be underestimated. There is no doubt the Gandhi’s appearance on the scene gave a fillip to these movements. Yet, if we carefully chart the movements, we will discover that Gandhi was invited to lead when the local organisers had adequately garnered the support for the cause. By his involvement with these movements at a stage when they struct roots in the concerned localities, Gandhi projected a specific kind of leadership: he was not a primary but a secondary organiser. There is no doubt that the movements gained momentum with his intervention. The masses interpreted Gandhi’s message in their own terms and rumours surrounding the powers of his messianic leader served to break the barriers of fear involved in confronting formidable enemies. As evident in Champaran and Kheda, Gandhian intervention in elite-nationalist politics established for the first time that an authentic nationalist movement could be built upon the organised support of the peasantry though its political object was not that Gandhi endorsed. The peasants were meant to become ‘willing participants in a struggle wholly conceived and directed by others. Gandhi provided ‘a national framework of politics in which peasants are mobilized but do not participate’ in its formulation. This was also true of the Ahmedabad strike where the Gandhi accommodated the interests of the mill owners even at the cost of the workers since their demand was partially conceded. Gandhi agreed to the negotiated settlements as probably the best solution under the circumstances. Workers failed to get what they asked for. Yet Gandhi’s role was most significant in articulating a form of political mobilization in which the workers were also decisive. Just like the Champaran and Kheda satyagrahas that extended the constituencies of nationalize politics by incorporating the peasantry, the Ahmedabad textile strike was a turning point, for it accorded a legitimate space to the workers in what was conceptualize as nationalism.