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date: 13 November 2019

Contemporary Perspectives on Labor History in India

Summary and Keywords

A resurgence of writings on labor in India in the 1990s occurred in a context when many scholars in the Anglo-American world were predicting the end of labor history. Over the last three decades, historical writing on labor in India has pushed old boundaries, opened up new lines of inquiry, unsettling earlier assumptions and frameworks. Teleological frames that saw industrialization leading to modernization were critiqued starting in the 1980s. Since then, historians writing on labor have moved beyond simple binaries between notions of the pre-modern/modern workforce to critically examine the conflictual processes through which histories of labor were shaped.

With the opening up of the field, a whole range of new questions are being posed and old ones reframed. How do cultural formations shape the specificity of the labor force? How important are kinship, community, and caste ties in the making of working class lives and work culture? What defines the peculiarities of different forms of work at different sites: plantations and mines, factories and domestic industries, the “formal” and the “informal” sectors? What were the diverse ways in which work was regulated and workers disciplined? What were the ritual and cultural forms in which workers negotiated the conditions of their work? How does the history of law deepen an understanding of the history of labor? Studies on mobility and migration, on law and informality, on culture and community, on everyday actions and protest have unraveled the complex interconnections—global and local—through which the lives of labor are made and transformed.

Keywords: breadwinner, caste, domestic labor, formal/informal, free/unfree, historiography, rural/urban, gender, migration, modernization, protest, trade unions, working class

The last four decades have been marked by a tremendous outpouring of writings on labor in India. In the renewal of labor history over the last few decades, countries from the Global South have had a major role to play. Since the late 1980s—a time when historians elsewhere were seeing signs of an end of labor history—questions concerning labor have become subjects of greater concern in India. New studies have stretched the boundaries of labor history, raised new issues, and returned to old questions with new perspectives. How do these writings enrich or challenge existing frameworks of labor history? What new directions in the field of labor history do they point toward?

Academic writings on labor that emerged in the post-independence decades in India focused largely on urban, industrial labor, and this remained a dominant concern of labor historians until recently. Most studies concentrated on centers of traditional large-scale textile industry (e.g., Bombay, Calcutta, Madras) and the mining and plantations regions. This article brings together the different histories of work and labor in India through a focus on some key themes on the writing of labor history.

Creation of a Modern Workforce

How was a modern industrial workforce created in India? In the colonialist discourse, the factory worker in India lacked the efficiency and discipline characteristic of the modern worker in the West. A spate of sociological and historical writings from the 1950s onward countered such arguments with universalist narratives that emphasized the transformative role of industrialization.1 Morris David Morris and others drew on a range of statistical data on absenteeism and length of service to show the emergence of a “committed” workforce.2 The idea of the factory as an agent of change was shared by the Marxist historiography of the late 1970s, although from a different standpoint. For Marxists, work in the factory and exploitation by capital created a homogenized workforce conscious of its opposition to capital, underplaying the multiple cultural inscriptions on a workers’ identity.3

This modernist narrative on the emergence of an industrial workforce was questioned in various ways in writings after the 1980s. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working Class History, based on a study of jute workers in Bengal, contrasted the “pre-capitalist” culture of work in India with that of the industrial West.4 Symbolic of this culture in Chakrabarty’s account was the figure of the sardar (foreman), who exercised disciplinary authority within the factory. The authority of sardars, unlike that of European foremen, was not based on technical expertise: it rested on the influence they exercised through traditional ties of kinship and community.

How were power hierarchies at the workplace defined? Chandavarkar’s study of Bombay textile workers explores the complex and differentiated structures through which jobber authority was articulated on the shop floor.5 He analyzes how everyday relations on the shop floor unfolded through an interplay between managerial strategies, jobber power within mill departments, and the pressures of a volatile labor market. Jobber power, as he points out, was not undifferentiated: it was challenged and reshaped over time. In processes like weaving, workers could have greater autonomy and resist demands from above to intensify production; in others, in the preparatory departments, for instance, the situation was different. Chandavarkar elaborates how conjunctures of war and depression and changes in the organization of production affected workplace relations. His narrative points to the fluidity of relations on the shop floor and the significance of everyday processes of negotiation and conflict in workplace politics. But these acts of resistance, Chandavarkar underlines, were not indicative of a deeper conflict between labor and capital: sectional divisions and competition between workers were, in his view, an enduring feature of workplace relations in the textile industry.

The writings of Dilip Simeon and Janaki Nair in the 1990s and the recent publications of Dhiraj K. Nite on mines show how perilous conditions of work underground were characteristic of the labor process in the coalfields in Jharia and in the goldfields in Kolar.6 Reckless cutting of coal seams in Jharia made mines into death traps: there was a perpetual fear of mine roofs collapsing and endangering the lives of miners underground. Miners, as these studies show, struggled against hazardous conditions through everyday modes of resistance and more dramatic forms of protest. Drawing upon oral evidence on the “Khadan-Kali” cult (the worship of the mine goddess) in the Jharia coalfields, Nite explores the ritual acts through which workers confronted the dangers of everyday work.7 Practices of worship, Nite argues, were not expressive of a pre-modern outlook of miners but were part of a desire to exercise control over hazardous mining.

If mines were haunted by death and danger, everyday violence was characteristic of labor regimes in the plantations. The recent publications of Rana P. Behal and Nitin Varma provide insights into the disciplinary mechanisms used on plantations. They show how strategies of surveillance and control on tea plantations in Assam were connected with a drive to increase productivity per acre through an intensification of labor. Varma refers to the “machine-like” organization of production and a rigid enforcement of a time regimen.8 Peculiar to the regime was the creation of a “garden-time,” ahead of the clock time in the rest of the subcontinent, a strategy through which the workday on the plantations could be extended. Garden sardars were visible in the fields supervising and checking on work. Symbolic of the control regime was the image of the manager on horseback personally overseeing work on the gardens. The wide-ranging judicial powers accorded to planters gave them a virtual license to exercise their punitive authority in the gardens.

Coercive systems of control, powers of confinement, and arrests of seamen were important features of labor regimes on the sea. Writings on maritime labor point to the paradoxes of mobility and movement across open spaces on the high seas and the prison-like confinement of lascars on board. To those in authority, mobile spaces appeared as endangered spaces: the possibility of escape and freedom, as the writings of Ahuja and Balachandran point out, was an ever-present threat to the stability of the labor regime.9 Also, the racialized lines along which maritime labor was regulated and controlled limited the possibilities of mobility for South Asian seamen.

Conflicts between notions of a labor force that was fixed yet one that was on the move were important to the mobilization of labor in construction sites on public works, such as roads and railways. Major road projects in the 1830s and 1840s were carried out employing convict labor—a strategy that ensured the availability of large bodies of pliable labor that could be moved across shifting sites of work.10 Railway construction, Ian Kerr demonstrates, drew largely on pools of circulating labor, often drawn from castes traditionally associated with earthwork, for instance, the Wudders in Western and Southern India.11

A focus on structures of control and domination within which labor is subordinated has often meant an exclusion of other histories through which relationships in the workplace are constituted. Ethnographic studies in recent years have opened up new perspectives missing in earlier writings on labor in India. Studies on handloom and powerloom workers in Tamilnadu and on steel works in Delhi, for instance, provide a close view of the micro-politics of the shop floor. De Neve highlights the multiple ways in which workplace relations and hierarchies in powerloom factories in Tamilnadu are contested and reconstituted. Playful teasing by women, their jibes at male workers, unsettle and reconstitute relationships of gender and hierarchy at the workplace.12 “Homoerotic” humor in steel-polishing units, Ramaswamy argues, was important in affirming and defining notions of masculinity. Daily banter in the workshops was also marked by tremendous creativity: it was a way in which workers could “recreate” themselves as unique personalities within a world of dreary and repetitious work.

In factories, mines, and other sites, everyday practices and confrontations with those in authority were important to the ways in which work relationships were contested and transformed. Writings over the last few decades examine the universalist assumptions within which earlier writings were framed; they question modernist teleologies that drew simple contrasts between India and the West. The new critical perspectives move beyond economic frames to explore the cultural conditions that shape the nature of work.

Questions of Gender

Questions of gender were for a long time of marginal concern in histories of labor centered on factory work. Since the number of women working in factories was small and their proportion in the total labor force declined in the early decades of industrialization, labor histories sought to recover the life and experiences of only the male labor force. Essays published since the 1980s addressed issues of gender, but the first major monograph focusing on the theme was Samita Sen’s Women and Labour in Colonial India in 1999.13 Her work shares many of the concerns articulated in the feminist historiography of the 1980s and 1990s. The question of exclusion and marginalization of women from industrial work, the emergence of a “male breadwinner,” and the retreat of women into domesticity are among the themes addressed by Sen.14

Sen elaborates how ideas of domesticity and seclusion, influenced by Victorian and Brahmanic notions of morality and respectability, became powerful in late 19th-century Bengal. In rural Bengal, families with capital withdrew women from work outside the home. In poorer households, however, women continued to engage in productive activity outside the home, a phenomenon that intensified with male migration to the city. Migration and urban work, however, meant a general devaluing of female labor in the rural areas and a glorification of male waged work in the city. Sen’s study also shows the processes through which notions of skill in factory work acquired gendered connotations. Women workers in the Bengal jute mills, like elsewhere in India, came to be increasingly marginalized and relegated to poorly paid jobs.

These are issues that resonate with debates outside the Indian context. Feminist historiography elsewhere has shown how the gendering of work and the concentration of women in low-paid jobs was not so much a result of the inherent skill of men or women but a gendered ideology that identified women with “unskilled” work.15 Discussions of the marginalization of women in industrial work in the European context have emphasized the hegemonic influence of the ideology of the “male breadwinner” since the late 19th century. Women workers, it has been suggested, were pushed back into domesticity, and the male head of the household came to be seen as the sole provider for the family. In recent years these arguments have been critiqued in India and elsewhere. In the European context, historical research points to the prevalence of a variety of breadwinning practices and the absence of any one regulative norm. An exclusive concern with the issue of the male breadwinner tends to obscure the varieties of work women engage in at home and outside.16

Outside the Factory

New writings have extended the scope of labor history, drawing more attention to work outside the factory, including home-based work, domestic service, and varieties of rural work. With the increasing trend toward “informalization” of work in India, as in many countries of the Global South after the 1990s, women’s work in factories and home-based industries has acquired a new significance. New industries that emerged since the 1980s—electronics, garments, sports goods—were often based on the employment of women. In the knitwear industry in Tiruppur in South India, for example, women were seen as a “flexible” labor force that could meet the fluctuating demands of production.17 Writings on home-based and other forms of work employing women give insights into workplace relations—the ways in which terms of production and employment were negotiated at an everyday basis. Within the oppressive conditions in which they worked, women making beedis at home tried to negotiate their terms; women domestic workers sought ways of protecting notions of dignity in work often seen as degrading.18

Was work “empowering,” and did it give women a sense of “autonomy”? These are issues about which debate continues, with many feminist historians arguing emphatically that work that was precarious and poorly paid did not mean empowerment for women.19 A reductive connection between waged work and empowerment is obviously problematic. The point, however, is to understand the significance of women’s work in redefining women’s self-perceptions and their relationship with the home and outside. Experiences were multiple, and waged work had different meanings in individual lives. The small ways in which work redefined notions of dignity for women are important.

The long history of domestic servants in India from the pre-colonial to colonial times and in the contemporary period (numbering around 5 million according to recent official estimates) provides rich insights into relationships of power and subordination within intimate domestic spaces. The dynamics of space, of proximity and distance between servants and masters within the colonial household in 19th-century India, was important to the way in which relations of class, race, and power were constituted (at home and outside).20 The relationship of dependence between European masters and indigenous servants at times disrupted hierarchies of race and power within the colonial household even as lines of class and racial difference were asserted.

By the late 20th century two related trends are noticeable: (1) a feminization of domestic service marked by an increase in the relative proportion of women employed as domestic servants and (2) a devaluation of domestic labor and a growing perception of the job as emasculating and undignifying for men.21 Domestic workers remain poorly paid and are denied any claims to social security measures. Attempts to bring them within the purview of regulations are thwarted by the problems of definitions, by the absence of categories within official terminology that can encompass home-based work and see domestic servants as workers.22

For a more inclusive perspective, those outside the urban, industrial context—for long peripheralized—need to be integrated within the fold of labor history. Some of the debates critical to discussions on labor emerged in the context of agrarian labor. Jan Breman and Gyan Prakash critiqued the linear teleologies within which discussions of free and unfree labor were framed.23 The working of systems of domination and subordination in the Gujarat countryside so richly elaborated in Breman’s pioneering study in the 1970s are developed further in his subsequent writings that explore the interconnectedness of the rural and urban labor regimes. Prakash explored how ritual and myth mediated the relationship between kamia (workers) and malik (landlords) in Bihar and how such relations cannot be framed within the liberal discourse of freedom and bondage.24

Law and Labor

Curiously, in a global context marked by a retreat of the state and a dismantling of protective legislation, there is today a growing academic interest in the relationship between law and labor. An underlying concern of many writings has been with the difference in the way law works in India and the European context.

One argument commonly put forward is that laws in India were never enforced in the way they were in the Anglo-American context: the state did not actively intervene to make them effective.25 Second, historians argue that ideas of contract and regulation did not unfold in India the way they did in the West. Anderson has examined how the Breach of Contract Act of 1859 encoded the fundamentally unequal terms within which the relationship between master and servant relationship in India was framed. The Act authorized the criminalization of any act of violation on the part of a laborer but exempted employers from punitive punishment when they breached the terms of the agreement.26 Anderson and others argue that the continued existence of pre-capitalist modes of recruitment and of hierarchical structures within which employment relations were embedded acted as an impediment to change in India.

Comparisons between colonial India and the West, however, become problematic in a context when idealized notions of contract in the Anglo-American context are now under question. Steinfeld’s study of law and labor in Britain and North America examines binaries between “free” and unfree labor and powerfully demonstrates how various forms of legal coercion continued well into the late 19th century.27

A concern with the “formal” sphere and the making of legal regulations often leaves out of its purview what is seen as “informal” or unregulated. Recent writings in India point to the need for a perspective that questions binaries between the formal and the informal.28 Mohapatra’s study of labor regulations in the 19th and 20th centuries shows how the informal was not what remained outside of law, or was residual—it was created by legislation. Formalization and legalization, he argues, validated a process of privatization of labor regulations, or the creation of spaces in which employers had absolute power over employees.29 Even within what was “formal,” there were always ambiguities in the ways in which laws operated, a process captured brilliantly in Aditya Sarkar’s penetrating account of the inner workings of law and and its engagement with the factory question.30

Migration and Mobility

Up until the 1980s, studies on migration focused largely on causal connections leading to the movements of labor—the “push” from the point of origin or the “pull” toward particular destinations. Writings on internal migration looked at conditions in “labor catchment” areas to explain movements from rural to urban locations.31 These concerns were connected closely with debates around questions of freedom and coercion, consent and force in migration.32

While many of these issues continue to engage historians, studies over the last two decades show how stories of migration were more complicated. Internal migration, they point out, was not just from one point to another but circular, and often without a fixed destination.33 For those who moved from the rural to the urban, ties with the village remained an important feature.34

Recent studies look at the experiences of migration and the way it transforms and shapes the individual and collective identities of migrants. Migration and work in new locations often produced troubled domestic lives for women; it also created possibilities for acts of transgression and assertion of autonomy by women in their everyday relationships.35

Writings on overseas labor migration look at issues beyond the old debates on “free” and “unfree” labor. Brij V. Lal’s Chalo Jahaji sensitively portrays the stories of indentured laborers from the point of embarkation to their lives on sugarcane plantations in Fiji.36 The identity of a “coolie-man,” Lal shows, signified a shared history of indentured servitude; it also carried with it other baggage, other ties—ethnic, linguistic, and regional—recreated and reproduced in different ways.37 Sunil Amrith’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal highlights the need to look at transnational connections, the circulatory movements of Tamil migrants across oceanic spaces to understand diasporic histories.38

Life on the plantations involved complex personal negotiations; it became a site where social norms were redefined and women migrants could experience a sense of autonomy in choosing their sexual partners.39 Official discourse on the need for laws to stabilize the family of indentured laborers in the British Caribbean in the late 19th century reflects concerns that have wider implications for understanding the legal construction of the family and its role in the reproduction of a plantation labor force.

Protest and Organization

In the 1960s and ’70s, teleological narratives that traced a shift from unorganized to organized protest were common in histories of labor. In Marxist accounts, this shift was seen as a sign of maturity of the working class, an awareness of its collective class interests. In modernist writings, more generally, the development of trade union organization and structures of collective bargaining appear as signs of a disciplined and committed labor force.

Since the 1980s some of the linear assumptions within which these narratives were framed have been examined. In culturalist frames like that of Chakrabarty, protests by workers appear ephemeral; they leave no lasting trace on relations enmeshed in pre-modern structures of authority and power. Within such a frame established authority structures shape the forms as well as the implications of protest; worker actions do not refigure embedded structures. Other studies of labor protests have focused on the way worker agency disturbs and reshapes existing power relations. Simeon’s micro-study of the politics of labor in Chota Nagpur looks at the complex interplay between workers, leaders, unions, and parties in times of upsurge in 1928 and 1938, showing how relations of power are refigured in such moments.40 In Nair’s account of miners in Mysore, similarly, pressures from below push nationalist leaders into taking up worker issues. Basu’s study of jute workers in Calcutta emphasizes how shop floor collectives forged outside the framework of formal organizations shaped workers’ politics.41 Instances like these abound in other regions too, where embedded hierarchies are overturned and reworked in moments of strike.

The contours of a strike, as Anna Sailer’s nuanced account of the Bengal jute mill strike of 1929 shows, were never given: they were continuously redefined as the event unfolded.42 The inner tensions and conflicts within an event opened up or foreclosed possibilities and reshaped the spatial and political dynamic of a strike. Moments of upsurge, as other studies also point out, are times that transform not only the organizational structures of the working classes but the wider world within which workers live. Notions of space and geography in the city are refigured, distances bridged, as workers in different parts of a city become part of protests.43 Spaces of protest are inscribed with new meaning; they become spaces of power, of defiance, and of the forging of collectivities. Boundaries between home and the factory dissolve, as activities spill over outside the mills, straddling diverse spaces, incorporating different neighborhoods, women, and children.

Worker politics, as recent studies emphasize, was not defined through spectacular public protests alone but through everyday negotiations at the workplace and outside through which notions of dignity were asserted. These were not early forms of protest that were gradually displaced over time by organized protest: they remained integral to working-class politics.44

Trade union politics in India is often contrasted with norms of democratic functioning in the West. In the jute mill trade unions of Bengal, Chakrabarty argues, notions of contract and discipline were absent: unions were like fiefdoms of leaders who commanded absolute loyalty and obedience from their followers. The varieties of modes of informal politics, the intimate connection between neighborhood dadas (strong men), political leaders, and trade unions is also richly explored in Chandavarkar’s writings on Bombay workers and Rukmini Barua’s recent study of Ahmedabad.45 A trade union, like the Textile Labor Association in Ahmedabad known for its Gandhian orientation, also had union representatives using strong-arm muscular tactics of dadas.46 To characterize these modes of functioning as pre-bourgeois as Chakrabarty does is problematic. It assumes a pure notion of modern trade union politics which can only exist as an ideal type. Informal networks of control are not static, as Chakrabarty suggests, they change, as do modes of control and mediation. For historians it will be important to closely examine the changing framework within which networks of mediation operate, how these change, and how codes of legitimacy and terms of acceptability are defined in diverse ways in different historical conjunctures.

Caste and Community

Up until the 1960s, a focus on ties of tradition, caste, and religion in writings on labor was framed within a larger discussion of industrialization. The effort was to understand processes hindering or facilitating industrialization and social change. If some sociologists and anthropologists talked of traditional bonds as constraints on industrialization, others, writing in the post-independence decades, pointed to the gradual weakening of community ties with the growth of modern industries.47 The modernist assumptions within which these opposing views were framed made community identities inevitably opposed to industrial culture: in one they appear as a constraint to industrialization, in the other they are displaced through industrialization. Within such a frame the significance of these identities within an industrial culture was never adequately examined.

After the late 1970s, many historians examined how caste and community ties shaped the social composition of the industrial workforce more seriously but continued to see them as transitional.48 There was an assumption that industrialization and urbanization would inevitably displace pre-existing community ties. The logic of such arguments was inverted in Chakrabarty’s framework. He critiqued writings that saw community identities as residual, emphasizing instead that they were intrinsic to the inherited pre-bourgeois culture of jute workers. Community identities in Chakrabarty’s account are closed and pre-given; the possibilities of class alignments, of solidarities cutting across ethnic boundaries, are excluded in his framework.49

A range of writings since the 1980s have tried to address questions of ethnic and community identity in more complex ways. Chandavarkar and Gooptu’s studies demonstrate how the internal contours of these identities were not pre-given; they were redrawn in the urban context in a variety of ways. Ties made in the city were never fixed, there were changes and ruptures—a blurring of some identities at certain moments and a reassertion of others. Gooptu shows how mobilization around festivals and religious movements often had contradictory implications. It was instrumental in creating wider solidarities, but at times such mobilization also produced cleavages within communities along class lines.50 Militant Hindu revivalist and Islamic movements in North India in the interwar years brought together elite patrons and plebeian artisanal groups in new alignments, but these unities were fraught with inner tensions. Divisions along caste and class lines disrupted moves toward any stable unities around religion.

Studies since the 1990s also engage more seriously with questions of caste. Gooptu’s work on the urban poor in North India looks at movements of self-assertion among dalits and the ways they critiqued and subverted hegemonic ideas that legitimated upper caste dominance. Similarly, Nair, Joshi, and others point to the ways in which lower caste groups contested Brahmanical and upper caste practices in everyday life.51

In understanding the intersection between caste and class, the specific experience of low castes—those stigmatized as ritually “impure” and subjected to various forms of social exclusion—is of particular significance. How did stigma mediate the class experience of workers of lower caste groups? Recent writings of Shahana Bhattacharya and Tanika Sarkar address some of these issues. Bhattacharya’s study of leather workers shows how castes seen as ritually “impure” were socially marginalized and concentrated in occupations categorized as “dirty” and “defiling” in the dominant discourse. But stigma could also be politically deployed, creating a space for leverage and flexibility in situations of conflict. The dependence of tannery owners on the services of lower caste groups for work seen as defiling by others sometimes forced tannery owners to accept workers’ demands.52 The complex intertwining of notions of stigma, class, and caste are sensitively developed in Tanika Sarkar’s essay on municipal scavengers in Calcutta. It demonstrates how the experience of strikes in the 1920s redefined meanings of stigma and class. For a brief while the rigidity of caste taboos broke down, as low caste scavengers came in close touch with union leaders from upper castes and gained access to public spaces from which they were normally shunned. As strikers they acquired a new identity as citizens in spaces in the city from which they were excluded in their daily lives.53

Dalit histories interrogate reductive notions of class and raise important questions about how stigma shaped the experience of class. Solidarities around strikes did not lighten the burden of stigma; they did not always lead to the creation of wider identities of class, cutting across caste distinctions, but they reshaped notions of self and identity for lower caste workers. Protests by tannery workers and scavengers meant a sense of self-affirmation, an assertion of notions of dignity by those for whom the experience of work was tainted by stigma.

Debates Over Definitions

Historians are still grappling with ways of working with notions of class, renegotiating the terms in which these are understood. A move away from orthodox Marxist writings on labor over the last three decades has meant both a search for new categories and a reappropriation and redefinition of class in new ways.

Historians are trying to rethink notions of class in ways in which conflicting identities of caste, religion, and region can be reconciled with class identities. In writings over the last several decades, three different lines of argument can be discerned: one that sees class as contingent, as a unity that emerges in particular historical circumstances and breaks down thereafter; another that views class as an open-ended and fluid identity that is continuously redefined and renegotiated through other affiliations of caste, religion, or region that conflict with and yet inscribe themselves on other identities; and a third that sees class as an identity constituted through a struggle of informal workers as citizens making claims from the state and not as a unity against capital.54 Common to these different characterizations is a notion of class that: (1) is not fixed and predetermined, (2) looks at the entanglement of class with other social identities, and (3) moves away from standard teleological assumptions that see class identities as acquiring coherence and unity over time. The effort in these writings is not to dispense with the category “class” but to open it up for closer scrutiny.

Some attempts have been made to think of an alternative category to refer to working people. There are those, for instance, who argue for a category like the “laboring poor” as more appropriate to the Indian context, where the boundaries between the “formal” and “informal” are often blurred, where workers move continuously between industrial waged employment and non-waged home-based work. The “fuzziness” of the category of laboring poor, Bhattacharya argues, “suits the reality of transitional economies [where] individuals and families are simultaneously located in more than one conventional class category.”55 Class is seen as a category that excludes groups and forms of labor that do not form a part of standard Marxist analyses of labor.

Unresolved problems, however, remain. Does not a search for a different, more inclusive category reaffirm certain purist notions that see “class” as bounded, as defined by certain fixed boundaries? Is it possible to redefine class and charge it with a new meaning in a context where the boundaries between different laboring groups are fluid and in flux?56 Can one see many cultural inscriptions within a historically defined identity?57 How productive are such debates over definitions and categories?

Over the last few decades, historians have been critiquing the framing assumptions of labor history and redrawing its boundaries—spatial, temporal, and sectoral—subverting the standard oppositions that separated the rural and the urban, the formal and the informal, the organized and the unorganized, the free and the unfree, the modern and the pre-modern, the public and private, the local and the global. While historians grapple with new definitions and problems, there is also a looming question about the future of work in a global scenario where rapid digitization and automation are transforming the worlds of labor. In the coming years, labor historians will have to reflect on the implications of this new technology and the changing forms of domination and resistance that will characterize a radically digitized world.

Primary Sources

Official reports and Commissions of Inquiry from the late 19th century onward provide useful insights into discussions around hours of work, wages and labor conditions, skill and industrial training.58 The Royal Commission on Labour in India in 1929 conducted detailed investigations into labor conditions in different regions and industries.59 The inquiries conducted by the Labour Investigation Committee in 1946 are a valuable resource.60 Several published reports are also available in the volumes on Labour Movement in India published by the Indian Council of Historical Research. Official reports on strikes like the Bombay Strike Inquiry Committee and Cawnpore Textile Labour Inquiry Committee are a useful source.61 On handlooms and artisanal industries in the colonial period, a number of official publications are available.62 On rural labor, see the Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India.63 On the post-independence period, after 1947, the reports of official inquiry commissions on labor both ‘organized’ and ‘unorganized’ are a rich source.64

The papers of millowners’ associations in different regions provide details about industrial policies and contain surveys on working-class budgets and housing. See, for instance the reports of millowners associations for Bombay, Calcutta and Kanpur.65

Two important volumes co-edited by Jan Breman are important for photos and visuals of work and labor in contemporary India.66

Digital Resources

A vast repository of documents on Indian labor created by the Association of Indian labor historians in cooperation with the VVGiriNLI are available online. The digitized monthly reports of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for the period 1929–1969 are available on the website of the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CEMIS). A large number of published reports can be accessed in the open access digital resources of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (GIPE), the Hathi Trust digital libraries and Internet archive. On contemporary labor issues, see websites like GurgaonWorkersNews and SACW (South Asia Citizens Web). Digital collections of law cases are available online on the Indian Kanoon and Indian Law Institute websites.

Further Reading

Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi, and Jan Lucassen, eds. Workers in the Informal Sector: Studies in Labour History 1800–2000. New Delhi: Macmillan, 2005.Find this resource:

Ahuja, Ravi, ed. Working Lives and Labor Militancy: The Politics of Labour in Colonial India. New Delhi: Tulika, 2013.Find this resource:

Behal, Rana P. One Hundred Years of Servitude: Political Economy of Tea Plantations in Colonial Assam. New Delhi: Tulika, 2014.Find this resource:

Behal Rana P., and Marcel van der Linden, eds. India’s Labouring Poor: Historical Studies, c1600–c2000. New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2007.Find this resource:

Breman, Jan. Footloose Labour: Working in India’s Informal Economy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890–1940. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Chandavarkar, Raj. The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay 1900–1940. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Gooptu, Nandini. The Politics of the Urban Poor in Early Twentieth Century India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Joshi, Chitra. Lost Worlds: Indian Labour and its Forgotten Histories. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002.Find this resource:

Kerr, Ian J. Building the Railways of the Raj 1850–1900. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Linden, Marcel van der, and Prabhu Mohapatra, eds. Labour Matters: Towards Global Histories: Studies in Honour of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Tulika, 2009.Find this resource:

Nair, Janaki. Miners and Millhands: Work, Culture and Politics in Princely Mysore. Delhi: Sage, 1998.Find this resource:

Parry, Jonathan P., Jan Breman, and Karin Kapadia, eds. The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour. New Delhi: Sage, 1999.Find this resource:

Sarkar, Aditya. Trouble at the Mill: Factory Law and the Emergence of the Labour Question in Late Nineteenth-Century Bombay. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

Sen, Samita, and Nilanjana Sengupta. Domestic Days: Women, Work and Politics in Contemporary Kolkata. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Sen, Samita. Women and Labour in Colonial India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Simeon, Dilip. The Politics of Labour Under Late Colonialism: Workers, Unions and the State in Chota Nagpur, 1928–39. Delhi: Manohar, 1995.Find this resource:

Varma, Nitin. Coolies of Capitalism: Assam Tea and the Making of Coolie Labour. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017.Find this resource:

Neve, Geert De. The Everyday Politics of Labour: Working Lives in India’s Informal Economy. Delhi: Social Science Press, 2005.Find this resource:


(1.) Morris, David Morris, The Emergence of and Industrial Labour Force in India: A Study of the Bombay Textile Mills 1854–1947 (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1965); Charles A. Myers, Labour Problems in the Industrialisation of India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958); and Richard D. Lambert, Workers, Factories and Social Change in India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963).

(2.) Morris, “New Data on Cotton Mill Workers of Bombay,” Economic Weekly 9, no. 38 (1957): 1225–1227. For discussion, see also Rana P. Behal, Chitra Joshi, and Prabhu Mohapatra, “India,” in Histories of Labor: National and International Perspectives, ed. Joan Allen, Alan Campbell, and John Mcllroy (Pontypool, Wales: Merlin, 2010), 290–313.

(3.) Sukomal Sen, Working Class of India: History of Emergence and Movement, 1830–1970 (Calcutta: Bagchi, 1977); see also Ranajit Das Gupta, “Poverty and Protest: A Study of Calcutta’s Industrial Workers and Labouring Poor, 1879–1899,” in Labour and Working Class in Eastern India: Studies in Colonial History (Calcutta: KP Bagchi, 1994).

(6.) Dilip Simeon, “Work and Resistance in the Jharia Coalfields,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 33, nos. 1/2 (1999): 43–75; Janaki Nair, “Dangerous Labour: Crime Work and Punishment in Kolar Goldfields 1890–1946,” Studies in History 13, no. 1 (1997): 34–44; and Dhiraj K Nite, “Slaughter Mining and the ‘Yielding Collier’: The Politics of Safety in the Jharia Coalfields,” in Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, ed., The Coal Nation: Histories, Ecologies and Politics of Coal in India (London: Routledge, 2014), 105–128.

(7.) For interesting parallels, see Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980; 2010); and June Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).

(8.) Rana P. Behal, One Hundred Years of Servitude: Political Economy of Tea Plantations in Colonial Assam (New Delhi: Tulika, 2014), 258–259; and Nitin Varma, Coolies of Capitalism: Assam Tea and the Making of Coolie Labour (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017), 177–193. The description of plantation discipline resonates with the picture drawn by Sidney Wilfred Mintz in Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern Industry (New York: Penguin, 1984), 51–53.

(9.) Ravi Ahuja, “Mobility and Containment: The Voyages of South Asian Seamen, c1900–1960,” International Review of Social History 51, no. S14 (2006): 111–141.

(10.) Joshi, “Fettered Bodies: Labouring on Public Works in Nineteenth Century India,” in Labour Matters: Towards Global Histories: Studies in Honour of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, ed. Marcel Van Der Linden and Prabhu Mohapatra (New Delhi: Tulika, 2009); and Clare Anderson, “Convicts and Coolies: Rethinking Indentured Labour in the Nineteenth Century,” Slavery and Abolition 30, no. 1 (2009): 93–109.

(11.) Ian J. Kerr, Building the Railways of the Raj 1850–1900 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), 105–111. For discussions around labor in transport, see also Stefano Belluci et al., Labour in Transport: Histories from the Global South, c1750–1950 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

(12.) Geert De Neve, The Everyday Politics of Labour: Working Lives in India’s Informal Economy (Delhi: Social Science Press, 2005), 111–136; and Shankar Ramaswami, “Masculinity, Respect, and the Tragic: Themes of Proletarian Humor in Contemporary Industrial Delhi, ” in India’s Labouring Poor: Historical Studies, c. 1600–2000, ed. Rana P.Behal and Marcel van der Linden (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2007), 203–227.

(13.) Radha Kumar, “Family and Factory: Women in the Bombay Cotton Textile Industry 1919–1939,” in Women in Colonial India, ed. J Krishnamurthy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), 133–162; Mukul Mukherjee, “Impact of Modernization on Women’s Occupations: A Case Study of Rice Husking Industry of Bengal,” in Krishnamurthy, Women in Colonial India, 180–198; and Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Colonial India (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

(14.) “Gendered Exclusion: Domesticity and Dependence in Bengal,” International Review of Social History 42, no. S5 (1997): 65–86.

(15.) Sonya Rose, “Gender at Work: Sex, Class and Industrial Capitalism,” History Workshop, no. 21 (1986): 113–131; and Anne Phillips and Barbara Taylor, “Sex and Skill: Notes Towards a Feminist Economics,” Feminist Review, no. 6 (1980): 79–88.

(16.) See, for instance, Angelique Jannsens, “The Rise and Decline of the Male Breadwinner Family? An Overview of the Debate,” International Review of Social History, no. 42 (1997): 1–23; see also Chitra Joshi, “Notes on the Breadwinner Debate: Gender and Household Strategies in Working-Class Families,” Studies in History 18, no.2 (2002): 261–274.

(17.) N. Neetha, “Flexible Production, Feminisation and Disorganisation: Evidence from Tiruppur Knitwear Industry,” Economic and Political Weekly 37, no. 21 (2002): 2045–2052.

(18.) Beedi is a type of local Indian cigarette. Joshi, “Notes on the Breadwinner”; Meena Gopal, “ Disempowered Despite Wage Work: Women Workers in Beedi Industry, ” Economic and Political Weekly 34, nos. 16/17 (1999): WS12-WS20; and Samita Sen and Nilanjana Sengupta, Domestic Days: Women, Work and Politics in Contemporary Kolkata (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016), 211–230.

(19.) Gopal, “Disempowered Despite Wage Work.”

(20.) For an interesting discussion on servants in pre-colonial India, see Sunil Kumar, “ Bandagi and Naukari: Studying Transitions in Political Culture and Service Under the North Indian Sultanates, Thirteenth–Sixteenth Centuries ” in After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India, ed. Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 60–108; Sara Dickey, “Permeable Homes: Domestic Service, Household Space and the Vulnerability of Class Boundaries in Urban India,” American Ethnologist 27, no. 2 (2000): 462–489; Durba Ghosh, “Household Crimes and Domestic Order: Keeping the Peace in Colonial Calcutta, c.1770–c.1840,” Modern Asian Studies 38, no. 3 (2004): 599–623; and Fae C. Dussart, “ ‘That Unit of Civilisation’ and ‘the Talent Peculiar to Women’: British Employers and Their Servants in the Nineteenth Century Indian Empire,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 22, no. 6 (2015): 706–721.

(21.) Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum, Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(22.) Sen, Domestic Days, 231–271; and N. Neetha and Rajni Palriwala, “The Absence of State Law: Domestic Workers in India,” Canadian Journal of Women and Law 23, no. 1 (2011): 97–119.

(23.) Jan Breman, Patronage and Exploitation: Changing Agrarian Relations in South Gujarat (New Delhi: Manohar, 1979); and Breman, Footloose: Working in India’s Informal Economy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(24.) Gyan Prakash, Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labor Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(25.) Peter Robb, “Labour in India: Typologies, Change and Regulation,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 4, no. 1 (1994): 37–66; and Ian J. Kerr, “Labour Control and Labour Legislation in Colonial India: A Tale of Two Mid-Nineteenth Century Acts,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 27, no. 1 (2004): 7–25.

(26.) Michael Anderson, “India 1858–1930, The Illusion of Free Labor,” in Masters, Servants and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955, ed. Douglas Hay and Paul Craven (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004), 422–454; see also Ravi Ahuja, “The Origins of Colonial Labour Policy in Late Eighteenth Century Madras,” International Review of Social History 44 (1999): 159–199.

(27.) Robert J. Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

(28.) On the separation between the formal and informal, see Mark Holmström, South Indian Factory Workers: Their Life and Their World (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

(29.) Prabhu P. Mohapatra, “Regulated Informality: Legal Constructions of Labour Relations in Colonial India 1814–1926,” in Workers in the Informal Sector: Studies in Labour History 1800–2000, eds. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Jan Lucassen (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2005), 65–96. On formal/informal labor, see also Jan Breman, The Making and Unmaking of an Industrial Working Class: Sliding Down the Labour Hierarchy in Ahmedabad (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(31.) Lalita Chakravarty, “Emergence of an Industrial Labour Force in a Dual Economy-British India 1880–1920,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 15, no. 3 (1978): 249–327.

(32.) See, for instance, Rhoda Reddock, “Freedom Denied: Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago 1845–1917,” Economic and Political Weekly 20, no. 43 (1985): WS-79–WS-87.

(33.) Jan Breman, Footloose Labour: Working in India’s Informal Economy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press,1996); and Vinay Gidwani and K Sivaramkrishnan, “Circular Migration and the Spaces of Cultural Assertion,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93, no. 1 (2003): 186–213.

(34.) Sen, Women and Labour, 54–88; Chandavarkar, Origins, 124–167; Chitra Joshi, Lost Worlds: Indian and Its Forgotten Histories (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), 62–99.

(35.) Radha Kumar,“Sex and Punishment Among Millworkers in Early Twentieth Century Bombay,” in Changing Concepts of Rights and Justice in South Asia, eds. Michael R Anderson and Sumit Guha (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 179–197; and Sen, Women and Labour, 198–212.

(36.) Brij V. Lal, Chalo Jahaji: On a Journey Through Indenture in Fiji (Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2000), 41–66.

(37.) Brij V. Lal, Mr Tulsi’s Store:A Fijian Journey (Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2013), 107.

(38.) Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

(39.) Brij V. Lal, “Veil of Dishonour: Sexual Jealousy and Suicide on Fiji Plantations,” Journal of Pacific History 20, no. 3 (1985): 135–155; and Prabhu P. Mohapatra, “Restoring the Family: Wife Murders and the Making of a Sexual Contract for Indian Immigrant Labour in the British Caribbean Colonies 1860–1920,” Studies in History 11, no. 2, (1995): 227–260.

(41.) Shubho Basu, Does Class Matter? Colonial Capital and Workers’ Resistance in Bengal 1890–1937 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(42.) Anna Sailer, “ ‘Various Paths Are Today Opened’: The Bengal Jute Mill Strike of 1929 as a Historical Event,” in Working Lives and Labour Militancy: The Politics of Labour in Colonial India, ed. Ravi Ahuja (Delhi: Tulika, 2013), 207–255.

(43.) Joshi, “Espaços do trabalho e história social na Índia” (Spaces of Labour and Social History in India) in Estudos Historicos 43, no. 1 (2009): 5–30.

(44.) Joshi, Lost Worlds. On alternative modes of politics and mobilization through local networks and institutions, see Aardra Surendran, “ Voluntary Associations in a Public Sector Industrial Undertaking: Civic or Political Action,” in The Vernacularisation of Labour Politics, eds. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Rana P Behal (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2016), 25-45; Meera Velayudhun, “Unions, New Forms of Collectives in Kuttanad, Alappuzha, and Diverse Narratives of Development in Kerala: Representation, Negotiation and Agency in Vernacularisation, eds. Bhattacharya and Behal, 46–62.

(45.) Rukmini Barua, “The Textile Labour Association and Dadagiri: Power and Politics in the Working-Class Neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad,” International Labor and Working-Class History 87 (2015): 63–91.

(46.) Sujata Patel, The Making of Industrial Relations: The Ahmedabad Textile Industry 1918–1939 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 38–46.

(47.) Morris, “Caste and the Evolution of the Industrial Workforce in India,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 104, no. 2 (1950): 124–133.

(48.) See, for instance, Richard K. Newman, Workers and Unions in Bombay, 1918–1929: A Study of Organisation in the Cotton Mills (Canberra: Australian National University Monograph, 1981); and Eamon Murphy, Unions in Conflict: A Comparative Study of Four South Indian Textile Centres, 1918–1939 (New Delhi: Manohar,1981).

(49.) For a discussion, see also Chitra Joshi, “Histories of Labour: Predicaments and Possibilities,” History Compass 6, no. 2 (2008): 440–442.

(51.) Joshi, Lost Worlds, 245–256; Janaki Nair, Miners and Millhands: Work, Culture and Politics in Princely Mysore (Delhi: Sage, 1998),101–106; see also Shashi Bhushan Upadhyaya, Existence Identity and Mobilisation: the Cotton Millworkers of Bombay 1890–1919 (New Delhi: Manohar, 2004), 111–144, 209–216.

(52.) Shahana Bhattacharya, “Rotting Hides and Runaway Labour: Labour Control and Workers Resistance in the Leather Industry c.1860–1960,” in Working Lives, ed. Ahuja, 47–96.

(53.) Tanika Sarkar, “ ‘Dirty Work, Filthy Caste’: Calcutta Scavengers in the 1920s,” in Working Lives, ed. Ahuja, 174–206.

(54.) Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, “Questions of Class: The General Strikes in Bombay, 1928–1929,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 33, nos. 1/2 (1999): 205–237; Joshi, Lost Worlds, 275–276; see also Andrew Sanchez and Strümpell, “Sons of Soil, Sons of Steel: Autochthony, Descent and Class Concept in Industrial India,”Modern Asian Studies 48, no. 5 (2014), 1276–1301; Rina Agarwala, “Reshaping the Social Contract: Emerging Relations Between the State and Informal Labor in India,” Theory and Society 37, no. 4 (2008): 375–408; see also Rina Agarwala, Informal Labor, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(55.) Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, “The Labouring Poor and Their Notion of Poverty: Late 19th and Early 20th Century Bengal, ” Labour and Development 3, nos. 1/2 (1998): 1–23.

(56.) In the European context, for example, Eley, Nield, and others put forward a powerful argument for the need to “reshape” and “reassemble” class; see Geoff Eley and Keith Nield, “Farewell to the Working Class?,” International Labor and Working-Class History 57 (2000): 1–30.

(57.) Memoirs and autobiographies of workers need to be explored further. See, for instance, Ahmad Azhar, “The Making of a ‘Genuine Trade Unionist’: An Introduction to Bashir Ahmad Bakhtiar’s Memoirs,” in Working Lives, ed. Ahuja, 256–273; and Ahuja, “ A Freedom Still Enmeshed in Servitude: The Unruly Lascars of SS City of Manila or a Micro-History of the ‘Free Labour’ Problem,” in Working Lives, ed. Ahuja, 97–133.

(58.) See, for instance, the Report of the Indian Factory Commission, 1890 with Proceedings and Appendices (Calcutta, 1890); Report of the Indian Factory Labour Commission, 1908, 2 vols. (Simla, 1908); Indian Industrial Commission, Vol. 1, Report 1916–18, Vols. II –V Evidence (Calcutta, 1918).

(59.) See the Report of the Royal Commission on Labour in India (Calcutta: Government of India, 1931) and the evidence volumes from different regions.

(60.) See Labour Investigation Committee, Government of India Main Report (New Delhi, 1946) and the reports on different industries, for example, on textiles, leather, pottery, printing presses, cotton ginning, bidi, dockyards, tanneries, and leather works.

(61.) Proceedings of the Bombay Strike Inquiry Committee (Bombay, 1928), Report of the Cawnpore Textile Labour Inquiry Committee (Allahabad, 1938).

(62.) See, for instance, A. C. Chatterjee, Notes on the Industries of United Provinces (Allahabad,1908); W. E. J Dobb, A Monograph on Iron and Steel Work in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh(Allahabad, 1908); see also Report of the Fact-Finding Committee on Handloom and Mills,(Delhi, 1942).

(63.) Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India (London, 1928) and evidence volumes for different regions.

(64.) National Commission of Labour (Delhi, 1969); Report of the National Commission on Labour (New Delhi, 2002); On unorganized labour, see the Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector (New Delhi, 2008).

(65.) Report of Bombay Millowners’ Association (Bombay, annual), Report of the Bengal of Chamber of Commerce (Calcutta, annual), and Report of the Upper India Chamber of Commerce (Kanpur, annual).

(66.) Jan Breman, Arvind Narayan Das, and Ravi Agarwal, Down and Out: Labouring Under Industrial Capitalism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000); and Jan Breman and Parthiv Shah, Working in the Mill No More (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004).