Dock Labour and a Connected History of Workers in Early Twentieth Century Calcutta

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Prerna Agarwal


This article argues that class formation and labour radicalism in the industrial cities of colonial India need to be located in connected histories of workers, which go beyond analysis of single industries. It shows that the horizontal mobility of workers in early twentieth-century Calcutta was a result of a pervasiveness of casual work, both among the ‘unskilled’ and the skilled. Skill levels and occupations were crucial in defining the boundaries of not one, as is frequently posited, but several labour pools. It was in this form that the reserve army of labour was ever-present in the city, which gave workers networks beyond one workplace, one neighborhood and frequently, even one industry. The special role of segments of skilled workers has rarely been studied in relation to labour militancy and politics. The article sustains an emphasis on the role of industrial centres, such as the docklands, through which a high degree of interconnectedness across industrial processes in terms of shared occupations and skills across several industries and neighborhoods, can be excavated and mapped onto episodes of labour militancy. The neighbourhood, the trade unions, and nationalist events have all hitherto been studied to understand the shaping of workers’ protest. This article, by contrast, focuses on other crucial elements: the workplace and the industrial processes, which tied workers together in concrete, everyday, and proximate relationships.

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