Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

Presidential address at the All India Trade Union Congress session in Calcutta

I doubt if we can claim that during the last eighteen months the trade union movement has gained in strength and in volume. I would rather be inclined to say that during this period, the movement received a setback. Many factors account for this setback but in my humble opinion the two most important factors are: firstly, the split which occurred at Nagpur, and, secondly the diversion caused by the launching of the civil disobedience movement. Some of our comrades may be disposed to think that the split did not weaken us; but I cannot share this view, for I have no doubt in my mind that, for the time being at least, we have been weakened by the split. I am therefore one of those who sincerely deplore the split, and if it be possible for us to close up our ranks I shall heartily welcome that event. So far as the second factor is concerned, I venture to think that the attention of the country as a whole was drawn away from the trade union movement owing.to the superior attraction of the civil disobedience movement. Under different circumstances the trade union movement could have benefitted by the civil disobedience movement and could have gained in strength as a result of it. But on this occasion the normal progress of the trade union movement has been impeded.

Attempts at unity within the ranks of the trade union movement have been made from time to time by various individuals and groups. I consider it desirable, therefore, to state clearly what the main problems are over which we quarrelled, and how unity could best be achieved at this stage. The main issues are: (1) The question of foreign affiliation; (2) Representation at Geneva; (3) Mandatory character of the Trade Union Congress resolutions.

With regard to the first issue, my personal view is that we need have no foreign affiliation now. The Indian trade union movement can well be left to take care of itself. We should be prepared to learn from every quarter and even to accept any help that may come from any part of the world. But we should not surrender to the dictates of Amsterdam or Moscow. India will have to work out her own methods and adapt herself to her environment and her own special needs.

With regard to representation at Geneva, I am afraid that too much importance has been given to this question. The best course for us would be to have an open mind and come to a decision every year on this question. We need not decide beforehand, once for all, as to whether we should send any representative to Geneva or not. Personally, I have no faith in Geneva. Nevertheless if any friend will be satisfied by our keeping the question open for decision every year, I have no objection to it.

With regard to the mandatory character of the Trade Union Congress resolutions, I am afraid there can hardly be any compromise if the Trade Union Congress is to exist and function. If it is to work for the attainment of working class solidarity in the country, the resolutions of the Trade Union Congress should be binding on all unions affiliated to the Congress. To reduce the Trade Union Congress to the position and status of a loose federation, or to something like an All Parties Conference, would be suicidal.

With regard to the question of trade union unity, my position is quite clear. I want unity because thereby we can have a strong and powerful organisation. But if we are to quarrel again and part company, then we need not attempt a patch-up unity now. The Trade Union Congress is public property. All unions are welcome to join the Congress and make their presence felt. If thereby the office of the Congress passes into the hands of a particular party, then no one can legitimately complain. I would, therefore, earnestly invite all unions to join the Trade Union Congress and to capture the executive if they so desire.

Some of our workers feel very much concerned over the settlement arrived at between Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Irwin. I do not propose to launch into a criticism of the settlement because that would amount to something like a postmortem examination. The truce is an accomplished fact and we may ignore it at this stage. We can use our time and energy more profitably if we look to the future and try to prepare for it. The Trade Union Congress as a body did not have much to do with the civil disobedience movement last year. But it is open to it to take a larger share in the movement that is to come. In order to do that, preparations must begin from today.

The Karachi session of the Indian National Congress passed a resolution, now popularly known as the Fundamental Rights resolution. Various opinions have been expressed with regard to that resolution. On the one hand, some have roundly condemned it as altogether inadequate and unsatisfactory, while others have waxed eloquent over it. Both these views appear to me to be one-sided. However unsatisfactory the resolution may be, there is no doubt that the resolution stands for a departure from the old tradition, for a recognition of the workers and peasants, for a definite move in the direction of Socialism. The value of the resolution is not in what it contains in an explicit form but in what it contains in an implicit form. It is the potentiality of the resolution, rather than the actual contents of the resolution, which appeals to me. The contents of the resolution have to be amplified and improved before it can be altogether satisfactory. We are glad to note that a committee is already at work for the purpose.

People in this country are at the moment awaiting the result of the Round Table Conference. I cannot persuade myself to believe that anything substantial will come out of the conference in the present temper and mentality ofthe British Government. Further, the Round Table Conference is such as to make it exceedingly difficult to press home the popular point of view and the popular demand. When the result of the conference is announced, it will then be time for the people to take such action as they think fit. That psychological moment should not be lost by the people when it does arrive.

At the Nagpur session of the Congress, the boycott of the Whitley Commission had been decided upon. That Commission have just issued their report. If I were to act like a logician, I should ignore that Report altogether but I shall not do that. Whether it be good, bad or indifferent, we should not ignore a document of that character which is now before the public and which the public are bound to take serious notice of and criticise.I should say at the very outset that the value of the report of a particular Commission lies not in what it contains on paper but in what will ultimately come out of it.

Will the expenditure over the Commission be justified? For one thing, that is a question which even the man in the street will ask. We Indians have seen so much of reports that only if some tangible good actually comes out of a particular Commission, apart from the mere issuing of a report, we are inclined to be highly sceptical and suspicious about the results. I may even say that in the past the reports of some Commissions have met with wholesale condemnation owing to the failure of the Government to implement even the good points in those reports.

The present report has laid considerable emphasis on the problem of welfare works for labour, and though I voted for the boycott of the Whitley Commission I have no hesitation in saying that if recommendation of this point is given effect to, there will be an improvement on the present position. Nevertheless, I am constrained to say that some of the larger and more important questions have not been dealt with properly. Labour today wants the right to work. It is the duty of the state to provide employment to the citizens and where the State fails to perform this duty it should accept the responsibility of maintaining them. In other words, the worker citizen cannot be at the mercy of the employer to be thrown out on the streets at his sweet will and made to starve. The industry of the country is today faced with a crisis owing to the application of the axe. I am not unmindful of the difficulties of the employers. It is something impossible for them to maintain their old staff and they are forced to resort to retrenchment. But even in such cases the State cannot absolve itself of all responsibility and the employer should be told that if in his brighter days he has made his pile with the help of his poor workers, he cannot leave them to their fate when adversity overtakes them. Until this problem of retrenchment is satisfactorily solved, there can be no industrial peace in the country.

Just as every worker can claim the right to work, he can also claim the right to a living wage. Does the factory worker in India get a living wage today? Look at the Jute factories and the textile mills. What portion of their enormous profits did they spend for the welfare of the poor and oppressed workers? I know that they will say that of late they are in a bad way. But granting that proposition, may we not ask what reserves they have piled up during their past history? I should not in this connection forget the Indian Railways either. They are now busy applying the axe. But those who are resorting to drastic retrenchment have certainly some duty towards those who in the past enabled them to swell their profits and pile up their reserves. We can also refer to our tea planters. What are the profits that they have been making, and how have they been treating their labour? Is it not a fact that in some areas at least the poor workers are still subjected to conditions which have much in common with the old institution of slavery? What has, then, the Labour Commission recommended for securing to the Indian worker a living wage and decent treatment? They have referred to minimum wages in the jute and textile industry. But can we be rest assured that the minimum wages mean a living wage?

It is not necessary for me to enter into a detailed examination of the different recommendations made by the Whitley Commission. I shall refer, however, to one pointwhich, though apparently insignificant, is of vital interest to the growth of the trade union movement in India. The report says that "Section 22 of the Trade Unions Act should be amended so as to provide that ordinarily not less than two-thirds of the officers of a registered trade union shall be actually engaged or employed in an industry with which the union is concerned." The Commission should have known that in India outsiders or non-workers are usually elected as office-bearers of trade union because employees who agree to work as office-bearers are usually victimised by the employers on some flimsy pretext or other. Therefore if employees are to be forced to become office-bearers themselves, there should be some arrangement for preventing their victimisation at the hands of their employers. Otherwise, if the present policy of victimisation continues, it will be impossible for the employees to become office-bearers.

To sum up, the major problems of unemployment, retrenchment and living wage for the workers have not been handled properly. The ameliorative programme drawn up by the Commission is attractive in many places, but who is giving effect to that programme? Can anything be expected from the present Government which is definitely anti-labour? The labour problem is, therefore, ultimately a political problem. Until India wins her freedom and establishes a democratic; if not socialistic; Government, no ameliorative programme for the benefit of labour can be given effect to. It is clear from the report that everything is practically left to the Government. The report does not say anything as to how labour can capture or influence the governmental machinery. But till this is done, no amount of reports can actually benefit labour. The Commission should have recommended adult franchise in connection with the new constitution. In addition to this, or as an alternative, the commission could also have recommended a certain percentage of seats in the provincial and central legislature to be reserved for the representatives of labour.

The trade union movement is destined to grow in strength and in volume in spite of the temporary setbacks that it may have received in the past. Various currents and cross-currents of thought sometimes make trade union workers feel bewildered as to the path or the modus operandi they should follow. There is, on the one hand, the Right wing who stand for a reformist programme above everything else. On the other side there are our Communist friends who, if I have understood them alright, are adherents and followers of Moscow. Whether we agree with the views of either group or not, we cannot fail to understand them. Between these two groups is another group which stands for Socialism; for full-blooded Socialism; but which desires that India should evolve her own form of Socialism as well as her own methods. To this group I humbly claim to belong.I have no doubt in my own mind that the salvation of India, as of the world, depends on Socialism. India should learn from and profit by the experience of other nations; but India should be able to evolve her own methods in keeping with her own needs and her own environment. In applying any theory to practice, you can never rule out geography or history. If you attempt it, you are bound to fail. India should, therefore, evolve her own form of Socialism. When the whole world is engaged in socialistic experiments, why should we not do the same? It may be that the form of Socialism which India will evolve will have something new and original about it which will be of benefit to the whole world.