Journalists recount the Mumbai textile mill workers’ strike of 1982, and discuss how the media covered this turning point in the city’s working-class history.
“The workers of the composite textile mills of Bombay were workers who were very proud of their history, who were aware of their identity, who knew that they and their predecessors had contributed to the city. Mumbai had become the financial capital [of India] because of the textile industry…,” says Lina Mathias, senior assistant editor of Economic and Political Weekly, as she paints a backdrop against which the mill workers’ strike of 1982 occurred.
The industrial districts of Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then known, contributed greatly to the identity of the metropolis. The city emerged as a major textile manufacturer towards the end of the nineteenth century and was the centre of the cotton textile industry of India through most of the next century. The emergence and growth of the textile industry was responsible for Mumbai’s economic prosperity. Thousands of people migrated to Mumbai in search of work in these mills, causing the city to become the melting pot that it is today. According to estimates, the textile mills employed close to 300,000 workers in 1980.
The textile mill workers’ strike of 1982 was one of the breaking points in the history of the textile industry and that of Mumbai. It served to change the face of the industrial capital of the country. The long drawn struggle of the mill workers, and the continuous negotiation with the government and the Bombay Mill Owners Association (MOA) with regard to issues such as wages and representation of unions marked this event as a key moment in the city’s history.
But how has this memory been preserved? What is the form of this watershed event in the eyes of the people of Mumbai? How was the strike and its aftermath represented in the media?
“These were workers who had a very strong political consciousness because of the leadership of the CPI, who had led the labour movement in pre and post-Independence Mumbai. They believed in a certain political ideology. They were conscious of themselves as the working class,” says Mathias as she gives context to the extent and gravity of the strike. “And having been conscious of this, they were conscious of having won a regular working day, an adequate wage, a weekly off, health and other facilities. Their demands from the Mill Owners’ Association (MOA) and the government stemmed from this consciousness. They were very proud of their heritage. It was very difficult to browbeat them,” she adds.
Mathias remembers herself in the early 1980s as an enthusiastic journalist in her early twenties, writing for the Free Press Journal, attracted to the idea of Marxism and therefore having great sympathy for the working class. “I think it helped a great deal that I was very young,” she recounts, “I felt that this put the workers with whom I interacted at ease, since I didn’t give the impression of being a hard-bitten, veteran journalist who came with any ideological baggage. I was new, so they could make out that what they were telling me was news even to me.”
She reminisces of the long hours she spent with the workers at their homes, at Irani cafes and in her office at the Free Press Journal. She remembers joining them in their morchas and demonstrations. She met Datta Samant, leader of the mill workers during the strike and an imminent personality in the history of Mumbai’s textile industry, almost every day. “I became a familiar face to them. They started to confide in me. They would express all the anger they had against the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh, a union they felt did not represent them adequately at all, and the MOA, to me.”
Mathias attributes this level of comfort and confidence that she developed with the workers, to her fluency in Marathi. “For them, somebody from the English press coming and speaking to them in Marathi was a big deal.” Language also seemed to be the strength for Vijaykumar Bandal, secretary of the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, who reported for Dainak Sakaal at the time. “Since I spoke Marathi, which was the language of the workers, I could approach them much more easily. This, I think, was one advantage the Marathi press had over the English press.”
The textile strike of 1982 meant more to Bandal than just a news story. “My father was a mill worker,” he explains, “He worked in the Gold Mohur mills. We even lived in that area, on Dadasaheb Phalke Road. It was natural that I would want to cover this story.”
For Bandal, the struggle was one that hit home; one that he felt the media could have had a greater impact on. He remembers his younger days, when his father had participated in the mass strike. Being the eldest of eight siblings, he started to realise the effects of the strike on the financial condition of his own family. “There were countless families who depended wholly on the mills for their livelihood,” he laments, “There were families where a man, his brother, his son, his wife, would all work in the mill. What were these families to do if their co-workers were all on strike and the mill was closed for months at a time? It became very difficult to live in Mumbai.” He adds that other businesses like small shops, tea stalls, restaurants, and so on, which depended on the mill workers for their business, began to be affected as well.
The textile mill workers strike started on 18 January 1982 and ran well into 1984. Close to 250,000 mill workers from over 50 mills in the mill district of Mumbai participated in the protests. The textile industry was brought to a standstill and the effects of the strike were felt all over the country.
“Majority of the media’s attention was on the leaders of the movement rather than the plight of the workers,” opines Bandal, “Journalists would get lost in the personalities of leaders like Datta Samant. If they would have drawn more attention to the demands and problems of the workers rather than the charismatic leaders of the movement, the strike could have ended much earlier and saved thousands of families from all the damage they faced.”
“As the son of a mill worker, I felt that though the strike was for a good reason, it caused more damage than was its intention to repair, and therefore should have ended,” he adds.
Lina Mathias shares Bandal’s view that, in a sense, there was some amount of misrepresentation in the media. “The media, specifically the English media, focused almost entirely on what became known as the ‘Datta Samant’ phenomenon. He was made out to be militant and headstrong. He seemed like a free agent, as he wasn’t part of any political outfit.” The enigmatic, yet charismatic leadership of Datta Samant, known to his followers as ‘Doctor’, dominated much of what was written about the strike. Known for being active in trade union activities and labour movements, mill workers had appealed to him to lead them. As he was free of any stated ideological affiliations, and not part of any recognised or registered trade union, his relentless leading of the movement was regarded with curiosity by the media. “The English media – catering mostly to a middle class readership – did not paint him in a positive light. He was portrayed as a man who would take the management head-on, call a strike, and never take a step back. They used to say that he didn’t know what compromise was.”
The ‘Datta Samant’ phenomenon, to Mathias’ mind, overshadowed the plight of the workers in the coverage of the movement. In sensationalising this man, who was unfamiliar and stood out from the rest of the Communist trade union leadership, the cause of the workers was lost. “Furthermore, the nuances of the struggle were ignored by the media,” she says, “Such as the reason why, despite more than 2.5 lakh workers going on strike for over a year, the government and the mill owners’ lobby didn’t give in to their demands. The strike was reported in the mainstream media mainly for its nuisance value.”
Veteran journalist Vidyadhar Date recounts a shocking detail of how the press was sometimes manipulated into antagonising the workers’ movement. “We had received a tip that thousands of mill workers had been dismissed during the course of the strike,” he alleges, “When I confirmed this with Nusli Wadia, the then chairman of the Bombay Mill Owners Association, my editor at The Times of India, Girilal Jain, asked me what I was doing and had the story killed.”
Date harbours great discontent for the MOA, who he claims made a fraudulent argument that the strike lead to the ruin of the entire textile industry in India. “This is a bogus argument,” he states, “The industry did not collapse solely because of the strikes. Mills were closing down all over the country. The strikes only played a small role.”
He too is of the opinion that the coverage of the strike by the media was not very positive, and attributes this partly to external intervention. “The Bombay Union of Journalists later came together and tried to produce separate reports,” he says.
Even though journalists like Date, Mathias and Bandal saw flaws in the media coverage of the strike, Datta Iswalkar, of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, an organization that was extremely active at the time of the strikes, sees the positive side of things. “We never perceived any negativity in the coverage of the strike,” he says. “The coverage of the strike lost direction after the strike itself lost direction six months into the protests. This strike, for us, was a war lost. The media, especially the Marathi media, helped us in every way they could.”
Thirty years after the strike that changed the face of Mumbai, media reportage of labour issues has undergone a drastic change. News in the industrial capital no longer gives importance to labour stories. For a city where once a large proportion of the population was industrial labour, today there is little mention of them. “After 1995, I think labour became outdated in newsrooms,” says Mathias regretfully, “Industries moved out of Mumbai, mill land was sold and the builders’ lobby emerged. Trade unionism was equated with Marxism and labour was an issue of the past.” Date also comments on the attitude of the mainstream media towards labour and labour issues. “The tendency was never to support the workers,” he states, “If you see even today, The Times of India doesn’t have a labour correspondent.” The voices of Mumbai’s workers have been hushed.
These hushed voices also draw attention to the larger issue of negligence of the working poor as a class in the media. “The media does not go into nuances of issues such as labour strikes or any issues regarding the poor,” Mathias points out. “If it is not sensational, it doesn’t make the news. The media is not just supposed to give people what they want to read, but also educate them, but that doesn’t happen anymore. The English press, in particular, caters strictly to a middle-class prejudice.”
In a city that served as the heart of industrial India, the labour movement was always characterized by socio-political and economic turbulence. A great influence on the fervour and relevance of the workers’ movements was the reportage of the same. It served not only to spread awareness and education but to also form memories of a not-so-distant Mumbai past. If we remember the textile mill workers’ strike of 1982 as a turning point in the history of the labour movement in Mumbai, then we should also remember journalists as the keepers of that history.
Choosing not to come under the banner of politically affiliated unions such as the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh, the mill workers of Mumbai united under the leadership of Datta Samant in 1982. Although the strike went on for more than a year with great fervour, the desired impact was never achieved and it fizzled out. Urban researcher Neera Adarkar attributes this to the leadership’s inability to accept the situation and call off the strike in time. “Samant did not know when to withdraw the strike,” she says. “The strike got prolonged because of his enthusiasm and the support of the workers. Till date, it has not officially been called off. However, by the time it fizzled out, few of the workers were taken back by the mills. Mill owners were beginning to outsource labour. This, I think, marked the decline of the textile workers and their mills in Mumbai.”
Photos & Design: Munmun Dhalaria, Sandeep Vishwanath & Milanth Gautham
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