Controlling Labour in the Ahmedabad Textile Industry: 1917-1920


Between December 1917 and June 1920, in a fashion similar to other industrial centres in colonial South Asia, there was an increase in labour unrest in the Ahmedabad cotton textile industry.1 By the end of this period, however, under the influence of Gandhi and others, the Textile Labour Association (TLA) had been formed and labour had been effectively controlled by a combination of forces. Works regarding labour in the Ahmedabad cotton textile industry are limited.2 Even those that claim to analyse the period under study in the present paper are either replete with factual errors3 or do not bother to examine the events leading up to the formation of the TLA or its mode of organization and functioning in any great detail.4

Strikes of 1917 and 1918

Plague spread in Ahmedabad in 1917 and with the local government not up to the task of controlling it, by September, workers in the mills began to leave the city. In order to prevent this, the mills started to pay a “plague bonus” to certain sections of the workers.5 The warpers, in order to secure the plague bonus that they had not been allotted, approached Anusuya Sarabhai.6

They wanted to go on strike but were convinced by Anusuya to form a Warpers’ Union of which she became the president. Through the union she sent a notice to the AMA demanding a wage increase of 25% and an extra four annas per day as plague bonus. There was a division within the AMA regarding this- some mill-owners decided to accede to the demands while others brought in warpers from Bombay to continue production in case of a strike.7 While work proceeded smoothly in the former’s mills, there was a strike in the latter’s with the warpers from Bombay being forced to leave the city.

With production in his mills at a standstill Mangaldas8 met Gandhi and asked him to intervene. Though Gandhi agreed he was unable to convince the warpers to negotiate. The strike ended after twenty days with the workers’ demands being met. However, during the strike, when the workers roughed up some warpers from Bombay and the Assistant Secretary of the AMA, Gandhi asked the workers to pay a fine and submit a written apology.9 This was Gandhi’s first intervention in the workers’ struggles in Ahmedabad.

By the middle of January 1918, the plague subsided, and the consensus among the mill-owners was that the plague bonus should be withdrawn and a wage increase of 20 % should be provided. There was however, a doubt whether the mill-owners could proceed with unity and a “mill group” was formed.10 This group met on the 15 January and resolved to implement the withdrawal from 15 February.11 News of this spread and the workers demanded a 50 % wage increase in case the withdrawal was implemented.

On 2 February, Gandhi was told that the workers would go on strike thus “endanger[ing] the peace of the entire city” and was invited, this time, by Ambalal Sarabhai, to intervene.12 Gandhi came to Ahmedabad and sent Shankarlal Banker (his aide) to inquire into the “conditions of the workers” and judge the “righteousness” of their demands. The mill-owners’ group decided that in the event of a strike, a lock-out would be declared.13 In a meeting of the mill-owners’ group held on the 13th, attended by Gandhi and the Collector of Ahmedabad, it was decided that the dispute would be taken to a board of arbitration of which the Collector would be the president, wages would not be increased beyond the level of the Bombay mills and the notice cancelling the plague bonus would be withdrawn.14

However, a few days before the arbitration board was to meet, the workers in a few mills went on strike. The mill-owners’ group considering this a violation of the agreement decided to discontinue the plague bonus and on the 22nd, declared a lock-out.15 Gandhi made attempts to revive the arbitration machinery, but was unsuccessful, as neither the mill-owners nor the workers were ready for it. Having failed, he decided to lead the workers but only after he convinced them to demand a 35 instead of a 50 % wage increase and accept his and his followers’ “supreme authority”.16

During the strike, the task of organizing the workers was assigned to Shakarlal Banker, Anusuya Sarabhai and Chaganlal Gandhi, who told to go every day, to the workers’ residences, to understand their grievances.17 There were daily meetings with the workers that were addressed by Gandhi and the others. The first few days were spent in convincing a major section of the workers that 35 % was a just demand and anything beyond that would not be “righteous”.18

Through pamphlets, the workers were told to take an oath that they would not return to work without having secured a 35 % increase and that during the period of the lock-out, they would not indulge in violence. These pamphlets extolled “virtues” like “truth”, “courage”, a “sense of justice”, “an understanding of the interdependence of labour and capital”, the “capacity to bear hardships” and “faith in god”.

Textile mill owners in Ahmedabad, India, lock out their workers over a cost-of-living wage dispute. Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi proposed a compromise between what the workers and employers were demanding and began his first “fast unto death,” which lasted for four days until the mill owners agreed to arbitration.

While talking about “a sense of justice” the pamphlets told the workers that they must never ask for an “unjust” increase in wages as this would tarnish the “righteous” struggle. The workers were informed that though they were fighting, how the conflict would be resolved was up to god and if it was the workers’ destiny then they would get the bonus.19 The workers were advised to stay away from gambling, sleeping during the day, wasting time at tea stalls and were asked to clean their houses and localities.20 It was also spelt out in clear terms that only such a resolution would be thought of that would first allow for the interest of the mill-owners to be safeguarded and then the interests of the workers would be taken into consideration.21

The mill-owners’ group initially tried to break the unity of the workers and then to break the strike. In the early days a number of pamphlets came out taking the side of the mill-owners and some articles in local newspapers criticized the workers for asking Gandhi to intervene in what was a dispute between labour and capital. With the strike dragging on, the lock-out was withdrawn on the 12th of March and those workers who were willing to work at a 20 % increase were allowed to enter the mills. The following day Gandhi decided to go on a fast.

With Gandhi fasting, Annie Beasant contacted Ambalal telling him that Gandhi’s life was “much too valuable to be sacrificed for such a small matter”.22 By the 18th, the mill-owners agreed to take the issue to a board of arbitration headed by Anand Shankar Dhruv.23 The lock-out was lifted and it was decided that on the first day the workers would be paid a 35 % increase, on the second day a 20 % increase and a 27.5 % increase until the board gave its verdict.
The twin strikes of 1917 and 1918 had an enormous impact on the working class as well as the mill-owners. Though the workers had been controlled by Gandhi, it was clear to the mill-owners that Gandhi would not always be present to ensure the smooth running of the mills. It was necessary to find a permanent solution to the problem of labour unrest in order to let production continue smoothly.


This section focuses on the activities of the “Gandhians”24, the strikes, and, the divisions within the AMA, between March 1918 and June 1920.25

After the strike of 1918 the Gandhians tired to ensure that the workers did not go on strike without their permission and took up various issues affecting the lives of the workers.26 Debt and housing were noted to be important issues confronting the workers and credit and housing co-operatives were sought to be established. To get out of debt or to avoid incurring it, the workers were told to keep away from alcohol, to lead a frugal life and to “not indulge”. There were attempts at “cleaning up” the current dwelling places of the workers. Programmes were taken up for the “uplift” of the vanakars, who were considered untouchables and worked in the warping departments. However the “uplift” was limited to the formation of a “Vankar Sabha” whose primary task was the singing of bhajans27. Other programmes included the establishment of day schools for the children of the workers and night schools for adult education.28

There were strikes in a number of departments from December 1919 in individual mills and sometimes in a cluster of mills. Whether or not the demands were accepted depended on the unity of the workers and their ability to enforce the strike. The Gandhians tried to intervene in these, advising the workers not to make demands that were “unjust”.

Now, there were indications following the strike in the Bombay textile mills in early 1920 that a similar strike would take place in Ahmedabad. On the one hand the Gandhians tried to convince the workers to not go on strike and on the other Ambalal Sarabhai, now the President of the AMA, suggested that mahajans be formed in different departments of the mills, that would take their problems to a Select Committee formed by the AMA. If the negotiations were unsatisfactory, the matter would be taken to an arbitration board, having equal representation from both sides and headed by an “eminent citizen” or a government officer.29

Copies of a letter written by Ambalal dated 20 January 1920, stating that mahajans should be formed “without wasting any time” and that there would be no victimization, were put up in a number of mills.30 The idea for the formation the Textile Labour Association, thus, came not from a worker, a labour leader or even Gandhi but from a mill-owner who was at the time the President of the AMA. On 25 February, the throstle workers’ mahajan was inaugurated by Gandhi and this was followed by the formation of mahajans in almost all other departments.31

A major strike in April 1920 made the importance of such unions which they could control and negotiate with clear to the AMA. The arbitration machinery also became firmly entrenched following the resolution of this conflict.32


In the period between 1917 and 1920, the rules of the established order were threatened and as a result the reproduction of productive forces and the existing relations of production came to be threatened. It therefore became necessary to ensure the submission of the workers to these rules. This section will attempt to elucidate how the TLA and Gandhi contributed in ensuring this submission.

The mill-owners in Ahmedabad sought to portray themselves as benevolent and different from industrialists elsewhere by not only encouraging the growth of a union but also officially recognising it. This was in a period before the Trade Union Act and such an attitude went a long way in convincing the workers of the benevolent nature of the mill-owners in Ahmedabad. Moreover, as the TLA was the only union to which the mill-owners would give any sort of concession or even enter into negotiations with, the workers were forced to be a part of it if they wanted their demands heard. Apart from this, the TLA with its particular mode of organisation and functioning also contributed to the control of labour in a number of ways.

First, the TLA was known as the Majoor Mahajan in the city and this had a number of implications. The choice of the word mahajan for a union sought to locate it within the “traditional” commercial culture of the city. This culture was portrayed as one that had been built on the mahajan pratha that ensured peace, stability and prosperity in the city. The essential features of this mahajan pratha were the organization of different workers into “mahajans”, non-confrontational relations between labour and capital and the disputes between two parties being resolved amicably by a board of arbitration. The collection of union subscriptions, moreover, took place through the employers deducting wages and employers could get elected as representatives of labour. This mahajan pratha was extolled by Gandhi, the mill-owners, especially Ambalal, and the TLA.

Second, the TLA was a federation of mahajans of different departments. With the different departments in the industry being divided almost exclusively on the basis of caste and religion, the TLA became a federation that reinforced the existing social divisions as well as the division of labour based on these. Third, the TLA’s understanding was that of class collaboration and not of class conflict. Its major activity apart from welfare was to indoctrinate the workers and convince them of this.

For the ideological control to be effective, Gandhi’s intervention was also necessary. Gandhi’s views on the relationship between capital and labour, on the strike, on what is justified and what is not, during this period33 are clear from a study of the pamphlets written by him. His views though coming from a position as a self-proclaimed labour leader were clearly those that benefited the mill-owners. Gandhi’s intervention on behalf of the workers was paradoxically requested by the mill-owners. Gandhi’s views on workers’ participation in the national movement and larger politics are known and need not be reiterated here.34

Moreover, his intervention in the struggles between 1918 and 1920 ensured that they remained non-violent to a large extent and did not last very long. In the context of growing labour unrest across in the country resulting in loss of working days and the destruction of property and machinery, especially in Bombay, Gandhi’s leadership, was not only acceptable but also favourable to the majority of mill-owners.

Thus, for the mill-owners, the TLA and Gandhi provided the means for maintaining ideological control over the workers and in the process maintaining the existing relations of production. However, in spite of the action of these concerted and coordinated forces there were instances at which this control seemed weak, albeit for short moments. These included “unathorised” strikes, both autonomous flash strikes by the workers as well as planned strikes by some mahajans that were a part of the TLA. This was in addition to the spontaneous participation in the Non-Cooperation Movement. These instances show that the ideological control that was exercised, though effective, was neither absolute nor was it submitted to without resistance. In the period immediately succeeding the one under study, this resistance took a more militant form and the ideological control of Gandhi and the TLA was greatly threatened. Any study into the ways in which resistance to this control was dealt with necessitates an understanding of how the ideological control emerged and developed; it is this understanding that the present study has attempted to achieve.


Official Publications

Gazetteer of Bombay Presidency: Vol. IV (Ahmedabad). Bombay: 1879.
Report of the Indian Factory Commission. Calcutta: 1890.
Report of the Indian Factory Labour Commission. Simla: 1908.
Report of the Indian Tariff Board (Cotton Textile Industry Enquiry). Calcutta: 1927.
Report of the Royal Commission on Labour in India. London: 1931.
The Report of the Indian Industrial Commission 1916-1918. Calcutta: 1918.

TLA Publications

Mill Majooro Na Sambandh Ma Thayela Karyo No Varshik Aheval (Annual Report of the Activities Related to Mill Workers: 1919-1920). Ahmedabad: Majoor Office, 1920. (in Gujarati).*
Textile Labour Association Ahmedabad: Five Decades at a Glance. Ahmedabad: Gujarat Majoor Sanghralay, 1971.
*Translations from Gujarati are the author’s own.

Books, Articles and Published Non-Official Sources

Breman, Jan. The Making and Unmaking of an Industrial Working Class: Sliding Down the Labour Hierarchy in Ahmedabad, India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Desai, A.R. Labour movement in India: Documents: 1918-1920. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1988.
Desai, M.H. Ek Dharmyudh (The Righteous Struggle). Ahmedabad: Navjivan, 1940, (in Gujarati).+
International Labour Organisation. The Ahmedabad Experiment in Labour-Management Relations, (Report). (1957).
Patel, S. “Class Conflict and Workers’ Movement in Ahmedabad textile industry, 1918-23”, EPW, Vol. 19, No. 20/21, May 19-26, (1984): 853-855+857-864.
Patel, S. “Corporatist Patronage in the Ahmedabad Textile Industry” in Development and Deprivation in Gujarat, edited by G. Shah, M. Rutten and H. Streefkerk. New Delhi: Sage, 2002.
Patel, S. The Making Of Industrial Relations: The Ahmedabad Textile Industry 1918-1938. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Sen, Arup Kumar “The Gandhian Experiment in Ahmedabad: Towards a Gramscian Reading.” EPW (1992): 1987-1989.
Sen, Arup Kumar, “Mode of Labour Control in Colonial India”, EPW, Vol. 37, No. 38, Sep. 21-27, (2002): 3956-3966.
+The unavailability of the official translation necessitated its translation by the author.