High Court and Napiers Park saw the country’s first May Day celebrations

On the evening of May 1, 1923, as factories across the country were winding down for the day, labourers of Madras city revelled in the first recorded May Day celebrations of the country at Triplicane Beach. Legend has it that it was in the celebrations near Madras High Court and Napiers Park that red flags were first unfurled.

The events which led up to this day reveal a dramatic story which saw the city becoming an arena where volatile class wars were waged.

India’s first organised labour union was born near the Perambur Barracks in the vicinity of the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills of Madras. Selvapathi Chettiar and G. Ramanjalu Naidu, shopkeepers whose shops were patronised by millworkers, on hearing about the appalling working conditions in factories, resolved to form a union.

Providing the historical context, A. Sounderajan, CPI (M) MLA of the Perambur constituency, says, “Workers were treated like slaves in the mills. With the end of the First World War in 1918, the management revoked concessions it had granted for uninterrupted production. Discontent was high but news of the Bolshevik Revolution in Soviet Russia instilled hope.”

The specific incident which propelled action was the plight of a B&C millworker who was left no choice but to soil his work station on being forbidden a break to relieve himself. Outraged at the humiliation meted out to a fellow worker, as many as 10,000 employees of Carnatic mills, Perambur Works and other factories assembled at the Janga Ramayammal Garden at Stathams’ Road in March 1918. TV Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar (Thiru Vi. Ka.) editor of Desa Bakthan, and B.P. Wadia the Parsi theosophist, over the next month, delivered a series of lectures on the need for collective action by labourers. Finally, on April 27 1918, the Madras Labour Union (MLU) was launched with B.P. Wadia as its first president.

Five years after the first labour union in the country was inaugurated, Singaravelar Chettiar, a labour activist commemorated May Day. Urging Indian labourers to join in the celebrations, he said that the occasion would serve as a source of strength as on this day, workers across the globe would unite in a show of power.

One can only imagine Napiers Park and Triplicane resounding with stirring union sloganeering — Reduce working time! Better Wages! More Leave!

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