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Updated: March 4, 2013 03:08 IST

The book that throws light on early labour movement

B. Kolappan
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D.Veeraraghavan
D.Veeraraghavan

Veeraraghavan’s book brings to light the pathetic working conditions in Madras

In the 1980s, a young scholar spent hours in the State government archives, poring over voluminous documents and going through early 20th century editions of newspapers – The Hindu, Swadesamitran, New India and Navasakthi.

He was pursuing, what could be seen as unfashionable today, the bleak life of labourers of Madras in the early 1900s, their squalid living conditions and the pioneering efforts by trade unionists to mobilise them.

D. Veeraraghavan’s book, The Making of the Madras Working Class, published posthumously by Leftword, poignantly captures the poor living and working conditions of labourers in the city, backing his study with reports, statistics and previous studies.

“Harbour coolies spent as much on liquor as on rice and cereals nearly 25 per cent of their income,” he records citing a 1939 study. He notes that prisoners were much better off than the working classes as far as nutrition was concerned.

Dr. Veeraraghavan lost his vision in his school days due to retinitis pigmentosa. He studied history and went on to get a doctorate and teach in the Humanities Department of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. If his story was one of how he overcame all odds to be a successful researcher, the narrative of his subject — the working class of Madras — was no different.

When Leftword sent the manuscript for an anonymous referee’s opinion, he appreciated the content and recommended immediate publication.

“I was that anonymous referee,” disclosed CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat, while releasing the book here a few days ago.

Originally submitted as a doctoral thesis, the book is an exhaustive study of the labour movement between 1918 and 1939.

It starts in 1918, the year the country’s first organised labour union, the Madras Labour Union was founded.

“Veeraraghavan was no dry, careerist historian. He was steeped in the Left movement and his choice of topic flowed from his political commitment,” said Prof A.R. Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who had written the foreword to the book.

Madras, Dr. Veeraraghavan, argued in his book, was created “by the English for the English from an agglomeration of villages, hamlets and small townships with the objective of carrying on trade between Europe, India and East Indies, after attempts to establish trading posts on the Coromandel Coast near Masulipattinam failed.

“Before venturing into the subject, Dr. Veeraraghavan read thoroughly the works of great Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson and Jean Chesneaux. More than half the books in this library were bought for him,” recalled S.S. Kannan, founder of the Karl Marx Library here, who worked as a reader for Dr. Veeraraghavan.

Diversity of caste and religion is cited as a factor detrimental to working class solidarity and class-consciousness.

“Outside the factory, the workers maintained their caste and religious identities and settled among non-workers of their caste and religious identities,” he points out in the book.

It was totally in contrast to workers belonging to Adidravidar community, who had completely cut off their connections with their villages after migrating to the city. They were often used by managements to break strikes, says the book.

Mr. Karat said a multicultural society was always an impediment to mobilisation of workers. “If it was difficult to organise trade unions in the 1910s and 1920s, it is equally difficult to organise unions in companies like Hyundai now,” he said, stressing that Dr. Veeraraghavan’s seminal work should be an impetus to other scholars to begin from where he had left,” he said.

Dr. Veeraraghavan was also a connoisseur of Carnatic music. “It is my lasting regret that he did not write a social history of Carnatic music, said historian V. Sriram.  

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I had the good fortune of knowing Dr. Veeraraghavan during my years as a BTech student at IIT Madras. I was even more fortunate that such a man as him took pity to mentor me: He was pivotal in turning my sympathies towards the conditions of the poor and destitute - working or otherwise. A true Gandhian in his habit, he was passionate about the upliftment of the poor: it is a tribute to his commitment that his work on the makings of the Madras Working Class has now been published.

from:  Anand Mohan
Posted on: Mar 4, 2013 at 21:28 IST
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