The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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India’s Labouring Poor: Historical Studies, C. 1600-2000 Edited by Rana P. Behal and Marcel vander Lindel,
Foundation, Rs 695

The current phase of globalization, coinciding with the rapid decline of the industrial working class in the advanced capitalist countries, and the retreat of the State, led to serious concern over the discipline of labour history. However, recent years have witnessed a renewed scholarly interest in the historical studies of labour in India and in other countries of south Asia and Latin America. The subject of research has also expanded from the traditional working class to migrants, the self-employed and indentured labourers.

The volume begins with an introduction by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. He outlines the new arena of research that has emerged in the recent decades. Bhattacharya argues that there are certain “homomorphies” between colonial social formation of the past and of contemporary under-developed countries. In this context, he makes a forceful appeal for comparative studies between south Asia and other areas of the global south. Bhattacharya is all in favour of having a broader perspective on labour history.

Michael Fisher’s chapter traces the labour history of Indian seamen from the emergence of inter continental sea trade between India and Europe at the beginning of the 17th century to the establishment of various colonial empires. Ravi Ahuja extends Fisher’s analysis to the late-colonial and post-colonial periods. His study focuses on the south Asian seamen who manned European ships in the first half of the 20th century. Given their profession, these men were, geographically speaking, quite mobile but socially they were immobile.

There has been a detailed history of indentured labourers from India going to the West Indies, Malayasia or Fiji during the 1800s. Prabhu Mohapatra studies one such group of indentured labourers in the West Indies between 1880-1920.

Rana Behal takes us to a different locale, the Assam valley tea plantation before India’s Independence. Behal shows how the Indian Tea Association, through its strategy of immobilization, acted as an effective pressure group within the colonial state and prevented the formation of collective labour organizations.

The volume, which is a tribute to labour historian Raj Chandravarkar, ends with an unpolished draft of his article on the decline of the industrial labour recruiter or ‘jobber’ in the Forties.

This volume seeks to bring together the best research in the field of labour history in India. However, an article on the feminization of work force could have been included. One might look forward to a new volume for that.

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