First May Day celebrations in India – Excerpts from The Making of the Madras Working Class

The following are excerpts from Dilip Veeraraghavan’s book, The Making of the Madras Working Class on the first ever May Day celebrations in India, held in 1923 at Madras.

“Another development during this period [1922-33] was the appearance of left radicalism represented by Singaravelu [Chettiar] who had been championing the cause of  labour at the time of  the 1921 strike, taking part in the public meeting and demonstrations and writing articles in support of labour. His polemics with Slater were significant. However, he did not hold an office in any of the unions which had sprung up then. It was solely at his initiative that Madras achieved the distinction of having celebrated the first ever May Day in India on May 1, 1923. On the same day, he launched the Labour-Kisan Party of Hindustan as a distinct political party of labour and for labour, with a ‘politico-economic policy for labour, free from mere reformism or opportunism, which characterised all other parties in the country.’ His move however had a hostile reception from the then established labour leaders, like Chakkarai Chettiar, Iyer Thiru Vi. Ka. [V. Kalyanasundara Mudaliar] and from Sriramulu Naidu, who had been with Singaravelu in the beginning, but turned hostile as he considered the Labour-Kisan Party a rival to the Congress. A mass meeting of the workers of Madras was convened to repudiate all connection with the Labour-Kisan party. Swadharma with all its international coverage took him to task for trying to plant exotic ideas and theories in India and held that only the AITUC [All India Trade Union Congress] had the right to represent the workers of India. The nationalist trade union leaders considered the Labour-Kisan Party as distractive and disruptive and wanted it to be ‘nipped in the bud.’ 

Singaravelu’s efforts to build an independent working class party were nipped in the bud not so much by these leaders but by the Government, which arrested him on March 6, 1924, as one of the accused in the Kanpur Communist Conspiracy Case. The long-term significance of Singaravelu’s venture is discussed in the following chapter. It is sufficient here to remark that the Labour-Kisan Party episode underlined not only the importance of having a firm base in trade union movement before one could think of starting a party of labour but also the sensitivity of established trade union bosses to any attempt at an intrusion into their domain and their apprehension of real politicization of the working class. …” [Page 176-177]

“… the activities of left radical elements, which drew inspiration from the Russian Revolution of 1917 and devoted themselves to the cause of building a revolutionary working class movement. The earliest leader of some stature to espouse the cause of the revolutionary working class movement was Singaravelu whose work in the cause of labour in Madras has been noted earlier. He had met S.A. Dange of Bombay in 1922 impressed him very much. In 1923, he celebrated May Day and launched the Labour Kisam Party of Hindustan (LKPH) with a radical programme. Singaravelu edited and published an English fortnightly Labour Kisan Gazette and a Tamil Weekly Thozilalal (The Worker). He was arrested in March 1924 and was an accused in the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy Case, but proceedings against him were dropped because of his prolonged illness. In December 1925, he presided over the first communist conference in Kanpur. In 1927, he was active in the Bengal-Nagpur Railway Strike and in 1928, he led the historic South Indian Railway Strike. He was sentenced to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment in the conspiracy case foisted on the leaders of the South Indian Railway Strike. The sentence was subsequently  reduced and he was released in August 1930.

Apart from his active participation in the workers’ strikes in Madras City and S.I Railway, Singaravelu relentlessly propagated the cause of communism through his journals, the articles he submitted to newspapers, and his public meetings. Besides the observance of May Day and Peace Day, he organized a protest meeting in August 1927 against Sacco and Vanzetti. …

… The 1927 session of the INC [Indian National Congress] held in Madras played a significant role in rousing the interest of the city youth in left nationalism. Singarevelu and the communist delegates from North India participated  actively in the proceedings of the Congress presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru who has just returned from Europe full of ideas dominant then in European socialist and communist circles. He pushed through many leftist resolutions including the declaration of complete independence as the goal of the Congress.

Yet all these events and the hectic activities of Singaravelu in the twenties did not result in the constitution of an organized socialist or communist group in the city. The credit for organizing the first communist group in the city goes to Pathan from the north-western province, an ex-seaman turned communist, Amir Haider Khan.

Khan travelled extensively and came into contact first with the Ghadar Party and then with European communists who arranged to send him to Moscow for training in revolutionary work. He came  to India in 1928 and was engaged in spreading the communist literature that he had got from abroad. He was listed as one of the communist conspirators in the Meerut Conspiracy Case but evaded arrest and escaped to the Soviet Union. Returning to India in February  1931, he was deputed to work in Madras by Comrade Lund, then representing the Communist International (later Comintern) in India. Remaining ‘underground’ and taking different names as the occasion demanded, he was able to gather round him a small group consisting of students and workers like V.K. Narsimhan, K. Bashyam, K. Satyanarayana, P. Sundararama Reddi (P. Sundarayya – who went on to play a leading role in the Telangana armed peasant uprising), Rajavadivelu and ‘Russia’ Manickam, the last two being press workers. With their help he founded, in 1932, the Young Workers League. The league celebrated May Day in 1932. It published leaflets on communism, on Bhagat Singh and on the need for working-class unity. The political line propagated followed that of the Comintern evolved at its sixth congress in 1926. ‘Russia’ Manickam at that time ran a hand operated press and brought out a journal Jana Mitran. At Narasimhan’s suggestion the name of the journal was changed to Munnetram (progress). THe group translated Khan’s articles into Tamil. Khan, then known as Shankar, established communist cells in three important mills. He also sent, secretly, one Jeyaraman to Moscow for training in revolutionary work.

Khan and his comrades were arrested in May 1932. Khan was sentenced to 18 months rigorous imprisonment. Released on July 20, 1934, he returned to his activities in August but his spell of freedom was short-lived. He was arrested again on August 31, 1934 and kept as a State Prisoner under Regulation II of 1819 in the Coimbatore Central Jail. He was later removed to Rajamundhry Jail and finally released in 1938. 

Khan’s arrest caused a setback to the building of a communist movement in Madras. The Communist Party was itself declared illegal in July 1934 and the Young Workers League banned. Even though Khan was removed from the scene the torch lit by him was carried forward by Sundarayya and his comrades.

Sundarayya and Satyanarayana were typical of the younger Congress cadres who were active participants in the various Congress struggles of those days, such as boycotting the Simon Commission and Civil Disobedience Movement. They had suffered imprisonment on those accounts, and had been jolted by the sudden suspension of the latter movement, the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact and the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his comrades in March 1931. When after the fiasco of the Second Round Table Conference, the civil disobedience movement was revived only to face severe repression, these Congress youth found themselves in prisons on considerations of security. Many of the revolutionaries who had believed in individual terrorism had turned to communism and in turn the Congress youth who had come into contact with them in the prisons were converted to socialism. 

Another factor that contributed to the popularity of socialism was the great progress which the Soviet Union was making under the Five Year Plans while the rest of the world under capitalist domination was crippled by economic depression. Millions of workers were thrown out of jobs, while ‘overproduced’ goods were destroyed for want of purchasers. The concrete success of the socialist alternative inspired many young Congressmen in prison to consider the creation of a socialist party. The revival of the right wing Swaraj Party in March 1934 made it urgent for the socialist to come together and the Congress Socialist Party was inaugurated in Patna in October 1934. A few months  earlier in July 1934, Jai Prakash Narain arrived in Madras to canvass support for the proposed Socialist Party.  A local unit of the party was formed on July 27, 1934 with about 100 Congress members.

 While Congress members disillusioned with Gandhian policies  and attracted to socialism were thus groping their way to form a socialist party, the Self-Respect Movement started by E.V. Ramaswami Naicker for social justice and to flight casteism underwent a transformation after his visit to the Soviet Union in 1932. On his return Naicker chalked out a new socio-political programme for the movement in collaboration with Singaravelu. According to this programme known as the Erode Path, the Self-Respect Movement was to have two wings. One, the Self-Respect Party, which would devote itself solely to social reform and the other, the Samadharma Party of India or the Self-Respect League, political activities. Singaravelu and Jeevanandam took prominent roles in the political wing. They published low-priced books and pamphlets in Tamil on communism and Soviet Union, biographers of Marx and Lenin, the first Soviet Five Year articles were published  pointing out the similarity in ideology between the Self-Respecters took a pledge to unite workers and depressed classes and lead them to socialism. Fourth, Naicker toured the Tamil districts and propagate communist ideology and class struggle.

The Government of Madras viewed with concern these developments and proceeded against the printer and publisher of Kudi Arasu and against Naicker for the seditious  articles. Naicker was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment on December 30, 1933. The movement, however, continued its communist propaganda through another newly-established journal, Puratchi (Revolution). But after the banning of the Communist Party of India and the Young Workers League in July 1934, Naicker was concerned about the possible ban on the Self-Respect Movement and decided against any further confrontation with the government. The Erode Programme was dropped. Support was extended to the Justice Party in the 1934 elections. It was even stated that the programme of the Self-Respecters would be better implemented under the guidance of the British Government. 

This change in direction by Naicker led to the exit of Jeevanandam and other committed youth from the Self-Respect Movement. The dissenters formed the Tamil Nadu Self-Respect Samadharama Party, expressed their views through the new journal Pudiya Ulagam (New World), and finally held a conference at Tiruchirapalli n November 1, 1936 addressed by Dange. They decided to join the Congress Socialist Party, which was by then virtually the legal front of the communists. 

After the Communist Party and Young Workers League were banned, the communists set up the Labout Protection League.  A.S.K. Iyengar (hereafter Iyengar) joined Sundarayya and the other associates of Khan. The Labour Protection League organized the corporation sweepers, press workers and snuff workers. ” [Page 220- 225]


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