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A general strike that helped India win freedom

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In the first of a series of columns on India’s freedom struggle, John Newsinger looks at Sholapur, a city that dared to fight
Issue 2813
A picture of Gandhi in British colonized India

Gandhi in India in 1930

On 2 March 1930, Mahatma Gandhi launched a new civil disobedience campaign in India, calling for the country’s independence. British violence would be defeated by Indian non‑violence, he proclaimed. 

The British duly responded with considerable violence, with unarmed demonstrators beaten unconscious by cops. Gandhi himself was arrested on 5 May, leading to massive protests across India. But many that took to the streets were not prepared to submit to being beaten by the police.

Before Gandhi called off the campaign well over 60,000 people were imprisoned. The resistance was at most fierce in the working class stronghold of Sholapur, today known as Solapur.

Here, in the centre of southern India, the textile workers had a history of militancy. A general strike was called, the mills were closed, the trains were stopped and thousands took to the streets. The police made a number of arrests that provoked more protests.

This time, the police opened fire, killing officially four protesters but unofficially as many as fifty. Outraged workers proceeded to drive the police from the streets, killing two of them, and then set about burning down police stations and court buildings.

The police fled from the city, leaving it in the hands of the workers for three days.  The pro-British Times of India newspaper complained that “British Raj is ended, Gandhi Raj is here”. After three days, troops were sent in to crush the rebellion and martial law was declared.

During this period, troops and police ran riot, raping and looting, as they set about crushing the resistance. Protesters were imprisoned for wearing prohibited “Gandhi caps”, and a man got seven years in prison for carrying the flag of Gandhi’s Indian National Congress. The strikers were forced back to work. 

Once back in control, the British proceeded to put four men, Mallappa Dhansetti, Qurban Hussain, Shrickrishna Sarda and Jagganath Shinde, on trial for leading the movement. They were sentenced to death and hanged on 12 January 1931. The men had in effect been judicially lynched by the British.

Their execution was greeted with a one-day general strike in Sholapur and militant protests across the country. Sholapur was proclaimed “The City of Four Martyrs”. What will probably come as a surprise is that a Labour government in London presided over this ferocious repression.

Prime minister Ramsay Macdonald and his secretary of state for India, William Wedgwood Benn, were determined to demonstrate that the British Empire was safe in their hands. Labour had to show the British ruling class that it could be relied on to defend their interests.

In India, this involved crushing Gandhi’s campaign, and in Sholapur breaking a general strike and hanging the men who led it. Most but not all Labour MPs agreed with this. Archibald Fenner Brockway, MP for Leyton East, was outraged.

He could scarcely believe what the government was doing in India and tried to insist that parliament debate the repression. That led to his suspension from the Commons.

As he later put it, “I was shocked that a Labour government should besmirch the record of the British working class in this way”.  He put the governments use of repression in India and betrayal of the unemployed in Britain down to the corrupting influence of the Commons. He thought often decent Labour MPs fell for “the glamour of the social life of the other side, steadily leaving their own class behind them”. 

The Commons “tended to blunt a keen sense of the class struggle,” he said. Nothing has changed in that regard.

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