XQs XVI - A Conversation with Aniruddha Bose

Posted by qainchi on February 17, 2019 · 20 mins read

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to "review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Tania Bhattacharyya for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV]

Aniruddha Bose is Associate Professor of History at Saint Francis University, Loretto (PA). His research interests lie in Modern and Early Modern South Asia, in the area of labor history. He is the author of Class Conflict and Modernization: The Raj and the Calcutta Waterfront (London and New York: Routledge, 2018). He is currently writing a book on the role of railwaymen in the making of free India.

Q. Modernization is popularly narrated as a feat of technological advancement, political will, and capitalist philanthropy, with workers usually not featuring in the story. Your book in contrast, right from the title, places technological modernization in the same conversation as class formation. What are the stakes of studying class and labor history in India today? What in your view is the problem-space, to borrow David Scott's term, that makes the historical questions of this book salient questions of our time?

There are two answers to this question. The historiography on class labor in India was previously concerned with questions around how and why Indian laborers seemed unable to develop class-consciousness on the lines predicted by Marx. Fortunately, some thirty years ago, historians began to shift their gaze away from what Indian labor did not do to what Indian labor actually did. Unfortunately, this created a new problem. Without a central historical question/problem, the field subsequently fragmented. Recent literature consists of discrete studies of class conflict and labor history in distinct industries, geographical locations, and times. This book tries to overcome this fragmentation by connecting the history of one discrete set of workers (the dockworkers of Calcutta) with a larger framework (modernization).

The fragmentation of the academic field mirrors the fragmentation and weakening of organized labor in Indian society. There is however, considerable evidence to suggest that technological and other kinds of changes in the Indian economy are creating opportunities for the emergence of new forms of labor organization. The rather striking agricultural labor marches of the last year, organized using both old-fashioned labor organization as well as WhatsApp, indicates changes in class conflict in India today. In this book, I demonstrate how the forces of class conflict informed modernization in British India. This is, however, a pertinent question for 21st century India as well. What will the effect of India's farmers using social media to organize do to our policing of Indian cyberspace, for instance?

Q. With a view to introducing readers to the basic conceptual pivots of your book: what is the relationship between class conflict and class formation and how is it expressed in your research?

The research demonstrates that class conflict heightened class formation and vice versa. This book looks at the impact of the shift from sail to steam, in the second half of the nineteenth century, on the dockworkers of Calcutta. Historical records are fairly clear and consistent. As steam ships became more ubiquitous, class conflict worsened. This had much to do with the economics of steam power, which required a much quicker turnaround time at ports than sailing ships did. Shippers and port authorities increasingly demanded more from their dockworkers, which the dockworkers resisted. The resistance was more effective when it was organized, creating an incentive for the dockworkers to conceptualize of themselves as constituting a distinct entity or class. The process worked in reverse as well. Port authorities and shippers responded to resistance with greater policing and a management that was more intensive. Thinking of the port dockworkers as a distinct class with their own interests that ran contrary to the interests of the state and capital helped port authorities justify and devise new methods of policing and management. Over time, the process became self-sustaining and self-reinforcing, such that by the end of the nineteenth century, class conflict had become endemic and class formation almost complete.

Q. What is modernization? You underline interestingly that an important element of modernization was labor management. How do all of these parts - technological innovation, mechanization, infrastructural overhauls, new administrative structures and labor management - relate to one another and why do you call it modernization?

Modernization is a highly contested term. From the 1950s to the 1970s, developmental economists peddled it as a magic formula from American universities. It referred largely to physical infrastructure that poor countries needed in order to turn into rich ones - roads, schools, hospitals. Economists discarded it in the 1970s under an avalanche of criticism that noted how the theory did not address critical issues like inequities in the global trading order, access to global capital, etc. I use the term cautiously, including changing physical infrastructure as well as labor management, two connected processes evident in my own research. Few historians use the term because of its negative connotations. However, I feel it is appropriate to use as long as there is nothing prescriptive or teleological about it. I used it because the term best captured the changes in the patterns of work that I was trying to describe.

Q. Related to the question of both labor management and class conflict is that of policing. Can you explain the role of the police and medical surveillance in the formation of a laboring class in colonial Calcutta, and by extension in the formation of the modern state?

The police played a very important role in class formation at the Calcutta port. The Calcutta port authorities turned to the police to enforce discipline as they began transforming work processes at the port in late nineteenth century. The police became the instrument of punishment for both the state and capital, and increasingly became their representatives in the eyes of the port workforce. Much labor organization emerged against the police and their zuloom. Medical surveillance began in the 1880s in response to growing international concern with the spread of cholera from the Indian Subcontinent. Much of it was confined to surveys and sanitation in the port area. Policing and medical surveillance merged in the policing of sanitary practices, and later peaked during the plague epidemics at the turn of the century. During these epidemics, medical policing reached unprecedented levels with the establishment of segregation camps, the forcible removal of the sick and their families, the destruction of their property and homes, and forced inoculations. At its peak in the early twentieth century, this extended to the destruction of entire neighborhoods because they were deemed insanitary. Laborers responded to policing of this kind by fighting and running away. The latter approach significantly strengthened the hands of those who remained. Since the port's labor force was mobile, many left, and the few that remained emerged stronger. By 1907, the Calcutta press had begun referring to dockworkers as “The Best Paid Men in the City.”

I do not address state formation explicitly in my book, but the emergence of a substantial police force and a bureaucracy are recognizable signs of state formation. The Calcutta Port Trust, an administrative body, created by the Bengal provincial government, administered the Calcutta port modernization process. The Calcutta Port Trust was primarily responsible for increasing policing and medical surveillance of the port workforce. All of this constitutes state formation.

Q. What did the entry of large labor contracting firms mean for the process of class formation? In a market already mediated by many levels of mediators, how were these new participants different?

Labor contracting firms entered the Calcutta port in the 1880s, and became dominant over the following decade. These firms, and particularly one firm, Bird & Co., came to represent the dominant managerial and employer class for many of the port workforce. In the absence of records from these firms, it is tricky to identify how these firms were different. My own research indicates that the firms made life harder for labor in some ways. Bird & Co. used its substantial resources (it may have been the largest private corporation operating in late colonial India) to bring in labor from considerable distances, in northern and central India. These workers lacked the ability to return on their own or to form alliances with fellow workers in the city. The laborers were also entirely dependent on their employers for housing. Their ability to switch jobs independently were limited. On the other hand, laborers did benefit from competition between labor contractors. I came across evidence, for instance, that Bird & Co. recruited workers from a rival firm by offering higher wages.

As a side note, I found evidence indicating much murky behavior surrounding these labor contracting firms and the Calcutta Port Trust. Differences in ownership (Irish vs. English, etc.) seemed to matter much in determining who won contracts. There is even some indication of bribery and corruption at the highest levels. I didn't elaborate on this because it was not central to the focus of my research, but it made me grateful for the relatively vigorous and free press we enjoy in India today.

Q. You describe how laborers were recruited by these firms from various rural hinterlands. How does the mobility of laborers affect the formation of a laboring class at the ports?

The dockworkers did not leave behind any written records. Nevertheless, my research indicates that laborers recruited from farther away were at a disadvantage when it came to flight. The costs of running away for laborers from Bengal and Orissa were much less than for workers from the forests of Central India or the regions around Delhi and Haryana. However, I should note that these workers did leave during extreme situations. Similarly, these workers must have been at a disadvantage when it came to forming links with the working poor of Calcutta. Language and other barriers may have limited their ability to forge connections with criminal elements for instance (thievery was rampant at the port, and got worse as the nineteenth century progressed). On the other hand, isolated communities that formed ethno-linguistic minorities must have enjoyed strong bonds amongst themselves. That could only have helped class formation amongst these workers.

Q. Methodologically speaking, a comparative history of ports, modernization and port labor is central to your book. You conclude every chapter with such a comparative conclusion, in fact. What are the historical questions that you would say such comparison allows you to answer or answer better?

I was primarily interested in establishing whether the Calcutta Port was an outlier or whether the patterns of change I saw in Calcutta replicated patterns evident elsewhere. My research indicated that developments in Calcutta mirrored developments in other ports in India, such as Madras and Bombay, other colonial ports like Singapore, and even ports as far flung as New York, and London. In some ways, this is understandable. The same ships visit ports around the world requiring the same services. This became particularly true after the opening of the Suez Canal that made steam travel between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans financially sustainable. On the other hand, I noticed subtle differences as well. For instance, conflict between Indian and Chinese labor, as well as Indian and Chinese capital informed class formation in Singapore. There is much room for further research here. While Atlantic ports are well studied, Indian Ocean ports remain unexamined for the colonial period. Comparative studies of such ports will be fascinating.

Q. What does the study of port cities tell us about the urban history of South Asia more broadly? In what ways are the histories of labor and modernization in inland cities across South Asia comparable to that of Calcutta, Bombay or Madras'?

Port cities through their connection with other port cities constitute a vanguard when it comes to urban development. This is particularly true of their ports and port labor. Inland cities, by virtue of their connection with port cities follow the urbanization trends of port cities. In the late nineteenth century, these trends, in all likelihood, accelerated with the railways. This is very likely true of class formation in particular. There is documented evidence of Atlantic port labor supporting and influencing each other. Similar connection must surely have also existed in the Indian Ocean region. It is more than likely that news of events in other port cities reached laborers in Indian port cities who carried this information back to cities in India's hinterland. On the other hand, class formation is not a teleological process. It tends to be contingent on the convergence of multiple factors. All Indian cities have their own story to tell.

Q. Can you recommend five recent works that ought to be read in conversation with yours?

No research on dockworkers should begin without consulting Sam Davies et. al., Dockworkers: International Experiences in Comparative Labor History, 1790-1970 (2000). This two-volume book introduces readers to important questions, debates, and methodologies in researching ports and port labor. David Arnold's Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India's Modernity (2015) is also an excellent book. It introduces readers to thinking about science and technology in British India, especially on the question of reception. My own research though is more interested in how Indians helped determine the introduction of technologies in the first place.

Workers, Unions, and Global CapitalismI also found Rohini Hensman's Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India (2011) very helpful in thinking about Indian labor in global contexts. While her research covers a later period, networks of global capitalism incorporated much of India's economy in the period I studied as well. Another book I much enjoyed is Sumanta Banerjee's Crime and Urbanization: Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century (2006). It gave a street-level perspective into colonial Calcutta. I have recently been reading Benjamin Kingsbury's wonderful new book An Imperial Disaster: The Bengal Cyclone of 1876 (2018). It provides an invaluable glimpse into life in rural Bengal.

Q. What, in your experience, does it take to turn a dissertation into a book? Can you describe the process, both intellectual and practical (how did you choose a publisher, for example) that goes into this?

Publishers typically want books that will appeal to a maximum number of readers. Specialization in a narrow topic, while useful for a dissertation, is unhelpful when trying to reach a wider audience. Turning a dissertation into a book then, has much to do with broadening the project's focus. In my case, this entailed including all the comparative sections with global ports from a similar time (Bombay, Madras, Singapore, London, and New York). It also entailed broadening my argument to include discussions on what made Calcutta unique amongst India's and the world's ports, as well as discussions on what aspects of its transformation conformed to global trends.

When it comes to choosing a publisher, much depends on what kind of a book you want to write. I wanted my first book to be academic, of interest to historians and students who study colonial India, urban and labor history in particular. I also wanted to reach historians who wanted to make comparisons between Atlantic and Indian Ocean ports. This made Routledge an ideal publishing house.

Many publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Routledge reached out to me when I presented my research at the Association for Asian Studies. It is therefore very important to make your work visible. It is also very important to have friends and colleagues supporting you. My dissertation advisor, Prasannan Parthasarathi, and my current chair, Denise Damico, were both supportive. My wife Frances Bose, an academic herself, and my parents, all provided invaluable support and advice.


Tania Bhattacharyya is a doctoral candidate in South Asian and Indian Ocean history at Columbia University. She researches the social history of nineteenth and early twentieth century Bombay as a port-city of Indian Ocean itinerants.


Indra Nath Bose | February 18, 2019

Excellent interview. It truly portrays the relationship between technological developments with changes in labour aspirations.