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Labour And Dravidianism: History of Buckingham and Carnatic Mills Strike, the first major industrial unrest in South India

The labour movement underwent a long period of meandering before it was consolidated in the 1960s.

One of the major reasons for the success of the Dravidian movement is its co-option of the working class. Like the Shiv Sena in the 1960s and the 1970s, the Dravidian movement successfully gained popularity among the working classes. This largely drew popular support away from the Communists. The Communist strategy of building up a class struggle was overwhelmed by the Dravidian mobilization along caste angles.

Since the early leaders of the Dravidian movement were agrarian landlords, they were insufficiently cognizant of the mobilization potential of industrial unions. However, the subsequent generation of middle-class Mudaliars, Naidus and Pillais that made up the DMK were fully able to capitalize on the anti-Brahmin sentiment to co-opt the working class. It also helped their cause that several Communists in the 60s were drawn from middle-class Brahmin backgrounds.

Let us look back at the very first instance of industrial unrest in Madras Presidency and the dramatis personae.

The Buckingham and Carnatic Mills

The 19th Century was a period of dramatic de-industrialization and de-urbanization. Native weaving, cloth production industries were completely destroyed. 

By 1878, the textile mills of Manchester could no longer keep up with the burgeoning demand for cloth. To take advantage of vastly cheap labour and the seemingly endless supply of raw material, the Madras business group Ms Binny &Co, started the Buckingham Mills. Given the extraction of tax revenue and export of raw material over 100 years left the English businessmen with a large capital surplus. The over-investment in railways in India had created high capacities in freight haul capability. Being situated near one of the largest ports of the British Empire, Madras was an ideal location for the textile industry;

The Carnatic Mills, started in 1881, were taken over by Binny in 1920.

Madras Labour Union

Mr B P Wadia, a Theosophist and collaborator of Annie Besant, and Thiru Vi Kalyanasundaram Mudaliar, a Congressman, jointly founded the Madras Labour Union in 1918. He had earlier founded the Madras Textile Workers Union in 1909.

Labour Strike

In 1921, the workers of the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills struck work, demanding a pay raise. This was the first in a series of strikes that continued for 6 months.

The Indian National Congress was firmly in favour of the workers in this strike. The Justice Party leaders initially supported the strike.

However, as the days passed and the strike progressed, the striking workers began to be split along caste lines.

The management had secured the support of Christians among the workers due to the affinity they had with the British. Soon, the Christians were able to convince the Scheduled Caste workers to not participate in the strike and negotiate independently with the management, instead. Interestingly, at the same time, a prominent Chettiar business man Somasundaram Chettiar and his son Sathappa Chettiar had started the Kaleeswarar Cotton Mills in Coimbatore in 1907. This was among the first challenges to the British owned Buckingham and Carnatic Mills. They were promoted by the Zamindar of Devakottai, Arunachalam Chettiar, whose ancestor had acquired the zamindari in lieu of loans advanced to the Sethupathy of Ramnad.

The then Chief Minister, the Raja of Panagal Sir Ramarayaningar and O. Thanikachalam Chettiar, criticized the behaviour of the Dalit workers in refusing to join the strike.

In June 1921, the caste Hindu workers went to remonstrate with the Scheduled Caste workers, who lived in a separate colony at Pulianthope, Madras. The argument broke out into a clash in which many Dalit homes were burnt. The Party mouthpiece, Justice, blamed the riots on the Government’s pampering of the Dalit workers, while Dalit Justice Party Leader, M C Rajah, placed blame on the striking workers and accused the other leaders of shedding crocodile tears.

Eventually, the Home Ministry, which was under the Governor in the dyarchy system of Madras Presidency, decided to subdue the strike through harsh measures. Tragedy struck on 29 August 1921, when police fired upon workers and killed six men.

The leader, Sir Natesa Mudaliar, stepped in and negotiated a mutual truce. Sir P. Theagaroya Chettiar, the Justice Party leader, recommended that the Scheduled Caste leaders by re-settled outside Madras City and advised the remaining workers to return to work.

However, most of the striking workers were not re-admitted by the management.


Within a few years of this incident, the tallest Scheduled Caste leader of the time, MC Rajah, left the Justice Party. Even though he and Rettaimalai Srinivasan represented Depressed Classes later in the 1930 and 1931 Round Table Conferences at London, they were not able to build a mass movement for Dalits.

The labour movement underwent a long period of meandering before it was consolidated in the 1960s.

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