Labour Activism Encounters Nationalism

Credit: Touraj Atabaki
from “Studies in History: Far from Home, But at Home: Indian Migrant Workers in the Iranian Oil Industry”
source: Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The dialectics between nationalism and labour movements during colonial rule in Asia and Africa have been the subject of a few major studies.[63] Increasingly, large-scale labour migrations became a feature of imperial social formations. As anti-colonial nationalism gathered steam, there were more and more cases of backlash against migrant workers, including among labour activists and labour movements inspired by nationalist ideas. In many instances, transnational migrant labourers were perceived as invidious guests, who were there at the courtesy of patronage by the colonial power, in order to weaken the colonized, or aid their further exploitation. The oil towns of Persia were founded as migrant towns. They accommodated large groups of migrant labourers coming from different parts of Persia, as well as colonial subjects from the Indian subcontinent. For APOC, all Iranian workers were classified as ‘Persians’, irrespective of their provincial origin, and they were generally treated as third-class employees. The migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent were considered as second-class employees, and treated accordingly. In the Persian oil industry, the social stratification scheme imposed by the British colonial rule contributed to creating nationalist sentiments, both among Indian migrant workers and among the ‘native’ Persians.[64] There is no reference in APOC records to any major labour discontent or mass protests in the oil industry during its early years. Nevertheless, the oil company’s operations were not always running smoothly. Many skirmishes and clashes occurred between abusive European foremen and disgruntled workers.[65] In the early years of the oil industry, these frictions were negotiated via foremen. Casual workers did not agitate for self-organization as a class of employees. All this changed after the First World War. In December 1920, some 3,000 Indian workers of the Abadan oil refinery staged a strike. Their demands included an increase in wages, a reduction of daily working hours, additional pay for overtime, improvement of sanitary conditions, and an end to vilification and molestation of workers by staff members.[66] They were soon joined by their Iranian co-workers, which forced the refinery authorities to accept some of the demands of the workers. This turn of events was of great concern among APOC directors. They feared the radicalization of their skilled Indian workers and the infection of unskilled Iranians by ‘subversive ideas’. In addition to workers’ fury over ‘conditions and cost of living’, the British Petroleum historian Ronald Ferrier refers to the 1920 strike as ‘a consequence of the bitter resentment in India, following the Amritsar massacre riot of April 1919’, and says it was provoked by some Indian ‘semi-organized’ political agitators.[67]
More recently, other historians have also regarded the Amritsar massacre as the cause of the 1920 Indian workers’ strike.[68] However, it is doubtful that the Abadan strike of December 1920 can be associated with a massacre, which had occurred more than a year and a half earlier. Such an interpretation would downgrade the extremely deprived living conditions and low wages of workers in the oil industry, or arises from a colonial reading of the past. The 80 per cent salary increase demanded by workers illustrates how poorly paid both Indian and Persian workers actually were. The petitions by Persian workers, which were sent to the government in Tehran all refer to ‘poor pay, inadequate facilities, dirty living conditions the lack of compensation in case of disability’.[69] Although, in the end, APOC’s attempt at reconciliation did concede the strikers’ demand for wage increases, it did not go beyond that. It left other workers’ petitions unrequited. Other demands that the workers had raised were ‘accommodation, married square, medical services, leisure amenities, exchange rate and the sale of discharge certificates of Indian employees’.[70] It was therefore to be expected that workers’ discontent would flare up again. And so it did, eighteen months later. In May 1922, another strike of Indian workers broke out, which was soon joined by Persian workers. George Thomson, an employee of APOC in 1922, recalled the strike as a ‘well organised’ protest, by ‘the skilled artisans, involving about 2,000 Indians’.[71] Thomson does not probe the roots of this strike. However, one of the Indian employees of APOC, named Mudliar in an ‘eyewitness account’, described in details the poor working and living conditions of Indians in the APOC industry. The account of Mudliar followed an earlier statement by Dr Ghore in the Bombay Chronicle under the title of ‘Indian Workers in Persia, Miserable Condition’. According to Ghore’s statement: The Anglo-Persian Oil Company Limited alone employed 95 per cent Indians. There is no restriction in the number of hours worked every day. Neither coal nor ice was supplied to workers until agitation was stared. Workers die of sunstroke in summer and pneumonia in winter as little is done to look to their wants and comforts. I request Indian labour to take up the cause of their comrades in Persia particularly those employed by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, whose Agents are the Shaw Wallace & Co., Bombay. [72]
Following Dr Ghore statement, Mudliar narrates his personal experience of working for APOC, where ‘large numbers of workers of all classes skilled and unskilled are brought up as fast as steamers and trains can carry them, without the slightest care being given to them on board the ship causing untold suffering on the way. From Mohammareh batches of men are sent up to the oilfields in steamers on open deck, though second-class passengers, to suffer in the biting cold and chill weather of the cruel Persian winter’. On arrival, ‘they are not given any accommodation in such a dreary place as this, and even if any is given, it is without latrine, without cookhouse’. Mudliar testified ‘there is no certainty of working hours, which are sometimes as long as 10 and 12 hours in a day in all weathers’. The working environment, according to Mudliar, was nothing but ‘humiliating’

and ‘unbearable’. He confirmed Dr Ghore’s reference to ‘men dying of sunstroke and pneumonia’ as true.[73]
In Mudliar’s testimony, there is also reference to extremely poor living conditions for Indian workers:
Living accommodation provided is inadequate and large number of people are huddled tighter in small room, incompletely furnished, by way of furniture and lights, nothing to say of cook houses and latrines, thus making life extremely hard.[74] Added to these ‘unbearable’ working and living conditions were the steady increase in the prices of essential commodities and high living costs. In Mudliar’s words, prices were as a rule high, and were ‘on the increase daily’, making it ‘impossible’ for Indian workers to ‘command even the necessaries of life’ in Persia, let alone ‘to support their dependents in India’.[75] Figure 9 shows a Foundry in Abadan, 1921.
APOC responded through the British Consul in Mohammareh by denying all the public allegations of Dr Ghore and Mudliar as ‘groundless fabrication’ intended only to justify a salary increase.[76] When the 1922 strike broke out, APOC immediately called on Sheikh Khaz‘al to ‘deal with the native’ employees, while ‘after careful consideration’, the company decided that the ‘only course open was to repatriate nearly 2,000 skilled Indian workmen’.[77] When the strike leaders refused to board the ship, unless all strikers could leave Persia at once, APOC reluctantly conceded their demand. In doing so, the company lost a large part of its skilled workforce, the majority of them being Sikhs, although ‘Indian clerical staff, orderlies, process staff and cooks were still employed’.[78] Later, in 1924, the British Legation in the Persian Gulf reported the activity of an Indian mechanic in Masjed Suleiman, named Muhammad Khan, who tried to form a workers’ union.[79] However, the May 1922 strike is the last known collective action by Indian migrant workers in the Persian oil industry. Because Indian employees were thereafter gradually replaced with Persians, the position of the remaining Indian workforce was weakened.
APOC’s Persianization of the workforce intensified after the 1920–22 strikes, which meant a reduction of Indian labour.[80] This development went together with the rise of Persian territorial-state nationalism stimulated by the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905–1909) and the emergence of a new political society after the First World War, supported by new coercive institutions intending to create a modern centralized state. Along with the consolidation of such a political society, there was also the re-emergence of a new anti-colonial nationalism, supported by non-coercive institutions, such as, political parties, guilds and labour unions, cultural associations and private schools.
With the arrival of an urban labour movement in the country’s public sphere, organized and non-organized workers began to engage in mass activities. Not only did they demand better working and living conditions, but also wanted recognition of their autonomous status as citizens of the country. On 1 May 1929 (international Labour Day), when about 9,000 workers at the Abadan Refinery launched a mass strike, their demands included an increase in wages by 15 per cent; recognition of the workers’ union and May Day as a legitimate holiday; reduction of the working day from ten hours to seven hours in the summer, and eight hours in the winter; and complete equality between Indian and Persian employees.[81] The strike was initiated mainly by Persian workers, and Indians workers did not participate in it. Indeed, protected by the Company’s security guards, a group of ‘Rangoony workers’ unsuccessfully tried to cross the picket line and proceed to the refinery (scabbing).[82] APOC claimed that the strike of May 1929 was nothing but a ‘Bolshevik plot’, to ‘foment intense labour trouble’ in the oil industry and ‘ultimately ablaze in the southern Persian’.[83] However, the national press accused the oil company of downplaying the true cause of the labour discontent: There seems to be two factors for the strike among the workmen of the Company; firstly the times have changed and workmen in all parts think more of their personal comfort than they did formally desiring easier work and more wages, particularly as individual and social expenses have now naturally been greatly increased.… Secondly, [it is] the bad treatment by Company’s officials of the Persian workmen. It is true that the workmen are not educated but still they have human sense and natural intelligence and they notice that the Company favour the Indian and the Iraqis and treats them better.… We can assure the Company’ authorities that should they change their treatment of the Persians and treat them as to the Indian and Iraqis and rank them on the same level of pay, then the Persian element would never create trouble, and as they say pay no attention to the Bolshevik propaganda.[84] The issue of inequality between Indians and Persian workers was raised many times right from the early years of the APOC operation till afterwards. In the petitions sent by Persian workers to the national parliament, or to local or national authorities, there are often references to the discriminatory policies adopted by APOC, segregating Indian and Persian employees with regard to wages, housing, provision of drinking water, sanitation, medical care and leisure.[85] Why there should be differences between the Indians and Persians while they are both workers? Indian hospital located in the neighbourhood called Company is well equipped, while the Persian hospital in the dirty and malodourous neighbourhood of
Sheikh is nothing [and] lacks all essential equipment.[86]
After Reza Khan (later Reza Shah) rose to power in 1920s, his new government promoted territorial-state nationalism, to glorify the authoritarian modernization programme and the new state-building project. According to APOC authorities, when Reza Khan visited the oil industry in southern Persia in 1924 as prime minister, he was deeply disappointed when ‘he did not see a single Persian employed in the Abadan Refinery’.[87]
The Persianization of labour in the oil industry was juxtaposed with Iranian endeavours to build a centralized modern state after the First World War.[88] After a brief military operation led by Reza Khan (both prime minster and commanderin-chief) in 1924–5, the central government ended the era of local autonomy for Sheikh Khaza‘al in Khuzestan. The Sheikh was known as a long-standing British protégé in the Persian Gulf. His arrest and move to Tehran reinforced Iranian territorial nationalism, and helped to clear the way for Reza Khan to be crowned as Reza Shah Pahlavi, founder of the Pahlavi royal dynasty.
One of the major effects of state-sponsored Persian nationalism on the oil industry was that pressure was put on APOC to improve working and living conditions in the oil industry, and accelerate Persianization by training indigenous workers and replacing Indians by Persians. On the second visit to Khuzestan in 1928, Reza Shah declined to visit the oil installation, despite APOC’s welcome. According to Shafaq-e Sorkh, a national newspaper, it was ‘popular dislike’ that induced the King not to visit:
The Company does not deal fairly with people and only has its own interests in mind. The Company’s officials do not see themselves as mere representatives of a commercial enterprise, they prefer to meddle in all affairs and they even have a political office.… That acts as the embassy of a powerful nation in a weak country.… Generally speaking the attitude of the Company before the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty was akin to the East India Company’s stance in the India of two centuries earlier. It is for this reason and for hundreds of other minor issues that the people here [in Khuzestan] don’t like the Company. Consequently the public opinion was not in favour of seeing their King as a guest of the Company.[89]
The prevalence of such bitter anti-colonial sentiment among Persian workers vis-à-vis APOC translated itself in a more confrontational stance towards Indian employees. In response, Indian employees tried to secure better protection from APOC, disassociated more from the local community, and in fact began to identify themselves more with the European staff in the oil industry than with the Persian community. For example, when on 11 March 1928 rumours spread about APOC’s intention to ‘fire 10,000 Iranians, while thousands of Indian and Iraqis are still working for the Oil Company’, members of the Indian working community in Abadan were harassed. The following day, a crowd of Iranian workers ‘congregated in front of the Company’s Labour Office in Abadan and stoned the Office’.[90]
However, the most explicit example of the prevailing nationalist sentiments was during the course of the 1929 strike. As mentioned earlier, one of the demands of the strikers was total equality between Indian and Persian employees. In the capital Tehran, the press supported the strike. APOC was accused of practising racial discrimination, and there were complaints that its Indian employees ruled over Iranians. In a nocturnal hand-out (shabnameh) distributed during this period addressing ‘Our Crowned father, Government and Court Officials’, the Persian worker was described as the ‘glorious and noble son of Darius’, who had to ‘suffer under the tutelage of the British and particularly their Indian clerks and middlemen, sacrificing ‘everything for the interest of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’.[91] Such propaganda literature, according to Bamberg, was ‘prominent, a ritual prophylactic incantation against malign foreign influence’.[92]
The new agreement of 1933 between the Iranian government and APOC, which annulled the D’Arcy concession of 1901, emphasized the earlier demand that APOC should recruit its artisans, technicians, and commercial staff from among Persians (Figure 10). In the opinion of the Persian press, cancelling the

D’Arcy concession was an act of ‘political emancipation’ and a ‘new page to Persian honour’—not only did it return the ‘national wealth’ to the country, but also ended a lengthy era of ‘favouritism towards Indian employees’.[93] The Second World War reached Iran in August 1941. It opened a new chapter in the history of the Persian oil industry, characterized by much more labour activism. The new era lasted for ten years. During this period, new labour unions organized large sectors of the workers in the oil industry, and launched strikes and street protests for better working and living conditions. There was not a trace of Indian workers in these campaigns. To the contrary, there are reports of incidents where Indian workers protected by the British army (or Indian soldiers in the British army) clashed with the local people. Probably the majority of British soldiers who guarded the oilfields and refinery in southern Iran were Indian. This situation in due course soured relations between Indian and Iranian workers. In one 1942 episode, known as the Bahmanshir incident, three Indian soldiers refused to pay a prostitute after enjoying her ‘service’ in the Abadan Bazaar; another six Indian employees of the oil company engaged in a ‘bout of araq-drinking’ and abused a local boy and women passing by. These events triggered major ethnic tension in the city, and ended in bloody clashes between the Indian and Persian communities, with casualties and large losses of property.[94] Events such as the Bahmanshir incident were coloured by sectarian features, and had ethnic and cultural dimensions. Nevertheless, they are correctly analysed as being rooted in ‘social inequality and spatial coercion’.[95] The experience of social inequality helped the Iranian government to advance indomitably to its ultimate goal: the nationalization of the oil industry in Iran. On 15 March 1951 the Iranian Parliament voted for the nationalization of the oil industry, and six months later, all European and some Indian employees of the AIOC left Abadan.[96] Some Indian employees of the AIOC petitioned the Iranian parliament with a request to stay. The parliament responded favourably to the appeal.[97] Although the exact number of Indian workers who remained in Iran is unknown, there must have been quite a few. Even today, senior Abadanis can recall the presence of Indians in everyday life within the city. Figure 11 shows the Iranian Government Commission for takeover of the Abadan Refinery, meeting with the representatives of Iranian and Indian Workers in Abadan, 1951.
Heavy aerial bombing and shelling during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–8) devastated the city of Abadan. The remaining community of Indian migrants in southern Iran, like most other inhabitants, lost what they had built through generations. They had to find new places to inhabit in the central and northern regions of Iran, Isfahan or Tehran. Once again, they were far from home, but in a new home.

Following the discovery of oil in southern Persia in the early twentieth century, a massive recruitment campaign was launched for employing Indian skilled and semi-skilled workers for the newborn Persian oil industry. These newcomers were engine drivers, marine signalmen, boilermakers, pipe fitters, butlers, cooks and dhobis. They constituted a new army of labour on the march, bringing technical knowledge and industrial skills to Persia. In the new networks of human inter- action, foreign workers gradually replaced foreign soldiers. Both Indian soldiers and Indian civilians were brought under the discipline of colonial rule, and were subjected to its priorities. The new international networks, which were established, proved to be essential and extremely lucrative for the emerging oil capitalism. Yet, they also had a subversive dimension, once they associated with new political ideas from elsewhere, and were globally linked to experiences of labour activism in other places. Indian migrant workers not only played an important role in the founding, development and eventual consolidation of the Persian/Iranian oil industry, they also contributed to the formation of a labour movement in Iran.


Notes & References:
63. See Fredrick Cooper, ‘The Dialectics of Decolonization: Nationalism and Labour Movements in Postwar Africa’, CSST Working Paper 884, May 1992. handle/2027.42/51246/480.pdf?sequence=1

64. Touraj Atabaki, ‘Disgruntled Guests: Iranian Subalterns on the Margin of the Tsarist Empire’, in
The State and the Subaltern. Society and Politics in Turkey and Iran, ed. Touraj Atabaki (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 31–52.

65. Touraj Atabaki, ‘From “Amaleh” (labour) to “Kargar” (worker)’, 159–75. 66

66. Floor, Labour Unions, 28.

67. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum, 432.

68. For example, see Floor, Labour Unions, 28.

69. National Archive of Iran, File no. 240025870.

70. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum, 432.

71. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 176338; Thomson, ‘Abadan during the World War’, 10.

72. Dr Ghore, ‘Indian Workers in Persia. Miserable Condition’, Bombay Chronicle, 10 January 1922. British National Archive, F.O. 371/781. C. Chaqueri (ed.), The Condition of the Working Class in Iran (Florence: European Committee for the Defence of Democratic Rights of Workers in Iran, 1978), 196–98, 218. Willem M. Floor, Labour Unions, Law and Conditions in Iran, 1900–1941 (Durham: University of Durham, 1985), 29.

74. Bombay Chronicle, 10 January 1922.

74 Ibid.

75 Ibid.

76. British National Archive, FO 371/7819.

77. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 176338; Thomson, ‘Abadan during the World War’, 10.

78. British National Archive, FO 371/7836. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum, 433.

79. Floor, Labour Unions, 32.

80. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 54499, 5 November 1925.

81. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 59010. Abadan to London, Telegram 6 May 1929. Ardeshir Avanesian, Safahati chand az Jonbesh Karigari va Komonisti dar Dowran-e Avvale Saltanate Reza Shah (1922–1933), op. cit., 75–83. Elwell-Sutton, Persian Oil, 68–69. For a detailed study of labour activities aiming to reduce the working day in Iran, see Touraj Atabaki, ‘The Comintern, the Soviet Union and Labour Militancy in Interwar Iran’, in Iranian-Russian Encounters. Empires and Revolutions since 1800, ed. Stephanie Cronin (London, 2012). For recent studies of the workers’ strike in the oil industry in 1929, see Kaveh Bayat, ‘With or Without Workers in Reza Shah’s Iran’, in The State and the Subaltern. Modernization, Society and the State in Turkey and Iran, ed. Touraj Atabaki (London and New York: IB Tauris, 2007), 111–22; Stephanie Cronin, ‘Popular Politics and the Birth of Iranian Working Class: The 1929 Abadan Oil Refinery Strike’, Middle Eastern Studies 5 (2010), 699–732.

82. Archive of the Islamic Republic of Iran President Office, No. 117, Report by the Head of Khoramshahr Office of Post and Telegraph on Abadan strike (6 My 1929), Naft dar doreh Reza Shah (Tehran: Vezarat Farhang va Ershad Eslami, 1999), 101–2. For more study on the 1929 Abadan strike, see Kaveh Bayat, ‘With or Without Workers in Reza Shah’s Iran: Abadan May 1929’, in The State and the Subaltern: Society and Politics in Turkey and Iran, ed. Touraj Atabaki (London, 2007), 111–12. Stephanie Cronin, ‘Popular Politics and the Birth of Iranian Working Class: The 1929 Abadan Oil Refinery Strike’, Middle Eastern Studies 5 (2010), 699–732.

83. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 59010. Abadan to London, Telegram of 6 May 1929.

84. Habl al Matin 21, 4 June 1929. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 59010.

85. Archive of the National Parliament of Iran, Fifth Session, Ref. 5/146/35/13, the Petition Commission, 1924, 1–4.

86. Ibid., 6.

87. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 54499, 8 October 1925.

88. For the emergence of the political community in Iran during the First World War, see Touraj Atabaki,
Iran and the First World War: Battle of the Great Powers (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 1–7.

89. Shafaq-e Sorkh, 12 Azar 1307 (3 December 1929). Quoted in Kaveh Bayat, ‘With or Without Workers in Reza Shah’s Iran: Abadan May 1929’, in The State and the Subaltern: Society and Politics in Turkey and Iran, ed. Touraj Atabaki (London, 2007), 116.

90. Archive of the Islamic Republic of Iran President Office, No. 930, Letter from the Consulate of the Imperial Iran in Basreh to Tehran, 11 March 1928. Naft dar doreh Reza Shah (Tehran: Vezarat Farhang va Ershad Eslami, 1999), 35–8.

91. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 59010, Labour Affairs, 15 June 1929.

92. Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum, 78.

93. Ibid., 34.

94. For a detailed study of this incident, see Rasmus Christian Elling, ‘On Lines and Fences: Labour, Community and Violence in an Oil City’, in Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation State, ed. Ulrike Freitag (London: Berghahn, Forthcoming).

95. Elling, ‘On Lines and Fences’, op. cit.

96. Norman Kemp, Abadan: A First-hand Account of the Persian Oil Crisis (London: Allan Wingate, 1953), 239.

97. Iranian Parliament Archive, Parliamentary session 164, 5 July 1951.


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