Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry

Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry

Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry

Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry

Synopsis

Samita Sen's history of laboring women in Bengal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries considers how social constructions of gender shaped their lives. The author demonstrates how the long-term trends in the Indian economy devalued women's labor, establishing patterns of urban migration and changing gender equations within the family. She relates these trends to the spread of dowry, enforced widowhood and child marriage. The study will make a significant contribution to the understanding of the social and economic history of colonial India and to notions of gender construction.

Excerpt

Bhikari Paswan was a worker and a trade-union activist in Victoria Jute Mills at Telinipara. He became involved in a spate of inter-union clashes and, in October 1993, he was arrested. He died while in police custody. Bhikari's father, Lakshmi Chand, sued the police. His case hinged on the evidence given by Bhikari's wife, Lalti. Subsequently, in July 1995, when the case was being heard by a Division Bench of Calcutta High Court, the Officer-in-charge of Bhadreswar Thana cast doubts on the prosecution's case by deposing that Lalti was not Bhikari's wife. In the protracted hearings it emerged that Lalti had been married to Jagu Paswan of Naihati and had not obtained a divorce. She lived with Bhikari, but was not his 'wife'. Her evidence as a witness, crucial as it was to the case, was undermined by the legal uncertainty of her marital status.

Lalti herself did not work in any mill. She became the central figure in the most controversial industrial dispute in recent years because of her disputed status as the 'wife' of a mill worker allegedly killed by the police. In the hands of political parties who espoused the cause of Bhikari Paswan, she became both a symbol of working-class resistance and the quintessential victim of managerial, state and police brutality. In either case, her 'class' position devolved from marriage (or cohabitation) and her dependence on Bhikari's earnings for her own and her children's livelihood. The police responded by undermining this equation. They questioned the 'marriage' from which the worker's 'wife' derived her formal legal rights vis-d-vis the state and the mill management. By doing so, they brought Lalti's identity as a woman (and wife) into clearer play. If Lalti was to be able to depose in court or assert her rights to redressal, she could only do so as Bhikari's wife and dependant. Lalti's legal and economic rights were premised, in that case, on her rights as a 'wife'. Her dilemma was clearly different from that of the worker, man or woman, who sought the help of unions or courts to win compensation. Thus, her situation underlined the problems of subsuming women into 'class' by virtue of marriage and motherhood. Her case is discussed here . . .

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