The Gendered Worlds of Class and Community in India: The Politics of Organized Labor in the West Bengal Jute Mills

Fernandes, Leela Margaret

     The dissertation argues that class politics in post-colonial India is articulated through the politicization of gender, ethnic and religious identities. In the 'formal' system of industrial relations, industry, labor and the state engage in a political process which produces the legitimate boundaries of labor politics. Such boundaries rest on a shared understanding of labor in terms of a unified, monolithic 'working class.' These boundaries are then reproduced and resisted at the local level of factory politics. Representations of class politics are created through and contested by social and cultural conceptions of gender and community. The argument is based on an ethnographic study of the West Bengal jute mills.
     The dissertation challenges studies which have focused on the 'exceptional' nature of labor politics in India. Such studies assume that there is a universal form of labor organization and behavior. The essence that lies behind this form is the European industrial union, organized labor movements and class parties. Where this form of organization is absent or weak, it becomes an exceptional phenomenon that must be explained, whether in terms of structural reasons, issues of consent and false consciousness or as a collective action problem. Thus, many studies have noted the absence of a unified national trade union movement in India. The limited scope of 'formal' organizations such as unions then signify the irrelevance of class in Indian politics. Such approaches ignore other media for the expression of class politics such as women's networks, community organizations or other cultural modes of expression.
     The argument reconceptualizes 'the working class' by integrating the Marxian conception of class with the Weberian notion of status. 'The working class' does not represent a singular unit but is constituted by status differences; it represents a type of compound which is made up of different combinations of social categories such as gender, ethnicity and class. The meaning and boundaries of the working class vary according to these constituent 'elements.' These varying meanings do not merely co-exist in a pluralistic array but are often in competition or conflict with each other. Hence, 'the working class' is a category that is both constructed and a contested by workers in the factory and in their communities.