This project traces the vicissitudes of a radical working-class political movement in colonial India that organized Bombay’s industrial workers under the banner of socialism. Communist Party chronicles have dominated scholarship on the Indian Left, and correctives to this narrative have focused on the subjectivity of colonial workers to suggest that socialism was incompatible with a society insurmountably divided by caste and religion. However, these latter correctives have almost exclusively depended on Bengali-language sources and have directed their attention to the eastern city of Calcutta, which was perhaps the least industrialized metropolis of colonial India.
The Bombay Radicals departs from this scholarship by examining the emergence of a working-class movement in the western city of Bombay, a city powered by textile mills and peopled by migrant labor. Using archival sources in Marathi and Gujarati—the languages spoken by Bombay’s workers—it tells the story of how, in the late nineteenth century, caste reform movements of western India inspired organizations representing the city’s textile workers. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, a group of young organizers—the Bombay Radicals—were inspired by the international working-class movement to expand the tenets of caste reform to encompass all industrial workers in India. They built one of the largest workers’ movements in the colonial world.
The Bombay Radicals show that anti-colonial nationalism was a late development, not inevitable, and that social reform could have taken other political directions. The working class movement engendered a new kind of popular mobilization that was ultimately coopted for Indian independence, and even compelled the Indian National Congress’ leader M. K. Gandhi to turn to industrial workers for facilitating the anti-colonial movement.