By Michael Stenson
[Editor’s note 1 : This article is an excerpt from Michael Stenson, 2019, Class, Race & Colonialism in Peninsular Malaysia : A Political History of Malaysian Indians, page 63-68, Petaling Jaya, SIRD & Pusat Sejarah Rakyat]
[Editor’s note 2 : CIAM – Central Indian Association of Malaya, UPAM – United Planting Association of Malaya, N. Raghavan was the President of CIAM; R.H. Nathan was the leader of CIAM Selangor state, Y.K. Menon was social reformer from Klang]
Intermittent strikes by Indian estate labourers in demand of equality with Chinese labourers had been reported since December 1939. Angered by the intensification of exploitation during 1940 and determined at last to use the opportunity of a labour shortage, R.H. Nathan and his associates encouraged strikes in the Klang district of Selangor in February 1941.
In his subsequent reports to the Colonial Office, the High Commissioner accepted the UPAM view that all the strikes between February and May 1941 were subversive and violent, and that the strikers’ demands were ridiculous. In reality, the first series of strikes between February and April were conducted in an orderly manner, with few allegations of intimidation and little or no damage to property.
Strike committees were formed on each estate and a petition presented setting out the strikers’ common demands. As subsequently set out by Nathan on his return to India and K.B. Subbiah in his book, Because of War a War, these were :
- Parity of pay for Indian and Chinese labourers
- The removal of estate staff who were brutal and their replacement with Tamil-speaking staff
- The provision of “proper” education for children
- And end to the molesting of labourers’ womenfolk by Europeans and “black” Europeans
- The provision of proper medical facilities
- The closing of toddy shops
- The granting of freedom of speech and assembly
- Free access to estates for relations and friends
- Permission for labourers to mount bicycles in front of European managers and Asian staff
- The abolition of working days of 10 to 12 hours
- No victimization of those presenting grievances
- Permission for the labourers to have an association to look after their interests and put forward their grievances
The UPAM and the managers refused to negotiate and tried to force the strikers back to work. In February, the UPAM had requested that the Klang District Indian Union be banned. It was alleged that some managers agreed to pay off male strikers, but refused to pay off their wives and children. The men were then prosecuted for trespass when they remained in the estate lines with their families.
Control of rice rations was in the hands of the managers and in some cases rations were withheld. In one case, the manager cut off the estate water supply for twenty-four hours and in another case, a manager pulled off a labourer’s Gandhi cap and trampled it on the ground. It was alleged that sympathizers from the town were often denied entry to the estates with food and other relief supplies.
However, towards the end of March when Raghavan and other CIAM leaders came to examine allegations of the cutting off of water and the holding back of rice rations, they found that some planters accepted the justice of the labourers’ wage demands and were prepared to concede an additional five cents per day. The Controller of Labour, W.W. Wilson, thereupon asked Raghavan to act for CIAM on behalf of the labourers, which Raghavan rather reluctantly agreed to do.
The outcome of a meeting with Klang District Planting Association representatives was that an additional five cents cost-of-living allowance per day was promised. Raghavan then joined with Nathan on 30 March in advising those already on strike to remain out until 9 April, when the allowance was to be confirmed. The others were to remain at work for the time being.
Although the five cents allowance was confirmed and the strikes ended on or about 9 April dissatisfaction and agitation continued. Not only was the allowance far less than Indian labourers might fairly have expected, but none of their other demands was satisfied. Nathan there told the labourers that there were entitled to more. According to a Special Branch report he told 350 workers at a meeting of the Klang District Indian Union :
"Now every Tamil labourer in Malaya knows that the Klang labourers have taught the Government a good lesson, also the capitalists. By and by this fire we have started will burn all around the country of Malaya. We have set an example to other districts where there are Tamil labourers."
Later in April, he told the labourers to wear what they liked and not to get off their bicycles when required, and not to fear replacement by Chinese or Javanese.
"The country is short of labour, and there is no immigration at present. These are critical times, and for this reason your demands will be met. For the first time the Europeans realise that you are human beings. Now is your opportunity."
The strike fever spread to the nearby Batu Arang coal-mine, where Indian labourers struck in April in a demand for higher wages. After the intervention of the High Commissioner they were forced back to work with a five cents increase after a lock-out and a dawn raid by the police. But intermittent strikes began and again on the estates.
The High Commissioner, who had been absent during February and March, was furious at the trend of events, particularly at Wilson’s decision to recognize the CIAM for negotiating purposes. Sir Shenton Thomas accepted the police view as expressed on 3 May 1941:
"Any action taken to increase the prestige of an Indian political association like the CIAM by its use in the settlement of labour disputes is to be deplored, as such action will foster Indian political activities and will inevitably encourage pro-Congress sympathies and consequent anti-Government feeling. I submit that it is a matter of primary importance that the Government should do everything possible to discourage among the labouring classes interest in Indian politics."
The Commissioner for Police believed that organized “civil disobedience on rubber estates” was “a possibility that must be envisaged”.
For much the same reasons, the British Resident of Selangor, Major Kidd, had in fact decided as early as March 1941 that Nathan should be deported. However, the order was delayed, and as the strikes spread, it was decided that it would be unwise to provoke the strikers. Two months later, the High Commissioner, alarmed by the evidence of continuing agitation and brief strikes on individual estates, was prepared to wait no longer and ordered the arrest of Nathan on 5 May.
The arrest provoked a second wave of protest strikes, called by labourers who regarded Nathan as a hero for his work with the Klang District Indian Union, and especially for his success in gaining the five cents allowance in April. Within ten days, bicycle-riding activists had spread the strike call as far south as Negri Sembilan and had called out an estimated 20000 workers.
The main demand of the strikers, large numbers of whom demonstrated outside the Kuala Lumpur Labour Office on 7 May and the Klang Police Station three days later, was for the release of Nathan. Other of their demands were termed “frivolous” by Major Kidd, who also claimed that the labourers refused to allow negotiations “save with themselves in a body”.
However, it seems clear that on the one hand, the labourers repeated as best they could the essence of the demands outlined by Nathan in March, while on the other hand, the employers and government had no intention of negotiating. The police were called in to disperse demonstrators, to arrest bicycle-riding “agitators” and to exclude “outsiders” from estates.
Whether because of already inflamed tempers or police and planter provocation, these strikes and demonstrations soon became more violent. Some toddy shops were attacked and burned, as were some estate buildings. Members of a crowd of four hundred demonstrators calling for Nathan’s release at the Klang Police Station on 10 May were reported to be carrying sticks and other weapons.
This gave the government the excuse to force the strikers back to work. The Punjab Regiment and other troops were called in on the same day. Police and troops forcefully dispersed demonstrations, arrested large numbers of “agitators” and confiscated bicycles. On 11 May, Major Kidd termed the “disturbances” “a direct challenge to the authority of the government” as the result of coercion “by a small and violent minority”.
When the strikes continued to spread, a state of emergency was declared in Selangor state on 16 May, the troops were reinforced and four strikers were killed after a confrontation arising from the arrest of two men on the Sungei Sedu estate.
By the end of May, the labourers were back at work after the arrest of over three hundred. At least five were dead and many other injured. Twenty-one were deported, 95 accepted voluntary repatriation, 49 were detained and 186 were release on condition that they did not return to the district where they were employed before the strike. Y.K. Menon, who had been transferred by his firm to Singapore prior to the May strikes, returned to India in June. Raghavan also took an expedient leave in India.
Meanwhile, planters set about a systematic “weeding out” of known and suspected “agitators”. Although wages for Chinese estate workers rose yet further in response to increased demand, Indian wages were held down to sixty cents. Plans were made to import Javanese labour, using the Indian Immigration Fund and there were tentative preparations to introduce registered trade unions as a control mechanism.
Sir Shenton Thomas thought that he would be obliged to hold an open inquiry into the “disturbances”, but on the urging of the UPAM and with the implicit support of the colonial office, he was able to resist pressure from the Government of India to do so. Rather than criticizing the UPAM or the Rubber Growers’ Association (RGA) and the rubber companies for their ruthless exploitation of the Indian labourers, he placed the blame for the occurrences upon the Controller of Labour, Wilson, and the Resident of Selangor, Major Kidd.
Wilson had committed the cardinal sin of asking the CIAM to negotiate on the view that wage rates were a matter of bargaining within the framework of the laws of demand and supply. As Wilson wrote in his own defence :
”I told the planters both in January and April that industrial unrest was inevitable if reports of big profits continued to appear and that I thought heavier taxation was the only remedy.”
Kidd had delayed the arrest of Nathan until his prestige was inflated to the degree that his eventual arrest in May sparked a major confrontation. In Sir Shenton Thomas’ view, the proper association of timely if modest wage concessions and firm government would have negated the “subversive” efforts of Nathan and his associates “in preparing the minds of the labourers for revolt.”
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