Intimacy and Militancy: Women Workers in India’s First Steel Plant, Ca. 1908-1958
Timeslot:07/27 | 09:00-09:20 UTC+2/CEST
This paper examines the deeply gendered nature of industrial labor at the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) steel plant in Jamshedpur and its subsidiary coal and iron ore mines. Like in the Bombay textile mills and Calcutta jute mills, the other paradigmatic spaces of India’s industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women formed a substantial part of the unskilled labor force. The juxtaposition of adivasi (tribal) women’s bodies with advanced machinery was an enduring trope in both managerial and social reform discourse, encompassing prurient fascination and paternalist regulation. Women’s subversive sexuality and overt political militancy destabilized labor control in Jamshedpur far more than canonical histories of trade unionism and working-class consciousness suggest. The paper uses the underexplored TISCO archives to recover women’s everyday experiences and struggles, building on an emerging historiography of ‘coolie’ labor in colonial India and comparable case studies elsewhere (such as Egypt). It focuses on a microhistory of the 1939 strike in the company’s Noamundi iron mine, sparked by illicit encounters between adivasi women and Bengali clerks. Successive attempts at governing sexuality on the shop floor gave way to a concerted strategy to retrench women workers by the early 1960s. Yet the ostensible modernity of industrialization continues to be enacted through gendered primitivism, from the (in)famous photograph of Nehru and Budhni Mejhan at the opening of the Panchet dam to contemporary conflicts over dispossession on eastern India’s mining frontier.