Looking The Other Way On International Labour Day OpEd


While the world celebrates International Labour Day, US and Canada have shifted the goal post and ‘celebrate’ American workers on the first Monday of September. May 1st is symbolic of workers’ successful strife to bring down the barbaric 16-hour workday to the present-day eight-hour workday in the US. 

On 1 May, when the world celebrates International Worker’s Day and Labour Day and there’s talk galore about History being rewritten in India, it’s probably time to look back at how and why history is rewritten.

During the industrial era in America, numerous company owners aimed to increase their profits by compelling labourers to work for sixteen hours straight. However, on May 1, 1886, labour activists in Chicago initiated a strike, demanding an eight-hour workday. Unfortunately, on May 3, the peaceful protests turned into a violent altercation when police officers attacked demonstrators near a factory.

The subsequent day, labour leaders organized a meeting to condemn the police’s use of force, but as many peaceful protesters began to disperse, the police intervened once again and a bomb exploded. Till date, the identity of the perpetrator remains unknown. But the incident went down in history as the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, Illinois, United States.

Conservative Democratic President Grover Cleveland was one of those concerned that a labour holiday on May 1 would tend to become a commemoration of the Haymarket affair and would strengthen socialist and anarchist movements that backed the May 1 commemoration around the globe.

Labour Day has been an annual federal holiday since 1894 but traditionally celebrated on the first Monday in September in the United States and Canada.

Being an official national holiday in the US and also Canada, for most Americans Labour Day means having the day off from work. It is often symbolically considered the end of summer and start of fall when children return to school.

There is always plenty to do in the United States on Labour Day and the weekend days preceding it. And, as planned, nothing to do with workers of the world, their rights and labour issues as the rest of the world understands.

If there’s anything controversial about history and heritage, on the face of things, it lies in the attribution and selective omission. Dig a little deeper and you’ll realise that the issue is the intent of the attributor, the timing and the political will behind it.

Yet if you move away from the issue and adopt a larger and wider perspective of things, you realise that naming, shaming and attributions correct, false or maliciously done are all tenable facets of the nature of history itself.

In the resistance to change, as is the way of development, there is a significant amount of defiance to an older regime and in favour of a newer one. Defiance or compliance, however, is not independent of populist trends.

The renaming of Jabalpur from the British-spelt Jubbulpore, respelled in 1947, Jajmau from Jajesmow, respelled in 1948 and Kanpur from Cawnpore, respelled in 1948, was met with least resistance owing to the very timing of the attempt. Also, on the face of things, the original names were spelt by the British to suit their terminology and had a distinct ring of Victorian touch to them.

The British were, owing to their linguistic upbringing, simply unable to pronounce traditionally Indian names and would hence create adaptations to suit their sensibilities. 

Reverting to original names was an inevitable given and happened without much resistance.

Opposition To Anti-National Trends

Any opposition then, for whatever reasons, would be construed as being ‘anti-national’ and in affront to a much-awaited freedom.

Now, cut to sixty years later in 2017 when Victoria Terminus was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in a move to shed the Victorian hangover, it was met with resistance from some quarters who felt that the UNESCO World Heritage Site named after the reigning queen should be retained.

South Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, it drew a lot of flak. The symbolism is a socio-political necessity in the scheme of things

Needless to say, the opposition was struck down decisively and the new name stuck. Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Party in Maharashtra, was firm in its resolution to dump all that was British and bring back the State’s lost glory.

History, historically, has been named, written and rewritten by the ones in power. And, with every change in power, the first casualty would be history as the ruler would want to set the record right, read to his convenience. Now, whether the record would be right or not, wasn’t of importance. What was is that it was set in the tone that matched his own.

States of India whose names were changed after Independence were Travancore-Cochin which became Kerala on 1 November, 1956, Madhya Bharat that became Madhya Pradesh on 1st November, 1959, Bombay State became Gujarat and Maharashtra on 1 May 1960, Madras State that became Tamil Nadu on 14th January, 1969, Mysore State that became Karnataka on 1st November, 1973, Uttaranchal became Uttarakhand on 1st January, 2007, Orissa became Odisha on 4th November, 2011 and North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) became Arunachal Pradesh on 20th January 1972.

The formation of Gujarat and Maharashtra, for instance, followed protests of Samyukta Maharashtra Movement in which 107 people were killed by the police and Bombay State was reorganised on linguistic lines. Gujarati-speaking areas of Bombay State were partitioned into the State of Gujarat following Mahagujarat Movement.

Demand On Linguistic Lines

It may be recalled that the demand for States to be organised on a linguistic basis was developed even before India achieved independence from British rule. It was in now-Odisha that a first-of-its-kind linguistic movement was initiated in 1895 which gained momentum many years later with the demand for a separate Orissa Province to be formed by bifurcating the existing Bihar and Orissa Province.

Following efforts by the Father of Odia nationalism, Madhusudan Das, in 1936, Orissa Province became the first Indian state in Pre-Independent India to be organised on the basis of common languages.

Following Independence, there was an ascent of political movements for the creation of new states developed on linguistic lines. The concept of a Telugu-speaking state out of the northern portion of Madras State began to find acceptance after independence, and in 1953, 16 northern Telugu-speaking districts of Madras State became the new State of Andhra.

Also, small changes were made to state boundaries: the small state of Bilaspur was merged with Himachal Pradesh on 1 July 1954; and Chandernagore, a former enclave of French India, was incorporated into West Bengal in 1955.

The purpose of naming or renaming places is sometimes to match the colour of local culture. Like a more Gujarati Vadodara from an anglicized Baroda renamed in 1974; Thiruvananthapuram from Trivandrum in 1991, Mumbai on Mumbadevi the Goddess after which the city was named from Bombay in 1995, Kochi from Cochin in 1996, Chennai from Madras in 1996 and Kolkata from Calcutta respelled in 2001.

Myriad Theories On Originals

There are myriad theories that surround the origin of a name. Kolkata for instance has four theories to the origin of its name.

An early theory maintains that after the settlement of British in the zone comprising three villages, they were assimilated into one and named ‘Kalikata’ – a marketing strategy used by the British who stamped ‘Kalikata’ on their export goods to compete with the Portuguese trade in Calico from Calicut in Southern India.

According to another, the city might also have been due to its location next to Ganga. The first half of the name ‘kol’ bears reference to a particular feaure of indentation in river banks; thus the place was named ‘Kolikata’.

The third, and the more popular one begin the name was the result of a miscommunication between an Englishman and a local grass-cutter. When the Englishman asked the Bengali villager for the name of his village, he answered ‘kal-kata’ (‘I cut it yesterday’) thinking the question referred to his bundle of grass; Hence the name.

According to another theory the city was named after the Goddess Kali, known to be the most worshipped deity of the region.

The different versions of the city’s name went on to be further anglicized by the British and called Calcutta. In 2001, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya the-then Chief Minister of West Bengal re-named the city and called it ‘Kolkata’.

Theory Of Miscommunication

The miscommunication theory bears resemblance to the origin of the name Matheran – Asia’s only non-motorable hill station near Neral in Maharashtra. According to legend, when a Britisher approached a villager lady at the base of the Matheran hill and asked her what lay on top, she replied ‘Mathe Raan’ indicating that there was a forest at the top of the hill. Hence the name Matheran that stuck.

As historians have it, the hill station is called Matheran but is said to be ‘discovered’ by Hugh Poyntz Malet, the-then district governor of Thane in May 1850 and the description is engraved on a plaque in the middle of Matheran Market outside the railway station.

Ironically, at a meagre distance of 3.5 km from Matheran Railway Station, lies Shivaji’s Ladder – one of the top places to visit in Matheran situated on the way to One Tree Hill Point. The pathway was used, according to historians, by Chhatrapati Shivaji often used this pathway for hunting in the Matheran hills.

This was in regular use sometime between 1630 and 1680 Chhatrapati Shivaji’s tenure, a good two hundred years before Hugh Malet even arrived to Matheran in 1850, forget discovering anything new. But for all quoting British historians who would prefer to gloss over the Maratha king and his life’s works and instead claim ownership of discoveries across India, Matheran continues to have been ‘discovered’ by Hugh Malet. Perceiving history and heritage is a matter of convenient interpretation and persisting loyalties.

Gajanan Khergamker

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor, legal counsel and documentary film-maker with over three decades of media-legal experience across India. He is the founder of DraftCraft – an India-based think-tank. Through strategic writings and columns across global media; niche workshops held for the benefit of police personnel, lawyers and media students as well as key lectures held at corporate venues and in Law and Mass Media colleges and universities across India, he analyses and initiates 'live' processes that help deliver social justice through the media and legal channels. He trains students, journalists, lawyers and corporate personnel to ideate, integrate and initiate the process of social justice which “isn't the sole responsibility of the State”. He holds legal aid workshops and creates permanent legal aid cells for the deprived across India through positive activism and intervention. He furthers the reach of social responsibility by initiating strategic process by offering consultancy services to corporates in the rapidly-growing CSR scenario. To further the reach of social responsibility, Gajanan Khergamker works closely with state entities, law universities, educational institutes, research think-tanks, publications and media houses, corporates and public-spirited individuals. His areas of interest include public affairs, inclusion, conflict of interest, law and policy, foreign affairs and diversity.

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