Coolie Lines: Khuzestan’s Indian Labour History


Rasmus Christian Elling

Published in: Urban Violence in the Middle East
from correspondence inside and between the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. (later BP) and the British officials in the Khuzestan region. / Provided by Dr. Rasmus Christian Elling.
In the first phase of labour migration between 1908 and 1920, Indians were brought to Khuzestan to work as skilled and unskilled labour in the Fields and as clerks and menial servants of the British in the rapidly growing cities of Abadan, Masjed-e Soleyman, Ahwaz and Khorramshahr. In 1910, there were 158 Indians out of a total Company workforce in Khuzestan of 1,706. This number doubled in three years, and by 1916, Indians made up nearly half of the workforce in Abadan alone, thus outnumbering Iranians. During World War I, when oil from Abadan’s refinery became crucial in propelling the British navy towards victory, the Government of India suspended a 1910 Emigration Act to further facilitate the flow of labour from India to Khuzestan. In the second phase of labour migration, which commenced after the Government of India tightened its labour laws in 1920, Indian recruitment shifted to the middle ranks of the workforce. Instead of in the Fields, Indians now worked mostly in the offices, stores and homes of Company management, where they were engaged as salaried semi-skilled and skilled artisans, foremen, clerks, drivers, cooks and servants. There were 3,816 Indians in Abadan in 1922, when they made up one-third of the total workforce in Khuzestan, and their numbers peaked at 4,890 in 1925.[16] As Reidar Visser notices, the Indian community was now ‘strong enough to make the celebration of Ramakrishna’s birthday a major local event’.[17]
To manage the diverse population it had brought together, the Company relied on colonial methods from the British experience in India. Indeed, many of the British men who built and managed the oil industry had previously served in India. Charles Greenway, the managing director in Abadan from 1910-19, had worked for a trading company in India; James M. Wilson, the key planner of the 1930s expansion of Abadan city, had assisted Lutyen, the architect of New Delhi; and numerous other Company officers had served in the British India military. As Michael Dobe has noted, these links to India, especially trade, are ‘crucial to an understanding of [the Company] within the regional and global contexts of the British Empire’.[18] The colonial context was echoed, Crinson adds, in the prevalence of the ‘language of Anglo-India: there were memsahibs and sahibs, tiffin and chota-hazry, godowns, ayahs, and punkahs’.[19] The British managers also brought with them specific ethnic preferences in personnel employment: Sikhs from the Punjab and Gujaratis were preferred for technical jobs and security; Chittagonians for harbour engineering and naval transport; Goans worked as cooks and servants; and Madrasis as clerks. In general, many Indians performed the role of managerial middlemen between the British and the mass of Iranian labour. As such, they were crucial to the day-to-day operation of the oil complex and an integral part of the social hierarchy in Company Abadan. In the early days of Company operations, the Indians suffered with all other labourers under harsh, unsanitary conditions in the ‘Coolie Lines’: basic tents and mud huts, the type of dwellings ubiquitous in colonial industrial enterprises across the world that hired Indian migrant labour. For many Indians, especially the low castes impoverished in their homeland, a life as a ‘coolie in the lines’ was the promise of some sort of roof over one’s head and the prospect of remittances for the family at home. ‘Coolie’, as The Hobson-Jobson glossary explains, referred broadly to a ‘hired labourer, or burden-carrier’, but as a particular nomen gentile, it originally signified something very close to ‘slave’.[20] Indeed, pre-1920 labour indenture systems have been compared to slavery,[21] and recent scholarship has proposed a concept of ‘Coolitude’ to understand the historical plight of those indentured overseas.[22]
Scattered evidence suggests that Indians were not always better off in early Company Abadan than the ‘coolies’ toiling in the tropical plantations of the Fijis and Guyana. In 1920, the Government of India, under increasing pressure from disgruntled migrant workers abroad and brewing nationalist discontent at home, contacted the Company to address ‘complaints of alleged ill-treatment’ of Indian employees in Khuzestan. The Government stated that ‘Indian feelings run high’ on matters of labour emigration, and since there was no longer any wartime necessity, the Company’s recruitment of large numbers of unskilled labour for Iran was in fact illegal.[23] This was one out of many signs of tension and disagreement in the triangular power relation of the Company, the British government in London and the Government of India, with the latter regularly expressing concern about issues related to British-Indian subjects in Persia. The first labour unrest in Khuzestan occurred in 1914, but it was in fact Indians who organized the first mass strike. In December 1920, some 3,000 Indian employees demanded higher wages, a reduction in work hours, additional pay for overtime work, improvement of living conditions and ‘an end to vilification and molestation of workers by staff members’.[24] Since many strikers were from the Punjab, their protests were probably influenced by the 1919 massacre in Amritsar.[25] The following day, Iranian and Arab labourers followed suit and laid down work. Even though the Company agreed to an 80 per cent increase in wages and promised improvements, discontent continued. The Indians had thus helped introduce a new kind of political agency, as Stephanie Cronin points out,[26] setting in motion a long history of industrial action in Iran. In 1922, former employees complained in the Bombay Chronicle about the inhumane conditions under which workers were shipped to, worked in and lived with in Khuzestan. One of these employees, A.T. Mudliar, described life as a subaltern in Abadan as follows: The treatment meeted [sic] out to the Indian workmen is on the whole very bad and quite unbecoming. This maltreatment of setting up class hatred even in a foreign land is unbearable. No notice is taken of complaints of infringement of social privileges in a public space. Even complaints of assaults are allowed to pass over, so much so, even if the worst were to happen, it will not see the light of day.[27] These statements prompted an official British inquiry, which simply rejected all charges of ill treatment. The British consul at Ahwaz even interviewed Mudliar about his writings in the Chronicle. When asked what he had meant by ‘class hatred’, Mudliar replied that it was a reference to both ‘the stirring up of strife between different classes of Indians’ and the ‘racial prejudice exhibited by Europeans in their treatment of Indians’.[28] The official inquiry, however, concluded that the Indians were in fact treated much better than other employees and enjoyed excellent accommodation and access to medical services.[29] Also in 1922, Company-paid Arab tribes and the British-Indian regiment stationed in Basra attacked striking workers in Abadan who had demanded a doubling of wages. This strike saw Indians and Iranians united in action, but Sikh Indians bore the brunt of repression: 2,000 were dismissed and expelled in the clampdown.[30]
At a general meeting in London, Company representatives had to excuse delays in refinery extensions by reference to troubles created by ‘seditionist agents’.[31] There was again unrest when, in 1924, an Indian mechanic organized a workmen’s union and a general strike in Masjed-e Soleyman north of Abadan.[32] Once again, the Company responded with deportations of Sikhs. While Iranians filled the ranks of low-level occupations left by the rebellious Sikhs, Indian labour retained mid-level occupations. As Dobe concludes, the combined pressure of recurrent Indian-led protests, Tehran’s increasingly vocal demands and Iranian public opinion forced the Company into gradually adopting a ‘Persianisation’ recruitment policy. The old labour recruitment system in India was abolished in 1926, and a training program introduced to educate Iranian replacements for the Indian specialized labour – even for cooks.[33] However, in reality, the Company still found it very difficult or undesirable to replace the Indians. Well into the 1930s and ’40s, it was still Indian engineers who trained and directed Iranian artisans. Even though Iran again complained over the use of Indian labour in 1933, the Company started new recruitments in the Punjab in 1934.[34]

NOTE: Author’s pre-print version. References should be made to the published version in U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi & N. Lafi (Eds.): Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (New York: Beghahn Books, 2015).
Publication date: 2015, Document Version, Early version, also known as pre-print Citation for published version (APA): Elling, R. C. (2015). On Lines and Fences: Labour, Community and Violence in an Oil City. In U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi, & N. Lafi (Eds.), Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (pp. 197-221). New York: Berghahn Books. Space and place, Vol.. 14

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