Every year on the 1st of May, International Worker’s Day or Labor Day is celebrated across the globe. Also known as Mayday, the occasion has a rich history and is meant to raise awareness and educate people about workers’ rights and the importance of their welfare. In 1884, the American Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions called for an eight-hour workday to be legislated on May 1, 1886. There were nationwide protests and strikes, among which the most significant was the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago, where a person was killed and many workers were injured. This acted as a significant catalyst for the eight-hour workday movement and three years later, International Labor Day was conceived to honour this labor movement. Even though the movement began in America, it has had a global impact.
Moving closer to home, today, we remember the remarkable story of Anasuya Sarabhai, endearingly known as ‘Motaben’ (elder sister in Gujarati), who was one of the pioneers of the labor movement in India.
In 1885, Anasuya was born into the illustrious Sarabhai family of Gujarat, which possessed a transnational industrial empire. However, her life of privilege was overshadowed in her childhood when she was orphaned at the tender age of 9, along with two of her younger siblings. The children were then cared for by their father’s brother, Chimanbhai Sarabhai. Anasuya was not given access to education while growing up and her uncle/surrogate father married her off without her consent at the age of 13. It was an unhappy union and soon enough she left her husband and returned to her family. Later, she divorced him. It an act that carried considerable social stigma during that era of Indian history but nevertheless, she fearlessly went ahead with it nonethless.
After having returned, she wanted to pursue her education and received full support from her brother, Ambalal Sarabhai, who funded her journey to England. Records state that the two siblings were often on opposite ends of the stick, given that one became a business tycoon and the other became India’s first woman trade union leader. However, in spite of ideological differences, the precious sibling bond between the two remained intact.
Education at the London School of Economics opened up her mind to new horizons and schools of thought. She was inspired by Fabian socialist ideals when she studied under the tutelage of the renowned playwright, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb, the founder of the London School of Economics, who had written extensively on the industrial workers of England. Anasuya, who was raised in an upper-class cloistered, and orthodox atmosphere in India, revelled in the freedom that her life in England offered her. Her politics of privilege was replaced with Fabian ideals of socialism and democracy. Anasuya even participated in the ongoing suffragette movement, in early 20th-century England.
Anasuya returned as a renewed woman to Ahmedabad in 1914. Her education and life in England inspired her to forge a life dedicated to public welfare. Even before participating in the labor movement, she had begun working on improving the lives and working conditions of mill workers in her family’s factories. She had opened a school and a creche to help the children of the mill workers have a brighter future. She had also opened maternity homes and hostels for the betterment of girls belonging to underprivileged castes. However, the turning point or the moment of eureka in her life is best encapsulated by this quote from her.
"One morning, I was sitting outside in the compound combing out the children’s hair when I saw a group of 15 workers passing by as if in a trance. I had already gotten to know some of them so I was no longer afraid of them. I called them, even though I did not know them well, and asked them, “What’s the matter? Why do you look so listless?’ They said, “Behen (sister), we have just finished 36 hours of work… We have worked for two nights and a day without a break, and now we are on our way home.” These words filled me with horror. This was no different than the kind of slavery women faced!"
This was Anasuya’s moment of truth. She realized the reality of the poor working conditions, helplessness, and exploitation of the workers. In 1914, a plague devastated Ahmedabad and that spelt horror for the workers. Motaben decided to mobilize all the mill workers and organize a strike against the owners. With vehement oratory prowess and sharp political idealism, she addressed the workers’ gathering on the banks of the Sabarmati River. She gave the owners forty-eight hours to fulfill the demands of the workers. At that time her brother, Ambalal was the head of the Mill Owner’s Association and upon learning that his sister was spearheading the strikes, he was enraged. However, that did not deter Motaben one bit and the strike, which lasted 21 days, ended with the owners caving in and negotiating peacefully. She was supported by Mahatma Gandhi, who also wrote a letter to the owners to increase the wages of the workers. These events marked the onset of a trade union movement in India that was spearheaded by a fierce woman.
Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings heavily inspired Anasuya Sarabhai. She became an important part of the Kheda Satyagraha and was also one of the first signatories of Gandhi’s Satyagraha Pledge, opposing the Rowlatt Bill. In 1918, Motaben, along with Gandhi and Shankerlal Banker, addressed gatherings of tens of thousands of weavers who were demanding a wage increase.They finally succeeded on March 12, 1918, when Gandhi decided to fast death. This major historical event turned the tide leading to Anasuya Sarabhai becoming the founder of the Majdoor Mahajan Sangh in 1920, presently known as the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (TLA). It was at TLA that iconic Gandhian and social activist, Elaben Bhatt learned a lot from Motaben as she was her close associate. This experience led the foundation for Bhatt to create the legendary Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA).
Anasuya Sarabhai passed away in 1972 but she left behind a glorious legacy. Imagine being born in the 1800s as a woman with her background and childhood history and in spite of that going on to cement such a legacy. She defied traditional gender roles at a time when Indian society was steeped in taboos. Motaben carried with her the true spirit of revolution and today, we fondly paid homage to her legacy.