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48. In touch with labour
At this time there came a letter from Shrimati Anasuyabehn about the condition of labour in Ahmedabad. Wages were low, the labourers had long been agitating for an increment, and I had a desire to guide them if I could. So I went to Ahmedabad.
I was in a most delicate situation. The mill-hands' case was strong. Shrimati Anasuyabehn had to battle against her own brother, Shri Ambalal Sarabhai, who led the fight on behalf of the mill-owners. My relations with them were friendly, and that made fighting with them the more difficult. I held consultations with them, and requested them to refer the dispute to arbitration, but they refused to recognize the principle of arbitration. I had therefore to advise the labourers to go on strike. Before I did so, I came in very close contact with them and their leaders, and explained to them the conditions of a successful strike:
1. never to resort to violence,
2. never to molest blacklegs,
3. never to depend upon alms, and
4. to remain firm, no matter how long the strike continued, and to earn bread, during the strike, by any other honest labour.
The leaders of the strike understood and accepted the conditions, and the labourers pledged themselves at a general meeting not to resume work until either their terms were accepted or the mill-owners agreed to refer the dispute to arbitration.
For the first two weeks the mill-hands exhibited great courage and self-restraint and daily held large meetings. On these occasions I used to remind them of their pledge, and they would shout back to me the assurance that they would rather die than break their word.
But later they began to show signs of weakening. I felt deeply troubled and began thinking hard as to what my duty was in the circumstances.
One morning – it was at a mill-hands' meeting – while I was still groping and unable to see my way clearly, the light came to me. Unbidden and all by themselves the words came to my lips : “Unless the strikers rally,” I declared to the meeting, “and continue the strike till a settlement is reached, or till they leave the mills altogether, I will not touch any food.”
The labourers were thunderstruck. Tears began to course down Anasuyabehn's cheeks. The labourers broke out, “Not you but we shall fast. It would be monstrous if you were to fast. Please forgive us for our lapse, we will now remain faithful to our pledge to the end.” “There is no need for you to fast,” I replied. “It would be enough if you could remain true to your pledge. As you know we are without funds, and we do not want to continue our strike by living on public charity. You should therefore try to earn your bare living by some kind of labour, so that you may be able to remain unconcerned, no matter how long the strike may continue. As for my fast, it will be broken only after the strike is settled.”
Anasuyabehn and a number of other friends and labourers shared the fast with me on the first day. But after some difficulty I was able to dissuade them from continuing it further.
The net result of it was that an atmosphere of goodwill was created all round. The hearts of the mill-owners were touched, and they set about discovering some means for a settlement.
Anasuyabehn's house became the meeting place for their discussions. Shri Anandshankar Dhruva intervened and was in the end appointed arbitrator, and the strike was called off after I had fasted only for three days. The mill-owners commemorated the event by distributing sweets among the labourers, and thus a settlement was reached after 21 days’ strike.