The leather industry in colonial India came to be based primarily on labour traditionally stigmatized by 'low' caste status and social exclusion. This was compounded by the stigma of working with skin in the industry, and linked to the nature of the work and work process. These linkages were significantly reified specifically in the context of the connection of hides, skins and leather in India with the colonial economy and the consequent exponential growth in their production. This necessitated a transformation in the organization of production linked to the different stages of processing skins and hides, and led to the emergence of new sites, and new kinds of networks of production. It also led to a massive quest for ‘suitable labour’ –workers who could touch these stigmatising materials, and do the brutal, degrading work entailed. The introduction of chemical tanning and industrial training in the early 20th century sought to bring in a new ‘class’ of educated workers, who invariably also belonged to one or the other of the ‘higher’ castes. How were these labour markets created and how did they interact with each other historically? How were notions of stigma, skill and ability deployed through the work process, effectively 'producing' caste as well as class? Probing these questions, this paper surveys the shifting nature of labour relations in the leather industry in the colonial period, to indicate how stigma became a source of workers’ subjection, as well as collective self-organisation; and the labour process and ‘politics of production’ became, in crucial ways, the site and basis of the ‘production of politics’.
Dr. Shahana Bhattacharya is Associate Professor in History and teaches in Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. This paper is drawn from research towards her doctoral dissertation.