Badge of Labour: Marginal Lives of the Labouring Poor of Cochin

Justin Mathew

The article is a microanalysis of a militant labour riot that took place in the Mattancherrybazaar of the port city of Cochin in 1953. The incident is popularly known as theChappa strike (ChappaSamaram). It involved the port and water transport workers mobilising against the repressive labour recruitment practices that existed in the early and mid-twentieth-century Cochin. Majority of the workers who participated in the militant labour strike were Muslims, Latin Catholics, and Valas who worked and lived in the frontiers of the port city[i] . Their everyday experience and response to the caste and community-based labour regime in the late-colonial and immediate post-colonial era of industrialisation weremanifested in the ChappaSamaram. This study argues that the militant struggle of the port workers in an era of expanded commodification of the citywas a crucial moment for redefining the struggles of the labouring poor to reclaim their right to urban life[ii]. Conventional labour history is marked by silence on the way urban working-class negotiated their marginalisation in terms of accessing urban space as a natural resource base. Moreover, the literature on labour movements in Kerala tends to invisibilise urban experience as a crucial constituent factor in the labour militancy. The attempt to situate ChappaSamaramas a key historical moment to understand labour militancy as part of everyday working-class life in an industrial-urban space explored a diverse set of archival sources- oral testimonies, biographies, literary works, workers union newspapers and photographs[iii].

The Chappasystem was a labour recruitment and discipline practice based on caste-based hierarchic relationship controlled by a nexus of the port authority, shipping agents and the worksite supervisor, who was locally called Mooppan. The nexus controlled the labour-power of thousands of ‘footloose labourers’ as harbour construction workers, porters, water and land transport workers, artisans, and manual labourers.Majority of them were casual workers who were affected by the prolonged crisis in the Great Depression (1930s) and the Second World War Years (1939-45).[iv]T. M. Abu, a trade union leader who organised the port workers of Cochin in the 1940s, depicted the work and living condition of the urban working class in the following words:

Chappa was a metal coin of sorts with the emblem of the stevedore contractor engraved on it.Themooppan will appear at one point with these chappa coins stacked in his hands like a stack of silver coins. All those who are somewhat able-bodied start to scramble and run. They would circle the mooppan. “Mooppan, dear mooppan, please grant me a chappa! In the name of God! In the name of Allah! Its been three days since we ate.” All these pleas will not move the mooppan. He would give a chappa each to the one who bribed him the earlier night in the form of alcohol and fish curry and to a blood relative. He would then take the rest of them, circle them once over his head and then throw it around. The struggle people go through to get hold of one chappa is something one can never succeed to describe properly.[v]

The workers of the port constituted their political memory of labour militancy around this repressive labour recruitment practice.The Chappasystem was specific to Cochin-Mattancherry urban frontiers, the urban commercial space that witnessed the emergence of an urban working proletariat in southwest India. During the construction of a deep-water harbour in the 1920s, the port authorities appropriated the spaces of everyday economic activities of the backwaters, coasts, and the lagoons as commercial infrastructure for the port by building ship channels, harbour island, wharves, bridges, and industrial waste yards.[vi] The Muslim andLatin Catholicurban workers and the migrant workers from the dry plains of the Madras Presidency andcoastal southwest India engaged in the twenty-years long harbour construction project were pushed out to the urban frontiers. The increasing marginalisation of the labouring poor was reflected in the tendency of the middle-class as well as the mercantile elites to portray urban frontiers in Mattancherryas ‘lumpen’ spaces (Gundatheruvu). However, these urban margins of everyday workers’ lives were crucial in the production of the political geography of labour militancy in the mid-twentieth century.[vii]

The massive expansion of the commercial, industrial and naval infrastructures appropriated thespaces of the people who lived by the backwaters. Most of them were lower-caste fishers and water transport workers from the Valacommunity. The fishers, water transport workers, and backwater coconut cultivators were pushed to the urban peripheries and formed an army of cheap labourers. At the same time, the indigenous-upper caste groups from the Ernakulam mainland and the mercantile firms based in British Cochin and Mattancherryexercised their political networks to protect their spaces from the massive appropriation of landscapes as urban infrastructures. In the subsequent decades, the survival of the urban poor became a political struggleof claiming their right to the city. Regular procession to the port, public meeting and theatre and cultural programmes were part of their everyday life of resistance.The life of the workers outside the worksite, especially, struggles to deal with the issue of soaring rent and access to freshwater, and health care became crucial factors that shaped their consciousness as the urban working class. They became part of the protest meetings and strikes that demanded the end of the job contract systems, and wage increase.

The Travancore and Cochin princely governments and the postcolonial Thiru-Kochi state governments assumed the role of the supreme arbitrator to regulate industrial relations in the emerging urban industrial city of Cochin. Later, the governments of the linguistically unified state of Kerala followed the colonial path of delivering the natural resource bases and urban infrastructure for subsidised rates to various Indian and metropolitan capitalists to promote the development of big industries. The hegemonic idea of achieving economic development through technology-based heavy industries found the labour movements and the urban spaces occupied by the labouring poor as a barrier that prevented smooth appropriation of urban labour-power.

The 1940s and the first two postcolonial decades was a time when the Indian industrial cities became a focal point of labour uprising against the company managers, work supervisors and jobbers.[viii] The late-colonial and the postcolonial governments adopted a policy of promoting big-business friendly labour regime by regulating their labour policies. The governments suppressed labour movements that demanded better wages, housing, healthcare and educational facilities. Unemployment and poverty led to a prolonged phase of labour militancy. The situation was further worsened when the port authority of Cochin retrenched 16,000 workers during the Second World War.[ix]The ChappaSamaram contextualises one such moments of conflict,a historical juncture in the urban labour history of Cochin. It is important to notice that an in-depth historical study on the crucial decades of the post-1930s labour militancy is yet to be done in the context of Cochin.[x]

On 15September 1953, the urban periphery in the port city of Cochin witnessed a tyrannical suppression of the workers strike along the streets of Mattancherry market.
The workers refused to unload a ship anchored at Cochin that came for the P. G. Khona Company.[xi]This was the seventy-fifth day of ChappaSamaram. The Kochi ThuramughaThozhili Union (C.T. T. U) workers led byM. K. Raghavan and the Port Cargo Labour Union led by the Communist Party of India entered into a conflict. The Port Cargo Labour Union leaders alleged that the C. T. T. U. union leadership settled the strike in favour of the shipping agents. The Port Cargo LabourUnion workers prevented the attempt made by the coal contractors and the shipping agents to unload cargo with the help of the C. T. T. U leaders. However, the two sections of workers could not reach any consensus. The police arrested four leaders: M. K. Raghavan Master (President, C. T. T. U), K. K. Kochuni Master (Gen. Secretary, C. T. T. U), T. M. Abu and M. A. Muhammad (Port Cargo Labour Union).  The arrest provoked the workers, and they tried to get their leaders out of the police van. Some of the workers started lying flat on the road and started pelting stones and glass bottles. This prevailed through the whole afternoon with the state police force and the paramilitary on the one side and a mix of port and transport workers of Cochin on the other. The incident locallyknown as the Mattancherry firing (Mattancherryvediveyppu) or ChappaSamaram, showed the intensity of the workers’ militancy in an industrial-urban space and the state approach towards the workers’ protest movements. The second half of the day started in thebusy bazaars of Mattancherry with the march of the police and the paramilitary force to crush a possible violent protest by the agitated workers of the port of Cochin. Hundreds of workers of the port of Cochin started shouting slogans: “end the repressive Chappasystem, end the job contract, give us permanent job.” The slogan represented a specific moment in the history of the urban political movement in the mid-twentieth century southwest India. The 1950s was a time when the workers union considered a permanent job in a public sector industrial unit as the solution to the precarious living and working conditions.

The police forcibly evicted the protesting workers by repeatedly mounting baton charges. The demonstrators reacted by throwing stones and blocking roads, streets and jetties. The historical spice bazaar of the port city of Cochin turned into a battleground where the state forces and the port workers engaged in a fierce conflict. The police opened fire to quell the movement. Three workers - Syed, Saidalviand Anthony - were shot dead. Saidalviwas a twenty-three-year-old boat worker.Syed was a middle-aged man engaged in transporting cargo from the outer sea to the port. Anthony, another port worker, was the secretary of the A.I.T.U.C office.Several others were severely wounded, and the state arrested several protesters. The agitated workers marched towards the Mattancherry town police station. The police mounted another round of baton charge and kept on firing for twenty rounds until the crowd dispersed. The workers set fire to the kerosene depot of the GowardhanaHathibhai Company. A. Thanu Pillai, the Chief Minister of Thiru-Kochi government,argued that the firing was prompted by the port workers “use of criminal force.”[xii]The militant movement of the urban workers escalated in the following years. The workers of Cochin assumed the streets of Mattancherry as symbolic political geography of rebellion against state suppression. The strikes in the following decades repeated the emotionally charged slogan: “PattalathepullaykaruthiyaMattancherryMarakkamo!” (how can we forget Mattancherry which fearlessly stormed the army).

What united the workers from the urban peripheryof Cochin to organise a powerful protest movement weretheir precarious work and living conditions in a port city that was gaining acclaim as the ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’.In an interview with T. M. Abu December 2005, he recollected the context of theMattancherry firing. Abu recalled the struggle asa movement to achieve their rights through political actions when the state was hostile to the survival demands of the workers.He stressed that the demand of the workers’ unions to abolish the ‘servile-like’ labour recruitment practice of Chappasystem enflamed the urban workers’ militancy. He remembered that when the state took over the streets in the name of maintaining a peaceful atmosphere for trade and industries, the workers had to struggle to reclaim it as the space of their everyday life.

Thepopular narratives in Kerala portrayed labour militancy as an incident of unruly and uncontrollable behaviour led by ‘irresponsible trade unions.’[xiii]The hegemonic idea of ‘industrial development as region’s uniform development’ created a general opinion among the middle-class intelligentsia against labour militancy.The newspaper and popular narratives often referred to labour militancy as the reason for the decline of the export trade and the arrested industrial development of Cochin after the 1980s. Consequently, the “Mattancherry firing”,and other instances of strikes,remain somewhat ignored in the labour history of contemporary southwest India.

Instead, the history of the urban labour remains mainly as linear histories of the unionisation of the port workers. Consequently, the urban socio-ecological histories are deprived of insights onworkers’ movements and the everyday struggle of the labouring poor.The histories of workers, their households, community relationship and workspace solidarities in the southwest Indian urban contexts requires meticulous reconfiguration of the linear narrative of the labour movement. What is required is the change fromdominant urban labour history perception of the city as a space of production and consumption to the perspective of considering the city itself as a space produced by the conflicting social forces. At the same time, the environmental movements that have been emerging in the urban peripheries of Cochin for the last three decades overlooked the potential to study labour movement as urban ecological movements.For instance, the movement against the Vallarpadam container terminal and the recent movement in Chellanamdemanding coastal conservation works can be defined as urban ecological movements. The Vallarpadam movement was an attempt of the urban poor to resist the dispossession and privatisation of the coast, water and lagoons. The ongoing struggle at Chellanam shows the impact of the massive harbour building project that was undertaken by the colonial port authority during the interwar years (1920-39). The devastating impact of the major maritime infrastructural projects on the coastal and urban working population was most evident in these movements.

At the outset, theChappaSamaramand the commercial appropriation of the urban space appears as two separate events. Writing the history of labour as part of the urban cultural and political history is necessary to perceive the city as a space consistently produced within conflicting social interests.[xiv] The riots of the workers influenced the production of urban space through its resistance to the capitalist tendency to privatise the city by pushing the labouring poor towards the margins. The instances of the militant labour protests in the urban context like the ChappaSamaram did not merely refer to the workers’ demand for their immediate benefits but also struggled against the profit-oriented forms of urban development.The constant struggle between the conversion of nature as exchange-value of the urban spaces by capital and ruling oligarchs, and the demands of the labouring poor to prioritise the city use-value of nature manifested in militant labour struggles. David Harvey’s concept, ‘the right to city’ opens the possibility to explore the deep history of the workers movement as struggle for urban citizenship rights (Harvey 2010). There were occasions when the ideal of justice and rights take a turn towards militant labour movements that subsequently influenced the political discourses. The ChappaSamaramwas one such moment to provide criticalinsights from a past context to understand the contemporary struggles to claim the right to urban life- to access city as a space to live with dignity. The urban labour movement in the context of Cochin demands the opening of the borders of urban labour history as urban political history that explores the archive beyond the trade unions and the activities of the leaders. Moreover, as the site of the most militant labour movements in Kerala, the port of Cochin requires careful historical analysis to connect urbanism and labour politics to interconnect the work and everyday-urban struggles of the labouring poor.[xv]The neoliberal context of urbanisation of the planet has made the issues of habitat, homemade food, clean water, and sanitation as central concerns. Therefore, critical histories of labour militancy as part of the political movement for an inclusive urban space keep the future of urban labour history much more open. 



[i]The Valans were fisher peoplecommunity mostly engaged in backwater fishing.They were export rowers and engaged in backwater transport activities. For further details, see L. A. AnanathakrishnaIyer, The Cochin Tribes and Castes, Vol. I (Madras: Higginbotham & Co., 1909), 231-260. 

[ii] The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre used the concept “Right to the City’ to refer to the social and political responsesfrom the marginalised social groups to the problems of the commodification of the urban spaces. For details, see Henri Lefebvre, “The Right to the City,” in Lefebvre, Writings of Cities, trans. Elenore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 147-59. 

[iii]Along with conventional sources the microanalysis of the ChappaSamaramdeveloped an archive of the local sources: Diaries of N. M. Jainy (Shrank, Cochin Port), News Paper Report (Deepika), Harbour News (2004-2006), Chief Guest (2004-2006). Interviews conducted in Dec. 2005: K. A. Ibrahim (KhalsiMooppan), T. M. Abu (Leader, Cargo Labour Union), M. Lawrence (Mechanic, Cochin Port), M. M. Lawrence (C. I. T. U.), Sherif Ansari (boat worker).  

[iv] The concept ‘footloose labour’ in this context refers to the casual workers who were pushed out of their backwater ecosystem-based livelihood by the urban expansion projects. For a theoretical elaboration of the concept, see Jan Breman, Footloose Labour: Working in India’s informal economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

[v]T. M. Abu,Smritipadhangalil (Thiruvananthapuram: Prabhat Book House, 1997), 92-93

[vi]For a detailed historical-anthropology of the labour relations in the context of backwater reclamation for the commercial cultivation of rice, see K. T. Rammohan,Tales of Rice: Kuttanad, Southwest India. Thiruvananthapuram: Centre for Development Studies, 2006.

[vii]Interview with T. M. Abu, 15 Dec. 2008, Mattancherry.

[viii]For fine examples of historical studies exploring the link between industrial transformation and labour militancy in the India, see RajnarayanChandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Class in Bombay, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: CUP, 1994); Ravi Ahuja. Working Livers and Worker Militancy: The Politics of Labour in Colonial India,ed. Ahuja (New Delhi: Tulika, 2013),

[ix]Cochin Legislative Council Proceedings(CLC-6), 30 Nov. 1945, p. 244 (“Labour Strength in Cochin Port”). 

[x]For a seminal intervention, the history of labour militancy in South Asia in the mid-twentieth century, see Ravi Ahuja. “Preface,” in Working Livers and Worker Militancy, ix-xvi.

[xi]Deepika, 16 Sep. 1953, 1.

[xii]Proceedings of the Travancore-cochin Legislative Assembly, 24 Mar. 1954, p. 123 (“Firing in Mattancherry”).

[xiii]For instance, see Ramesh Menon, “Militant trade unionism drives companies out of Kerala”, Indian Today, 15 Ma. 1990; T. K. Devasia, “NokkuKooli: Why Kerala govt should end the trade union hooliganism that threatens to stall investment,, 28 Jul. 2017. 

[xiv] For theoretical elaboration of the concept of the production of city as a commodity, see Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer. Cities for People, Not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City. London: Routledge, 2012; Smith, Neil Smith,Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. (London: Verso), 1984; Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities. Translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

[xv]RajnaarayanChandavarkar elaborated the intimate relationship between the workplace and everyday life of workers in the urban periphery in the context of the twentieth century Bombay. Chandavarkar, “From neighbourhood to nation: the rise and fall of the Left in Bombay’s Girangaon in the twentieth century,” in Chadavarkar, History, Culture and the Indian City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 121-190; Also see Chandarvarkar, “the Decline and Fall of the Jobber System in the Bombay Cotton Textile Industry. 1870-1955.” Modern Asian Studies 42, no. 1 (2008): 117-210.  



. Abu, T. M. 1997. Smritipadhangalil. Thiruvanathapuram: Prabhat Book House, 1997.

. Ahuja, Ravi. Working Livers and Worker Militancy: The Politics of Labour in Colonial India. New Delhi: Tulika, 2013.

. Breman, Jan. Footloose Labour: Working in India’s informal economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

. Brenner, Neil, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer. Cities for People, Not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City. London: Routledge, 2012.

. Chandarvarkar, Rajnarayan. “the Decline and Fall of the Jobber System in the Bombay Cotton Textile Industry. 1870-1955.” Modern Asian Studies 42, no.     1 (2008): 117-210.

   ---------.“From neighbourhood to nation: the rise and fall of the Left in Bombay’s Girangaon in the twentieth century,” in Chadavarkar, History, Culture   and the Indian City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 121-190.

. Harvey, David. “Organizing for the anti-capitalist transition.” Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements 2, no. 1 (May 2010): 243-261.

. Lefebvre, Henri. Writings on Cities. Translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

. Rammohan, K. T. Tales of Rice: Kuttanad, Southwest India. Thiruvananthapuram: Centre for Development Studies, 2006.

. Smith, Neil. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. London: Verso, 1984. 


About the Author: Justin Mathew teaches history at the University of Delhi. His writing and teaching focus on issues related to colonialism and ecological histories. His major research foci include critical urban theory, political ecology of the infrastructures, and the state-spatial restructuring under colonial capitalism. His PhD dissertation "Geographies of Accumulation: Nature, Infrastructure, and the Urbanisation of Cochin, c. 1860-1945" (Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Goettingen, Germany) examines the historical geography of capitalist urbanisation in the context of the port city of Cochin. It  examines the relationship between the port city of Cochin and its hinterland in geohistorical and political ecology perspectives.

Justin is a part of designing the course "Global Ecological Histories" for the University of Delhi and has contributed to the course "History of Environment" for Indira Gandhi National Open University. He writes a column "Second Nature", for the Malayalam online magazine Navamalayalai on environmental issues within a socio-political framework. He is also a member of "Teachers Against Climate Change", a non-funded organisation that seeks to promote understanding and engagement about different aspects of the climate crisis among students, teachers, and activists.