The Great Strike

(A Tale of 1910)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 5 November 1887


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/4, pp. 9-10

The decline in the exchange value of the rupee was a standard grievance throughout Kipling’s years in India. The rupee was a silver based currency, and in the last quarter of the nineteenth century its value tended to depreciate against gold-based currencies like the £ sterling and the US$. Everyone had a theory or a remedy, but the generally desperate character of feeling in face of this mysterious loss of income is made clear enough by Kipling’s sketch.

(At that time, before decimalisation, there were 20 shillings (s), each of 12 ‘old’ pence (d), to the £ Sterling, thus 240 pence to the £. After a year on the CMG Kipling was earning 375 rupees a month. This was worth some £300 a year at 13 rupees to the £, but less than £200 a year at 20 rupees to the £.)

The Article

The remedy was simple — so simple that, when all was over and the rupee stood at 2s.~2d. (some 9 rupees to the £) once more, every one wondered why it had been overlooked so long. Men had devasted [sic] the country with meetings to protest against the ‘present serious inconvenience arising out of the fall in silver’ or the ‘semi- pauperised condition of the European population’; but no one paid any special attention to their words, and subscriptions in aid of the ‘Cause’ could not, when the rupee stood at 11 3/4d. (some 20 rupees to the £) , be very large. There was an impression abroad that ‘this state of things could not continue much longer’; but no one dreamed that it could ever be set right by juggling with the currency. All had passed from the argumentatively philosophical frame of mind to the irrationally determined — and this is the much more dangerous mood. They had decided that something must be done and that all the cheap production in the empire did not console them for having to drive in bamboo-carts and send their children to Hill-schools where they picked up curious accents and learned a great deal too much of life (rather than being sent back to Britain, at greater expense).

At Home, when the Masses wanted anything new — a day’s ration or the stock of any tradesman’s shop — they just assembled in their might and hammered at the Lions in Trafalgar Square or threw brickbats into the windows of the Times Office, and all their wants were immediately gratified. This hurt the feelings of the poor wretches in India, and they held a conference on their grievances. The Army, of course, stood aloof, but it grinned cheerfully, and said that it would be most happy to march against the mutineers. Some of the more anchylosed (stiff-necked) spirits at the conference said that the steps proposed would be absurd, but others held that a mere hint of those steps would be enough to bring the Secretary of State to his bearings. There would be a stupendous novelty in the move. It was decided to exempt the lower grades of society from taking any part in the campaign. They were to attend to the railways and things of that kind without heeding. The Army also was not to be mixed up in the affair at all; but the Civil Engineers rallied round the standard as one man.

There was a certain natural hesitation in being the first to begin; but a Deputy Commissioner leaped into the gap, and he was a bachelor — said that he was ready to sacrifice himself for the good of the community. He led off, alone and unaided, and when he informed his Assistant that there would be no more work done in the district, that young gentleman telegraphed into the capital that his chief was insane. Now the strike of a Deputy Commissioner being absolutely new in the annals of Indian administration, the Government at first wished to send him Home on Medical Certificate, but he declined. He wished it to be distinctly understood that he was sane but on strike till the rupee was nearer two shillings than one (10 to the £ rather than 20). He would be delighted to resume his executive duties when. . . . but at this point the Government ‘broke’ him (dismissed him) in the Gazette (the official bulletin of the Government of India), and he was ordered to go away. He went into the capital and was supported by his friends. The case appeared in the English papers and excited a certain amount of comment.

A few days later, an Executive Engineer in charge of about 230 miles of rather important railway, lost interest in his labours and went on a prolonged shooting-tour, picking up an Assistant Commissioner en route. There was no trace of soreness in their letters to Government. They thanked it for its uniform consideration and sent it some teal; but they intimated that the section of the line and the sub-division of the district had better be looked after; a few hundred thousand cubic feet of stone and a few tahsildars (tax-collectors) required supervision — at least that was their humble opinion. They were ‘broke’ promptly, and a wing of a British regiment despatched to bring them in as deserters. They were brought in in chairs on the shoulders of the officers — and this time the proceedings were telegraphed Home. The London journals were not facetious. They said that English gentlemen were not in the habit of striking for nothing. Then a Commissioner — camp, salute and all — went out on strike. He said that he had been sacrificing himself to the Empire for about half a century, and that it was getting monotonous. He admitted that his duty was to set an example, and he considered that this example would be largely followed. He went into the hills and lived on his prestige and the balance of his current-account, while the Government wrote agonizing letters to him.

Then the blaze broke out. A Border Deputy Commissioner led off, by shutting up his kutcherry (law-court) and smoking on the roof. He said that he was the only human being who knew how to soothe the Haramzada Kheyls, and that he would be most happy to talk to that turbulent tribe when the rupee was one-and-ten-pence (one shilling and ten pence: ie 11 rupees to the £) , say: for he was a moderate man.

A Southern Deputy Commissioner followed suit, and the whole country was pitted with districts in what the native papers called ‘the status quo’, and the Persian Gulf telegraph broke down under the strain of the telegrams from Simla to the India Office — ‘Urgent, State, Bearing’.

Now the beauty of the arrangement was that it was impossible to send troops against a man in pyjamas, smoking on a housetop. He always received them kindly and asked the officers to breakfast. The troops enjoyed those expeditions.
Another interesting feature of the case was the incompetence of the substitutes for men on strike.

It takes twelve years to make an average Deputy Commissioner, and the badlis (new men, transferred in) were rather too raw from the hands of the Civil Service Commissioners. The third strong point was that the strike affected the very axle of the administration. A district may struggle on without a Judge or a Forest Officer, or even a District Engineer, but without a Deputy Commissioner it cannot work. After fifteen ‘breakings’ (dismissals) some one at the India Office (in London) began to feel afraid, and suggested that enquiry be made into the grievances of ‘the gentlemen who have so summarily abrogated their Covenant’. The gentlemen in question stated that a man would not live on paper, and they they would be very pleased to see the rupee at two shillings. They had, for the last twenty years, heard every conceivable and inconceivable scheme for restoring its value. They now suggested that one, some, all, any new scheme or schemes, be put to the test. They were not in the least concerned as to the mechanism of the change. This was their only answer; it was followed by renewed demonstrations on most of the State Railways. Every strike was timed to cost the Government lakhs (hundreds of thousands) in money and more than lakhs in loss of confidence.

The Army stood firm, but it grinned horribly, and when off duty sympathized with the strikers.
What measures were taken by the Secretary of State for India will never be known. It is currently believed that he set every ‘silver scheme’ he had ever heard of in action at the same time, and caused a compact little army to smash its way into
China. Whether the schemes or the silver suction of the Chinese Empire, for the hole left by the Army was never again plugged, worked the rise, is an unfathomable mystery. The rupee rose steadily, and at Is. 10d (10.9 rupees to the £) the men on the strike began to come in; at Is. 11d. (10.4 rupees to the £) they were once more dispensing justice as usual; and the curious thing is that all the ‘breakings’ were rescinded in the Gazettes.

No one knew where the business might stop, for no one had ever imagined it possible that English gentlemen should go on strike just like common labourers.