ON LINES AND FENCES: LABOUR, COMMUNITY AND VIOLENCE IN AN OIL CITY
Rasmus Christian Elling
Published in: Urban Violence in the Middle East
The working conditions in Khuzestan were harsh, with long summers dominated by extreme heat and tasks that entailed significant risks and dangers. Work hours were long, breaks few and holidays very rare. Wages were low and employment subject to fluctuating Company demand. The labourers had very few avenues for expressing discontent, and as scholars such as Cronin have documented, the ‘intimidation of the workforce in the interest of political and industrial discipline was notorious’. In the absence of an Iranian state apparatus and official law enforcement, the Company relied in the early days of Khuzestan operations on various legally dubious security measures. These included the Company’s own police force and militias, networks of informants and the use of tribal Arab mercenaries as storm troopers in the event of labour unrest. The range of coercive measures and the scope of political interferences in Khuzestani bureaucracy is testimony to the breadth and profundity of Company power in Iranian affairs.
However, this local exercise of power rested on an ambiguous legitimacy. As far back as 1924, diplomats had warned of the ‘difficulties arising from [the] anomaly of [the] company’s police in Persia’. The ambiguity also included the security questions connected with the Indian presence. While there are popular narratives of positive interaction between Indians and Iranians in Abadan, there is also scattered evidence of a long history of inter-communal tension and violence. Some of the tension ostensibly stemmed from different cultural values between locals and imported labour. As early as 1914, the Arab Sheikh of Mohammerah complained to the British consul at Bushehr about the behaviour of Indian workers. A Company officer responded that ‘a really efficient police force’ was needed to deal with problems such as drinking and gambling among the Indians. Indeed, the Company was concerned that among its many temporary Indian labourers there could be ‘a good many fugitives from justice and other bad characters’ – particularly among ‘the Pathans’. The Company pressured the Government of India to share the expenses of maintaining in Abadan an Indian police force that could also ‘quell disturbances’, which indicated that concerns were not limited to petty crime.
Conversely, the Company was also concerned with protecting Indians, as British subjects, against the violence of Arab tribal guards. In 1915, a row occurred between ‘Hindoos and Mohamedans over a water-tap at one of the mud lines’ that resulted in a general melee with several injured on both sides. While the mention in Company reports of religious denominations rather than nationality indicates a sectarian aspect, the incident seemed rooted in a much more mundane issue of water access. Similarly, in 1925, the Director at Abadan wrote that due to the political climate and ‘our peculiar circumstances in Persia’, it would be unwise to lay down ‘a hard and fast rule between Indians and Persians’ on how to divide privileges such as access to housing among the labourers. In other words, the Company was aware of the tensions created by its social engineering. Indians, in particular Hindus, were undoubtedly subject to prejudices. Ferrier relates that the ‘Indians were frequently restless and suffered from some cultural claustrophobia in an alien and not always sympathetic environment’. Latent racism in the Iranian nationalist and leftist movements also extended to attacks on Indians in conjunction with anti-Company agitation. In one notable example quoted by several scholars, a 1929 shabname (underground pamphlet) lamented that the Iranians, as ‘glorious and noble sons of Darius’, were ruled over by ‘the half-burnt people from the Equator’. Yet it also seems that the cultural dimensions of the Indian-Iranian tensions in Abadan were, if not a product of, then at least compounded by the social inequality in the Company labour hierarchy. The relatively more privileged position of some Indian employees created much discontent among the Iranians. A 1927 article in the Persian-language newspaper Habl-olmatin lamented that at the hospital in Abadan, Iranians had to ‘stand around like the Persian Jews of old until such time as all of the Indians, Iraqis and the Jews have been attended to’.
As an article quoted by Kaveh Bayat from a 1928 issue of the Shafaq-e sorkh newspaper shows, Iranians believed that Indians were hired, despite being more costly, only to prevent Iranians from climbing the labour hierarchy and organizing to demand their rights. Indeed, the British routinely placed Indians, Jews and Christians in the role of sarkar (foremen) to control the Iranian, Muslim workforce, and this domination often took the form of violence. As a key labour activist, Yusef Eftekhari, recalls: Tormenting, molesting and beating the workers had become the regular business of the British and their subordinates … It happened often that the British would kill a worker with beatings and kicks, and unfortunately they were never arrested by judicial authorities. In the factories of the oil company, beatings and insults were such a regular occurrence that even the Armenians and Indians favoured by ‘the masters’ [the British] would severely beat and injure the [Iranian] workers. Despite the fact that the Company had historically not treated Indians much better than Iranian labour, there were few if any indications of solidarity between the two groups beyond the early strikes. On the contrary, the general Iranian perception of Indians seems to have been that they were lackeys of British imperialism and symbols of Company injustice. This negative image of Indians was exacerbated by the occasional presence on Iranian soil of Indian troops in British service. When Reza Shah consolidated Iranian state rule in Khuzestan after 1925, the Company could no longer rely on autonomous tribal leaders to enforce its rule locally. Instead of merely buying off local strongmen, it now had to engage in an exceedingly complex game of meddling in Iranian administrative affairs while lobbying for British interventions on its behalf. In the Concession, the Company utilized a broad range of coercive mechanisms to secure oil output. Nominally legal measures included the use of the Iranian police, gendarmerie, military and juridical authorities to maintain order. The Company constantly expressed concern with the safety of its assets and personnel and dissatisfaction with the skills and integrity of Iranian police. A relentless scuffle took place between the Company and the Iranian state, with the former demanding more and better policing and the latter seeking to relegate such expenses to the Company. This scuffle particularly intensified when the Concession was rocked by labour unrest in the 1920s and again in the 1940s. During these crises, Iranian nationalists would criticize the ways the Company operated in Khuzestan as a space of exception to Iranian law and sovereignty.
The ethnic lines along which labour was hierarchized in this quasi-colonial space of exception generated discontent, which sometimes boiled over into violence. In March 1928, a rumour that 10,000 Iranians were to be fired and replaced by Indians sparked riots and attacks on Company buildings. During the momentous 1929 strike in Abadan, Indian drivers were pulled out of cars carrying British Company officers. From the late 1920s, the increasingly anti-British Persian press reminded readers of British favouritism towards Indians, and in 1932, the Iranian government quoted this favouritism as one of the reasons for the cancellation of the original D’Arcy Concession. In other words, a growing Iranian nationalist movement interpreted the Company’s social control and the movement of Indian labour to Khuzestan as an extension of British imperialism. At the time of the Bahmashir Incident in December 1942, there were 1,716 Indians out of a total workforce of 44,292. The important difference was that by then, Indians had generally moved to a higher-paid category in the labour hierarchy. This elevation was reflected in the shift in Company vernacular about Abadan’s physical space, from ‘the Coolie Lines’ and ‘mud lines’ to ‘the Indian Lines’.
NOTE: Author’s pre-print version. References should be made to the published version in U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi & N. Lafi (Eds.): Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (New York: Beghahn Books, 2015).
Publication date: 2015, Document Version, Early version, also known as pre-print Citation for published version (APA): Elling, R. C. (2015). On Lines and Fences: Labour, Community and Violence in an Oil City. In U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi, & N. Lafi (Eds.), Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (pp. 197-221). New York: Berghahn Books. Space and place, Vol.. 14