ON LINES AND FENCES: LABOUR, COMMUNITY AND VIOLENCE IN AN OIL CITY
Rasmus Christian Elling
Published in: Urban Violence in the Middle East
Abadan town in the 1950’s / Photo by Charles Schroeder / Provided by Paul Schroeder
On 19 December 1942, two separate episodes of violence led to the Bahmashir Incident. In subsequent reports, the Labour Superintendent recounted that around 2 p.m., three Indian soldiers had gone to visit ‘a certain prostitute in the Abadan Bazaar’ in Ahmadabad, and apparently left without paying for the services rendered. In the ensuing melee, locals confronted the soldiers, attacked them with stones and chased them out of the bazaar. While this disturbance seemed to be over by 4 p.m., other Indians, unrelated to the incident, were being harassed in the bazaar. Rumours were rampant among the Iranians, many of whom were in the streets of Ahmadabad because 19 December also happened to be ʿeyd-e qorban (Festival of Sacrifice, a Muslim holiday) and thus one of the very rare breaks in the oil worker calendar. The second incident also took place in the bazaar.
Some six Indian employees of the Company, who had been engaged in a bout of ʿaraq drinking, went into the streets and reportedly abused a local boy and some women passing by. According to Company reports, policemen, under the control of the Iranian municipal authorities, were called to the scene, but instead of quelling the disturbance, they exacerbated the situation by shouting ‘Catch the Indians, they are insulting our womenfolk!’ The ensuing unrest was described in a Company report as follows:
The news that the Indians were doing this and that spread like wildfire, and the hooligans and the riff-raff, taking advantage of the situation, spread all sorts of news, and many self-styled leaders jumped into the ‘field of action’ and ran to the Indian residential area. The batch of policemen who had at first chased them were among the crowd, still shouting the same words. The Ahmedabad population heard all these stories related to them by clever [corrected in handwriting: ‘rogues’] in their own fashion. The 2 o’clock incident of the soldiers had not quite lost its effect when this occurred. The mob had increased in size as it reached the Indian quarters, and then all sorts of hangerson rushed up and started the general loot of the Indian quarters.
Two scuffles in the bazaar had thus led inhabitants of Ahmadabad to cross the fences around their neighbourhood to attack and ransack the Indian Lines. Indians were forced out of their houses and chased by mobs. Some Indians took refuge on rooftops and in the Apprentice Training Shop, others barricaded themselves in The Artisans’ Club. The police reportedly shot bullets into the air to disperse Indians defending their property. Some 30 houses belonging to Indians were raided and looted, and ‘at the end of an hour over 80 Indian employees of the Company had lost practically everything they possessed’. At the end of the day, 12 people were injured, including seven Indians and five Iranians, two of whom died in hospital from their injuries. Shortly after the attack, a Sikh Guard took up positions to protect the Indian neighbourhood. Some Polish troops also showed up at the scene in two armoured cars, but reportedly did not intervene. To calm down the agitated Indians, who were ‘badly shaken’ and ‘no less frightened of the [Iranian] police than of the mob’, the Company promised to repair quarters and feed those now homeless. The Sikh Guard was retained to assure the Indians’ safety. However, the Company also demanded that the Indians return to work as soon as possible and threatened to ‘deal suitably’ with those who did not. Two days after the incident, the Indians were back to work and the situation, the Company claimed, had returned to ‘normal’.
The question such a claim begs, of course, is: what constituted normal? What could have caused such an animosity? On the surface, the incident can be read as a case of religious, cultural inter-communal tension: Indians, probably Hindus, and certainly acting disrespectfully, had angered the Muslim sensitivities of people in Ahmadabad, possibly also dishonouring women or breaking other codes of conduct. The religious-cultural coding does appear prominent: the incident occurred on a holy day, there was religiously unlawful behaviour involved (prostitution and alcohol consumption), and the attackers reportedly shouted slogans about (gendered) honour (namus). The incident started, as has often been the case in Iranian history, in the bazaar and spilled over from this traditional space into the modern spaces of Bahmashir. However tempting, I will argue that it is wrong to succumb to an analysis that reduces the violence to something conditioned by culture and ethnicity, or even racism and sectarianism. While the violence was certainly coded culturally, the animosity was, I propose, rooted in social inequality and spatial coercion. Indeed, the records show that the looters in particular stole foodstuffs and furniture from the Indian Lines. Rather than an act of sectarian rage or nationalist fury, the ransacking of the Indian Lines thus represented a rare opportunity for desperately impoverished Iranians to gain immediate material advantages. In this respect, it is important to situate the Bahmashir Incident within the context of World War II.
Throughout 1941-42, attacks by armed robbers on Company personnel in Khuzestan increased, as did theft of Company property. In early December 1942, a secret memorandum warned that since ‘the entry into Iran of Allied Forces, there has been a gradual and progressive deterioration of security throughout the country’. The 1941 British occupation of southern Iran obviously had oil security as a key objective, and the Company lent its infrastructure to the war effort. Fearing that employees would abandon Abadan, London issued an Order in Council to prevent British (including Indian) subjects from leaving jobs that were now considered essential to the national war effort. There were reports of low morale among employees. At the same time, the extent of Company militarization meant that its security operations could at times hardly be distinguished from those of the British military. The official correspondence speaks volumes about this ambiguity of power.
To project power more comprehensively and, ostensibly, to prevent sabotage, both British military authorities and the Company wished to make Khuzestan ‘a special military zone’ under martial law. Any future Iranian Military Governor should, the Company stressed, be able to act completely independent of Tehran – in other words, under Company command. On the pretext of wartime exigencies and in a situation where Iranian central authority had all but broken down, the Company was already in the process of institutionalising its own unilateral security measure: an identity card scheme that would give it total control over movement in Abadan, not only of employees but also of ‘the Persian nonCompany civilians’. It seemed, however, as if the Company still needed one final excuse to enforce a special military zone. It came in the form of the Bahmashir Incident.
The war had by 1942 intensified Abadan’s socio-economic problems. In the first years of war, Company investment dropped drastically and the number of employees in Khuzestan fell from 51,000 in 1939 to 26,000 in 1942. As was the usual practice, workers were simply dismissed from one day to the next, left with no income to endure already appalling conditions. Cutbacks coincided with a severe famine raging throughout Iran that was worsened by the war. Iranians flocked from across the country to Khuzestan in search of work only to join the masses of unemployed in areas such as Ahmadabad. The shortage of materials even forced many to live under the open sky. The 1940s also saw several outbreaks of typhus and smallpox in Abadan’s shantytowns, and an investigation in 1943-44 showed that ‘malnutrition was very common’. Due to food shortages, the Company had to institute a system of rationing, and since this system favoured Europeans, it generated discontent.
There thus seemed to be, among the people of Ahmadabad, plenty of material reasons and motivation for raiding the Indian Lines. In this sense, it can be classified as a bread riot. Nonetheless, whether intended or not, the Bahmashir Incident also sent a broader political signal to the rulers of Abadan. Even though Company reports contain no evidence of political demands or ideological slogans among the attackers, and even though the Company sought to dismiss the unrest as the work of criminals and hooligans, the language used in its reports (‘agitators’, ‘clever rogues’) insinuated the presence of a political enemy. It is worth noting that at least one of the scuffles that led to the attack on the Indian Lines started with the behaviour of Indian soldiers, who were part of an occupying British force in Iran. While the existence of the Indian Lines underscores that subaltern agency in Company Abadan was more diverse than that presented in most Iranian labour movement narratives, Abadan was nonetheless a city marked and marred by the same colonial lines of sociogeographic demarcation. The Indian Lines symbolically represented a stage only one step removed from the luxuries of the British neighbourhood of Braim, and the attack on the Lines was therefore also an attack on the British. It was a transgression of the principle of reciprocal exclusivity, which Fanon describes vividly as the ‘native’s’ wish of ‘setting himself up in the settler’s place’: it was an act of motion across boundaries of movement, a violent trespassing of the Company-instituted geography of compartmentalisation, and thus a challenge to the order enforced by the quasi-colonial rulers of Abadan.
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