Ali, Aftab

Ali, Aftab (1907-1972) seaman, labour leader, politician. He was one of the very influential leaders of the pre-1947 seamen's unions. Born in 1907 in Sylhet, Aftab Ali became in the 1930s a prominent unionist leader of Indian seafarers working in the ports of Kolkata, Britain and America. His father was a boat merchant owning several boats operating in the water-route between Sylhet and Kolkata. At the age of 18, when he was studying at class X in Sylhet Government School, he ran away to Kolkata and became a political worker of bipin chandra pal, a firebrand nationalist leader from Sylhet. He became a laskar (seaman) and went to America on a ship. Soon he turned out a seamen leader. In the 1930s and 1940s, Aftab Ali and his union set out to change the 'stereotype images' with the weapon of left-leaning trade unionism at an international level. In 1950s and 1960s, Aftab Ali became a prominent politician in East Pakistan.

Aftab Ali

Aftab Ali motivated Dr Abdul Mottaleb Malik, an eye specialist and a left politician at Kolkata to join trade unionism of seamen. Malik joined the seamen trade union movement in 1936. With the active support of Aftab Ali, Malik became President of the Indian Quartermaster’s Union and Indian Sailor’s Union, Kolkata. In late 1930s, Afatb Ali founded All India Seamen Federation (AISF) of which he became the President and Malik Secretary.    

As the president of the AISF, Aftab Ali came in contact with the British and other Western unions. The Indian seamen unionism was at such an undeveloped level that the British unions refused to recognise the Indian seamen's union as interlocutors, let alone as union partners. In many respects British seamen shared the attitude of the imperial state and the employers, notably the notion of the racial superiority of white over black. However, Aftab Ali and his All India Seamen Federation (AISF) attempted to outflank the British unions from the left, particularly in the ILO (International Labour Organisation) in the mid 1930s. For example, the issue of the length of the seamen's working week was revived in the mid 1930s in the context of a maritime session of the ILO. Ali supported the proposal for a 56 hour a week at sea and 48 hour a week at port canvassed by all Western unions except the British. Things were very harsh in the 1920s, as the previous Geneva Conference (1920) had been exercised by the demand for the exceptional treatment for South Asian seamen made by their employers and the colonial state.

On the contrary, in 1936, Ali on behalf of his union rejected any exceptional treatment that would force them to take longer work hours than British seamen and to deny them pay for overtime. The Geneva Conference of the ILO in 1936 accepted the demand for reasonable hours and equal treatment irrespective of nationalities and ethnicities. In its recommendation, in article 13 under the title of Equality of Treatment, the ILO declared: 'Governments, authorities and organisations, which may have to administer funds for the welfare of the seamen, are specially urged not to concern themselves solely with seamen of a particular nationality, but to act as generously as possible in the spirit of international solidarity.

Yet not only did the British reject the recommendation of the Geneva Conference, they also negotiated a longer working week of 64 hours at sea and 56 hours at ports for laskar or Asian seamen. As the Second World War approached, Aftab Ali continued to organise colonial seamen and realised the potential contribution of Indian seamen to the war effort. First, Ali's activities were increasingly noticed within British establishment circles. Many of the Indian seamen based in London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff and other British ports went on strike in support of economic demands. In December 1939, the strike was settled with the AISF winning some concessions from the British Government. In November 1939, a resolution was passed in the Conference of' the India League held in London to send protests against the unjust treatment received by the lascar crews (Indian Seamen) to the Home Secretary, The Ministry of Shipping and to Mr CC Poole MP and Secretary to the India Committee of the Parliamentary Labour Party. With the wartime demand for seamen in 1940, the British Government relaxed some rules and allowed lascars to cross the Atlantic as long as some ship owners and the Government of India made no objection.

In the early 1940s, Ali extended his network in the America continent when he was attending the ILO conference in Philadelphia. He immediately met and worked with Abraham Choudry (Ibrahim Chowdhury), the manager of the British Indian Merchant Navy Club, which was under the control of the Welfare Board. The British Security Division reported that Ali continued to work for the rights of Indian seamen in the USA. The report revealed, 'Aftab Ali attended the International Labour Office conference in Philadelphia, which closed on May, 1944. The report also mentioned that Choudhury was formerly an employee of the Ford Motor Company in USA and had been running an 'Indian club' since its foundation in 1943 and they were connected with the India League in the United Kingdom. In the mid 1940s, the American seamen's organisation, namely the National Maritime Union (NMU), had lately been 'stressing Indian freedom' and when Ali made a crucial contact with the NMU, a British secret service official based in the USA noted, 'we will keep a look out for any contacts Ali may make in this direction.

Thus economic demands to some extent were also directed to the political struggle. For instance, in 1939 Ali was invited by Krishnan Menon to attend a meeting of the Glasgow Trades Council on August 23. Menon was a Labour Councillor of the St. Pancras Borough from 1934 to 1947. After 1947, he became the first Indian High Commissioner to Britain. His primary attention in United Kingdom was to observe the working conditions of overseas Indian, particularly seamen. BF Bradley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, arranged for Aftab Ali to visit Manchester where he met British Communists and Trade Union executives who were in session there. Aftab Ali set up a branch of the Indian Seamen's Union with the help of Surat Ali and Tahsil Miya.

Meanwhile in Kolkata at Kiderpore dock there were 'internal battles' among the different tiers of seamen. In 1930s Aftab Ali and his union had to fight against the Bariwallahs. Bariwallahs were the businessmen of Sylhet who bought houses at Kiderpore and turned into boarding'house owner there. The Sylheti Bariwallahs at Kolkata started their business in the late nineteenth century. In 1897-98, Ayan Ullah built a large house at the rear of his tailoring shop and it quickly turned into a boarding house of seamen and prospective seamen. In this makeshift Bari or boarding were accommodated as high as 35 persons at a time. Aftab Ali soon became one of the central figures who patronised fellow Sylhetis to get jobs in the merchant ships. They rented out rooms to fellow Sylheti seamen on credit and demanded interest on it. In 1930s Aftab Ali found that Bariwallah were charging excessive interest from hardworking seamen. In the beginning this arrangement had worked well for both sides. According to this system all money spent for each seaman was accounted for and recorded in the Briwallah's Redbook. When the ship returned to Kolkata, the seamen were given their wages, then they had to pay the Briwallah's dues. The seamen's union under the leadership of Aftab Ali broke the back of the Bariwallahs by abolishing the high interest, charged by them for lending money.

In 1937-38, the Indian Seamen Union (later named as AISF) was at its height and they could bring the shipping agents, shipping officials, ghat serangs, the engine room serangs and the Bariwallahs under their control. There were strict guidelines set for the shipping agents in the port. Some union representatives were appointed to watch and see whether the union rules and regulations were implemented strictly. Aftab Ali through his movement ameliorated the living conditions of the Indian seamen. He died in London in 1972. [Ashfaque Hossain]