factory workers

Indian Workers' Association


The Indian Workers’ Association had a dual aim: to raise consciousness of the struggle for Indian independence among working-class Indians in Britain, and to protect and enhance their welfare. While there was some overlap between the IWA and the India League, the former was a working-class organization whose membership was composed almost uniquely of Indians. The founders and protagonists of the organization were mainly Sikh and Muslim Punjabis who had turned to peddling on their arrival in Britain, later finding factory work or construction work at the aerodromes and militia camps that had sprung up in the Midlands during the Second World War. Meetings were conducted predominantly in Hindustani, which often excluded Bengali seamen and ex-seamen from participation, although there were also bi-monthly ‘open meetings’ conducted in English and with invited British speakers.

In the Indian Political Intelligence files, many of the Sikh pioneers of the IWA are described as having ‘Ghadr sympathies’, their main concern being to raise money for Ghadr Party initiatives such as the Desh Bhagat Parwar Sahaik Committee, which helped the dependents in India of ‘Sikh martyrs’, or the Udham Singh Defence Fund. Generally, the political activity and mobilization of working-class Indians was a source of grave concern to the India Office. IPI records reveal discussion of ways in which the organization’s leaders could be dispersed to different parts of the country where there were few Indians and less opportunity to stir up anti-British feeling among their fellow countrymen. Indeed, the IPI kept lists of IWA men who they considered particularly seditious and who should be interned in the event of an invasion during the war.

In terms of welfare work, the IWA leadership helped working-class Indians to avoid army conscription if they wished. It also provided a forum for discussion of employment grievances. Records of speeches at IWA meetings reveal the link between the oppression of Indians in Britain and their subjugation to the British in India; for example, Indian machinists in British factories are described as being reallocated to unskilled labouring jobs because of the fear that if they acquire the same skills as Englishmen they will return to India and teach their fellow countrymen the trade, thereby undermining the rationale for British rule.

Although it began as early as 1937, the IWA gained real momentum when Vellala Srikantaya Sastrya, an educated Madrassi, became secretary of the Birmingham branch in 1942. He gave the organization leadership and coherence. By 1944, however, signs of discord among the main players were evident, with Akbar Ali Khan relocating from Coventry to East London to open a rival IWA in the capital.

Published works: 

Indian Worker (bulletin in English and Hindustani, edited by Mohammed Fazal Hussein, published irregularly)

Azad Hind (bulletin in Urdu and Punjabi, edited by Vidya Parkash Hansrani and Kartar Singh Nagra, launched in 1945)

Mazdoor (‘Worker’) (bulletin in Urdu, edited by Chowdry Akbar Khan and Said Amir Shah and managed by Abdul Ghani, launched in1945)


Report on Indian Workers’ Union, 17 December 1942, L/PJ/12/645, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras, p. 65

Other names: 

Indian Workers’ Union

Hindustani Mazdur Sabha

Secondary works: 

Desai, Rashmi, Indian Immigrants in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963)

Hiro, Dilip, Black British, White British (London: Paladin, 1992)

John, De Witt, Indian Workers’ Association in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969)

Josephides, Sasha, Towards a History of the Indian Workers’ Association (Warwick University: ESCR, Research Paper in Ethnic Relations, No. 18, 1991)

Ram, Anant and Tatla, Darshan Singh, ‘This is our Home Now: Reminiscences of a Panjabi Migrant in Coventry’ (An interview with Anant Ram), Oral History, 21. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp.68-74.

Virdee, Pippa, Coming to Coventry: Stories from the South Asian Pioneers (Coventry: The Herbert, 2006)

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto, 2002)


This Indian Political Intelligence file documents the activities of the Indian Workers’ Association in the early 1940s. It includes records of meetings and events held, with key post-holders named and the content of speeches described, as well as memos listing the names of members considered to be particularly threatening to national security.

Date began: 
01 Jan 1937

[The Indian rank and file] work long hours and have much less time for politics than their self-appointed leaders…If the latter could be removed from the scene of their activities by being compelled to take up employment in areas where few or no Indians congregate, not only would the movement collapse but the Indian worker would be relieved of the unwelcome necessity of subscribing under pressure sums of money for purposes which he often dimly comprehends. The attendance at meetings held at Birmingham and Coventry is never so large as to indicate that the Indian community is strongly influenced by political feeling, however much a particular audience may be worked up to temporary excitement by inflammatory speeches. There is, of course, always the possibility that some unbalanced person may be encouraged to emulate the example of Udham Singh and seek martyrdom by committing some isolated outrage.

Precise date began unknown: 
Key Individuals' Details: 

Muhammad Amin Aziz (original secretary), Thakur Singh Basra (‘unofficial secretary’ and one of leaders), Charan Singh Chima (founding member, vice-president of Coventry branch in 1945), Vidya Parkash Hansrani (vice-president of Coventry branch, co-edited Azad Hind), Mohammed Tufail Hussain (elected chairman of the Bradford branch in 1942), Mohammed Fazal Hussein (secretary then president of Bradford branch, edited Indian Worker), Akbar Ali Khan (chairman of the central organization from 1942 at least, and president from 1944 at least; lived with Thakur Singh Basra in Coventry), Kartar Singh Nagra (founding member, one-time secretary, co-edited Azad Hind), Muhammad Hussain Noor (assistant secretary of Bradford branch), Ajit Singh Rai (treasurer of Bradford branch), G. D. Ramaswamy (editor of news-bulletin, student at Sheffield University), V. S. Sastrya (secretary from October 1941), Sardar Shah (treasurer of Birmingham branch), Gurbaksh Singh (key figure in Bradford branch), Karm Singh (member of central committee), Natha Singh (president of Bradford branch in 1945), Ujjagar Singh (first treasurer of Coventry branch).


The above extract reveals the extent of the surveillance of key members of the IWA and that they were considered to be a potential source of threat to national stability. The attitude towards uneducated working-class Indians (the ‘Indian rank and file’), apparently coerced by their leaders into subversive activity whose purpose they ‘dimly comprehend’, is condescending, divesting them of agency by portraying them as manipulated pawns, and undermining the validity of the political position that they espouse. Generally, the file is of interest because it gives evidence that political activism on the part of South Asians in Britain was not confined to middle-class migrants and students and that the working classes often chose to mobilize independently of their more educated and privileged counterparts (who were more likely to be active in the India League), suggesting a considerable degree of agency on their part. Contrary to what is stated in the above extract and despite the economic and social hardship these peddlers and labourers experienced in Britain, many of them were in fact able to look beyond their immediate concerns to the struggle for Indian independence, as well as being pioneers in the struggle for minority rights in Britain.


Surat Alley, Amiya Nath Bose, Fenner Brockway, W. G. Cove, Dr Ganguly, Mrs Kallandar Khan, Fred Longden, V. K. Krishna Menon, Dr D. R. Prem, Pulin Behari Seal, Dr Diwan Singh, Udham Singh, Vic Yates.

Archive source: 

File IOR: L/PJ/12/645, African and Asian Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

File IOR: L/PJ/12/646, African and Asian Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras


Birmingham, B8 1EE
United Kingdom
Bradford, BD5 0DX
United Kingdom
Coventry, CV1 2LP
United Kingdom
Involved in events details: 

Numerous meetings held at different branches concentrated mainly in the Midlands but extending throughout Britain

Celebrations of Indian Independence Day, commemorations of the Amritsar Massacre, ‘Quit India’ demonstrations

V. S. Sastrya


Sastrya arrived in Britain in Spring 1936 to train as a journalist. In December 1936 he approached the India League to offer his support for as long as he remained in the UK. According to India Office Records, Sastrya had found it difficult to find work as a journalist in the English Press. He worked for a while for the Orient Press Service and supplemented his income by working in the Indian Stores department. He later moved to the Midlands to take up work with Albert Herberts Ltd. in Coventry. He studied economics in evening classes and completed his course in July 1940. In 1941, he was working as a shop steward for Daimler and later as an Inspector in the Gauge Control Department of the BSA Works in Birmingham.

Sastrya was a committed socialist and was a driving force in organizing Indian workers in the Midlands. He was actively involved with the Indian Workers Association and became its secretary in October 1941. He drafted a constitution for the IWA and was instrumental in helping the IWA expand by setting up a central committee functioning from Birmingham with branches in Coventry, Bradford, Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester and other towns and cities with large Indian communities in the UK. He also helped to set up a newsletter which was published in both English and Urdu. In order to pursue his work for the IWA more effectively he resigned from his BSA job on grounds of ill-health.

Sastrya was committed to protecting the interests of Indian workers in the UK, working with great enthusiasm and making full use of his organizational skills. He was a driving force for the expansion of the organization. He campaigned for Indian independence and was of the opinion that Indians had to publicize the cause of Indian independence not only to an Indian audience in Britain but amongst all people living in the UK. Sastrya’s work was instrumental in politicizing the Indian community living and working in the Midlands at the time.

He was employed by the Socialist Appeal, a Trotskyist journal, and was also a member of the Independent Labour Party. In 1944 he went on a tour to speak at a series of ‘Quit India’ demonstrations held in Birmingham, Coventry, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle. Sastrya also worked closely with Surat Alley as part of the Federation of Indian Associations in Great Britain. He lost his position as secretary of the organization when Akbar Ali Khan became its president in 1945 and pursued a policy of disengaging the IWA from the Federation of Indian Associations in Great Britain.

Date of birth: 
14 Sep 1912

Surat Alley, Thakur Singh Basra, Fenner Brockway, Charan Singh Chima,  Akbar Ali Khan, Krishna Menon, Kartar Singh Nagra, Mohammed Hussain Noor, Karam Singh Overseer, Sayyif Manzu Hussain Shah, Sardar Shah, Natha Singh.

Secondary works: 

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto, 2002)

Archive source: 

L/PJ/12/645, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

L/PJ/12/646, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

Other names: 

Vellala Srikantaya Sastrya, V. S. Sastry


30 Beaufort Road Edgbaston
Birmingham, B16 8HZ
United Kingdom
52° 29' 39.7248" N, 1° 48' 49.2156" W
Oriental Press Service
92 Fleet Street EC4A 2AT
United Kingdom
51° 30' 50.9292" N, 0° 6' 19.7784" W
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Apr 1936
Precise 1st arrival date unknown: 
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

Spring 1936 - unknown

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