History of Indian Workers Association

Indian Workers Association


Standing as one of the oldest minority ethnic organisations in Britain, the Indian Workers’ Association (Hindustani Mazdoor Sabha) has been at the forefront of twentieth century anti-racist and working-class struggles. By providing a voice for Indians which demanded to be heard, it has demonstrated the effectiveness of black people in organising themselves to defeat many forms of oppression on a local, national and international level.

Whilst the first Indian Workers’ Association was established in Coventry in 1938 to further the cause of Indian independence, it was the arrival of Punjabi migrants during the 1950’s that caused the organisation to be reborn and to flourish. As people began to settle, the IWA branches found a new role as they began to turn their attention to the social and welfare issues affecting Indians after migrating to Britain. Branches sprang up where Punjabi populations were concentrated including Wolverhampton and Southall, and in 1958 an Indian Workers Association appeared in Birmingham. Upon advice from Indian president Nehru, the local associations were brought together in 1958 to form the Indian Workers’ Association (Great Britain.)


The bold vision of the centralised organisation was to:

  1. promote co-operation and unity with the Trade Union and Labour Movement in Great Britain
  2. fight against all forms of discrimination based on race, colour, creed or sex for equal human rights and social and economic opportunities
  3. promote the cause of friendship, peace and freedom of all countries
  4. keep its members and the people of Great Britain informed about political, economic and social developments in India
  5. undertake social, welfare and cultural activities.

Although still concerned with developments in India, the issues that occupied the Indian Workers Association were broadly to do with social exclusion facing migrants in Britain for example poor housing conditions, racism, employment inequalities, and the restrictions of immigration legislation. Thus, not only did the Indian Workers Association provide a sense of community for migrants in their new country, but it was also firmly committed to the struggles of black and minority ethnic groups and working people.   


The Indian Workers Association was open to all Indians however, the predominance of male migrants during the early days of settlement meant that men dominated the membership and the executive committees. Many were recruited in the factories and foundries of the West Midlands. The spirit of Socialism pervaded the organisation’s attitude to its work and a significant number of the leadership either were or had been members of the Communist Party of India. Two key figures in the work of the Indian Workers Association (GB) and the Birmingham branch were Jagmohan Joshi (1936-79) and Avtar Jouhl (1937-.) Joshi, who spent his entire life engaged in revolutionary and campaigning activity, was General Secretary of the IWA (GB) from 1964 until 1979 and was also involved in a number of alliances in which he established links with people like Maurice Ludmer, Roy Sawh and Claudia Jones. Jouhl was active as a union shop-steward in the foundries and served as secretary of the Birmingham branch and General Secretary of the Indian Workers Association (GB) from 1961until 1964. Both men came from the Punjab and were instrumental in leading local and national campaigns.


A wide range of activities were undertaken by the Indian Workers’ Association which focused not only on matters of social justice relating to Indians but also wider ethnic, national and international issues. These activities, which will be explored in more detail in the learning package, centred on social or welfare work, trade union activity, and anti-racist and international solidarity campaigns.

The Archive

The extensive archive of the Indian Workers Association shows how the organisation’s unique combination of welfare and campaigning work enabled it to make its mark as a champion of equality for Indians and other exploited groups in Britain and beyond. The collections held at Birmingham City Archives relate to the national organisation IWA (GB) and the local Birmingham branch. Deposits have been made by Shirley Joshi, Jagmohan Joshi’s widow, and Avtar Jouhl. Much of the collection consists of correspondence, press cuttings, flyers, campaign material, minutes and reports as well as material from other organisations with links to the IWA. Oral history interviews involving both Joshi and Jouhl, which provide interesting biographical information, can be found in the Charles Parker archive and the Black Oral History Project.


Whilst a significant proportion of its work concerned campaigning and political ventures, the Indian Workers Association undertook a range of other activities which provided an important service to the Indian community in Britain. Important work included welfare work, producing publications and cultural performance all of which affirmed the organisation’s commitment to social justice. Whatever its members were doing, campaigning for equality was never far from their minds.

The Welfare Centre

When they began, much of the work of IWA consisted of ‘social work’ which involved assisting Indians with problems they experienced upon settling in Britain. Leading members helped individuals with form filling and making passport applications, as well as providing advice and support in dealing with bureaucracy.

The Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Centre was established by the IWA in Birmingham in May 1978 at 346 Soho Road, Handsworth. The centre was named in honour of Udham Singh, believed to be one of the original founders of the first IWA although this is uncertain. Udham Singh, a revolutionary figure in India’s pre-Independence, was executed for the murder of Sir Michael O’ Dwyer – the general who ordered the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar – and is considered by many to be a martyr for Indian nationalism. Jagmohan Joshi, Avtar Jouhl and Teja Singh Sahota were founding trustees of the welfare centre.

The centre provided free welfare and legal advice to users from the local community on a range of issues from passports, immigration and nationality to police harassment and domestic problems. Casework was carried out at the centre and people were given assistance with completing social security benefit forms. It also supported social justice campaigns, trade union rights in the workplace and health and safety at work. Meetings were held at the centre at the time of the disturbances in Handsworth in 1985 to discuss events and appropriate responses and a campaign was started to compensate people suffering loss as a result of the riots. 

Publishing and distributing printed material on a range of issues was another aspect of the centre’s work. The centre was also instrumental in the campaign for the release of papers on Udham Singh held by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Copies of these papers are held in the IWA collection deposited by Avtar Jouhl.  


Communicating information on anti-racism, campaigns and social and political issues was another vital aspect of the IWA’s work. A number of publications were instrumental to this. Mazdoor (‘The Worker’) the IWA’s first newsletter/ journal was published by the Birmingham branch in 1961 mainly in Punjabi but also with some articles in Urdu. Lalkar (‘Challenge’) replaced Mazdoor as the newsletter of the IWA (GB) and was first published in 1967 and then relaunched in 1979. Lalkar was a bi-lingual publication in Punjabi and English. Both Mazdoor and Lalkar were primarily political journals, analysing political events from a Marxist-Leninist perspective, but they also focused on news about demonstrations and other IWA activities.    

Cultural performance and political consciousness

Also important was the cultural aspect of the Indian Workers Association’s work. Cultural performance was embedded in the organisation’s work. All meetings contained a cultural element: singing, dancing, plays, poetry recitals added vibrancy to meetings. Performances were often spontaneous as people would be invited to sing a song or recite a poem on the spur of the moment. Charles Parker, whose Radio Ballads describe the lives and experiences of working people, contributed to many cultural meetings and also provided a link with Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl at IWA concerts. Cultural events consolidated a sense of community identity for newly arrived migrants and were an important way of bringing people together and celebrating aspects of their identity and culture. Demonstrations were also rich in cultural performance – on the coach, the driver would be asked to turn the music off as people arranged their own impromptu concerts. Performances were a good way of raising much needed funds for the organisation: IWA Southall, which ran the local Dominion Theatre, funded its costs by showing Indian films.  

From 1972 until his death in 1979, Joshi ran a bookshop called ‘Progressive Books and Asian Arts’ on Bristol Road. The bookshop sold Marxist and progressive literature from all over the world as well as Chinese arts and crafts. Members of the IWA contributed funds for the lease of the shop. The shop was important not only in terms of the role it performed in providing an outlet for distributing progressive literature but also because it enabled important links to be made between members of the IWA, anti-apartheid groups and progressive groups at the University of Birmingham.       

Joshi was himself a keen Urdu poet from an early age. From the age of 15 he contributed to ‘Naya Zamana’ the revolutionary Urdu newspaper of the Communist party of India. He later edited the cultural section of the paper. Joshi attended symposiums in a number of places particularly India and he was friends with the renowned Pakistani revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz – one of the founders of the Punjab branch of the All-India Progressive Writers Association – whom he visited with his wife Shirley in London.
For Joshi poetry served not only as an important expression of political struggle but also could be used to rouse political consciousness and increase understanding between people. In his letter to the residents of Marshall Street, where the Conservatives planned a controversial discriminatory housing policy, Joshi appeals to the better nature of residents to resist the tendency to discriminate by quoting the Indian poet Tagore:

“It is no gain, they (sic) bondage of
finery, if it keeps one shut off
from the healthful dust of the earth,
If it rob one of the right of entrance
to the great fair of common human life.”

Directions for Learning 

Cultural performances have been an important part of fundraising and raising awareness about particular issues. A number of the City Archive collections- the Banner Theatre and the Charles Parker archives in particular – contain material that has either been broadcast or performed on issues of equality and cultural diversity. Exploring these collections will give you an idea of how people were inspiring others to change both their minds and the society around them.

Publications such as Lalkar and pamphlets concerning immigration legislation such as ‘the Victims Speak’ or ‘Smash the Immigration Bill 1971’ were an important part communicating the IWA’s message. Their use of a number of South Asian languages was important to ensure their message reached as large an audience as possible. You may wish to consider how publications and other materials have been used by campaigning organisations to generate support for their activities. 

Author: Sarah Dar


Avtar Singh Jouhl and the Indian Workers Association

The first Indian Workers Association (IWA) was founded in Coventry in 1938, with other local branches springing up in the following years. To begin with, the IWAs were largely concerned with issues relating to India’s independence. However, in the 1950s they gained a greater profile, with an increase in the number of Indians coming to Britain either in search of work, or to join family members already living here. The Birmingham branch of the IWA was started in 1958, by which time the various Associations had combined to become the Indian Worker’s Association (Great Britain). After unifying these local groups, the IWA (GB) quickly became one of the most important Punjabi associations in Britain, with strong connections to the trade union movement and closely involved with both anti-racist and immigration legislation.

One of the IWA’s most vocal activists in Birmingham during this period was Avtar Singh Jouhl, who became General Secretary of the Association in 1961. The archive has material deposited by Jouhl, including a series of transcripts from a number of interviews conducted with him. These provide a fascinating portrait of Jouhl’s whole life, from his birth in the Punjab in 1938, through to his move to England twenty years later, and his subsequent political involvement.

On arriving in England, Jouhl first lived with his brother in Smethwick. On his third day in the country he started work at a local foundry, ‘in which I worked 28 years, 29 years.’ In common with the other immigrant workers, who made up a third of the 140-strong workforce, he wasn’t given a skilled job to do. The hierarchy was clear – ‘All labourers – migrant labour; all so-called skilled workers or moulders – white; all core makers – white; all fitters – white; all electricians – white; all operators – white; all dressers – white… It was a clear cut division – low pay, hard work, migrant labour.’

The nature of their jobs wasn’t the only difference. On learning that the white moulder with whom he worked earned more than double his own wages, Jouhl vowed to join the union and gain their help in fighting his case. However, this was not an easy as it sounded; only after repeated requests to the Foundry Workers’ Union, and support from the local branch of the Communist Party, were Jouhl and a fellow colleague able to join.

In 1958, Avtar Jouhl became instrumental in setting up the Birmingham branch of the IWA. The Association’s initial role was to support local workers, helping them to write letters and supporting any claims of unfair dismissal. In many cases, Indian workers were only able to get employment by bribing their supervisors, ‘and later on, it became evident that people had to pay money to do overtime. People had to give money to get promotion and we have evidence whereby the IWA worked together with the trade unions… one supervisor was charged of taking bribes [in the form of] a quilt, a quilt!’ During the 1960s the IWA became increasingly allied to the Trade Union movement, and became involved in more widespread campaigns against the unfair treatment of immigrant workers.

The IWA also began to challenge the wider colour bar present in Birmingham at that time, something that Jouhl had noticed on first arriving in Birmingham, and which even affected where he could drink or get a haircut. One of their first challenges was to the public houses that refused to serve black people. In response, the Indian Workers Association organised pub crawls, with some white students from Birmingham University in the early 1960s. These received some press attention, and helped to highlight the issue.

One of the IWA’s main campaigns during the 1960s was against immigration legislation, in particular the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Bill. This bill sought to restrict the entry into Britain of black migrants from Commonwealth countries. The IWA, in conjunction with other bodies such as the West Indian Standing Conference, and the Standing Conference of Pakistan, fought hard against this legislation, putting together a pamphlet entitled Victims Speak and posting it to each Member of Parliament. However, the campaign did not stop the Bill becoming law, and 1962 marked the beginning of the politicisation of race as an issue in British politics.

The IWA continues to operate today, representing its members both within the workplace and outside of it, as well as organising events related to international civil rights, and anti-war protests.


Published in: on August 12, 2008 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment