This article argues that the late 1940s in India should no longer be reduced to the twin events of partition and independence. A generalized political crisis unsettled, for a brief period, the structures of social and economic power, and not just intercommunity relations and the constitution of the state. These years were thus, among other things, a catalytic moment for the definition of ‘labour’ as both a political category and a parameter of post-colonial politics: processes dating back to the First World War, at least, were consolidated, under pressure from this crisis, into a new labour regime that has withstood political pressure for almost seven decades. The article offers an analysis of the almost-forgotten post-war strike movement, which was nevertheless unprecedented in its social and geographical spread. The movement elicited both repressive and reformist responses: the extraordinary level of emergency powers applied to suppress it are, therefore, as much examined as the series of momentous legislative and institutional changes of the late 1940s. In conclusion, the long-term consequences of this cycle of strike–reform–repression for India's post-colonial labour regime are adumbrated. A strongly etatist, potentially authoritarian, regime of industrial relations, it is argued, was checked by an enduring political trade union pluralism. At the same time, divisions within India's working classes were deepened and consolidated as labour law and social legislation sealed off the comparatively small ‘core workforces’ of public sector and large-scale industrial enterprises from the majority of workers in what would soon be called the ‘informal economy’.