Awaaz Do, Hum Ek Hain! (Speak Up, We are All United)—the call to march united was loud and clear, sung by young and old, women and men alike. The sun shone bright off the backs of the thousands of people who marched together in the heart of Delhi, many holding flamboyant red flags imprinted with the hammer and sickle. As I walked with them, singing songs of camaraderie, an old man walking next to me asked, “Madam, which media channel do you belong to?” I smiled and said, “I am not from the media uncle ji” (using ji is a form of respect for the elderly in India). “Oh okay, then you must be our comrade”, exclaimed the uncle ji and marched along.
8 and 9 January of this year remain two significant days in the recent history of the working-class movement in India, when over 200 million workers belonging to various sectors of the economy engaged in a country-wide general strike against the policies of BJP-led NDA government. While in some regions of the country there was a complete shut-down with all sectors including shops and establishments remaining closed, other states witnessed industrial strikes and several others saw shutdowns of banks, post offices, tax and audit departments, and severe obstructions to the transport sector including the road and railways. The ten central trade unions in India—constituting AITUC, INTUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, AICCTU, TUCC, SEWA, LPF, UTUC along with independent federations and associations from different sectors—called for this strike at their 2018 national convention and mobilized workers to demand the 12-point charter of demands including universal social security for all, a minimum wage of Rs 18,000 per month, pension assurance not less than Rs 6,000 per month for all workers including the unorganized sector, disallowing disinvestment in state-funded public-sector undertakings, and more.
“This was a very successful strike, not only because it surpassed all previous numbers of people joining general strikes in the last few decades in India but also because various sections of society such as the farmers, the rural agricultural labourers, students and teachers, and others stood in solidarity with the workers”, notes Mrs. Amarjeet Kaur, the national general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and the first woman to lead an Indian trade union centre. Her optimism to change the current political order is infectious as well.
Sitting together with her in the AITUC office in central Delhi on a winter afternoon soon after the strikes, Mrs. Kaur looked at me, put down her glass of hot chai and said, “you know, a lot of our critics targeted us saying that our strikes had a political agenda because we organized it right before the general elections this year. However, we tried engaging with this government and speaking to the Labour Ministry, but they would not heed to the demands of the working class. If politics means safeguarding our rights for which we have fought for so long against foreign invaders and colonial empires, then we would keep engaging in politics and defend our rights, even if that means dismantling the current regime. This is working-class politics.”
The trade union movement in India has come a long way. While global movements such as the 19th century May Day movement, the 1877 Paris Commune, the October Revolution under Lenin, and other significant struggles had an impact on the growth of the unions in India, it was primarily the 20th century national liberation movement that catalysed the labour movement in this country. The united front of unions that fought for an independent India fractured into various divisions soon after independence, and today there are 12 nationally recognized trade union centres. The need for these trade unions to engage with the workers issues has been steadily increasing, especially after neoliberal developments in India beginning in 1991 which have threatened indigenous knowledge and skills, affected wages, social security, increased outsourcing, as well as hampered the public sector since then.
Workers are angry with the ruling government and its anti-worker labour reforms, its facilitation of international finance capital capturing Indian businesses, its recent demonetization policies that severely affected the retail trade and small sector, its failure to create jobs and empower the unemployed youth of the country, its closure of ordinance factories and forcing of public sector units and defence analysis into the private sector, and other issues. More recent developments such as the codification of 44 central labour laws as well as the amendments to the 1926 Trade Union Act which seek to weaken the trade unions’ independent role have further worsened the situation.
“The lead up to these protests has been long and arduous. In the last years there has been a stifling of academic freedom and critical thinking. We cannot resist but stand against the attacks on our university spaces”, declared Amutha, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student and a member of the All India Students Federation, the Communist Party of India’s student front. In recent years, student uprisings at public universities and institutes have increased rapidly, dissenting against the Indian state machinery’s marginalizing policies and practices. Clashes between the students and the state on issues of discriminatory practices against Dalits and minorities, privatization of education, university fund cuts, biased recruitment processes, and nationalization of educational spaces are well-documented at the University of Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Jadavpur University, Benares Hindu University, Allahabad University, Film and Television Institute of India, among several others. Amutha adds, “Our politics and activism are aligned together with the working class. Even if tomorrow our 12 demands—that we put forward during the strikes—get accepted by the government, we would still need to sustain our struggle against the exploitative capitalist system.”
The rising consciousness within the Indian working class in India and the assertion of labour rights is a positive development. It is also true, however, that barring a few newspapers the Indian media ignored this development and neglected to allow the message to reach the Indian masses. This is rather unsurprising, given that the major news media companies in India are either indebted to or owned by Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian industrialist, and his associates.
Nevertheless, how the potential of this movement will survive is something worth looking forward to.
This article originally appeared in the German socialist daily, neues deutschland.