By RUWAN MUNASINGHE
On Jan. 8, around 250 million workers in India took to the streets in a strike against the anti-worker policies of the far-right BJP government. The strike was planned and executed under the leadership of the 10 Central Trade Unions (CPU’s). Two CPUs—the National Front of Indian Trade Unions (affiliated with the BJP) and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (affiliated with the BJP’s semi-fascist parent organization, the RSS)—refused to participate.
This strike came at a time when various sections of Indian society are already protesting against the Modi government. Although the strike only lasted for 24 hours, it demonstrated that the masses of India are discontented and are moving in the direction of greater solidarity with each other across social and geographic lines.
The Modi government has been waging a quiet war on the working class of India. The strike is a response. The Indian central government under the Congress Party (INC) openly turned to a neoliberal plan of economic development through the market reforms of the 1990s. Despite the nationalism of the Hindutva BJP (which finally broke the dynastic rule of the INC and the Gandhi family in 2014), the economic policies of Modi are essentially neoliberal. They are characterized by cuts in public-sector jobs, austerity, privatization, and openness to investment from major capitalist powers. Corporate profits grew by over 22% between 2018 and 2019. Simply put, the Modi government is a government of and for the bosses.
This must be put into further context: India has about as many people living in poverty as the entire continent of Africa. At the same time, the country has more billionaires (131 total) than any other in the world excluding the U.S. and China. The past several years have seen the highest unemployment levels in about half a century, while there have been no substantial increases in wages and the cost of necessities and consumer goods are ever increasing (https://www.epw.in/journal/2019/50/commentary/rising-unemployment-india.html).
Working conditions in factories are often abysmal. Exactly a month before the strike, 43 workers were killed and 56 were injured in a factory fire in the Anaj Mandi area of Delhi. The factory was used to make luggage, shoes, and handbags. According to an investigation by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)—also one of the organizers of the strike—most of the casualties were migrant workers from Bihar and some were children. Many of those killed were sleeping inside the factory when the fire broke out. The report determined that the number of violations apparent in the factory amount to the shop being entirely illegal (http://www.citucentre.org/journals/working-class/595-2020-january).
It is in this context that the CTUs have expressed vexation at the state of the working class and voiced a number of grievances. A primary concern is the changes in the labor code that will truncate 44 labor laws into four labor codes. This effectively ends protections for an eight-hour workday and dilutes minimum wage laws.
The CTUs are also protesting against the privatization of rail and major PSUs, such as AirIndia. This would put hundreds of thousands of workers out of jobs. Rail workers in particular have, since last year, been protesting against privatization whilst making the argument that public rail is not only their source of employment as workers but also an important public service for the working class.
India is also moving to corporatize its defense production in order to compete with the likes of Lockheed Martin. Other demands and grievances include the need for a hike in minimum wage, calls to abolish the CAA, and protests against the merger of banks.
Here is the complete list of demands submitted by the CTU’s:
1) Urgent measures for containing price-rise through universalisation of public distribution system and banning speculative trade in commodity market.
2) Containing unemployment through concrete measures for employment generation.
3) Strict enforcement of all basic labor laws without any exception or exemption and stringent punitive measures for violation of labor laws.
4) Universal social security covers for all workers.
5) Minimum wages of not less than Rs 15,000 per month, with provisions of indexation.
6) Assured enhanced pension not less than Rs 3,000 per month for the entire working population.
7) Stoppage of disinvestment in Central/State PSUs.
8) Stoppage of contractorisation in permanent perennial work and payment of same wage and benefits for contract workers as regular workers for same and similar work.
9) Removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility of bonus, provident fund; increase the quantum of gratuity.
10) Compulsory registration of trade unions within a period of 45 days from the date of submitting application; and immediate ratification of ILO Conventions C 87 and C 98.
11) Stoppage of pro-employer labor law amendments.
12) Stoppage of FDI in railways, insurance, and defense.
A record number of people participated in the strike action. At 250 million strong, the action was probably the largest in the history of the country and the world. Indeed, the amount of striking workers in India that Wednesday was probably more than the total amount of people living on the planet at the time the Communist Manifesto was written.
In many areas, roads and railways were blocked by workers. However, the scale of the action should not be overemphasized. It was merely a 24-hour strike. Due to police pressure, many cities of striking workers were sectioned off and rendered less impactful. The economic leverage of the strike was not nearly as heavy as it could have been. Planning for the strike began in September of 2019, and local governments made arrangements for certain services like transportation to continue through Jan. 8.
This strike alone will certainly not bring Indian workers out of the current situation. Nonetheless, it is an invaluable step towards creating a political and social movement of working people to challenge the far-right apparatus of the BJP. Moreover, there are signs that this action is paving the way for more protracted mass strikes in the near future. A.R Sindhu, national Secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions, has said that if the central government continues with its anti-worker policies, there will be an indefinite strike.
A key factor of the efficacy of the further strike actions would take place if workers deepen connections with and continue to organize alongside rural Indians and students. Despite rapid urbanization, the labor movement must actively cultivate relationships and solidarity with rural people.
India is a mostly agrarian country. Farmers are perhaps most acutely affected by the negative effects of Modi’s economic policies. Across India, farmers are suffering from bad markets, crippling debt, the effects of climate change (particularly drought and floods), and the high price of necessities. Many have simply no way to repay loans from banks and landlords. India has seen an epidemic of farmer suicides—which amount for a tenth of all suicides in the country. Farmers were conspicuously active in the strike, especially in agriculture-heavy states such as Punjab.
The labor movement of India must also solidarize with other highly exploited rural workers, such as tea pickers of Darjeeling, fishermen of Tamil Nadu, and countless other examples of interests that did not participate in the strike.
Rural Indians suffer from poverty and often are the first to be targeted by Modi. For instance, millions of forest dwelling rural Adivasis are facing eviction (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/22/millions-of-forest-dwelling-indigenous-people-in-india-to-be-evicted). In recent months, thousands of Adavasis have protested in the capital (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/fearing-eviction-thousands-forest-dwellers-protest-india-191121155026100.html). Likewise, the National Register of Citizens in Assam, which has forced the mostly rural people of Assam to prove documentation of their citizenship prior to 1971(this date not accident coincides with the war for Bangladeshi liberation which displaced people in this area), has put millions in the position to potentially be deported (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/aug/30/nightmarish-mess-millions-assam-brace-for-loss-of-citizenship-india).
Many students and student groups openly and actively expressed solidarity with the strike. The current labor movement in India has a natural ally in the students and vice versa. Students, of course, have been at the forefront of efforts to combat Modi and the BJP. Students were at the forefront of protests in defense of Kashmir, protests against fee hikes, and now protests against the CAA and NRC. Historic popular mobilizations against the CAA and NRC are currently underway at dozens of colleges and universities (http://www.marxistreview.asia/india-anti-caanrc-protests-masses-reject-religious-divide/).
For students to support organized labor at this moment would be to support mobilizations against a central government that they have already been mobilizing against for months and years. Conversely, for labor to support students would be to gain momentum from the most dynamic popular movements against the policies of a government that they have already been suffering under.
The recent attacks on students at JNU by far-right gangs underline something that has already been demonstrated consistently: students are literally bearing the brunt of the BJP apparatus’s attacks against popular opposition (https://peoplesdispatch.org/2020/01/05/right-wing-goons-attack-students-faculty-at-indias-jawaharlal-nehru-university/). But youth have been bearing the brunt of the BJP in more ways than tear gas and lathis. It is the youth that suffer the highest levels of unemployment. It is the youth who face the worst effects of an economy with no attractive opportunities for new graduates. Indeed, it is the youth who are most explicit in the fight for socialism—placing no faith in capitalism to rid India of its woes.
Revolutionary socialists should be inherently skeptical at the ability of CPUs to lead the working class—as many of them are tied to the major capitalist parties (namely the INC and BJP) and the Stalinized CPIs. Nevertheless, the Jan. 8 strike is a step in the right direction to create united-front-type unity against the far-right BJP government and its apparatus. The combination of this strike with the political demands being chanted on the streets from already present popular mobilizations is raising the consciousness of workers. The developments in India in the past several months have raised India to be one of the most important examples of popular protests in the world alongside Haiti, Iraq, Chile, and France.
Photo: Ajay Verma / Reuters