In what is estimated to be the biggest strike in history, over 200 million workers in India took strike action, reports Susan Ram
Within the space of ten days, two epic-scale mobilisations in India have grabbed global headlines and engulfed social media, signalling to the world a fast-growing movement of resistance to the far-right rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. From the very first day of 2019, incalculable numbers of people across India have been taking a stand against a regime whose neoliberalism is underpinned by virulent anti-working class, identitarian, Islamophobic, sexist and caste system-friendly politics.
In Kerala, a Left-ruled state in the country’s south west, five million women greeted the new year by forming a human chain 385 miles (620 km) long, from Kasaragod in the north to the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum), in the south. In a gloriously multi-coloured display of defiance, women from every faith and background linked hands for 15 minutes in celebration and defence of women’s equality and Kerala’s progressive cultural and political traditions.
Then, across two days of nationwide strike action on January 8-9, upwards of 200 million workers across various sectors downed tools in protest at the Modi government’s ‘anti-labour’ policies. The strike – which has been estimated to constitute the biggest in world history – was part of the programme adopted by the National Convention of Workers in September 2018, a major step towards concerted industrial action by the Indian trade union movement.
Trade union organisation in India remains based on a pre-Independence pattern of overlapping interactions between unions and political parties. Firm or industry-level unions are usually affiliated with larger federations; the twelve biggest of these, known as central trade union organisations, represent labour at the national level. Most of these twelve are linked to specific political parties. Thus, the INTUC (Indian Trade Union Congress) has ties to the Congress party, while the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) is the industrial front of India’s leading force on the left, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM). Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – or rather its behind-the-scenes manipulator, the fascist RSS (Rashtriya Sevam Sangh) – controls a central union of its own, the BMS (Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh).
Last September, ten of the twelve central unions (the BMS was an obvious absentee) came together to forge a 12-point charter of demands on a range of issues, from unemployment and rising prices to privatisation of public sector units and the growth of contract labour. The charter also demanded universal social security cover for all workers, a minimum monthly wage of Rupees 18,000 (about £200), assured pensions, and an end to employer-friendly amendments to the labour law.
In common with other sections, the working class in India has been dealt punishing blows by the Modi government, in power since 2014. Modi rode to office on the slogan of ‘vikas’ (progress), including promises to create 10 million jobs every year and reignite the agricultural sector. Disillusioned voters, weary of the empty promises of a lacklustre Congress party shorn of any radical pretensions and still dominated by the Gandhi clan, were persuaded to opt for Modi’s BJP, overlooking its extreme Hindu fundamentalist agenda and roots.
Five years later, tens of millions of Indian voters must be rueing the faith they placed in the saffron-sanctified ‘Miracle Man’ and his team. Those promised new jobs? In reality, ten million jobs were lost during 2018 alone. Unemployment is currently running at a two-year high: in December 2018 the figure was 7.4% (against 4.8% twelve months earlier). While most of the job losses have been in hard-pressed rural areas, India’s IT sector has also been contending with major cut-backs recently.
Price hikes triggered by two spectacularly inept economic interventions by the Modi government are adding to the misery. The first deployed ‘demonetisation’ as part of the government’s purported war on black money. On November 8, 2016, two Indian banknotes were abruptly withdrawn from circulation, triggering weeks of nationwide economic chaos: snaking queues of desperate people outside banks; markets and businesses unable to function; large swathes of the rural economy thrown into crisis. In India’s malodorous mountain of black money, there was not so much as a dent (it emerged that big perpetrators were not actually given to stashing of banknotes under their mattresses).
As if obliged to compound this Himalayan blunder, the government in July 2017 rolled out a Goods and Services Tax (GST), a novelty in India and one that levied at every stage of the production process. In the weeks and months that followed, the tax reform disrupted supply chains and hit exports hard. Small businesses found it too complicated to comply with; exporters saw their working capital requirement shoot up; and exports from labour intensive sectors like clothing and leather products reported precipitous drops, raising the spectre of massive job losses.
All the while, out in India’s immense rural economy, a longstanding agrarian crisis has been moving towards full-scale catastrophe. Marked by rising costs, plummeting prices of agricultural products, intolerable debt burdens and farmer suicides in their thousands, Indian agriculture and the millions who derive a livelihood of sorts from it, has become a theatre of hopelessness and despair. Last year, desperate farmers and agricultural labourers responded by taking to the streets on four separate occasions; their most recent mobilisation, in late November 2018, saw them march in their tens of thousands to Delhi, where they rallied outside parliament.
These multiple failures have brought the Modi government under pressure from elements of its own base, including traders and small business owners. That the aura of invincibility built around Modi is vanishing fast is underlined by the electoral setbacks suffered by the BJP in state government elections held in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last month; the party lost its mandate in all three key BJP redoubts.
With millions of workers and farmers taking to the streets to express their fury with India’s incumbent regime, the auguries for the upcoming general election in May 2019 can hardly be said to be saffron-hued.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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