Rereading a Tale of Workers’ Insurgency
The Crisis of 1974: Railway Strike and the Rank and File by Ranabir Samaddar;Delhi: Primus Books, 2016; pp x+186, 850 (hardcover).
Indian labour history writing mostly covers the period up to 1947, the year in which India got freedom from British colonial rule and emerged as a postcolonial state. In recent years, activist scholars have started documenting and analysing labour protests and counter-insurgency operations of the state in postcolonial India. Ranabir Samaddar’s book on the 1974 railway strike in India is a valuable contribution in the domain of research with an activist orientation. The book draws our attention to the making and unmaking of workers’ struggle in the Indian Railways. It should be mentioned in this connection that the railway workers’ strike occurred at a time when labour militancy was at its peak in India.
The Crisis of 1974
Samaddar has situated the strike in the context of the crisis of 1974. He argues that the crisis of the economy, the crisis of politics, and the crisis of society, combined to create the explosive decade of 1967–77. He reminds us that the 1974 strike “was not a sudden action, but a culmination of protests and strikes by railway workers across the country in 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1973” (p 12). The different dimensions of the crisis and upsurges of railway workers are explored in the book. Both the supporters and foes of the 1974 strike agreed that, “it had taken the form of a general strike.”
The rank-and-file workers played a pivotal role in the strike and they disobeyed the “rules of conciliation laid down in a liberal political system.” The story of workers’ resistance, narrated by Samaddar, enlightens us about the modalities of mobilisation in the strike.
The charter of demands of the workers included, among others, issues of bonus, working conditions, work hours, distribution of subsidised foodgrains and other essential commodities, trade union rights, and de-casualisation of all casual railwaymen. The workers’ sense of dignity made them defiant and propelled them to choose the radical path of militancy, challenging the “patron–client” character of the major trade unions, which claimed to represent them.
The “Loco Running Staff,” that is, drivers, firemen, shunters, and engine cleaners acted as the main force behind the spread of the rebellious mood among the workers. Besides the locoman, the workers in the railway workshops also played a crucial role. Their mobilisation galvanised other category-wise unions and gave a radical dimension to the rank-and-file militancy. The mobilisation depended greatly on the zonal and local union leaders, and of course, the rank-and-file workers. Around 1.5 million railway workers participated in the strike and the entire railway traffic was paralysed.
Samaddar explained in the book how the National Coordination Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle (NCCRS), formed prior to the strike in February 1974, “had achieved the unity of the mass of workers and leaders, craft unions and large unions or federations, militants and moderates, and vanguard and the followers” (p 10). He has not underestimated the role of leadership. But, he reminds us that the rank-and-file workers were “forcing the tempo of confrontation,” and the leaders “had little freedom to choose the course of action.”
The railway workers struck work at many places in retaliation against the arrest of George Fernandes and other popular leaders of the movement. The strike was to begin on 8 May 1974. But, there were lightning strikes from 3 May onwards in Lucknow, Pathankot, Gaya, Bilaspur, Hubli and other places, as news of the arrest of the leaders reached the workers. The workers had left their factories, workshops, offices, stations, engines, and lines, in protest.
Numerous violent moments in the struggle of railway workers are recorded in the book. Extensive brickbatting was reported from Kathgodam, Kanpur and Bareilly in North India. Allahabad witnessed violent and tense moments prior to the strike. Mughalsarai became the scene of pitched battles between thousands of workers and the police and the paramilitary forces.
At the beginning of the strike, a secret meeting of workers in the South Eastern Railway instructed the participants to throw small bombs at loyal workers, bombs and crackers at police pickets, and organise sabotage on the railway track. On 16 May, striking workers threw bombs on a Central Reserve Police Force patrol party at New Jalpaiguri in north Bengal. The animosity between the militant rank-and-file workers and the loyalists often found violent expressions. On the day of the withdrawal of the strike (28 May), the strikers reportedly humiliated, dishonoured, and manhandled a large number of loyal officers and employees at Kharagpur in West Bengal.
Brutal State Retaliation
The government adopted brutal methods against the striking workers and their families. The armed forces of the state were deployed in various labour towns. Instances of train drivers being shackled in their cabins were reported at the height of the strike. Samaddar has vividly narrated the counter-insurgency measures adopted by the state to combat the workers. Prior to the strike, the then Railway Minister, L N Mishra, informed the Parliament that the railway ministry would raise the number of Railway Protection Force to 1,00,000 from the prevailing strength of 60,000 in the next two years. Later, open threats against the strikers were issued by the railway minister at the end of April 1974. Workers were “hounded out, caught, tortured, jailed, and women and children were driven out of homes” (p 97). Around 1,00,000 employees were removed from service. Moreover, about 50,000 casual workers were terminated without any notice, and 30,000 employees kept under suspension. In various places, criminal cases against common railway workers continued long after the strike.
The 20-day long (8–28 May) railway strike was crushed by brutal state violence. But, the spectre of the strike haunted the Indian state. In his speech in the Parliament on 21 August 1974, the Railway Minister, L N Mishra, mentioned the “valuable lessons” learnt from the “traumatic experience” of the strike. One such lesson is that the “growth of mushroom, category-wise associations and sub-unions has to be discouraged.” This negation of small associations by the minister reflected the fear of militant activism of the rank-and-file workers.
The Indira Gandhi-led Congress government took other draconian measures after the suppression of the railway strike. The government declared a national Emergency on 25 June 1975, on the grounds of “internal threat” to the security of India, arrested hundreds of opposition leaders and party workers, and removed the democratic rights of the people of India during the Emergency period (1975–77). The Congress party was ousted by the Janata Party in the parliamentary elections in 1977, and the first non-Congress central government was formed in India.
The 1974 railway strike challenged the hierarchical culture of Indian trade unionism, practised by the dominant political parties. So, the top political leaders were unhappy about the militancy of the rank-and-file workers. S A Dange, the most prominent leader of the Communist Party of India, asked the workers to return to work midway through the strike. After the strike was over, George Fernandes, the militant and most popular leader of the strike, became an embarrassment to the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, which gave the call for united general strike of railway workers, and he was disposed of as its president.
More than four decades have passed since the brutal suppression of the 1974 railway strike. Now, most of the workers in India are leading “footloose” lives in the age of neo-liberalism. The militant workers’ struggles in contemporary India and elsewhere are following new forms of worker organisation outside the bureaucratic structure of traditional trade unions. We know that memories of struggle are carried over generations. Samaddar has also noted that “even today the memory of the 1974 Railway strike arouses passion and consternation.”
Ranabir Samaddar’s serious political reading of the tumultuous events of the 1974 railway strike in this book propels us to rethink the possibilities and predicaments of the “southern insurgency.”
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