The 48 hour general strike called by the Joint Committee of Trade Unions (JCTU), comprising of 11 Central Trade Unions, once again saw massive participation of the working class. On 20 and 21st February, over 100 million workers all over India participated to say ’No’ to neo-liberal reforms . Although the strike was declared a ’partial success’ by the mainstream (bosses’) media, the strike did see a major shutdown in many parts of India. The industry association, ASSOCHAM, estimated losses due to the strike at Rs. 26,000 crores ($ 4.77 billion).
While this general strike comes after a gap of almost a year since the last one, last year also saw two major bandhs (shutdowns). These were called by the opposition parties – in May on the issue of the fuel price hike and in September against the ’big bang’ reforms such as Foreign Direct Investment by muiltinationals in retail. This strike is also the third time that all the Central Trade Unions have united on a common platform, including the INTUC organised by the governing Congress party, and the BMS, organised by the main right-wing opposition party, the BJP.
The recent period has also witnessed massive protests by the youth and the urban salaried middle classes on the issue of the gang rape of a 23 year old student in Delhi - also a reflection of the growth of mass protest.
More than 100 million workers take strike action!
As usual, the strike was solid in Kerala and Tripura because of the strong presence of left parties such as the CPI(M) in the region. However in West Bengal, despite the left’s attempts to put up a strong show, the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee kept the shops open by force and threatened government employees with dire consequences if they joined the strike. The strike exposed brutal attempts by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to hold down the supporters of the left parties; a panchayat (village council) employee’s ear was chopped off for participation in the strike! While such goonda (bully) style enforcement of diktats and the TMC’s routine attacks on supporters of the left may work in the short term, these sort of anti-working class policies being practiced so openly will only provoke a serious upsurge of the Bengali working people, if things continue in this manner.
The general strike had a major impact in the national capital, Delhi, especially in suburbs like Gurgaon and in the Noida industrial belt. While the strike was largely peaceful in the Gurgaon region (which has been majorly impacted by the strike of the Maruti Suzuki workers in the last two years), violent protests erupted in Noida with many vehicles burned, factory units set on fire and over 100 arrested on charge of violence. It remains to be seen what actually triggered the unfortunate episode. Initial reports suggest clashes between factory owners and workers in a hosiery manufacturing complex leading to violent protests by the workers. But whatever the initial cause, it would not have started without a serious provocation on the part of the factory management (who are known to be anti-union and extremely brutal).
On Day 2, the Okla industrial area in Delhi witnessed violent protests as workers pelted stones at many factory units there. Once again, it will be the workers who will be ultimately blamed for the violence, with the government even talking of invoking the draconian National Security Act (NSA) against the workers. The industrial belt in and around Delhi -the Noida-Gurgaon region - will be one of the key regions to watch out for as it is likely to witness major strikes and working class protests.
The strike also saw a massive participation by workers and even complete shutdowns in other North Indian regions such as parts of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. In the Southern region - excepting Kerala – that is in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, although only considered to be partially affected by the strike, nevertheless millions of workers participated in strike action in different parts of the region apart from the major urban centres. In the financial nerve centre of India – Mumbai – the whole financial sector was paralysed by the participation of the workers in the banking and insurance sectors (both public and private). In Maharashtra as a whole, the strike did not have the desired effect because of the betrayal of the leaders of some of the main trade unions like the Hind Mazdoor Sabha that controls the crucial transport sector.
All in all, despite the limited charter of 10 demands drawn up by the Central Trade Unions, the strike shows the huge hostility of workers against the pro-capitalist policies of the Congress-led UPA government. While all the Central Trade Unions have only a limited scope for what they finally want to achieve, they have willy-nilly unleashed the massive potential of the Indian working class. This is despite all the confusions and contradictions that are prevalent in the Trade Union movement today.
With the Congress-led UPA government seemingly hell-bent on unleashing more highly unpopular ’big bang’ reforms and the general slowdown in the Indian economy as part of the global trend, the coming period will witness massive waves of protests that will put the Indian working class on a par with the workers of Europe in resisting the onslaught of neo-liberal capitalism. The coming budget in March is likely to see more cuts in the so-called welfare programmes (which have always been austerity driven to begin with!).
The situation begs today for a complete revamp in the strategies and tactics for the Trade Union movement. Since 1991 the working class of India has come out and valiantly conducted general strikes against neo-liberal practices 15 times, but the leadership which is predominantly with the left parties is yet to show any intention of taking the struggle forward to challenge the capitalist system which is the fountain-head of neo-liberalism. It is time that the leadership of the left/communist parties realised that there is no halfway in the struggle against this system. Workers need organisations which draw the conclusion that the system of capitalism is rotten to its core and allows little or no room for reform. Its replacement with a democratic socialist system is the only way forward.
Last year’s protests against corruption and sexual violence that we saw happening outside of the usual parameters of organised working class action is an indication of the churning that is taking place in the society for a bolder and radical leadership. The left parties have an historic opportunity to lead the struggle encompassing all the emerging battles in the length and breadth of India - from the anti-nuclear struggle at Koodankulam to the anti-POSCO movement in Odisha.
Working class youth and even sections of urban middle class wage earners are no longer prepared to wait and watch; they are moving into action, unfortunately sometimes with reactionary leadership or no leadership. The left parties and their ranks have been found lacking. In Tamil Nadu owing to the outdated response of the leadership towards the attacks on Daliths, the issue of Sri Lanka’s genocidal war and the living struggle of people in Koodankulam, thousands of party card holders have rebelled and refused to renew their membership of the Communist Parties. Even minor splits have taken place in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and the Student/youth wing of CPI(M) in Delhi.
As we have pointed out in our previous articles, the coming period leading up to the 2014 general election will be an interesting time as the Indian ruling class battles to stay afloat against the stream of socio-political and economic unrest that is likely to grip the country. The issues of constant price hikes, of fuel price rises, cuts in subsidies, massive unemployment etc., are not only impacting on the working class, peasantry and the poor, but also on the salaried middle classes who are beginning to feel the pinch.
New Socialist Alternative calls for an end to all price hikes, the cancellation of all workers’ and small farmers’ debts, the nationalisation of banks and insurance companies and of the multinationals that attempt to get a stranglehold on retail and on farming. For a programme to fight elections on socialist policies that will benefit the 99% and do away with the power of the vastly over-privileged 1% of Indian society.
All the symptoms for a revolutionary upheaval in society is in the making, not only in India today, but around the globe. The only missing element is the lack of a genuine mass political alternative that can really show the way forward for the Indian working class. Many challenges lie ahead for the forces of genuine socialism to reach out to new layers of the youth and the working class.