Indian workers strike back

During the month of January we saw some very important strikes in India. The dock workers paralysed Indian ports for 5 days, The UP electricity workers went on strike for 11 days, etc. The state used harsh repression (including sending the army to the ports) against these movements. Yet very little of this was reported in other countries. Sara Glynn reports from Calcutta.

'There is sullen resentment among the masses against their condition, often erupting in violent forms in several parts of the countryÉ Many a social upheaval can be traced to the neglect of the lowest tier of society, whose discontent moves towards the path of violenceÉ We have one of the world's largest reservoirs of technical personnel, but also the world's largest number of illiterates; the world's largest middle class, but also the largest number of people below the poverty line, and the largest number of children suffering from malnutrition.'

Thus the President of India celebrated the 50th anniversary of the country's constitution in his Republic Day address this week. He was not, of course, advocating revolution, but warning the economic liberalisers to slow down and consider the problems of economic inequality. In this he was both following the line of one of the main liberal camps (the other would proceed with economic reforms as quickly as possible) and playing to his own Dalit (former untouchable) community, whose support got him his prestigious, though not politically powerful, position as head of state.

The upheaval of which the president spoke is evident on all sides. This month alone, 99,000 dock-workers have crippled the country's major ports for 5 days, as they struck for better pay including rent allowances and 5 (rather than 10) yearly pay reviews. Most of Uttar Pradesh's 87,000 electricity workers have caused chaos throughout the state as they struck for 11 days against the breaking up of the state electricity board as a first step towards privatisation. And the state of Rajasthan has been unable to run its administration and services since mid December as some 200,000 state employees are on strike against the non-payment of promised bonuses and allowances by the heavily indebted state government. And as the central government steams ahead with its policies of liberalisation and market reform and the new Department of Disinvestment gets down to business, the unions promise more disruptions for the future.

These strikes are all reactions to the hardening economic crackdown, but they have other features in common too. First, their impressive scale, which has been matched by the severity of the government response. The military were brought in to try and break the dock strike and prevent the stoppage of essential supplies. In Uttar Pradesh, over 5,000 power workers were sacked and over 6,000 arrested, and in Rajasthan a new law allows those who refuse to work on the administration of the forthcoming local elections to be punished with a fine and/or a year's imprisonment. These responses are fully in tune with an antagonistic bourgeois press, which reflects the lack of sympathy of a middle class tired of bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, and wooed by the promise of a liberal American-style dream. Thus 'India Today' speaks of 'a serious attempt to prevent accountability and efficiency' by 'entrenched and vested interests' (India Today 31/1/00 p22 and 23), and The Statesman believes the government 'requires strong policies against union blackmail' and that 'if unions still refuse to give way and resist inevitable shrinkages in the workforce, government should not shirk from harsh measures, such a dismissal of strike organisers and tough policing to prevent harassment of those willing to return to work.' (Edtitorials 29th Jan and 24th Jan)

And so we watch the familiar pattern of a failed leadership, as union bosses, wary of endangering their own comfortable position, allow the workers to let off steam while they compromise them at the negotiating table. The result is not only the failure of the immediate campaign, but a demoralisation of the rank and file. Genuine Marxists find workers disillusioned with strikes and describing their union as little more than a means to promote the leaders in their personal political ambitions. Like in the proverbial story of the boy calling wolf, the strike weapon has been so over used that here in Calcutta a sure way to disperse a crowd is to turn on a loud speaker and raise a red flag.

And the established Left not only 'fiddles while Rome burns', loosing itself in internal squabbles and debating the degree to which fundamental socialist principals can be abandoned in the search for the new pragmatism, but it even joins in in the burning. Last Sunday, cadres from the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) raised a local market to the ground. The reason? A local CPIM committee secretary had been shot dead in the market while he bought his fish. And the motive for the murder? The papers do not hesitate to state that the murdered man ran an extortion racket in the market, just as the lumpen supporters of other parties do elsewhere. In fact, these so called cadres treat their parties as gangs through which they can gain kudos and power. There is no need to go into the claims and counter claims made by the CPIM and their right wing populist rivals in Calcutta, the Trinumal Congess, but every day this week has brought more news of tit for tat killings and extortion. And instead of speaking out against this violence and the debasement of the party, the CPIM organised a bandh to protest against the original murder - which paralysed the whole of South Calcutta on Monday - and the state committee secretary commented at a public meeting that 'tit for tat was the only remedy for political violence.' (The Statesman 28th Jan)

The bankruptcy of today's leaders, both in the political parties and in the unions, is clear for all to see, but equally clear to those who look, including the President of India, is the growing tide of discontentment among the grass roots. It is here that we should look for a rekindling of socialist ideas, and here that we should work to help fan those flames to a new strength; here that we can try to play a part in directing the 'violent resentment' and 'social upheaval' along the path towards real workers power and democratic socialism.