On Nov. 9, 2017, 70,000 workers from all corners of India came together in New Delhi for a three-day sit in. Workers from rail, telecommunications, defense, construction, ports and docks, energy, and many other sectors associated with some the largest unions in India joined together to protest the anti-worker, anti-people, and anti-national policies of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If their demands are not met, the unions have plans for an indefinite countrywide general strike. The growing unity and militancy of the Indian labor movement are welcome developments and a possible sign of future militant actions.
Among the major unions taking part are:
- All India Trade Union Congress (The oldest trade union in India; associated with the Communist Party of India)
- Hind Mazdoor Sabha (Indian Workers Assembly; unaffiliated)
- Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Associated with the Communist Party of India — Marxist)
- All India United Trade Union Centre (Associated With Socialist Unity Centre of India — Communist)
- Trade Union Coordination Centre (Unaffiliated)
- Self Employed Women’s Association (Unaffiliated)
- All India Central Council of Trade Unions (Associated with the Communist Party of India [Marxist-Leninist] Liberation)
- United Trade Union Congress (Associated with the Revolutionary Socialist Party);
- Labour Progressive Federation (Associated with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a regional left-wing party in Tamil Nadu)
- Mazdoor Ekta Committee — Workers Unity Committee (Associated with the Communist Ghadar Party of India)
- Indian National Trade Union Congress (associated with Indian National Congress Party)
Those protesting had several demands, including but not limited to an end to speculative trading, an end of privatization and selling of public assets to foreign capital, a higher minimum wage, enforcement of already-existing labor laws, schemes to end unemployment and a universal social security system. The protesters also highlighted the plight of minorities: dalits (“untouchables,” or peoples belonging to the lowest social caste) and adivasi (tribal groups) — both of whom have been under attack by the ruling party and right-wing street gangs supportive of the BJP. Those protesting called for unity among all oppressed people to oppose the religious fundamentalism and bigotry of the ruling BJP and Modi government. The unions’ anger was summed up time and time again by pointing out the anti-worker, pro-capitalist, anti people, bigoted, and pro-international capital policies implemented by the Modi government.
The BJP is a Hindu-Nationalist party and the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (meaning National Volunteer Organization, simplified as RSS) a paramilitary right-wing organization heavily influenced by Italian and German fascism. They promote Hindutva (Hindu-ness), the idea that India is a Hindu Rashtra (a Hindu nation). This notion is completely the opposite of what is written in the Indian constitution, that India is a secular nation.
As with most fascist or semi-fascist political formations, the BJP implements laws to benefit the ruling class. India’s working class and the left in general have been on the defensive since India’s adoption of neoliberal economic policies in the early 1990’s under the leadership of the Indian National Congress Party, which had governed India since independence. The BJP has intensified the class struggle — in part by exacerbating social struggle along caste lines — with an all-out attack on the working class, lower castes, dalits and non-Hindu religious practitioners. Even the BJP’s main social base — small shop owners — has not been spared from the attack, which is carried out in service of big capitalists and foreign capital.
The two outstanding examples of the BJP’s anti-people attacks — besides near-complete inaction over the murder of journalists, communist cadres and Muslims — are demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Demonetization and the GST, both touted as master strokes by the BJP government and its lackeys in the Indian corporate media, have destroyed the lives of many ordinary Indians. Demonetization was an attempt to force people in the informal economy into the formal economy. The informal economy, in which a significant portion of people in South Asia work, operates on a cash-only basis and is not well-documented and thus not easily taxed. Many people still lack bank accounts and keep their savings physically in high-denomination rupee notes.
In order to force Indians into the formal economy, the government ruled that the 500- and 1000-rupee notes would become officially worthless. Instead, they could trade in their old currency for a new 2000-rupee note. Overnight, 80 percent of the entire Indian currency stock was worthless. Lines formed across the country as people tried to gain access to their own money. Banks ran out of the new currency notes, while, strangely enough, BJP party members and allies never seemed to have a problem obtaining the new notes. Meanwhile, ordinary Indians were forced to spend weeks in line to access their own money.
After this ‘masterstroke’ came the GST, an attempt to standardize the notoriously complicated tax system. Although the GST might not have had a negative effect on the big corporations in the formal economy, it has hit the small capitalists in the informal economy — such as small shopkeepers, restauranteurs, etc. —particularly hard, which in turn has forced many small producers to fire workers. These attempts by the Indian upper classes to force the working and middle classes in line with their dreams of a neoliberal India are beginning to backfire.
India is a country of extreme wealth disparity. The richest 10 percent of Indians own 80 percent of the wealth in the country, whereas the poorest 50 percent control 3 percent of the wealth. This wealth disparity did not start when the BJP came to power but rather has been a feature of Indian society since the time of the British rule. Joblessness and lack of opportunity has plagued poor and working Indians as food and housing prices have skyrocketed in recent years. Tens of thousands of farmers, unable to pay their debts, have committed suicide as a protest of last resort.
Meanwhile the BJP and Modi in particular have opportunistically used pro-Hindu identity politics (often referred to as “communalism”) and religious intolerance to demagogically pander to its base, as well as a
divide-and-conquer tactic. Whenever there has been economic trouble or an upcoming election, the BJP consistently whips up anti-Muslim sentiment to try and gain the support of the Hindu middle classes. This has unfortunately worked before, but it seems that the economic onslaught has taken its toll and the BJP is losing support.
Rise of left opposition
Meanwhile, the Indian left and formerly-obscure parties are on the rise. The show of unity of India’s major unions is an important development.
India is an incredibly diverse country with thousands of ethnic groups and languages. In response, various unions have spent the previous three months intensively campaigning, spreading information in all major regional languages to activists in all corners of the country. These unions coming together have formed a pole to which activists from all the struggles facing the Indian working masses and oppressed peoples can gravitate towards. The unity of the main unions in the country was apparent in the November mass actions and their call for a continued unified struggle is a real accomplishment, so much so that the unity impressed several independent worker federations who have recently joined.
Continued actions to pressure the government to give in to the demands of the workers are on the horizon. If these demands are not met, the unions have all agreed to launch an indefinite countrywide general strike. This general strike will be the third in 4 years following nationwide strikes of 80 million in 2015 and 150 million in 2016 that took to the streets against the anti-people policies of the Modi government. This time, the workers intend to sustain the general strike until their demands are met. The unions also have plans for sector-/industry-wide strikes across India if the government moves to privatize any more public firms or if any anti-worker laws are passed in the union budget.