On Jan. 8, an estimated 250 million workers across India conducted the largest ever single-day general strike in history, targeted against the far-right Modi government that has declared an all-out war against workers along with its divisive agenda of religious bigotry. This countrywide strike was called Bharat Bandh, literally meaning Shutdown India. An Indian-origin activist in Boston, Arif Hussian, noted, “The size of this strike is more than the total number of people that voted (219 million) for the ultra-right wing BJP government in the last general election of 2019.”
Indian labor struggle has been rising over the last few years due to the acute contradiction between big business and labor, with the size of the strikes increasing steadily. This is the fourth country-wide strike by workers during Modi’s regime, the earlier three occurring Sept. 2, 2015 (80 million); Sept. 2, 2016 (150 million), and the two-day strike on Jan. 8-9, 2019 (150 million).
Organized urban workers called the strike
The strike was called by 10 big central trade unions: NTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF, UTUC, along with various independent federations and associations, with a declaration that was adopted in September last year at a mass workers’ conference.
All these trade unions represent unionized industrial workers and service sector workers, many of whom are employed by state-owned industries and companies. A significant portion of the unionized service workers, known as scheme-workers, mainly consisting of women, come from different welfare schemes run by the central government.
Rural workers joined the strike
AIKSCC, the umbrella platform of over 175 organizations representing farmers, peasants, agricultural workers, and non-farm rural workers decided to join this strike, boosting it further. This wing of the mobilization was titled Grameen Bharat Bandh, “Rural India Shutdown!”
Not only unionized urban workers and rural workers but contractual workers joined the shutdown.
In addition to stopping work, the striking workers blockaded roads at several places. There were several arrests made across the country due to this strike.
Deep injustices in the Indian economy
This strike took place against the backdrop of India’s economic growth slowing considerably, mostly due to Modi’s own economic policies and missteps. Unemployment has increased alarmingly, with 73 million people unemployed, 4.7 million losing their jobs, and a staggering youth unemployment rate of 28 percent. Industrial output has severely declined with the index of industrial production actually showing negative growth for three consecutive months. Energy demand and generation declined for the fourth quarter in a row in the country, indicating a severe slowdown in the economy. But that slowdown has not put a dent in the profits of the big corporations, which grew by 22 percent last year.
Added to that, the botched implementation of a centralized tax system under Modi has led to a huge revenue shortfall, blowing a massive hole in budgets across states leading to cuts in welfare projects. The price of food is rapidly rising: wheat by 56 percent, rice by 14 percent, potatoes by 67 percent, and onions by 400 percent.
Despite all that, the Modi government is hell bent on pushing through privatization of the state’s resources and banks, and proposing reactionary changes to labor laws to make them further palatable to the capitalists. This would lead to longer working hours and loss of job-security guarantees.
Despite being faced with deadly price rises, the government is obstinately refusing to allow more food to flow through the public distribution system, even though there is record food production. Such a measure would reduce food prices and fill millions of hungry stomachs.
Even with the record food production, there is a severity of agrarian distress since peasants cannot recover decent prices from agricultural production, leading to high indebtedness and an epidemic of suicides.
Demands of the workers
Among the main demands of the striking workers are: an increase in minimum wages, universal social security cover, reining in rising prices, policies to curb raging joblessness, rollback of hostile/anti-worker labor law changes, an end to state resource sell-offs, and curbing contract and casual work.
Farmers and agricultural workers are demanding better prices for produce, an increase in wages and complete debt forgiveness. Additionally, they are demanding reimbursement for the losses suffered by farmers in Kashmir due to the Modi government’s act of taking away the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of the state and imposing a lock-down severely affecting the agricultural sector there.
Strike also raises political demands
Leading up to the strike, massive numbers of people across India have been taking to the streets against a discriminatory modification to the citizenship law known as the Citizenship Amendment Act that excludes Muslim migrants from eligibility to regularize their immigration status, and also of potential loss of citizenship under a National Register of Citizens. Protesters see these laws as an assault on the secular constitution and a threat to Indian unity.
Workers and farmers didn’t confine the Jan. 8 strike to the economic struggle for higher wages and better working conditions but also extended it to societal issues by opposing the Modi government’s divisive agenda. Workers and farmers demanded the government drop the CAA and NRC, end attacks on minorities and those protesting against the government, and end its destruction of constitutional provisions safeguarding democratic rights.
A couple of days before the strike, students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India’s capital, Delhi, were picketing against a proposed fee hike — an astronomical increase that would force at least half the post-graduate students to leave their studies. A few masked people belonging to the student wing of the ruling BJP, with the complicity of police and the administration, went on a rampage armed with rods and sticks beating up both students and teachers.
This violence was recorded on film and further ignited students’ consciousness regarding the fascistic nature of the group supporting the government’s Hindutva theocratic ideology. Earlier brutality by the police against students demonstrating against CAA at two other universities — Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University — had already heightened people’s anger.
The trade unions condemned recent attacks on students in Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Aligarh Muslim University. Student organizations in turn showed solidarity in over 60 universities and institutions by observing the strike with thousands joining protest marches after boycotting classes. They not only amplified the striking workers’ demands but also added their own demands against fee increases and commercialization of education.
The historic general strike was a strong rebuke to the Modi government’s attempts to divide people to facilitate its anti-worker agenda. The strike has demonstrated the unity and strength of workers, peasants and students to push Modi back and build a lasting alliance to direct the spontaneous anger of the people towards the defeat of far-right bigotry.