workers

Today is 02.02.22, day before yesterday the farmers observed ‘betrayal day’ at the call of Farmers Unions. After a protest sit-in for continuous 381 days around the capital Delhi defying extreme weather conditions, vicinity to urban pollutions, staying far away from homes and rural surroundings encaged in dingy hutments, paucity of water and sanitation, mosquitoes and pests, and dedicating lives of 715 martyrs in the encampments and many others in Lakhimpur Kheri and other places of confronting forces of state and BJP, they recorded their victory. The govt had to rescind the Farm Laws, and promised to act soon on MSP, to deliberate on withdrawal of all police cases on agitating farmers and farm workers during the more-tan-a-year long movement and compensation of all martyrs. But promises made of December 9 did not materialise; moreover, one of the conspirators of Lakhimpur Kheri Massacre is still holding the portfolio of a minister of home affairs, who is incidentally father of the main accused. This is the reason behind farmers observing the ‘betrayal day’. But do the workers not feel betrayed too?

Before the farmers reached Delhi in November 2020 there had been 18 or 19 All India General Strikes observed in between 1991 and 2019, leaving aside the United Front Govt. era of some 2+ years. Almost yearly episodes were those. These strikes were once called by Trade Unions run by the non-BJP non-Congress opposition parties with some other ‘independent’ trade unions, then later those became a non-BJP Trade Union platform; at times quite a number of ‘mass organisations’ were seen as issuing the strike call. There was a common thread all throughout in those, roughly speaking, almost a dozen and half strikes in two dozen years – against the fallouts of the LPG policies (liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation). This time too the INTUC (well known to everybody as a Congress run Trade Union) is one of the central TUs who issued the call of the strike last Dec end – to observe a 2-day-All-India-Strike on Feb 23 & 24 – to coincide with the Budget Session of the Parliament apparently displaying their urge to change some proposals placed by the government, to force the govt rescind the Labour Laws as the farmers forced the govt to withdraw Farm Laws. But suddenly, at end-January, the Central Trade Unions deferred the date to almost the fag-end of the Budget session, to March 28 & 29, due to, as they explained, (i) rising covid-pandemic and (ii) elections to various state assemblies and/or vacant seats of some representative bodies. However, (i) interestingly, most state governments were, by that time, announcing opening of the schools from early February and (ii) as per the argument of the unions and facts we all observed, election arrangements, rallies and even Hindu religious festivals like Kumbh at Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand or Durga Puja festival, Ganga Sagar festival, or gregarious gatherings at Park Street during Christmas in West Bengal, all such can/could go on during pandemic but not general-strike!

But it is less funny than the process by which these strikes originated. It was during the Narsimma Rao – Manmohan Singh reign that the series of strikes started in 1992. When the ‘minority’ Congress government were placing initial ‘pathbreaking’ reforms inaugurating liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation (henceforth written as LPG) in India, the 121-member BJP was voting against motions, but not the ‘lefts’ and some of their friends. 60-member lefts and their friends were staging ‘walk-outs’ without participating in voting in-house because – if all non-Congress opposition voted against the minority government, the government would fall, naturally, then another general election would have to be conducted – which would put burden on people as there would be price-rise etc. This was a gem of a logic, as if the burden of liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation would be less than that of a general election! The ‘left’ parties and their friends could only vote against the govt in the floor only after the govt obtained parliamentary majority by buying supports; they were careful that the congress led govt must not fall.

Anyway, the farce was greater and messier later. During the mid-1990s a non-Congress non-BJP ‘friendly’ United-Front govt was formed in which the CPI was inside the ministry and CPIM supported ‘from outside’. We know what Mr Jyoti Basu meant by ‘historic blunder’ of the CPIM, the party did not allow him to become the Prime minister and CPIM became the leading party of the government. In that UF govt Mr Chidambaram of the erstwhile Congress govt was an important minister and policy maker. That United-Front govt did not undo a single LPG policy related misdeed of the past govt. Later, after years of BJP-NDA rule the UPA-I ministry and UPA-II ministry came one after other, and both those governments got ‘left’ support, both the governments walked on the beaten track of LPG. Now all old façades are gone. Now Congress, regional ‘bourgeois’ parties, ‘lefts’ (now that includes one of the ‘CPIML’s) are in Mahagutbandhan or Great-Alliance, in Bihar, in Assam too.

The rulers never minded. Only as the ‘law’ demanded ‘law and order’ were enforced upon non-law-abiding strikers. The CPIM led lefts were always pragmatic: they were the first to start an Export Processing Zone (later renamed SEZ), the country’s first at West Bengal; they appreciated and tried to take full utilisation of negation of old ‘freight-equalisation’ at the start of LPG, they called for practising ‘responsible Trade Unionism’ and Left rule governments in different states abided by the LPG framework. Even privatisation was not distasteful to the lefts, in the case of several units of WEBEL, centrally located Great Eastern Hotel, and several others. Naturally, it was clear that these strikes, despite the attacks faced by millions of workers, could not etch any mark whatsoever on govt policies: long 10-12-hour workdays, tremendous oppressive working conditions, more so for gig-workers (like delivery boys), all were there much before the promulgation of Labour Laws.

If we look back and compare — main forces of the farmers’ movement were independent of established political parties and most of them are not vouching for any candidates in the coming assembly elections; such forces could force the government to retreat. The farmers mahapanchayat in Muzaffar Nagar held on September 5, 2021 called for an all-India strike on September 27 last year. In that call the farmers’ leaders in their addresses appealed to the workers to confront govt proposed Labour Laws, sales of Govt properties to private entities etc very seriously and to fight effectively by workers-resistances. They also said – if required farmers would supplement these workers’ actions with farmers’ manpower. But no such gestures of the trade unions were seen even in that relatively favourable time, like, say, blocking Bharat Petroleum Head Quarter and state level offices, storming and ‘occupying’ some airports given away to Adani, in early December blocking (under-ground cable connections) of all Mobile towers of private players when those companies increased tariff and etcetera. They could also take up issues like – after cancellation of 3 Farm Bills, govt must restart the “Essential Commodities Act” to decrease prices of essential commodities within the level of purchasing power of the population. We may also recollect that the farmers unions settled that on the all-India workers strike days, on Feb 23 & 24, the farmers unions and farm labourers unions will together conduct strike in rural India.

Well. If there will be an all-India strike on March 28 & 29, naturally there is no question of opposing that call, no question of breaking the strike can be there. But what have the central trade unions affiliated to various ‘opposition parties’ been doing? Are they at all representing the interest of the working class? What is the post-emergency history of the last 45 years showing? How do those ‘lefts’ and ‘Congress’ run their state and central governments? Did those governments effectively ever contradict neoliberalism? Can sops like 100-days-work or mid-day-meal can wipe out the neoliberal stains (including labour-contractualisation in big sectors like railways, forceful ‘voluntary’ retirement of workers, closure of big PSU factories like MAMC, writing off loans to capitalist sharks from PSU banks and so on so forth) from hands of the great-alliance parties? Sadly though, whenever the betrayed workers, mainly non-organised, non-permanent and different other categories of workers as well as the people in general face elections nowadays, they are left with no alternative than to chose that party which they conceive as ‘lesser danger’, because the alternative of something like a ‘total change’ is de-facto not there in the political arena. And till this phase continues, farces or tragedies are visible alternatives, because the sprouting of revolutionary alternatives, in the initial phase, often remain imperceptible to us, onlookers.

The author is an activist who writes on political and socioeconomic issues and also on environmental issues. Some of his articles are published in Frontier Weekly. He lives in West Bengal, India.  Presently he is a research worker. He can be reached at sandeepbanerjee00@gmail.com


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