Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Historic Railway Strike of 1974 

by Com A.Mathew, Secretary, Kamgar Ekta Committee, Maharashtra 


The 20 day strike by 17 lakh workers of the Indian Railways is the largest recorded industrial action in the world. The strike which was supposed to have started on May 8th 1974, started on May 2nd 1974 because the Indira Gandhi led Congress Government arrested thousands of leaders of the railway workers on May 2nd 1974. This included even those leaders who had come to Delhi to negotiate with the Central Government on the demands of the workers. In the most treacherous fashion after the discussions were over on April 30th night, they were again asked to come back on 2nd of May for further discussions and in the intervening night of May 1st, Workers Day, the mass arrests took place. The death of Comrade VR Mhalgi, one of the leaders in police custody on May 2nd, as well as the mass arrests of their leaders enraged the workers and the strike started on May 2nd beginning with the Central Railway. 

The strike was led by National Co-ordination Committee of Railwaymens Struggle(NCCRS). This had as its constituents, AIRF, AILRSA, AIREC, CITU , AITCU and 125 railway unions, with George Fernandes as its Convenor. The main reasons for the strike were the low wages of the rail workers as compared to other industrial workers, long hours of work and harsh working conditions. 

(A)Background to the Historic Strike 

The Central Government, after Nationalisation of the Railways in 1951 refused to treat the railway workers as industrial workers and kept them out of the purview of the Factories Act (1948). Also they treated the railway workers as a part of the Government and their wages were fixed by the Pay Commission recommendations. 

The railway men have been demanding that they should be treated as industrial workers, with duty hours not exceeding 8 hours a day and full trade union rights i.e. the right to chose or form their own Association and facilities for collective bargaining. The railway workers demanded need based minimum wage or at least parity with the wages granted by several wage-boards to comparable major organized industries of the country. They wanted protection against erosion in their real wage by introducing the principle of linking D.A. with price index and full neutralization-a principle which has been accepted by many wage boards. They also wanted abolition of casual labour system-a demand based on the principle of “equal pay for work of equal value” as defined in I.L.O. Convention No.100, which the Govt. of India had already ratified in 1958 but refused to implement. They also demanded “Bonus” which was being granted to industrial workers as a measure of “deferred wage”. but not to railway men. A demand for cheap grain shops with adequate supply of rations was also raised by them. 

Railway men, who have a proud heritage of struggle had earlier struck work for 5 days in 1960 on these demand forging links with the Central Government Employees. Again in 1968, a call for one day token strike was given. The Government on both the occasions ruthlessly suppressed the struggle. 

In the 1960’s, when railway management refused to address the demands of the rail workers, many workers felt that their demands would be better served if they were organised based on their trade or craft. This led to the rise of craft unions or trade wise unions among the drivers, guards, station masters, S&T staff etc who agitated for their trade wise demands without the involvement of the recognised federations. Independent associations such as AILRSA, AIGC, AISMA, IRS&TA etc were set up and a confederation of these associations, AIREC, was also formed. 

The 3rd Pay Commission recommendations had been announced on 31st March, 1973 and none of the basic demands of railway men were conceded. There was practically no rise in pay. On the other hand, the implementation of the report would have reduced the monthly pay packet of some railway men. This was in the background of rampant inflation with the rising prices of crude oil in the international market. 

The grounds for the strike were laid by the heroic strike of Loco Running staff (Engine Drivers) led by All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA) in May 1973 and August 1973, which forced the Railway Minister to promise implementation of a 10 hour work day from sign on to sign off instead of the prevailing 14 hours workday. The fact that the promise was never implemented angered the loco pilots who were at the forefront of the 1974 strike. 

The Guards of the Indian Railways, under AIGC (All India Guards Council) had also gone on a work to rule after the announcement of the Third Pay Commission Recommendations. This brought the goods train movement all over the country to a complete halt. On March 10th , 1974 , The Railway Ministry was forced to announce a revision in the Guards basic pay package. 

All the above struggles helped to increase the class consciousness of the railway workers and prepared the background for the historic rail strike of 1974. 

(B) The strike and the brutal fascist response to it by the Government and Rail Authorities 

The rail workers recognised that if they were to achieve their demands , they needed to have unity among all sections of rail workers. It was with this aim that the NCCRS was formed. This had as its constituents , AIRF, AILRSA, AIREC, CITU , AITUC and 125 railway unions,. The principle followed in formation of NCCRS was that all organizations were treated with equality having one representative each in the committee irrespective of size of the constituent union or association. 

It must be noted that the Central Government was aware of the rising anger of the rail workers and that a confrontation was inevitable as they were not interested in conceding to the just demands of the rail workers . Accordingly, while a facade of talks with the union leadership was kept up in the early part of 1974, behind these talks the Government and the rail authorities was drawing up a diabolical plan to crush the workers when they went on strike. They first made an assessment as to how many people would not join the strike. Secondly, they ensured that the steel plants, power plants and other essential industries were kept with a full supply of their required raw-materials. They also built up a surplus stock of food grains in the deficit states. After the strike notice by the rail workers was served on 23rd April 1974, , they cancelled 700 passenger trains and gave preference to movement of freight to achieve these objectives. They also drew up a plan to arrest the leadership at the “appropriate time”. Payment of all arrear dues, P.F. loans etc. was stopped so that the workers did not have resources to prolong the struggle. 

As explained earlier the leadership of the railway workers was arrested when they were in Delhi to participate in “talks” on the night of May 1st. As a result the strike actually commenced on 2nd of May, 1974, in Central Railway and in others on 8th of May as scheduled . Even with most of their leaders in jail, the railway workers all over the country responded magnificently to the strike call. The sweep of the strike was much more than the Government had anticipated. The Chairman of the Railway Board tried to belittle the strike. All media of mass communications were pressed into service to circulate false claims that the strike had failed. 

In responding to the railway strike, the fascist character of the Indian State was brutally exposed to the brave workers. Never before in Independent India was there such a terror spread over all parts of the country, in all states, in all towns and cities simultaneously. The police raided the houses of the railway workers all over the country and tortured those who fell into their hands. Workers were mercilessly beaten and tortured to go back to their duties, some even at gun point. Drivers were chained to the EMU Coaches or were under police escort, so that they cannot run away. Instances of train drivers being shackled in their cabins were reported at the height of the strike. Meetings were prohibited. Important leaders were arrested and arrest warrants issued against active workers. Even those in hospital beds were not spared. About 30,000 were arrested and 20,000 warrants were pending. 

Any attempt by railway men to organize protest was ruthlessly suppressed, . Prohibitive orders including curfew were imposed on all railway colonies and their surrounding areas so that the striking workers were not able to keep any contact with those who had not joined the strike or hold meetings, processions etc. Lathi charges and tear gassings were reported at Hubli, Egmore, Moghulsari, Mysore, Calol, Jhansi, Burdwan, Kharagpur, Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, Kota, Guwahati, Gangapur city and many other railway settlements. 

In protest against the arrests of their menfolk the women in railway colonies heroically came on the streets all over India at various centres like Sarai Rohila, New Jalpaiguri, Adra, Kharagpur, Pandu, Kanchrapara etc. However the fascist Indian state did not spare even the women. Old and pregnant women or even children were mercilessly beaten. The lathi charge at Gangapur city was so severe that a pregnant women suffered abortion on the spot and there were many having 8 to 11 fractures on their bodies. 

Reports of opening fire on the demonstrators, came from Chitpur, Kutch and other stations. Arrests were conducted on a mass scale. At Gurgaon, all those present including 162 Electric Motormen were arrested from one spot. At Maldah, the entire working force of the night shift on May 7 was not allowed to leave the station and forced to perform duties on May 8, as well. Similar reports were received from New Bongaigaon, Bombay and other places. The Electric Motormen of Bombay when called by the officers, refused to become first strike-breakers. They were arrested and detained without food. 

Beating of workers after arrest became a normal incident. At Kurla, workers were hand-cuffed and paraded on the platform. At Uluberia, Gangmen were roped and detained for 72 hours in a small room without any food or amenities. Torture and indignities knew no bounds. 

Will Continue….. 

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