Friday, May 15, 2020

Striking - Memories of May 1974 and the Indian Railway Workers 

Babu P. Remesh is Associate Fellow, V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, and Coordinator, Integrated Labour History Research Programme & Archives of Indian Labour. 

The Biggest Ever Strike! 

The month of May in 1974 was eventful because the country witnessed the heroic strike of Indian railway workers. The strike, which lasted for more than 20 days, involved 1.5 million workers, and is one of the world’s biggest strikes till date. The state crushed the strike with a heavy hand. However, the mass discontentment it generated had roots too deep to be suppressed by stringent administrative measures. The strike is said to be one of the events that led to the imposition of Emergency by the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, in June 1975. 

The origin of the strike lies in the deterioration of the railway workers pay and their working conditions and in the revitalisation of the trade union (TU) movement by craft unions set up by worker-activists during the 1960s and 1970s, in opposition to the officially recognised unions. During the 1960s, the unrest amongst railway workers grew on the issue of low wages, harsh working conditions and long hours of work. The negative response from the management and the inability of the two railway unions recognised by the Railway Board, All India Railway men’s Federation (AIRF) and National Federation of Indian Railway men (NFIR) to fight for their grievances generated a sense of frustration among workers. The union leadership was perceived to be corrupt and prone to falling prey to material privileges. The worker-activists felt that the government, the railway management and the recognised unions were working to suppress the independent activities of workers. 

Under these circumstances, a need for collective action to fight for their interests led to the formation of independent, category-based unions, such as the Loco Running Staff Association. The category unions led several industrial actions without the involvement of the recognised unions. These led to growing class-consciousness and broad-based mobilisation among the railway workers, providing a conducive background for the all-India railway strike in 1974. 

May 1974 

Prior to the strike, a National Coordinating Committee for Railway men’s Struggle (NCRRS) was formed to bring together all the railway unions, the central trade unions and political parties in the opposition to prepare for the strike beginning on 8 May 1974. The formation of the NCRRS provided a common forum for the AIRF and the rank-and-file unions (category-based/craft unions) to work for mutually shared goals. Accordingly, Mr. George Fernandes, who was elected as President of AIRF only a few months prior to the strike, led the movement. A reduction of the long working hours prevalent for loco running staff was one of the core demands put forth by the NCRRS during the strike. 

As the call for the strike grew, so did the popular unrest among many social groups in the country. The government viewed this not as a normal industrial dispute but as a confrontation. Fearing the results of the strike, the government lashed at the railway workers with ferocity. Even as negotiations were on, most of the local-level and national leaders, such as Mr. Fernandes, were arrested on the night of May 2. Thousands were thrown into jail under Emergency legislation. The provisions of the Defense of India Rules and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) were used against them. With the countrywide arrests, the success of the strike depended greatly on local union leaders, who rose to the occasion and went on immediate strike from 2nd May instead of waiting for May 8. 

The strike was intense, with a remarkable display of solidarity among workers and other sections of society. Thousands of workers from other sectors joined in with sympathy strikes or participated in supportive actions such as demonstrations, picketing and fund raising. In Bombay, electricity and transport workers and taxi drivers joined the protests. In Bihar, the workers and their families squatted on the railway tracks. More than 10,000 workers of the Integral Coach Factory in Perambur, Tamil Nadu, marched to the Southern Railway headquarters in Madras to express their solidarity with the workers. 

The government and the railway management unleashed terror by deploying security forces on the workers and their families. The brutal methods adopted by the government have been well documented. Police ransacked homes, often beating workers and their families or physically forcing workers back to work. Instances of train drivers being shackled in their cabins were reported at the height of the strike. Many workers had to take refuge in fields and groves, after being driven from their homes by police raids. The railway colonies were practically under siege and para-military forces, such as Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), were deployed in the labour townships. 

The strike upturned normal daily life in all the major cities and affected even remote areas. For several weeks, the discussion everywhere seemed to centre on the rights and wrongs of the strike, the actions of the government and the police, and which train was running and which was not. 

Calling Off and Aftermath 

The momentum of the workers resistance, however, gradually declined while the vindictive action of the authorities continued for weeks. This prompted the leaders to call off the strike rather than have it fizzle out completely. Accordingly, it was decided to unilaterally call off the strike with effect from 6 a.m. of 28 May. In its resolution of 27 May 1974, the Action Committee of the strike salute(d) the railway men for their glorious struggle waged with such courage and determination, braving a government onslaught the like of which (had) never before been experienced by the Indian working class. Later on, the Committee called on the government to release the arrested workers, withdraw all punitive action and resume negotiations. 

The release of workers from police custody and reinstatement of employment, however, was slow. The complete reinstating of the workers, who were suspended or dismissed, happened only after a few years. Mr Madhu Dandavate took over as Railway Minister in the Janata government on 27 March 1977. The very next day, he declared in the Lok Sabha that, All the railway employees, who were either suspended or dismissed due to their participation in the Railway strike in May 1974, will be reinstated unconditionally. Subsequently, some remedial measures were implemented to heal the effects of the strike. 

Much has changed in the labour landscape in India since 1974. Although the craft unions in Indian railways declined after the strike, the episode testified that such craft unions broke the stranglehold that the two main unions had built among railway workforce. There have been allegations that the strike leadership had betrayed those who had sacrificed everything for the larger cause. Mr. George Fernandes, who assumed the office of Union Railway Minister later on, has been criticised particularly for having failed to restore the rights that thousands of workers lost during the strike. 

The strike symbolises the golden era of a broad-based mobilisation of Indian railway workers and evokes images of the heroism of ordinary railway workers, their families and those who dared support them against the might of the state administration. 

(Source: Sherlock, Stephen (2001): The Indian Railways Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organised Labour, Rupa & Co., New Delhi)


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