Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Remembering the Railway General Strike, May 1974 in another time

The writer, Dr. V.Krishna Ananth, is son of late K.Vaidyanathan, a leader of the 1974 strike at Erode. The writer was 10 years old when the strike happened and his political education began then. He is presently Associate Professor, Department of History, Sikkim University, Gangtok 737102 and this is dedicated to the memory of his father who passed away on November 3, 2015. Vaidyanathan would have been most happiest if he was around this day

This article published in FIRE magazine in August 2016.


Meanwhile, caught in a bind because the category unions were gaining strength, the AIRF decided to go for a course correction. In October 1973, at its convention in Secundrabad (in Andhra Pradesh), George Fernandes replaced Peter Alwares as its president. Fernandes, a stormy petrel trade unionist in and around Bombay and then the chairman of the Socialist party, was brought into the AIRF by sections that were desperate to re-invent the federation as a fighting organization. That had become necessary in the context of the emergence of category unions and the consequent erosion of the AIRF’s base among the railway workers. The Secundrabad convention also voted in favour of a national general strike in the railways.

According to Fernandes, the decision to strike was forced on him by detractors from his own party as well as sections in the AIRF that were affiliated with the CPI, with an intention to paint him as another effete leader. Despite his opposition for a strike, in the convention itself, the delegates voted in favour of a general strike. This, in a sense, reflected the extent of discontent among the workers, who constituted the ranks of the federation. Having pushed into that, Fernandes says, he decided to make the best out of a bad bargain and went about addressing workers across the railway zones. He also broke ranks with the others in the AIRF leadership by insisting that the AIRF will prepare for the strike in association with the category unions.

The other important leaders of the AIRF, including the general secretary, Priya Gautam, also a member of the unified Socialist Party but belonging to the PSP tradition, was opposed to any such joint action with the category unions in general and the LRSA in particular. Fernandes had his way and on February 27, 1974, a convention of over 100 railwaymen’s unions, including the LRSA, gave concrete shape to the idea of a general strike and a National Coordination Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle (NCCRS) was formed.

A memorandum with demands including wage increase, statutory bonus for railway workers as it was given to workers in the PSUs, regularizing the services of over 3 lakhs casual workers was sent to the Railway Board. The Board, however, ignored the memorandum.

On April 15, 1974, the NCCRS representatives were called for a meeting with the Railway Board officials and were told that their demands were unacceptable. The NCCRS met the same day and decided to serve notice for a general strike beginning May 8, 1974. The meeting decided to serve the strike notice on April 23, 1974 and that notices be served to the administration at all levels including the various zones and divisions across the country. A 13 member Action Committee with Fernandes as Chairman and representatives from the AIRF, the LRSA, the AIREC, CITU, AITUC and BMS was formed at the NCCRS convention itself.

The NCCRS, in many ways, reflected the unity that was emerging among the unions at that time and also the arrival of Fernandes as the leader. It took a while before the union leaders were called for negotiations. To be precise, talks began only on April 27, 1974 and the Government side was represented by the Deputy Minister for Railways, Mohammed Shafi Qureshi, a Congress MP from Anantnag in Jammu and Kashmir. While the Railway Minister, L.N.Mishra refused to be part of the negotiating team, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set out on a visit to Iran on April 28, 1974. And the talks were not leading to any settlement.

The only thing that the Government side was prepared to was to set up 300 food grain shops in the railway colonies. The talks, however, kept dragging and remained where it began even on April 30, 1974. They decided to meet again on May 2 after their return from Lucknow where Fernandes, along with many other leaders of the 13 member Action Committee, was to address a May Day gathering of railway workers.

While they did address the Lucknow rally, the talks did not take place on May 2. Fernandes was picked up at Lucknow, late in the night on May 1, 1974, put in a BSF plane, flown down to Delhi and then driven into the Tihar jail early in the morning on May 2, 1974. Other members of the Action Committee too were sent to jail.

News of the arrest spread immediately and railway workers went on strike in many parts on May 2 itself. The gates at the Victoria Terminus and Central station in Bombay were bolted and locked by the workers. Suburban trains came to a halt. Railway workers were joined by their family members to sit on railway tracks and stop trains in Patna, Gaya and Ferozepur.

In the Southern Railway, where the LRSA had been most militant and dominated the NCCRS, the strike committee decided to begin the strike from May 2, 1974 rather than wait until May 8. And workers in the workshops across the country stopped work on May 2 itself. A general strike was called in Bombay and the city came to a standstill. Bombay, then, was Fernandes’ home and he controlled the transport, hotel and municipal unions in the city. Rail workers in the marshalling yards of Moghulsarai and Delhi stopped work and marched in a procession after news of Fernandes’ arrest spread.

In a couple of days after May 2, 1974, trains services came to a halt across the country. All the major workshops across the country – Jamalpur, Chittaranjan, Varanasi, Perambur, Kharagpur, Golden Rock – were closed down. The Indian railway system came to a halt for two weeks after May 2, 1974. A united strike, by over 17 lakh workers in the railways, was something that the Government could not have ignored. Fernandes himself impressed upon the workers of this.

Addressing a public meeting at Madras on March 29, 1974 (even before the strike notice was served and after the NCCRS was formed), Fernandes is reported to have said:

Realise the strength which you possess. Seven days’ strike of the Indian Railways, every thermal station in the country would close down. A ten days’ strike of the Indian Railways, every steel mill in India would close down and the industries in the country would come to a halt for the next twelve months. If once the steel mill furnace is switched off, it takes nine months to re-fire. A fifteen days’ strike in the Indian Railways, the country will starve’’.

The Government too knew that much. Indira Gandhi had decided against giving in to the railwaymen’s demands. The official thinking was that agreeing to the demands would cost an additional Rs. 450 Crores for the Government and also trigger similar demands and strike threats from other industries. Thus, the railway administration ordered cancellation of as many as 98 mail and express trains from April 25, 1974 itself. And zonal railway administrations were given powers to order further cancellations.

The idea was to restrict the movement of passenger trains and use the locomotives to haul goods trains and build buffer stocks of coal and other requirements to the industries. This was how the administration sought to reduce the impact of the strike and these measures were initiated even before the negotiations began. The thermal generation units were kept going and steel plants could be kept running despite the disruption of train movements due to the strike.

In other words, the Government had done the needful to neutralize whatever Fernandes had spoken about the power of the railwaymen. It took adequate measures.

This was not enough to break the strike. In the three weeks between May 2, 1974 and May 27, 1974, when the strike was formally called of, as many as 50,000 railway workers were arrested. Of those, 10,000 were put in jail by the evening of May 2, 1974 itself. And most of those arrested were detained under the Defence of India Rules (DIR) and MISA, both of which were in vogue thanks to the Emergency declared at the time of the Indo-Pak war in December 1971 and was not withdrawn.

At least 30,000 families were evicted from the railway quarters all over the country. The threat of eviction from the quarters was one of the means used by the administration to force striking workers return to work. The railway colonies in Moghulsarai, Jamalpur, Jhansi and in many other important railway towns were turned into hunting grounds for the police and para-military forces.

The Government had decided to crush the strike and pulled all stops. It was clear, right from the manner in which the Action Committee leaders were arrested late in the night on May 1, 1974 and the indiscriminate use of force against the workers and their family members, that the Government was determined to treat the strike as a battle for its survival rather than as an industrial dispute.

Will continue tomorrow......


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