Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Remembering the Railway General Strike, May 1974 in another time -Last part

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. 

This is a lengthy article and will be post in two or three parts. 


All that was summed up by Umraomal Purohit, a senior leader of the AIRF: “ The unions, after all, did not prepare for a civil war’’. The intensity of the repression and the determination shown by Indira’s Government to crush the strike and also to crush the union movement itself was evident from the following facts: Even after the strike was called off unconditionally, the railway administration ordered the dismissal of as many as 50,000 workers, all of them being active leaders of the strike. 

At least 10 lakh workers who persisted with the strike until it was called off on May 27, 1974 (rather than apologizing for their action) were taken back to work as fresh recruits; all their past service was not to be accounted for and they lost such of their benefits as pension, provident fund and accumulated leave. Even workers with service of over 25 years were treated as fresh recruits! 

Both these decisions were reversed. But not before Indira Gandhi’s Congress was voted out in the March 1977 general elections and Madhu Dandavate, a close associate of George Fernandes in the Socialist movement, became the Railway Minister and ordered reinstatement of all the worker leaders who were dismissed for their role in the strike and restored the services of the 10 lakh workers and also annulled the earlier decision to treat many others as fresh recruits. 

The railway workers may not have achieved anything in terms of their demands through the general strike of 1974. And in a way, the repressive measures that were resorted to by the Government destroyed the union movement. The leaders, including George Fernandes, were released from jail on May 28, 1974 and were made to face the workers to own up the defeat. Fernandes, in the very first press conference after the strike, made it clear that he would not want the railwaymens’ struggle end an orphan. He said this after quoting John F Kennedy’s observation after the Bay of Pigs disaster; that “Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan.’’ 

A large number of the workers, who struck work until the strike was formally called off, returned to work in processions and to the beating of drums in many places. They were convinced that a point had been made. The railway general strike of 1974 was an event in post-independence history where the working class took on the might of the state and forced the state to resort to all the repressive measures in its command. 

There is no disputing the fact that the repression let loose against the striking workers was unprecedented and it was a dress rehearsal for what would happen during the 19 months of emergency. 

Having said this, it is also important to discuss the attitude of the opposition parties to the strike. The CPI, despite its own trade union wing – the AITUC – being a part of the AIRF and other unions that led the strike, indulged in double speak. The State Government in Kerala, headed by C.Achuta Menon, went about arresting and detaining strike leaders. S.A.Dange, one of the party’s important leaders, was even guilty of asking the workers to return to work midway through the strike. His argument was that the workers had proved a point and that was enough. 

The Socialist Party, of which Fernandes was the chairman, remained faction ridden. Priya Gautam, who was the general secretary of the AIRF, did not cover himself with glory before the strike and also through the strike. The CPI(M) was perhaps the only political party whose cadre and associates in the union movement involved themselves completely in the strike. 

The NCCRS, in many divisions was controlled by them and they led the strike from the front. But then, they could do that only in those areas/zones where they were strong. It is important to mention, in this context, an incident in Madurai (in Tamil Nadu). Ramasamy, a mill worker and an activist of the CITU, was crushed under the wheels of a train which the unionists and strike supporters had decided to stop from rolling. This was part of the solidarity action by the trade unions outside the railways. Meanwhile, efforts to mobilize the Posts and Telegraph workers, on a solidarity strike did not materialise. 

As for the Lok Dal, the Jan Sangh and the Congress(O), its leaders were, by and large, unconcerned about the strike. Apart from making some noise in Parliament and outside, the political leaders did nothing to sustain or to mobilize solidarity actions even in places where they were strong. 

The fact is that there was hardly any procession in the colleges or in the universities across the country. This, indeed, is also a comment on the student movement in Gujarat and Bihar. Recall the fact that the students in Gujarat had succeeded in getting the Gujarat Assembly dissolved in March 1974, a couple of months before the strike. And the Bihar movement was already gaining strength by that time. Yet, there was no evidence of any expression of solidarity with the railway workers struggle. 

Similarly, there is hardly any evidence of Morarji Desai, who had gone on a fast unto death in Gujarat in support of the students and their demand for dissolution of the assembly, raising his voice in support of the railway strike. This is true of JP too. JP, incidentally was a president of the AIRF in 1948 and also of many trade unions at that time. But then, despite his splendid silence in the context of the strike, we find him emerging as the rallying point of the anti-Indira forces within a few months after the strike. 

One last sentence: An account of this strike, from a historical perspective and the rigours called for – the historians craft – is possible only if the official documents are declassified and placed in the archives. This has not happened even 42 years after the event while the 30 years rule remains on paper! And the demand for such declassification is not head as much as one did with regard to such papers on Netaji Subash Chandra Bose. 



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