India: General strike success, and missed opportunity

This year’s planned general strike on January 8th was massive. It broke all previous records in the numbers involved in a united class action in India. The strike was called by ten major trade union bodies under the banner of the Joint Committee of Trade Unions (JCTU), linked to many opposition parties. The main demand was the “reversal of the anti-worker, anti-people, anti-national policies of the government” including the dropping of any decisions for the privatisation of the state-owned companies Air India and Bharat Petroleum (BPCL).

In a statement, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) aligned to the CPI(MCommunist Party of India (Marxist) called the nationwide strike “a grand success” declaring that about 25 crore (250 million)employees and workers had joined the strike in different parts of the country. (Some estimates put the figure at 300 million or even more.) In states such as Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha, Punjab, Haryana, Telangana, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam there was massive participation that caused great disruption in the banking and financial services, with several thousand ATMs going dry in many places. Though the local authorities in each of these states tried their best to show the strike to be a failure, their attempts failed. Both organised and unorganised workers had thronged to participate and ensure its success.

General Strike or Bharat Bandh?

“In Bengaluru, as in most other places, government and private offices, shops, schools and business establishments remained open and transport services including buses, metro, taxis and auto-rickshaws operated as usual. While banking services and a few public sector establishments were partially affected in some parts of the country, the trappings of a nationwide shut-down were completely missing” wrote the English language newspaper, the  ‘Deccan Herald’, on January 9th.

Over the years, as crisis-ridden Indian capitalism has begun to offload its burden onto the urban working poor and the beleaguered rural peasantry, the general struggle of resistance has taken many forms. It has shown itself in many intensified cross-class struggles that have taken place throughout the country, not necessarily led in an organised way or expressing clear demands. But the poor expressed their anger and frustration in the form of localised bandhs (stoppages), ‘rail-rokos’ (stopping trains)and many times state-wide and country-wide Bharath Bandhs. Bandhs and Gheraos are unique forms of protest that come from India’s history of struggle, revived during the post-emergency period of the late 1970s.

While industrial workers of many different sectors all over the country went on strike, the peasants and agricultural workers massively responded to the call of a ‘rural bandh’ (stoppage) and organised road and rail blockades.

There were total bandhs throughout Kerala, Tripura, Assam, Bihar, Punjab, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Goa and several other states. Shops and road transport were totally closed in Tripura, defying the warning of the goons of Prime Minister Mhodi’s ruling party, the BJP, not to do so. In West Bengal and in many districts of Jharkhand, Karnataka and elsewhere there were effective bandh-like situations.

Massive strike action

Workers in the private sector of the economy, including the Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) responded magnificently to the strike call. The strike was total in the big industries in Karnataka including Toyota, Volvo buses and Volvo trucks, Bosch, ITC Ltd, Vikrant Tyres etc. Most of the industrial clusters in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Maharashtra, Delhi NCR (National Capital Region), Jharkhand, etc were closed due to the strike. The strike was massive in jute plantations and production. It was total in many industrial clusters across the country, particularly in Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, NCR Delhi, Jharkhand etc.

It was total shut-down in BHEL plants in Trichy, Ranipet and Jhansi, around 70% in BHEL Haridwar and 50% in Vizag. The strike was total in Salem Steel and Vizag Steel and almost total in petroleum sector installations across the country. Many of the units of Powergrid Corporation also reported a massive strike.

The ports at Kakinada, Tuticorin, Cochin, Paradip Mazgaon dock reported almost total strike action, while in Calcutta there was a partial strike of the port. Electricity distribution and consumption in the country registered a massive decline due to the participation in the strike of the state electricity boards’ employees in a big way

In most states, road transport was off the road and the roads deserted. In West Bengal, most of the few buses that ran were empty. 3.5 crore road transport workers participated in the strike all over the country.

Social workers across India, particularly those in Anganwadi (rural child care centres) and midday meal workers and other ASHAs participated in the strike en-masse. Medical staff and sales representatives also participated massively as did the central government and state government employees, ignoring the warnings of the local and national governments. Around 13 lakh central government employees in the postal service, income tax offices, auditors, accounts and so on participated.

The strike in the banking sector was nearly total and while it was total in the insurance sector. Telecom employees also participated fully in the strike. Vast ‘armies’ of plantation workers across the country also joined the action as did workers in several unorganised sectors like construction, brick kilns, village chowkidars (watchmen), home-based workers, domestic workers, auto-rickshaw drivers etc. participated in the strike.

Linking the struggles

The trade unions put forward a 12 point programme of demands on basic economic and work-related issues. In the midst of the mass protests sweeping the country against the government’s attacks on democratic rights, the unions also protested against the outrageous onslaught by the Modi government on the basic tenets of the Constitution through the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), the NRC (national register of citizens) and the NPR(National Population register).

Undoubtedly, the 8th January 2020 General Strike, was a huge success numerically. The overall participation in the strike of 250 million last week was an increase of 30 million from 220 million in 2019. Inevitably, both the state and the administration across the country worked overtime to see that the visible impact of this collective class action was minimal.

Given the tumultuous situation that has arisen all over the country following the BJP government’s introduction of the CAA into the fragile political situation in India, the state apparatus was extremely worried about the social and political fall-out if the forces of the General strike and those of the sporadic and spontaneous movement against Citizenship Act (CAA) had joined forces.

The recent past

In this context, an honest appraisal of the General Strike of 8th January 2020 is crucially important. India’s besieged and oppressed masses, though they have come out on to the streets in various states on varied economic and social issues many times in the last six years, there was never an issue that could trigger a spontaneous mass mobilisation across the country all at the same time. This absence of a common thread affecting the majority of the population was working to the advantage of the current BJP government but it had also worked for many decades in favour of the previous regime led by the Congress party.

The last six years of aggressive, neo-liberal economic attacks, mixed with non-stop majoritarian Hindutva communal onslaughts, had numbed even the most politically advanced sections. Given the absence of a leadership with a far-sighted perspective to combat and thwart the juggernaut of Modi’s right-wing Hindutva regime, naturally a sense of despair existed among some workers and youth.  Despondency had set in.

The twin fiascos of 2016 – demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax – that brought enormous misery to the middle class and the poor across the country, went almost unchallenged. What could have been a real opportunity for the left to mount a challenge against the Modi regime was frittered away, without any serious attempt to build a struggle. This is particularly the case with demonetisation which caused more than 180 deaths in the span of ten weeks, including that of ordinary bank workers.

The irony is that 70% of bank employees are organised under the banner of two unions; the AIBEA (All India Bank Employees Association) and the BEFI (Bank Employees Federation of India) owing allegiance to the left parties – the CPI and the CPI(M). Followed by that missed opportunity, petty-bourgeois sections such as traders and vendors were up in arms against the notorious Goods and Services Act, that resulted in massive job losses in the tertiary sector of the economy to the tune of almost 5 million jobs. This went largely unchallenged.

It is in this context that the second victory of Modi in May 2019 has to be seen. Soon after assuming office for the second period, Modi went on to abrogate the constitutional guarantees to the people of Jammu and Kashmir which of course led to mass protests in the valley, being brutally suppressed even to this day after six months, with communication with the outside world cut off. Almost all those in opposition to Modi’s regime are either under house arrest or behind bars. With this forced silence and with a parliamentary opposition that had no idea of putting up a fight, the left gave up even the thought of extra-parliamentary struggle.

Anger erupts

Then Modi’s sinister move to surreptitiously bring in the Citizenship Amendment Bill and then bulldoze it through parliament with just a mere 7 hours debate triggered the anger of the masses. It let loose enormous bottled up anger and frustration, starting from Assam which had already seen the disastrous exercise of a “National Register of Citizens”. Across the country, angry youth spontaneously poured on to the streets with a clear battle cry of “Enough is enough!”. Now, even after five weeks, the protests are still raging unabated.

It is very clear from the course of events that has been witnessed, that the Left, in general, was found wanting though incidentally with already General Strike in motion in a couple of days (8th January)it had an opportunity to change the scenario from one of helplessness to an all-out struggle against the Modi regime, thus changing the equation to the advantage of the masses.

It is no exaggeration to say that, if the Left and the trade unions had given a lead, taking along with them the anti-CAA protesters on the basis of a clear programme for the scrapping of the  CAA, it would have had an electrifying effect among both the advanced sections of the organised working class and the non-organised mass of people, who have formed the bulk of the anti-CAA protests. The 250 million figure for the numbers participating in the General Strike would have easily been double that number.

Instead, the Left parties and thus the trade union leaders, were too reluctant to mount an all-out challenge against the Modi regime. Only being forced by sections of the rank and file, did they include at the last minute a demand against the CAA – added as the 13th demand and extending the customary solidarity to save their face.

Combative programme

It was criminal not to campaign against the CAA with all their class might. It shows how out-of-touch are these so-called “communist parties” with the situation on the ground. They act and behave like any other opposition party based on the middle class, without any perspective of struggle or a combative programme to unite the masses. The story of India’s left is a series of missed opportunities. They are fetters on the working class and the oppressed, preventing them from finding the road to a revolutionary change in society.

New Socialist Alternative’s leaflet demanding the scrapping of the CAA under the headline, “The Era of Fear is Over”, explained that the ongoing country-wide protest against the Modi regime is full of radical potential. It is crystal clear that the raging struggle against the CAA-NRC-NPR displays much confusion and does not articulate any clear challenge to Modi’s authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, it illustrates how, given an incentive, masses of people will move into action.

The urgent task for the Marxist fighters around New Socialist Alternative is laid out very clearly. We must reach those combative youth and convince them of the need for the struggle to Scrap the CAA/NRC/NPR to be fought on class lines, with clear demands.

Such a programme should include the following:

  • Every migrant/refugee to have the right to citizenship.
  • Stand against all deportations! Defend constitutional rights and beyond.
  • For the freedom to practice any, or no, religion.
  • Stand against any oppression of the Muslim population and against islamophobia.
  • Condemn state violence on protesters; for freedom of speech and the right to protest.
  • For the right of self-determination for all struggling nationalities.
  • For a Socialist India in a socialist confederation of the Indian sub-continent!

It is also a challenge to reach working-class fighters with such a programme – workers who today are frustrated with their trade union and party leaderships who have dragged their feet in joining the struggle against the CAA. We raise the need to build a mass workers’ party that that can truly face up to the challenges posed by the current situation.

 

 

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