The Legacy of 1974 Strike

Railway Strike: Present and Past

Asis Ranjan Sengupta

The Central Trade Unions of the Railwaymen served a notice of indefinite total strike on and from 11th July 2016. But after the intervention by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh it has now been deferred by 4 months. In fact, it has been deferred from April’16. THE NATIONAL JOINT COUNCIL OF ACTION (NJCA), comprising various Trade Unions and Federations of Indian Railways is going for an indefinite strike in protest against the adverse recommendations of the 7th Central Pay Commission which actually reduces the salary of the employees. The other demands raised are against allowing FDI in Railways, scrapping the NPS and filling up of vacancies, regularisation of casual workers etc. The Railwaymen's struggle has a long History, so it would be better to recapitulate the history of the historical Rail Strike of 1974.

The Railway workers' general strike in May 1974 was perhaps the most intense assertion of wording class action since independence. In terms of spread and participation, it was unprecedented in the history of Labour movement in pre-and post-independence .But unfortunately and curiously, there is no official record available , and the reconstruction of the history has to be based on records left by participants, media reports and oral traditions, in a manner of story telling.

With 17 lakh permanent and 3 lakh casual workers, the Indian Railways was and still is the biggest employer in India. But unlike the other PSUs, it is a Departmental undertaking, and not an independent corporate entity. All India Railway Men's Federation (AIRF ) was the biggest apex organisation of Railwaymen, being a confederation of various organisations across the zones all over India, tracing back its rise and growth from the fights right from the British era. National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), was the body created and recognised by the INTUC, a Congress affiliate. AIRF, for all practical purposes remained the representative organisation, while the other played a second fiddle to the Government. AIRF remained the main militant body. In course of time, several militant organisations cropped up to represent the cause of the Engine Drivers, Firemen, Guards, Signal Men, Station Staff etc who constituted the main exploited section of the railway workers.

These field workers, known as 'running staff' had no fixed working hour, of eight hours as stipulated in the Factories Act, and were forced to work for a long stretch often to fourteen hours a day. There were a series of strikes across the Zonal Railways since 1965. There were other categories of representative unions to fight for the rights of the workers, but the Railway administration and the apex body of AIRF or NFIR never cared for recognising them. By 1972 after several strikes the workers were successful in getting the working hours reduced to ten hours. There was a Nationwide strike from May 26, 1973, in which, 42000 workers participated, and a large number of arrests or detentions under Defence of India Rules (DIR), and the Railway Minister L N Mishra was forced to share the negotiation table with the AIRF representatives. As the issues remained unresolved, and once again the 'Loco Running Staff' went on strike from 2nd August 1973 forcing the Minister to hold talks with 'All India Loco Running Staff Association' and to accept all their demands for withdrawal of all punitive actions and restrict the working hour to eight hours.

From 1972-74, the crisis of the economy was rising, prices of commodities were spiralling, and Railwaymen were frustrated over the award of Third Pay Commission, as their pay remained lower than other PSU or Banks. Meanwhile, an interesting development took place, as George Fernandes who was a well known Trade Unionist belonging to the Socialist Party, and a Trade Unionist having control over a number of key Trade Union organisations in and around Mumbai (Bombay at that time), was made the President of AIRF. Fernandes was not in favour of an all out strike, forced on him by the AIRF, which owed allegiance to AITUC, a wing of CPI. The other leaders of AIRF were also against strike under the insistence of 'Loco Running Staff Association', but in the all India Convention, majority voted in favour of Strike. On 27th February 1974, a convention of over 100 Unions formed a 'National Coordination Committee of Railwaymen's Struggle' (NCCRS) to give a concrete shape to the idea of General strike. A memorandum of demands were sent to the Railway Board bearing signature of three lac workers, and on 15th April 1974, and the NCCR representatives were called by the said Board officials, and the demands were rejected outright, and the memorandum ignored. However, the Talks between the Union and Government representatives were going on, but the Government promised nothing more than some welfare measures like setting up of cheap food grains shop in Railway colonies. The next round of talks were scheduled on 2nd May 1974. Fernandes came to Lucknow to address a May Day meet, and on 2nd May he was rounded up and sent to Tihar Jail. The news of this arrest set the fire ablaze, and a spontaneous all India strike commenced from 2nd May 1974. All operations were stopped, a General Strike happened in Bombay. Now a total Strike by 17 lac workers could not be ignored, but Indira Gandhi was not agreeable to concede the demands. The Railway authorities suspended the Passanger services, and sought to revive Goods haul to keep the Thermal Plants and Steel Plants running.

An idea to involve the P&T staff in solidarity agitation failed. Due to the extreme repressive measures, and threat of eviction of families from Railway colonies, the cold attitude of the leaders, and hostilities all around, the Historic strike was withdrawn unconditionally on 27th-May 1974, and the field level leaders had to give up. Meanwhile, 50000 workers were arrested, 1000 put in Jails, most of the arrested were detained under the draconian 'Defence of India Rules', denying all legal protection. Railway Colonies and Stations, Cabins became the hunting ground for Police and Para Military Forces. The Government was determined to treat the strike as a battle rather than an Industrial Dispute. The harsh, unchecked repressive measures broke the morale of the workers. 50000 active leaders' services were terminated, 10 lakh workers, who were persisting with the fight instead of apologising, were reinstated with the 'break of service' clause. Even after serving for 25 years, joined as 'fresh recruits' jeopardising their accumulated pensionary and other benefits. George Fernandes was released on 23rd May 1974. The unprecendented repression was the Dress Rehearsal of the Emergency rule, which was to follow a few clays later. This Historical event was the start of the fall of Indira Gandhi. Fortunately, the repressive punishment awards were reversed by the new Government, taking over following the defeat of Indira, in March 1977, by Madhu Dandavate, the Rail Minister and the well known Socialist Leader.

The Strike was historical in more ways than a simple Industrial outrage, as the families of striking Railwaymen were seen squatting on tracks, and in Madurai, Ramaswamy, a Mill Worker and a CITU activist embraced deadly crash death being under the wheels of a rolling Train, which the agitating workers were trying to stop from rolling.

At this point, an assessment of the roles of the political parties and their Leaders is essential. The parallels and contrasts would be a gainful study. Though the AIRF was an affiliate of AITUC, the Trade Union wing of CPI, the CPI leadership played a very negative role. The other sister Trade Union Organisations also played a very indifferent role. The leftists had at that point of time strong organisational presence in other key sectors like Post and Telegraph, Banking, Coal and Steel, but they all played the roles of passive spectators. The Kerala Government, headed by Achuta Menon, the CPI CM, made no hesitation in arresting and detaining the strike leaders. S A Dange, suggested the Workers to surrender, as after proving the point, it was useless to stick to strike. The Socialist Party also played a dubious and doublespeak role. At that point of time, only CPM, was consistent in lending unconditional and all out support. Other Parties like the Lok Dal, Jana Sangha etc apart from Congress were more or less unconcerned about the movement. Morarji Desai, who expressed solidarity with Students' agitation in Gujarat, maintained silence. Students' agitation was going on in Bihar and Gujarat, but the Student Leaders showed no sign of any reaction at all. Jai Prakash Narayan who became the iconic leader of the anti-Indira movement a few years later, and who was a President of AIRF in 1948, took no care of the 1974 agitation.

The prospects of the current agitation need to be judged in the context of the History. The Leftist forces like CPI or CPM are now evidently on the back foot, compelled by the change of situation indigenously and globally. Another Right Wing organisation, in addition to INTUC, which has no record of militant struggle, named 'Bharatiya Mazdur Sangha' (BMS), is known to be the biggest organisation, in terms of membership strength. Now, this BMS is clearly an RSS affiliate. In all cases they are found flexing stout muscles initially, and then play a shameless apologetic role. They are MODI Bhakts. So, the fate of the Railwaymen is at the mercy of these back stabbers. Experience with all the recent landmark movements, like the Tea Plantation Workers agitation in Munnar, Kerala, the factory workers' furious outburst in Maruti, Gurgaon shop floor, the spontaneous outbreak of female weaving mill workers in street protest against the Government’s EPF withdrawal restriction decision in Bangalore, were all characterised by the absence of any established political or official trade Union leadership. The 1974 strike, prepared the Ground for Indira Gandhi to become an unchallenged Dictator, and usurpation of all power by declaration of Emergency. The only difference with the present regime is that the present dispensation is more draconian in character. Modi has institutionalised a terrible autocracy and an Emergency like situation without even declaring it. The zeal with which they are converting confrontation with the University Students into prestige battles, is a sufficient indicator to the approach and attitude they are likely to take, in case the proposed strike at all materialises.

The Railway Workers are on threshold again of making History. If they pursue with their legitimate agenda, they are likely to lit up the fire of discontent against the present rulers, but they must prepare to face never thought of persecution, and this time not only from police or para-military forces but also assaults from the 'Bhakt Banar Senas', and in case they can withstand, which only they can, they are going to push start the speedy downfall of the make believe Modi edifice. And one must keep in mind that only people create history and not oppressive rulers.

[For the contents of the brief history of Railwaymen's struggle of 1974, the author is totally indebted to the Article "Remembering May 1974" by Mr V Krishna Ananth, in the pages of EPW 22nd edition dated May 28, 2016.]

Vol. 49, No.2, Jul 17 - 23, 2016