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A Forgotten Anniversary

The 1974 Railway Strike

Harsh Thakor

One of the most intensive strikes in the history of labour movements anywhere in the world took place in India 50 years ago, on May 8th, 1974 when workers of the Indian Railways struck work for 20 days, demanding better working conditions and higher wages. The strike was led by George Fernandes who acted as the President of the All India Railwaymen's Federation, one of the two unions recognized by the Railway Board along with the National Federation of Indian Railway-men (NFIR).

The Indian Railways strike of 1974 continues to shimmer almost unprecedented deeds of the heroism of ordinary railway workers, their families, and those who with death-defying courage supported them against the merciless might of the Indian state. The most widespread and glorious revolt by the working class in independent India has received scant attention from labour historians. This scenario reminiscent of David conquering the Goliath, with 2 million workers backed by seventy lakh persons, resisting like a boulder withstanding the fiercest of gales , exhibiting relentless spirit in heights rarely scaled.

This was arguably the last of the classic general strikes in India, and certainly the last general strike in the railway industry. Throughout the year of 1973, the mood of the working people had become inclined to the left. Significantly, vital sectors of the economy, the infrastructure and logistical industry in particular, underwent more unrest and work stoppages, with consequences spreading like wildfire. The rebellious mood of the workers struck turbulence in authority, law, and order. The strike emerged in the backdrop of prices soaring for food grains, edible oil, and Kerosene. It had a telling effect on the very ‘lifeline’ of the Indian economy.

The strike demanded a need-based minimum wage, social security, such as food, the formalization of jobs, an eight-hour daily work limit, protection to check escalating prices, and the right of railway workers to dissent and negotiate.

The chief discontent of the workers was rooted in the British-era condition whereby their work was classified as "continuous". This forced loco workers to be on duty as long as a train was running. Often, the duration lasted several days at a stretch.

To start with, the strike was victorious with workers and their families squatting on the tracks to block the trains running. What shook the government even more was when electricity and transport workers as well as taxi drivers in Mumbai joined the protests.

Eventually, the strike lasted only 20 days but its impact was felt for decades to come since it was at this very juncture that the first seeds of the Emergency were planted.

Workers waged a prolonged struggle to secure an eight-hour working day on par with other government staff for a while. Between 1967 and 1974 there had been four such strikes but the one in 1974, supported by over 70 percent of the railway staff, was the most unique. Now many rail workers having lost faith with their recognised unions’ failure to protect their rights formed independent, category-based unions, such as the Loco Running Staff Association.

During the 1960’s unrest escalated amongst railway workers on issues of low wages, harsh working conditions, and long hours of work. The railway board remained completely apathetic, instilling frustration and alienation within workers. This brewed a collective and independent resistance from workers to construct independent category unions, like the loco-running staff union. In August 1973, after a prolonged struggle, it procured demands of mass sick leaves, work to rule, and work to designation. It reduced working hours from 14 to 10. This development was the breeding ground for the blooming of the strike in 1974.

The two railway Unions affiliated with the railway board, the All India Railwaymen’s Federation and the National Federation of Railwaymen opposed the negotiation of workers with the board and did not morally wage struggles for the rights of workers. The leaders of the two unions worked with complicity with the board to crush the militancy of the workers.

The government was embarking on a scheme to introduce electrical engines to replace Steam engines, which proved disastrous to the railway transport system, with further production of steam engines stopped. Huge amounts of dumped coal and steel products lay dumped in coal fields and factories. Now the government transferred the burden of responsibility to the railwaymen, with their sheer negligence on the verge of being exposed. They purposely sowed the seeds for the turbulence of railwaymen, leading to a strike. On the filthy plea of an impending strike, it canceled almost 400 passenger trains, diverting all engines.

And yet, even though the railway workers had taken on the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, even before the Janata party government came to power after the emergency ended, there were 24,000 casual labourers out of the 40,000.

On April 20, 1974, 1,000 women and children in then Madras organized a rally at the divisional headquarters of the Indian Railways raising slogans and giving a memorandum containing their grievances to the chief station officer. At Trichy, 1,800 women and children who comprised 20% of the residents of the Trichy railway colony took out a similar Morcha (procession). At Madurai, 1,000 women rallied to gherao (encircle) the divisional superintendent to force him to stop down to their memorandum of grievances. At Guntakal, 400 women, including women in purdah (veils), rallied to imbibe consciousness among the general public.

All this happened on the same day that the railway union leadership sat on the negotiating table with the authorities at Rail Bhavan in New Delhi.

The government was embarking on a scheme to introduce electrical engines to replace Steam engines, which proved disastrous to the railway transport system, with further production of steam engines stopped. Huge amounts of dumped coal and steel products lay dumped in coal fields and factories. Now the government transferred the burden of responsibility to the railwaymen, with their sheer negligence on the verge of being exposed. They purposely sowed the seeds for the turbulence of railwaymen, leading to a strike. On the filthy plea of an impending strike, it canceled almost 400 passenger trains, diverting all engines to carry products like dumped coal and other essential commodities.

The Indira Gandhi- led Congress govt organized the most fascistic or barbaric repression, unparalleled in post-independence India, which no civil government could even envisage. Family members and even women folk were brutalized savagely. Deploying forced labour to keep the kitchens burning, forced labour was used to propel the railway wheels. The BSF, CRPF, and police recruited musclemen to mount shameless atrocities on striking railway employees and their family members.

The strike led to merciless government action with the Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) deployed to crush the protests. Thousands of workers were arrested under the draconian Defence of India Rules and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and others were summarily dismissed from service. Fernandes along with many of the leaders was arrested on the night of May 2, 1974, a clear indication that the government of Indira Gandhi was reluctant to negotiate. The repression with which the state moved to quell the movement was a precursor of events that would shape a year engulfing the country when an Emergency was declared.

In ending the strike, the railway men bowed to the position of Mrs Gandhi, who decided to imprison thousands of rail workers—the figures range from 20,000 to 50,000. Mrs Gandhi had declared that the strike was “illegal” and that the Government would not bargain with the rail union until the walkout ended.

Railway workers faced harsh consequences in the aftermath of the strike.30000 permanent staff were dismissed, 50000 casual workers working from 5-20 years were dismissed, 20000 workers prosecuted on criminal charges, 10 lakh permanent workers treated as recruits, etc.

Strangely, the political leadership of the non-Congress parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) relented and jumped on a quick negotiated settlement to diffuse the momentum of the strike. Their action confused the workers who lost faith in their unions.

The reformist, vacillating, and opportunist character of the leadership, nullified the spirit of the strike. The Socialist Party, Communist Party of India, and the CPI (M) with sinister designs conspired with the merciless and dictatorial acts of the rulers, who all failed to give impetus or escalate the gigantic upsurge to a higher plane. They gave no organized shape to the spontaneous upsurge of the railwaymen nor placed any concrete form of action.

The wavering and irresponsible nature of the leadership was apparent when at the very start leaders of all the 3 parties went underground, to evade arrest but failed to establish any contact with the workers, while the other section fell entrenched within jail walls. Both these trends vitiated the revolt.

Today in the age of globalization and digitalization patronised by Hindutva neo-fascism, it is more than urgent to resurrect the energy of the railwaymen in a new form.

[Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist]

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Vol 56, No. 49, Jun 2 - 8, 2024