The Historic nation-wide railway strike of May 1974


  • May 7, 2024
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The 50th anniversary of the historic railway workers strike in 1974 should remind the working class of the need to resurrect the spirit of that struggle as the right-wing political establishment under the neo-liberal economic world order pushes for implementation of anti-labour reforms in India.

 

By Harsh Thakor 

May 8, 2024

 

One of the most intensive strikes in the history of the labour movement in India took place 50 years ago, on 8th May 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 recognised by the Railway Board along with the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR).

 

The 1974 Indian Railway workers’ strike by two million workers backed by seven million persons is a shining example of the unprecedented courage of the workers, their families and those who supported them against the merciless might of the Indian state. Yet, the most widespread and glorious revolt by the working class in independent India has received scant attention from labour historians.

 

The strike emerged in the backdrop of soaring prices of food grains, edible oil, and Kerosene. The chief discontent of the workers was rooted in the colonial 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.

 

The striking railway workers’ unions had demanded a need-based minimum wage, social security, the formalisation of jobs, an eight-hour daily work limit, an annual bonus equal to 15 days of their salary, protection from escalating food prices and the right of workers to dissent and negotiate.

 

This was arguably the last of the classic general strikes in India, and certainly the last general strike in the Railways. The rebellious mood of the workers unnerved not only the rail authority but also the Indian State.  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.

 

Formative developments

 

During the 1960’s unrest escalated amongst railway workers on issues of low wages, harsh working conditions and long hours of work. Workers in the Railways had waged a prolonged struggle for securing an eight-hour working day on par with other government staff for a while. The railway board remained completely apathetic, instilling frustration and alienation within workers. Recognised union leadership was increasingly perceived to be corrupt and prone to fall prey to material privileges due to their proximity with the railway management. There was a perception amongst the worker-activists that the Government, the railway management and the recognised unions were cooperating and working together to suppress and control the militant and independent activities of workers. Under these circumstances, a sense of collective and independent action to fight for their interests led to formation of independent, category-based unions like the Loco Running Staff Association. The category unions led several industrial actions in 1960, 1967, 1968 and 1970 without the involvement of recognised unions. Between 1967 and 1974 there had been four strikes. In August 1973, after prolonged struggle, the workers procured demands of mass sick leave, work to rule and work to designation, and reduced working hours from 14 to 10 in a day. These developments were a clear sign of the labour militancy and rudiments of class-consciousness among the railway workers leading towards the all-India railway strike in May 1974.

 

Railway workers’ actions prior to the strike

 

On April 20, 1974, 1,000 women and children in then Madras organised a rally to the divisional headquarters of the Indian Railways raising slogans and gave a memorandum containing their grievances on 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 scheduled caste community of Mysore played an important role in knitting scattered forces for the railway strike. Since 1971, there had been a vacancy for the post of assistant superintendent in the railways’ machine shop in Mysore which was reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates from the locality. Defiantly the authorities betrayed the SC applicants by filling the post with non-local and non-SC candidates under ad hoc appointments for far too long. The assertive Scheduled Caste workers who waged a relentless battle for their right to education, work, protest, and equality left inextinguishable hoof prints of their role to the blossoming of the historic May 1974 strike.

 

In  Phulera, Rajasthan, a railway officer named L.A. Bhatnagar noticed on April 20, 1974 that the railway workers were wearing badges that read ‘Mein Hartal Karunga’ (‘I will go on strike’) and retorted to tormenting the workers. However, the workers did not relent but started a huge protest. Four hundred people shouted slogans against the railway officers’ anti-labour attitude, which integrated with slogans for the general strike. The neighbourhood pooled in and the unions garnered more people which led to the total stoppage of work at Phulera, including carriage and wagon work.

 

On March 16, 1974, in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, 16 on-duty employees, probably casual labourers or Class IV regular employees, were arrested by the Railway Protection Force (RPF) for crossing lines at Jhansi Railway Station. When labour leaders protested, the RPF threatened to open fire. The workers of the Carriage and Wagon as well as Signal and Telecommunication departments stopped work and demanded the immediate release of their fellow employees. The strike spread like wildfire to other departments in Jhansi and when two mail trains were delayed, it penetrated even further into wider networks.

 

Slogans against the RPF rang in the canteens during meal hours. The officer in charge of Jhansi station was gheraoed; a member of parliament was forced to come with the civil authorities to plead for peace. Casual labourers and Class IV employees successfully thwarted the RPF and rail officers.

 

All these developments and actions of the workers were the breeding ground for the blooming of the historic strike in May 1974.

 

Brutal Repression

 

All unions along with the central trade unions as well as some of the opposition parties bandied together under a National Coordinating Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle (NCRRS) to coordinate the strike which started on 8 May, 1974.

 

The strike of May 1974 started with a major setback when all its main leaders like Fernandes, along with scores of active local level leaders were arrested on the night of May 2. However, there were several areas in the country where the strike was extremely successful with thousands of workers and their families squatting on the railway tracks to prevent trains from running. What alarmed the government even more was when electricity and transport workers as well as taxi drivers in Mumbai joined the protests.

 

The Indira Gandhi led Congress government organised the most fascistic or barbaric repression, unparalleled in post-independence India, which no civil government could even envisage. 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. Family members and even women folk were brutalised in a savage manner. The BSF, CRP and police recruited goons to mount shameless atrocities on striking railway employees and their family members.

 

The then Prime Minister Mrs. Indiara Gandhi had declared the strike “illegal” and held the position that the Government would not bargain with the railway unions until the strike by the workers ended. Thousands of workers — the figures range from 20,000 to 50,000—were arrested under the draconian Defence of India Rules and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). 30000 permanent staff and 50000 casual workers working for 5-20 years were dismissed, 20000 workers prosecuted on criminal charges, and 10 lakh permanent workers treated as new recruits.

 

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 out in a year engulfing the country when Emergency was declared.

 

Betrayal of the Leftist parties

 

The strike was formally rolled back on May 28, 1974. In ending the strike, the railway unions bowed to the uncompromising position of Mrs. Gandhi, saying that “The Government fought mini war,” and “in a confrontation of that nature, the odds cannot but be against the workers.” The union leaders said the strike was ended after “deep consideration” of the situation and “the economic consequences of prolonging the action.” They urged the Government to release all railway men from prison and reinstate all employees whose services had been terminated during the strike.

 

The reformists and vacillating outlook of the three parties — Socialist party, CPI and CPI (M) — comprising the bulwark of the leadership, prevented the upsurge from spreading to other sections of the working class and wanted the struggle to remain confined within the parameters of industrial disputes to be resolved through trade union negotiations. This provided the Indian State the opportunity to come down heavily on the strikers. The wavering and irresponsible nature of the leadership was apparent, when at the very start of the strike, leaders of all the three parties went underground to evade arrest, and so failed to establish contact with the organisers and workers on the ground, while the other section was within prison walls.

 

Strangely, the political leadership of the non-Congress parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) relented and jumped on a quick negotiated settlement to diffuse the momentum of the strike. This confused and demoralised the workers along with creating mistrust of their own unions. The  two parties didn’t came out with a concrete plan of action to give the spontaneous upsurge of the railway workers an organized shape on one hand and on the other hand develop mass resistance movement involving mass organizations and other trade unions in support of the railway strikers to meet the repressive onslaught of the union government.

 

Conclusion

 

The strike was formally withdrawn on May 28, 1974. Many considered the strike had been successfully suppressed without any immediate gains for the workers. The New York Times headline said, “Indian Rail Strike Ends in Collapse”. 

 

But it would be wrong to call it as a total failure. It showed that despite occupational and cultural divisions in an industry spread over the entire length and breadth of the country, the workers’ struggle could achieve a sense of solidarity. Many of the demands were granted later. 95% of the 16,898 regular employees dismissed for striking work, had to be taken back into service. In the 1977 general election, while Indira Gandhi lost her seat, George Fernandes, the leader of the strike, won from jail. And by 1979, the Charan Singh-led government at the Centre had been forced to concede a bonus to the railway employees that had been one of the demands of the 1974 strike.

 

The strike strangled the vital arteries of the nation and sent shivers down the spine of the Government. However the mass arrests which splintered the leadership, divisions within the railway unions, the fear among rail workers that the Government would evict them from subsidized homes, the sheer size of the Indian rail network and the inability of a single union to organize and lead a nationwide rail strike, extinguished the uprising.

 

The 50th anniversary of the historic railway workers strike in 1974 should remind the working class of the need to resurrect the spirit of that struggle as the right-wing Hindutva political establishment under the neo-liberal economic world order pushes for implementation of anti-labour reforms in India. The working class needs to resurrect the energy and spirit of the railway men in a new form, with the workers estranged by corporations and stripped of their rights on an unparalleled scale and the backbone of organized labour completely broken. In times of mechanization and privatisation of public sector units, including railways, and dismantling of organized labour, workers could emulate the experience of creating independent category unions, to isolate the forces of reaction who still hold sway among the workers. It also needs to imbibe lessons of the tricks played by rulers to break the strike.

 

Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist.

 

References:

1)‘Proletarian Era’, June 1974 issue

2) Sundeep Khanna in Backstory

3) New York Times of May 1974 by Bernard Weinraub and

4) Jyotishman  Mudiar in the Wire in May, 2021.

 

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