India – the largest strike the world has ever seen
Last year the BJP government of Narendra Modi rushed through the Indian parliament three Farm Bills which at a stroke abolished the old agricultural produce procurement system. Under that system, farmers used to sell their crops to government-licensed middlemen at government-regulated market places (‘Mandis’).
The government’s excuse for this legislation, draconian in its effect as explained below, was that by this measure it was ‘liberating’ the farmers, enabling them to deal directly with buyers and thus earn more through securing higher prices. The truth is just the opposite. Instead of receiving, as hitherto, the Minimum Support Price (MSP), the farmers have been thrown under a bus and left to the mercy of powerful corporate interests.
There are roughly 146 million farmers in India of whom the overwhelming majority cultivate farms that are on average less than three acres in size. They have no bargaining power and it is therefore inconceivable that, confronted with giant corporate grain dealers, they would be able to secure higher prices. They would, of course, be free not to sell, but that could only result in pauperisation and forced bankruptcy, making way for the corporations to take over their farms.
At the same time, the government rushed through a Labour Code that extended the working day to 12 hours – all in the name of reform. This infuriated the working class and created at one stroke a powerful source of opposition to the BJP government. The Indian working class as we shall see, joined the farmers in their protests to create the largest-ever protest movement that India has ever seen.
The farmers demanded that the government scrap its farm legislation. Unable to persuade the government to see sense, and incensed by its pig-headedness, the farmers have resorted to direct action. In their opposition to this legislation they have the wholehearted support of the working class.
So it was that on 3 December 2020, India witnessed the largest-ever one-day general strike in world history. Called by 10 trade unions, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), and 250 farmers’ organisations, this strike drew 250 million workers and farmers in protest against the farm legislation, the Labour Code as well as against poverty, hunger and unemployment, all of which have been exacerbated to an unbearable degree by the Covid-19 pandemic that has devastated the lives of the masses in India, having the third-highest number of infections in the world in a country notorious for having a health system unworthy of the name. 145,000 people have already died of the pandemic, even according to government figures which are a gross underestimate, while 10 million have been infected. Hunger and poverty are endemic in India: 50% of all children suffer from malnutrition in this, the supposedly ‘largest democracy’ in the world.
The strike brought some parts of the country to a near-total shutdown. Beyond Punjab and Haryana, two significant farming states abutting Delhi, the strike spread to Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Maharashtra and several other states.
The Punjab and Haryana farmers’ march to Delhi was met with tear gas and brutal treatment at the hands of the police. The farmers braved this brutality. They blocked several miles of the roads into Delhi, smashed through police barricades with their tractors and other farm machinery. There is evidence that security forces personnel – who are after all farmers’ sons and daughters in uniform – are sympathetic to the demonstrators who have settled down for the long haul, set up communal kitchens and even organised armed guards to man the barricaded roads, blocking traffic into Delhi.
According to the organisers, the strike was called to protest against and oppose “the anti-people, anti-national, and destructive policies of the BJP government”. The demands of the strikers are, inter alia:
1. The withdrawal of the anti-farmer and anti-worker laws;
2. The payment of 7,500 rupees into the accounts of each non-tax paying family;
3. The monthly supply of 10kg of food to needy families;
4. Extension of the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) of 2005 to include 200 workdays each year, higher wages and the Act’s extension to urban industries;
5. An end to the “privatisation of the public sector, and to the corporatisation of government-run manufacturing and service industries like railways, ordnance factories, ports, etc.”
6. Pensions for all.
Workers from nearly all of India’s major industries – including steel, coal, telecommunications, ports and banking – took part in the strike.
Students, domestic workers, taxi drivers and several other sectors also joined the strike all across the country.
Adding to the demands of the national strike, certain sectors made industry-specific demands in a show of defiance against the government’s onslaught on their industries that affect the whole of the Indian working class. For instance, bank employees are fighting against privatisation of banks and against corporate defaults.
On top of all this is the real threat that government food shops, which provide food at below market prices to the poor, will become a victim of the new farm legislation and be shut down. This would further the incidence of poverty, resulting in malnutrition deaths on a large scale. No wonder the poorest sections of the masses are angry and joining the Protest movement in droves.
Masses of Indian people are outraged by the government’s callous response to the Covid epidemic. When the government imposed a lockdown in March, tens of millions of workers in the informal sector found themselves without a job, with no government help. When the pauperised workers attempted to walk, in some cases hundreds of miles, from urban centres to their rural homes, they were on their way harassed, beaten up and in some cases hosed down with bleach by the police. No thought was given by the government to the fact that workers who were leaving the urban centres after losing their jobs, living as they had been in overcrowded accommodation, were only too likely to spread the infection to the rural areas that had hitherto been relatively unaffected. Combined with chaotic lockdowns, the uncaring attitude of the government simply served to exacerbate the pandemic as well as the economic crisis.
Large sections of the Indian people have become alienated from the government whose chief purpose, under the cover of nationalist rhetoric, is to protect the profits of the super-rich at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of the masses.
A large Indian Muslim population is under attack. Universities have been invaded by the police who have subjected dozens of students to physical assaults. Students, along with hundreds of thousands of others, who protested against the government’s anti-Muslim naturalisation law, have been accused of being anti-national, beaten up and persecuted. Inter-faith marriages have come under attack on the false accusation that young Muslim men married to Hindu women were forcing the latter to convert to Islam. In this ‘democracy’, even such a basic civil right as the freedom to marry a person of one’s free choice is under attack by the BJP and its parent organisation, the RSS, who are determined to polarise the Indian masses by arousing insane religious fundamentalism.
Dalit women, belonging to the poorest sections of the population, are, to the shame of the Indian people, regularly subjected to rape and torture by high-caste males, with little action being taken against the wrongdoing criminal fraternity by the authorities.
While pretending to protect India’s national interests, the BJP government, using nationalist rhetoric, has been deepening its military and security cooperation with US imperialism whose chief foreign policy agenda is to thwart the rise of China. For India to tie itself to the anti-China war chariot of US imperialism is highly dangerous folly from which Indian people will be the losers. It is therefore incumbent upon the Indian masses to force the government to jettison this mad venture.
It is heartening that different sections of the Indian population are coming together and making common cause against the BJP-fronted corporate racket. This is how the Bombay University and College Teachers’ Union put it:
“This strike is against the devastating economic crisis unleashed by the Covid-19 and the lockdown on the working people of the country. This has been further aggravated by a series of anti-people legislations on agriculture and the labour code enacted by the central government. Along with these measures, the National Education Policy imposed on the nation during the pandemic will further cause irreparable harm to the equity of and access to education” (cited in ‘India, largest strike in world history’, Global Research, 6 December 2020).
The strike has served to forge unity between workers, farmers and students.
The general crisis of capitalism all over the world, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has exposed the gross iniquities and inequality inherent in the system of capitalist production, while bringing the world capitalist economy to its knees. In India, GDP shrank by a whopping 24% year-on-year in the three months to June 2020, followed by a 7.5% contraction in the following quarter. The IMF expects India’s economy to shrink by a further 10% in 2021.
Over the past few years, the BJP government has been able to suppress various protest movements by characterising them as anti-national. With the present protest, it is clear that this divisive ploy is not working. The farmers surrounding Delhi are a hard nut to crack. The government has dug a deep hole for itself, the only way out of which is a climbdown and acceding to the demands of the farmers. The only other option for it is the use of armed force, carrying fearful consequences for the authorities. Either way, the government faces a deservedly humiliating prospect.
Let it be said in conclusion that this strike of 250 million workers and farmers has barely received the attention it deserved in the imperialist mass media, which is nothing but a gigantic lie machine for deceiving the working class. While devoting tons of paper and thousands of hours of broadcasting time to the ‘freedom-loving’ counter-revolutionaries in Syria, Hong Kong, Belarus, Venezuela, etc, the ‘seekers after truth’ of the imperialist propaganda machine have ignored the Indian mass strike. The reason behind this is simple. The journalist coterie, whose wallets are stuffed with the loot coming their way from imperialist exploitation, clearly see the BJP government lining up behind US imperialism whose interests, along with those of the monopolies owning various media outfits, this bribed gentry are obliged to serve. It is only the working class in the imperialist countries whose interests lie in giving full support to the oppressed masses of India. Nothing less than that would do. It is a measure of the degeneration and corruption eating into the British working-class movement, thanks to the ravages of social democracy – this bribed chief purveyor of bourgeois ideology among the working class – that neither the TUC nor any of the major trade unions have raised a finger in support of the oppressed Indian masses or in condemnation of the BJP government. Let the Troto-revisionist coterie, who would have us believe that the Labour Party could be an instrument for socialism, account for the despicable silence of its leadership (in the trade unions as well as in the Party) in connection with its stance toward the struggle of the Indian masses.