Chronicle of a strike

Print edition : September 15, 2001

The Indian Railways Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organised Labour by Stephen Sherlock; Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2001; pages 513, Rs.295.

TWENTY-five years later, the Indian Railways strike of 1974 continues to evoke images of the heroism of ordinary railway workers, their families and those who dared support them against the might of the Indian state. Although much has been written about the Emergency which followed a year later, the most widespread revolt by the working class in independent India has received comparatively little attention from labour historians.

Stephen Sherlock's book is one which fills the gap and does justice to the workers' resistance against heavy odds. The book recalls the vivid images of terror unleashed by the Indira Gandhi regime on railwaymen across the country, a prelude to what was to follow on a much wider scale during the Emergency.

The 1974 rail workers' strike was a unique event for several reasons. It occurred at a time when labour militancy was at its highest in independent India: the number of workdays lost owing to all industrial disputes in India touched 40 million in 1974, more than double that recorded in any single year during the preceding decade. The strike and the manner in which it was put down marks a turning point in labour's leverage with the Indian state. The 1974 strike forced political parties across the spectrum to spell out their stand clearly. In fact, parties which were ambivalent or inconsistent in those heady days are still trying to come to terms with the position they took then. The strike also provided a stunning launch pad to mass appeal for those like George Fernandes who, as the president of the All India Railwaymen's Federation (AIRF), was the main leader of the strike. Although portrayed as a failure, the strike achieved later what it sought to achieve then. For these reasons the strike marks a milestone for labour historians.

The study evaluates the role of the three main agents in the arena - the Indian state, the Railways management and the workers' unions. Conventional labour studies perceived unions as intermediaries between workers, whom they were supposed to represent, and employers. In the case of the state-owned Indian Railways, the government played the role of the employer and that of the agency entrusted with the task of protecting the interests of the weaker party in the compact between labour and capital. Sherlock's study reveals that although the Railway Board is supposed to work under government supervision, in reality it enjoyed more autonomy in day-to-day matters than what the government has or is willing to concede. In part, such a situation arose because of the colonial legacy which laid the basis for the Indian Railways after Independence. This meant that although in the public perception the government was under pressure to appear pro-labour, the power of the bureaucracy, particularly of those in the bastion of the Railway Board, ensured that even genuine and long-pending labour reform measures remained on the backburner, albeit seething.

The Railways bureaucracy and the government preferred to deal with "tamed" leaders of the Railways' working class. In doing this, it thwarted all attempts by workers to establish "their own" unions. Sherlock points out that before the strike the AIRF leadership had "accepted and adjusted to that reality" which demanded that they keep the workers on a tight leash. The government stubbornly refused to allow union recognition on the basis of election of representatives by secret ballot. While the government, as employer, perceived the unions as devices with which it could "discipline" the workers, the unions, over a period of time, had grown into bureaucratic structures alienated from ordinary workers. The 1974 strike was symbolic of the workers' refusal to accept the "patron-client" character of the two major unions which claimed to work for their behalf.

In the Railways, government patronage of the two dominant unions led to two developments that provoked the upsurge of workers in 1974. One, the distance between the officially recognised unions and the rank and file widened because workers no longer saw the unions as representing their interests before the government. Secondly, the government's patronage of the officially recognised unions, at the exclusion of all other voices of the working class, led to a complete blockage of possibilities of the redress of the grievances of ordinary workers. The situation was thus fertile for an explosion of anger from below. Although on paper more than 70 per cent of the 1.4 million rail employees (permanent ones) were members of the two official unions on the eve of the strike, they led the leadership to the strike. In fact, the strike was the plank on which Fernandes was elected president of the AIRF a few months before the strike.

Sherlock's documentation - from union, government and Railways management sources - exposes the shocking working conditions that provoked the workers to revolt in 1974. The 1974 strike, contrary to popular belief, was not a sudden action. It was preceded by strikes by rail workers across the country in 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1973. These strikes indicated that the workforce was restive and on the brink of exploding into revolt.

The 1974 strike was led by rank and file workers, particularly the newly-emergent crafts unions among the rail workers. Labour historians generally regard crafts unions as being restrictive in their class consciousness, and prone to the pulls of sectarian rather than wider class loyalties. Although this has been borne out by the decline of the crafts unions after the 1974 strike, such crafts unions broke the stranglehold that the two main unions had built for themselves.

Sherlock provides an exciting flavour of the turbulent 1970s when rank and file workers, fed up with the bureaucratic ways of the two officially recognised unions - the pro-Congress National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) and the Lohiite Socialist-inspired AIRF - forced the leadership to address their long-pending demands. The long working hours of rail crew - "loco running staff" in industry parlance - was one such demand. For instance, loco drivers had often to be on the high-pressure job for days without a break.

Historically, many of the British-run rail networks had termed the work of the loco staff as "continuous", implying that workers would have to remain at work as long as the train ran on its trip, often for several days at a stretch especially on the goods trains. Independence did not change this. The spread of diesel engines and the consequent intensification of work in the Indian Railways since the 1960s created much resentment among the workers. The Railways, although government-owned, remained an island in which the accepted worldwide standard of an eight-hour working day was violated with impunity. In fact, when the crafts unions raised the issue, they demanded a 12-hour working day for loco running staff. Besides this, there were other issues. Pay scales in the Indian Railways had remained stagnant, unlike those in the public sector companies and in departmental undertakings. The officially recognised unions stayed aloof in the wake of the rising tide of protests in 1973. The die was cast for the biggest confrontation between the Indian state and the working class.

The Railways was one of the earliest vehicles of industrial capitalism in India. The railway industry was also the first in which industrial workers launched collective action. In 1862, more than 1,200 workers struck work at Howrah station demanding an eight-hour working day. Waves of strikes by railway workers occurred in the privately-owned rail networks of British India and culminated in the great wave of unrest on the eve of Independence. Sherlock provides an inspiring account of the unionisation in the Indian Railways and the militant struggles of ordinary workers.

The first hints of workers' disillusionment with the recognised unions came in 1966 when firemen at Madurai, Tamil Nadu, organised themselves into the Southern Railways Firemen Council. Similar councils were soon formed in other parts of the State. The strikes of these councils, in 1967 and 1968, were so effective that goods and passenger traffic came to a halt. The strike was called off by the workers only after the Railway Minister agreed to settle their demands. The success of the "independent" union led to the formation of the Loco Running Staff Association (LRSA), which played an important role in the 1974 strike. In 1970, firemen joined loco staff in successful industrial action in the Southern Railway. In doing this they overcame the traditional animosities which were based on narrow prejudices. Workers were quick to realise that united action insured them against the threat of victimisation by the management and improved their chances of succeeding in their struggles. These unions succeeded largely because they were close to the aspirations of the rank and file workers, unlike the two recognised unions.

In February 1974, the National Coordinating Committee for Railwaymen's Struggle (NCRRS) was formed to bring all the railway unions, the central trade unions and political parties in the Opposition together to prepare for the strike to start on May 8, 1974. The workers' resolve was matched by the government's determination to put down the strike with a heavy hand. This was revealed in its obdurate stance on the demands raised by the workers. Even as negotiations were proceeding, the government queered the pitch by arresting Fernandes at the Lucknow railway station on May 2. Across the country thousands of railway workers were arrested. The draconian provisions of the Defence of India Rules and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) were used against the workers. Later, the same provisions were used with telling effect against every shade of the Opposition during the Emergency. With the countrywide arrest of the top leadership of the unions, the success of the strike now depended greatly on zonal and local union leaders, and of course, the rank and file. Workers from other industries and services were quick to express solidarity with the striking rail workers. The action of the government provoked the workers to go on an immediate strike instead of waiting for May 8.

In Bombay, electricity and transport workers as well as taxi drivers joined the protests. In Gaya, Bihar, striking workers and their families squatted on the tracks. More than 10,000 workers of the Integral Coach Factory in Perambur, Tamil Nadu, marched to the Southern Railway headquarters in Chennai to express their solidarity with the striking workers. Similar protests erupted across the country. Not a single important rail centre in India was immune.

The brutal methods adopted by the government against the striking workers and their families have been fairly well-documented. The railway colonies were practically under siege. For instance, in Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh, which has one of the biggest railway yards in the world, women were assaulted and even children were not spared. The Border Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Provincial Armed Constabulary were deployed in the labour township. There were also instances of workers forced by terror to work. Instances of train drivers who were shackled in their cabins were reported at the height of the strike.

Much has changed on the labour landscape since 1974. Although Sherlock's sympathies evidently lie with the revolt by the crafts unions against the established unions, events since 1974 have proved that these unions have themselves been successfully tamed by the Railways management and the government. The strike leadership, particularly Fernandes, were perceived as having betrayed those who had sacrificed their all for the larger cause. Fernandes, as Union Railway Minister soon after the Emergency, has been criticised for having failed to restore the rights that thousands of workers lost during the strike.

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