Rise Unitedly To Achieve Working Class Vision of Independent India
INDIA will be completing seventy five years of its independence from British rule in a few days. Our independence was the result of the struggle by the people of our country, men, women and children, workers, peasants and other sections sacrificing everything including their lives. What did they envision when they courageously fought British colonialism? Seventy five years is long enough a period to look back and examine if we are on track to realise the aspirations and dreams of the people who fought the once mightiest empire in the world where the ‘sun never set’, and won their independence.
As explained by an illiterate worker of a textile mill in Bombay who actively participated in the non cooperation movement, for workers, ‘swaraj’ meant that they would be free from indebtedness, from the inhuman treatment and oppression by the employers. They expected that the government of free India would enact laws to ensure their wages increased, their working conditions improved and the inhuman oppression of workers was stopped. Workers, angry at the denial of the freedom of expression, association and collective actions under the Rowlatt Act and other measures of the British, participated in freedom struggle in huge numbers with the expectation that they would get these freedoms in Independent India. People believed that free from colonial oppression and exploitation, India would become a self reliant, industrially advanced country, providing decent employment and eradicating illiteracy, poverty and hunger.
Given the huge participation of the toiling people, the massive strikes and mobilisations, those who came to power replacing the British, had to formulate policies and enact legislations that reflected the aspirations of the people. In the initial years after independence, several such measures were indeed taken.
The constitution drafted by Ambedkar, which ‘We, the people of India’ adopted on November 26, 1949 and which came into force on January 26, 1950 is one such expression of the aspirations of the people.
The constitution proclaimed its solemn resolve to ‘constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic and secure to all its citizens, social, economic and political justice, liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship and equality of status and opportunity’.
The Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution laid down ‘certain principles of policy to be followed by the State’. Some of these are ‘the right to an adequate means of livelihood for all citizens, ownership and control of material resources of the community to subserve the common good, operation of the economic system so that it does not result in concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment, equal pay for equal work for both men and women, among others.
The directive principles also stipulate that ‘the State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provisions for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement and in other cases of undeserved want’ and also that it ‘shall endeavour to secure by suitable legislation of economic organisation or in any other way, to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities…’
In 1950, soon after Independence, the Planning Commission was established to oversee economic and social development through Five Year Plans. Several legislations like the Factories Act, Industrial Disputes Act, ESI Act, Minimum Wages Act, EPF (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, were enacted followed by the Bonus Act, Payment of Gratuity Act, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, Equal Remuneration Act etc.
In addition, workers in different sectors like the dock workers, plantation workers, mines workers, beedi workers, cine workers, working journalists, sales promotion employees etc, through their organised struggles were able to exert pressure on the government to enact sector specific legislations.
At the time of independence there were two broad alternative economic and industrial policies before the country. One was to adopt a Soviet type planning. A private member’s resolution was introduced in the Constituent Assembly by a Congress member arguing that the country should follow a ‘socialist economy based on the principle of nationalisation of key industries and cooperative and collective farming and socialisation of the material resources of the country’. But this was not acceptable to the Indian industrialists who had big influence on the leadership of the Congress. The resolution was withdrawn under pressure. The ruling classes in the country chose the capitalist path.
1948 Industrial Policy Statement placed before the Constituent Assembly by Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who was one of the founders of the Jana Sangh, the precursor of the present BJP and the then minister for industry and supply, was more in line with the suggestions made in the Bombay Plan, published in 1944 by leading industrialists of the time. Though the 1956 industrial policy talked of parliament accepting the ‘socialist pattern of society as the objective of social and economic policy’, it made it clear that only those industries ‘which are essential and require investment on a scale which only the State, in the present circumstances, could provide’ would be in the public sector. That is, industries that required huge investment, which the private industrialists could not make or were not willing to make because these would not yield quick profits, were to be set up in the public sector.
This was the background in which the public sector in our country was set up. Public investment was made in industries where the private sector was not ready to invest and hand them over to the private sector when it was ready to take over. The reality is that the government was not interested either in ‘equitable distribution’ or ‘socialist pattern of society’.
What needs to be remembered is that though India attained independence through a long drawn bitter struggle in which lakhs of workers and other sections of common people participated, the party that led the independence struggle, that came to power after independence represented the interests of the big capitalists and landlords, not that of the working class.
Hence, though several legislations were enacted, their implementation was only half hearted. The legislations to provide some protection, some relief, and some improvement in the conditions of the workers were the result of the huge struggles of the working class before independence as well as after independence. The workers had to fight for their implementation as well, at the factories, on the streets and in the courts.
The capitalist path chosen by the ruling classes made the country vulnerable to economic crises. The burden of such crises was always sought to be transferred on to the shoulders of the working class and toiling people. While the big business houses were minting money despite the crises, the working class had to face closures of factories; they were forced to accept cut in basic wages and DA and curtailment of bonus. Even the courts in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh justified non-payment of bonus as stipulated in the Bonus act. Workload was increased.
The working class did not take these attacks lying down. There were big waves of struggles in almost all parts of the country. In many sectors these struggles were protracted. The industrial workers in West Bengal, the textile workers in Kanpur, Tamil Nadu, paper mill workers in Kerala, firemen of southern railways, road transport workers in Punjab and Haryana, steel workers in Durgapur along with lakhs of workers in other industries in other parts of the country, fought against closures and demanding higher wages and DA, reduction in working hours, against automation etc.
Not only the industrial workers but the employees in several sectors also had to fight bitterly for their demands. Notable among them is the glorious strike of the central government employees in 1968 on the demand of need based minimum wage and 100 per cent neutralisation of DA. The attitude of the government was not much different from that of the British. Use of police CRP force in industrial disputes became a regular feature. Gangsters were used to create a sense of terror among the workers. The Essential Services Maintenance Ordinance was promulgated banning strike and imposing punishments including imprisonment of strikers as well as those who support the strike. 15 persons were killed in police firing and hundreds seriously injured. The state government employees in many states went on militant strike struggles demanding higher wages and DA on par with central government employees. The LIC employees launched a prolonged struggle against automation. The bank employees went on strike against the restrictions on their trade union rights.
Most notable among the struggles was the historic strike of around two million railway workers that lasted three weeks, demanding need based minimum wages, DA with full neutralisation, duty hours not exceeding eight hours, treatment as industrial workers and full trade union rights etc. The government unleashed a reign of terror. Railway colonies were attacked, workers dragged out of their houses and tortured. Women and children were not spared. Thousands were arrested. Workers were retrenched en masse. The strike had big economic and political impact on the entire country. It was a precursor to the Internal Emergency declared by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975 curtailing all the basic rights of the people, including the working class.
The big capitalist class which immensely benefited and accumulated huge wealth in a few decades after independence, started demanding more and more control over the economy to further enrich themselves. The government representing the interests of these classes started more and more reneging on the proclamations in the constitution. The State policy was more and more drifting away from the directive principles of the constitution.
The attacks on the working class and the toiling people further increased with the official advent of neoliberal policies. The 1991 economic crisis was utilised to usher in neoliberal policies and officially change the industrial policy to enable handing over the economy to ‘market forces’ and negate the benefits and rights that the working class has achieved through struggles. One of the main objectives of neoliberalism is to weaken trade unions, the organised strength of the working class, to decimate the rights of the workers and enable intensification of exploitation, along with privatisation allowing grabbing of all public wealth by the big capitalists.
While it was the Congress government that officially launched the neoliberal policies, governments led by the BJP have been more aggressive in policies of privatisation and pro-market policies given their right-wing character.
The present Modi led BJP government, emboldened after coming to power for the second time in 2019, is pursuing these policies more aggressively. The labour codes touted as ‘labour law reforms’ are nothing but measures to deprive workers of their hard won rights, particularly the right to organisation and collective actions. The privatisation spree, the National Monetisation Pipeline, the National Land Monetisation Project etc are all measures being taken up as per the script of the ‘Bombay plan’ of the big industrialists who are now in the process of taking over the entire economy of the country with the wealth they have amassed since independence.
The RSS controlled Modi government is in addition blatantly promoting the ‘Hindutva’ agenda of establishing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. It seeks to polarise society and divide the working class and the toiling people on the basis of religion, caste, region, language etc. Thus it facilitates implementation of neoliberal policies by disrupting the unity of the workers and toiling people, diverting their attention from their burning issues and weakening united struggles against the implementation of neoliberal policies.
It is an irony that the Modi government is observing 75 years of independence the so called ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ by implementing policies that totally negate the aspirations of the people who sacrificed their lives in the independence struggle. This government has diluted all the principles enshrined in the Constitution – right to adequate means of livelihood for all citizens, living wage for decent standard of life, control of material resources for the common good, prevention of concentration of wealth.
It is imperative for the working class of our country, which has fought against British colonialism to again rise in united struggles with much more intensity not only against the neoliberal attacks, but also against the RSS led communal divisive machinations. The struggle it has launched against neoliberalism since its inception has to be intensified and linked with the struggle against communal divisive machinations. That is the only way to ensure that the aspirations and dreams of our forefathers who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for independence are realised. That is the commitment we have to make on the occasion of the 75 years of our independence.