[Marxism] Largest Ever Strike in India Shakes Up Modi Govt

Michael Yates MIKEDJYATES at msn.com
Thu Jan 9 13:10:54 MST 2020

Last year, on the day my book, Can the Working Class Change the World? (translated into Hindi by  Indian Comrades) went on sale at the Delhi book fair, a massive general strike began. Now, another, still more massive, general strike is in progress. I hope that the consequences of this strike are far-reaching. There have been many such strikes over the past 20 years, but the results have been only moderately beneficial to workers. Still, it is impossible to imagine anything like this in the US. And we never know what spark will begin a conflagration. Solidarity to all Indian workers and peasants.

Here is the beginning of chapter 4 of my book:

"In 2016, workers in India organized a massive general strike. Estimates of the number of participants went as high as 180 million, which would make it the largest such strike in history. All but one of the major Central Trade Union Organisations called for and supported the strike. However, most workers in India do not belong to labor unions, nor are most covered by the country’s weakly enforced labor laws. Unorganized employees, many in informal and contracted-out employment, took an active part in the strike. Workers in every Indian state, in all sectors—agriculture, mining, transportation, manufacturing, services, government—and in nearly every occupation, walked out in large numbers. Tens of millions of women struck.

The general strike, one of seventeen that have occurred in India since 1991, should be seen in the context of the twenty-seven years of a government-capitalist alliance that has wreaked havoc on India’s workers. State properties have been sold to private businesses; the needs of capital have taken precedence over those of workers and peasants to an unprecedented degree; rural lands have been stolen and privatized; unions and left-wing political parties have been subjected to great state repression; workers have been squeezed to work more intensively, meaning that while productivity rose, employment did not; wages have stagnated; food consumption in the countryside, home to more than 800 million people, has fallen; the oppression of women continues; and ecological crises loom menacingly over the country. Given the difficulties of waging struggles in individual workplaces, rage has boiled over, providing fertile grounds for short general strikes as the best available means of protest.

The main organizers of the strike put forward a list of demands, similar to those in the previous general strikes:

Ÿ Contain price rises through a universal public distribution system [see below for explanation] and ban speculative trade on the commodity markets.
Ÿ Institute concrete measures for employment generation.
Ÿ Enforce all labor laws and stringently sanction violations.
Ÿ Provide universal social security coverage for all workers.
Ÿ Assure minimum wages not less than Rs 18,000 [about $267] per month.
Ÿ Assure pensions not less than Rs 3,000 [about $44.50] per month for entire working population.
Ÿ Stop disinvestment of central and state public sector undertakings.
Ÿ Stop contract work [precarious work] . . . and institute equal wages for same work.
Ÿ Require registration of unions within a period of 45 days and immediate ratification of ILO [International Labour Organization] conventions C87 and C98 [these guarantee the rights of people to free association and to organize for mutual protection, including bargaining collectively with employers].
Ÿ Stop labor law amendments [restricting workers’ rights].
Ÿ Stop FDI [foreign direct investment] in railways, insurance and defense.

These are worthy demands. They address the conditions of the entire working class and not just those of a particular group within it. The first demand is especially noteworthy. The Indian government has established a network of Fair Price Shops, which sell basic foodstuffs to the poor in publicly-owned shops at subsidized prices. This “public distribution system,” which began in 1947, has left much to be desired in terms of coverage, corruption, and quality of the goods sold. The unions’ request doesn’t address these problems, but it does insist on universal coverage. That is, every Indian would have access to the shops, something that could help alleviate the country’s food crisis. To keep prices low, the demand includes a curb on commodity speculation, which has been responsible for spikes in food prices.

The fact that so many Indians embraced the demands and stopped work throughout the nation is remarkable, as is the great diversity by class, caste, gender. industry, and occupation of the strikers. Nothing remotely similar could take place in today’s United States, or in any rich capitalist country.

And yet, except for some increases in the legal minimum wage, India’s working class has little to show for their spectacular general strikes. The conditions of the class continue to deteriorate. The country is now led by a neo-fascist, Narendra Modi, a man not inclined to be sympathetic to the needs of workers. His party, Bharatiya Janata, promotes an extreme form of Hindu nationalism, and in February 2002, when Modi was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujurat, he fanned the flames of an orgy of anti-Muslim violence, including rapes, that claimed some 2,000 lives. Afterward, Modi said that he “felt the same pain over the bloodshed as a passenger in a car that has just run over a puppy.” He referred to the refugee camps set up to shelter some of the 200,000 Muslims who lost their homes as “baby-making factories.” And his minister for women is now serving 28 years in prison for murder and conspiracy to murder. To Modi and his government, the plight of workers and peasants is of little concern. Repression, on the other hand, is a pillar of the state’s reaction to all working-class and peasant struggles that threaten capital."


So far, my book has been translated in India and Indonesia. Curious that it has attracted more interest there than in any rich capitalist country. In interviews I did in the US, it was made clear on at least one occasion that listeners were not particularly interested in the Global South. This certainly seems to be the case, even in much of what passes for the left in the US. And yet, isn't it more true than ever that workers of all countries must unite. Nationalism in the rich countries is a disease, yet even the left buy into it often enough, by what it doesn't say if nothing else.

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