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Literary Review

Looking back at anger

The nation-wide railway strike of 1974 was repressed violently, foreshadowing things to come the following year. Yet, it did lead to long term gains, says RANA P. BEHAL.


Armed guards ensuring that the trains run during the strike of 1974.

WHILE reading this book, my mind was flooded with memories of an almost never-ending train journey from New Delhi to Guwahati in May 1974. Deserted railway stations with no porters or even hawkers in sight, manned by the men of Territorial Army, very long and unscheduled halts, overcrowded compartments with commuters sitting even on the rooftops of train compartments. Assam Mail, which normally completes this journey in 46 hours, took more than 75 hours to ferry its hungry and exhausted commuters to Guwahati. The reason: the all-India strike of the Railway workers, the subject of study in the book under review.

The author, Stephen Sherlock, has presented a historical account of the all-India railways strike of May 1974 based on an impressive range of source materials: from trade union papers and publications of political parties to private papers of important trade union leaders like George Fernandes and interviews with union leaders, activists and political leaders — as well as an equally impressive range of secondary publications. While focusing on the central issue of capital-labour relationship, its conflicts and contradictions, the author has also dwelled upon the interconnections of its larger world of trade unions and labour leaders, political parties and political leaders, the railway bureaucracy and the State. He has analysed the growth of labour militancy during the 1960s and 1970s in the context of developments within the railway labour movement as well as the in the context of emerging social movements against injustice, deprivation and impoverishment across the country.

During the 1960s, unrest grew amongst railway workers on the issue of low wages, harsh working conditions and long hours of work. The negative response from the management (various forms of repressive measures against labour militancy) and the inability of the two railway unions recognised by the Railway Board — All India Railwaymen's Federation (AIRF) and National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) — to fight for their grievances and protect their interests generated a sense of frustration and alienation among 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 co-operating 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 the 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. The author considers these developments 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.

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 intense, with remarkable display of solidarity among workers, and other sections of society. The strike was led by the AIRF with Fernandes as its president.

The Government and the railway management unleashed a reign of terror deploying security forces on the workers and their families. The author has argued that this was a dress rehearsal for Mrs. Gandhi's authoritarian regime during the Emergency, which began a year later. He says there were already conflicting and contradictory views on the decision to strike both within the AIRF and between the AIRF and category-unions. As a result, there were instances of sabotage and cooperation with the management during the strike. The political leadership from among the non-Congress (I) parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) and the socialists, constrained by their internal political compulsions, were keen to have a quick negotiated settlement rather than a prolonged general strike. This created a sense of confusion and uncertainty among rank and file worker activists. By the end of May 1974, the strike had been suppressed without any immediate gains.

However, the author does not go along with the view that the strike was a total failure. There were long-term gains. It re-established the railway labour force and its movement as a social force to be treated with a degree of respect. It showed that despite occupational and cultural divisions in an industry spread over the vastness of India, it could achieve a sense of solidarity. Many of the demands like bonus were granted later on in the form of productivity link bonus in 1977. Despite some overlapping and repetitions, this book is one of the best additions to the literature on labour history of post-Independent India.

The Indian Railway Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organised Labour, Stephen Sherlock, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2001, paperback, p.513, Rs. 295.

The writer teaches modern history at Deshbandhu College, New Delhi.

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