On July 25 Indian television showed footage of hundreds of striking workers surrounded by cops and made to crawl on the ground as the cops worked their way through the crowd beating heads, backs, and limbs with thick, metal-tipped clubs and continuing to beat as their victims lay bloody and senseless for a full 45 minutes. It was like the Rodney King video on a tape loop.
In the end at least one worker, apprentice Kanhaya Lal, was dead and over seven hundred more were dangerously hurt. The next day there was more footage, this time live, as thousands of people desperately looking for family members at the local hospital resisted with rocks and sticks as police used clubs, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to drive them away. Seventeen of the victims were still missing as of August 26 and may be presumed dead (The Telegraph [Calcutta], August 27).
Politicians mouthed the outrage that millions felt. The leader of the low-caste-based Rashtriya Janata Dal party said, “Even animals are not treated like this.” Others, invoking the British colonialist massacre of helpless protesters that fueled the Independence struggle, called it a second Jallianwala Bagh. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who caused a little scandal when he spoke at Oxford recently by thanking the British for the legacy of colonialism, expressed “deep anguish and concern.”
On July 25 a group of over a thousand workers marched from the factory gate to the district administrative center to ask the chief minister there to intervene. Police tried to stop the march but couldn’t hold it back. So they called in reinforcements from neighboring cities and got ready to teach the workers a lesson.
Because the factory happened to be located in an industrial hub right next to the media center of Delhi, there was a local television camera following the march. Without the images it captured of what happened next the story might never have spread beyond the local papers, and certainly not to the front page of The New York Times. Under national and international pressure, Honda agreed to take back all the workers, but only after they had signed a pledge agreeing not to raise any demands for a full year. Outrageously, 63 workers who were charged with crimes before being dumped in the hospital still have charges pending. Indian labor should demand that those cases be dropped and that compensation be paid to the families of those workers still missing, as well as to injured workers like Govind, thirty years old and the sole earner in his household, whom doctors say won’t be able to walk for months (NDTV.com, July 26).
The left in India blames the murderous cop riot in Gurgaon on “globalization,” but workers would get no better treatment from either management or the cops in a factory owned by native investors rather than foreign ones. Haryana state, which is notorious for the use of caste-based bonded labor in its countryside, has a history of particularly vicious labor repression going back to the early 1970s (Praful Bidwai, Frontline, August 13-26). In 1996 sanitation workers across the state went on strike not for any increase in wages but simply to receive them--they had often gone months without being paid. The Congress state government fired 6000 of the workers and used the anti-labor Essential Services Maintenance Act to send nearly 700--all women--to jail.
Aided by these policies, Indian capital has been on an anti-labor offensive. The labor economist Barbara Harriss-White writes that “since the 1980s, the corporate sector, determined to secure flexibility and to control pay, have worked their way down a ‘menu’ of tactics to fracture the workforce, reduce numbers and erode workers’ rights,” including plant closures, lock-outs, attrition, contract violations, moving production to dispersed locations, and outsourcing. As a result, the relatively small portion of the workforce that receives regular wages and has some degree of legal protection, as opposed to the huge number who are casually employed, was reduced in the years between 1977 and 1994 by as much as one-half (India Working, 2003).
The workers movement in India has a defensive struggle ahead of it. Only about half of those in the shrinking sector of regularly employed workers are in unions, and those unions are fatally fragmented. Right after Independence the Congress party moved to split the workers movement and dilute the influence of the Communist Party in it by setting up its own trade union federation to rival the formerly unified, Stalinist-led All-India Trade Union Congress. Since then the unions have been parceled out among a growing number of political parties, including in recent decades regional, communal, and caste-based parties. There are even unions formed around individual charismatic leaders. (See Sharit Bhowmik, “The Labour Movement in India: Present Problems and Future Perspectives,” The Indian Journal of Social Work, January 1998.)
Indian labor needs to reorganize itself (by a process of fusion) along industrial lines. It needs to fight to organize the great mass of industrial workers who are casually employed--and even those currently unemployed and looking for work, whose numbers, as the liberal columnist P. Sainath points out in The Hindu (July 28), “almost equal the population of South Africa.” Unemployed and casual workers are rightly seen not as competitors of the regular workforce, but as their allies against the bosses. And the Indian workers movement needs to take up the special oppression of women and low-caste workers, whose exclusion from regular work forces them into the swelling casual labor market.
Meanwhile, Nirupam Sen, the CPI(M) Industry Minister of the state of West Bengal--which has been governed by the CPI(M) for three decades--responded to what happened in Gurgaon by reassuring Japanese capitalists who have invested heavily in his state: “Because the Left Front is in power in West Bengal, I can assure you that the Japanese will not face any problem.” No similar assurances were given to Bengali workers.
Analyzing the perspective for India in 1930, Trotsky concluded that even though the urban working class there was far outnumbered by poor peasants (and by an even greater proportion at that time than in Russia in 1917), “all those social peculiarities which made possible and unavoidable the October revolution are present in India in still sharper form.” He added: “So far, there is only one ‘condition’ missing: a Bolshevik party.” Seventy-five years later, that’s still the case. A workers-led social revolution in India would do a lot to inspire and aid a political revolution in China--and vice versa. A nuclear-armed workers republic in either country could help defend a proletarian revolution in Japan. For permanent revolution in India, and socialist revolution throughout Asia!