The Modi government, the crisis, and Covid

Winter 2020

As this article goes to press, India’s recorded Covid-19 cases were approaching 10 million (on 29 November), the second highest in the world after the US. It had the third highest recorded deaths (136,696) after the US and Brazil. And the numbers are rapidly increasing: as of 12 November, 50% of the daily new cases in Asia were in India. However, India’s testing rate continues to be among the lowest in the world. In fact, recent official sero-surveys indicated that for every reported case, somewhere between 80 and 130 would go unreported.

That being said (and going by the official figures), India has one of the lowest official mortality rates (deaths per 100K of population) at 10.07 - which is much lower than Britain (86.7) and the US (80.95). But again, this is an underestimate. In India, the “cause of death” is ascertained in only 22% of cases, according to the government’s own figures. Moreover, none of the regional states record “suspected” Covid-19 deaths. Recently the virus has also spread to rural areas, where the minimal health infrastructure that exists in urban areas is more or less non-existent, increasing the likelihood of under-reporting.

Frontline health workers, who continue to work too many hours and with too many patients, have been first in the firing line. But it is impossible to know how gravely the crisis affects them, as the government doesn’t even maintain a central record of their deaths. What is more, the grossly inadequate and largely private healthcare infrastructure has been and remains incapable of dealing with the pandemic. Covid-19 patients have died in hospitals due to a lack of oxygen. Of course the rich can afford the astronomical rates for rooms at private hospitals and ensure themselves access to ventilators and oxygen.

In fact, India’s public expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP is a little over 1%, one of the lowest in the world. A pre-Covid-19 shortage of 600,000 doctors and two million nurses means patients fortunate enough to be admitted are then receiving only limited care. And this, in a context of the British NHS boasting in early November that nurses from India had arrived to shore up its own (much less) depleted workforce in the face of Covid’s second wave!

The Modi government’s first response to the pandemic - when reported cases had reached 500, was to enforce a nation-wide lock down. Not only did this wreak havoc on the lives of workers (as discussed below), but it caused the rate of infections to rise. And this rise continued, as the restrictions were lifted, phase by phase. Now, at the time of writing, cases are rising again in many parts of the country including in the capital, New Delhi.

The exception of Kerala

Kerala has been the only Indian state which has managed to bring the pandemic under control. Out of a population of 36 million there have so far been a total of just 2,071 deaths from Covid (24 November) - less than one tenth of the deaths per head of population than in Britain. The case fatality rate - the proportion of people who die among those who have tested positive for the disease - at only 0.35 in October is one of the lowest in India.

This is not because Kerala is richer than the other Indian states. In fact, it has a lower-than-average per capita income. What is more, it was among the first states to be exposed to the virus and disproportionately so, because of half a million returning students and migrant workers predominantly from the Gulf countries and parts of India (some 17% of Kerala’s working-age population works outside the state). Also, it has relatively high ratios of elderly, those with other health conditions, and a higher density of population than surrounding states - some of which have recorded over five times the number of deaths.

However Kerala also boasts India’s most robust public health system, with extensive networks of primary care clinics and health workers in most towns and villages. Its public health officials took the lessons they learnt from the local outbreak of Nipah virus in 2018, which they had also managed to control effectively. For Covid, the health system was made ready with guidelines already prepared in January even before the arrival of the pandemic in the country. An effective system of Covid care centres was set up across the state, with institutional quarantine facilities and effective contract tracing. The state was also able to mobilise an army of local health care volunteers and tap into the workforce and networks of local welfare schemes. It also set up 15,541 migrant workers’ relief camps and shelters, more than half of the 22,567 camps established in the whole of the rest of India.

One reason (and probably the main reason) that this was possible in Kerala is that for more than half a century local and central government followed social policies directed at uplifting the poor, largely under the influence of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party (Marxist) (CPI(M)). It was these parties which also increased the wages of workers, changed the land system in the countryside and increased the literacy rate to over 90% (the highest in India). This allowed for a relatively better standard of health and nutrition among the population, stronger social networks of support and a better understanding and observance of government guidelines (which also is due to a strong grass roots “people’s science movement” in the state which is allied to the CP). Of course this is not what was said in publications like the British Economist, which in April marvelled at how well Kerala had managed Covid. But it does go to show that a functioning primary care network at local level is the main ingredient needed to counter a pandemic.

The country-wide lock down and the working class

Modi’s announcement of a complete national lock down suddenly and without any preparation on 24 March, resulted in chaos for the population and had catastrophic consequences for the working class. This lock down was put in place within 4 hours and included the unprecedented, total closure of the Indian Railways. Companies used the opportunity to withhold wages which remained pending for as long as three months. Workers were suddenly left without enough money to pay for rent, food or medicines. Unlike in the rich countries of Europe, there was no such thing as a furlough scheme. The worst-affected were over 100 million migrant workers, who were stranded in urban industrial areas without the means to survive hundreds of miles away from their villages. They attempted to get home by any means. According to the government’s figures, between March and May, over 10m returned to their villages, which is almost as many as during the mass migration caused by the partition of India in 1947.

Bus and railway stations in cities like Delhi and Mumbai saw hundreds of thousands of workers trying to take the last available transport home. These scenes - which served to spread the virus - were repeated every time the lock down was extended. After the closure of public means of transport, workers risked their lives to get home - walking, cycling or hitch-hiking hundreds of miles in the summer heat. Like the group of 18 workers who boarded a concrete mixer truck and hid in its steel drum on their journey from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh. Or the 15 steel mill workers who were run over by a train near the city of Aurangabad, as they lay down to rest after walking along the railway lines in order to avoid police harassment on the highways. Such were the conditions of travelling, that an estimated 1000 died on their way.

From day one, the bosses were apprehensive of the exodus and the shortage of workers they would face when the factories reopened. In Manesar, an industrial area near Delhi known as “India’s Detroit” due to the concentration of car factories, the government’s Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) stopped workers on their way to work who were wearing backpacks - since it might be a sign they intended to return to their villages! In many places, workers walking back to their villages were told by the local police to get into buses which would drive them home… and then were driven back to the industrial areas they had just come from! In other instances, workers were beaten by the police and forced to return. The bosses’ organisation, the Confederation of Indian Industry, even demanded that workers be ordered back to work by law.

Workers’ anger against these policies broke out on the streets in many industrial districts across the country, especially between 2-4 May, just after Modi’s televised announcement of an extension of the lock down. In the city of Surat in Gujarat, thousands gathered to demand that they be sent back home and that they should not be forced to start work. Textile and diamond cutting workers broke windows, overturned cars parked at the under-construction, new diamond exchange and attacked the police. A number of smaller protests took place across Chennai, with construction workers demanding state arrangements for their return. In Rajasthan, 2500 workers from a cement factory pelted the police with stones and attacked factory property. Protests took place in cities, towns and industrial areas of 21 of India’s 36 regional states and territories, in places as dispersed as Bangalore, Hyderabad, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Jammu.

It was these demonstrations that forced central and regional governments to organise special “labour trains” to ferry workers back home. But even here the capitalist class tried to intervene. For example, after a meeting with the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India, the Chief Minister of Karnataka cancelled ten such trains! The conditions on the trains which did run were terrible: even the government has admitted that 97 people died on these special trains, since adequate food and water was not provided for journeys which were so long. And not least because freight trains moving goods for the bosses were given preference on the tracks over them!

But of course, for those workers who managed to return to their villages - this was not a sustainable solution to their problems. In the village, there was no paid work and little welfare which they could easily access. The only system in place was the 2008 National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which provides 100 days of work in a year at the minimum wage of Rs.200 (£2.10) per day. According to official figures, the numbers enrolled in NREGA increased by over 150% in a number of states since the lock down. Over 15 million workers who applied for work under the scheme did not receive it. Since the phasing out of the lock downs, workers have begun to return to the cities, but the unprecedented contraction of the economy - by 23.9% between April and June 2020 - means that jobs are hard to find. Companies used the period when workers had left the cities to sack them and many are returning to find they no longer have jobs.

However, the situation was not much better for those who stayed in the cities and resumed work when factories reopened. The rush to restart production after the lock down, without proper safety checks, had, by August, resulted in more than 30 reported fatal industrial accidents, killing 75, injuring more than 100 and displacing more than 10,000 people.

The government prefers to keep quiet about the spread of Covid-19 in the industrial areas, but these are important foci for infection. Despite the lock down, it was declared that the logistics, mining and steel sectors were “essential” and thousands were allowed to congregate in these workplaces! Some mines even went so far as to threaten their workers with the sack if they failed to turn up for work. But even after the lifting of the lock down, there have been cases at Maruti, Bosch, Oppo, etc., which the bosses have ignored for the sake of their profits. For example, on June 26 there were 140 Covid cases and 2 workers had died in the 8000-strong Bajaj motorcycle factory in the western state of Maharashtra. Instead of halting production to control the spread of the virus, the company sent a letter threatening those workers who started staying away from work to protect themselves, that their pay would be stopped! Predictably, within ten days, the number of cases rose to more than 250 and 5 dead! Longer working hours, which have been the norm in recent months, have also exacerbated two factors which make Covid worse: fatigue and length of exposure to others who may have the virus.

The 2019 election and after: Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim demagogy

The pre-Covid situation in India had already been causing serious problems for prime minister Narendra Modi and his far-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The country was experiencing its highest unemployment rates in 45 years. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won the 2019 general election by pushing economic issues to the background and beating the drum of triumphalist nationalism - and in particular, after an alleged terrorist attack in the Pulwama region of Kashmir which killed 40 Indian soldiers. This time the BJP received only 25% of the vote, but thanks to the first-past-the-post system this nevertheless gave Modi’s NDA a large majority in parliament, with 353 of 543 seats.

That said, Modi’s honeymoon was clearly over. In a bid to refurbish his image among his own urban and rural petty-bourgeois electorate, he revived his promise of “Hindu” supremacy over the country’s Muslim minority, while upholding and reinforcing the still pervasive backward and reactionary caste system against the lower castes. It should be remembered that before becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi was best-known for his role in the bloody 2002 anti-Muslim communal riots in Gujarat, when Chief Minister of the state.

Stirring anti-Muslim feeling has of course been the background noise to Modi’s regime ever since, but after the 2019 election, he raised the stakes. At the beginning of August last year, he stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous special status, which had been the basis for the accession of the region into India in 1949. At a stroke of the pen, Modi downgraded the region into two Union Territories, to be ruled from Delhi. So that there was no opposition, 7 million people were locked into their homes under a strict military curfew and 10,000 were arrested. Kashmir, which has long been an open prison with a strong military presence, was locked-down even further with 200,000 military personnel guarding it. The curfew included a communication siege: internet and cellular services were shut-down completely until March 2020, and many restrictions remain in place today.

Next, the BJP passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The pretext was to allow refugees who had fled religious persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan before 2015, to apply for Indian citizenship… unless they were Muslims! Since then, the CAA has been used as another weapon for Modi’s nationalist demagogy against Pakistani and Indian Muslims. Additionally, BJP ministers, including Modi himself, announced plans to conduct a National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country (as was recently done in Assam with disastrous consequences) with the aim of “identifying illegal immigrants”. This legislation is rightly seen as the first step towards turning poor Muslims into second-class citizens in the country: they would have to show documents such as birth certificates, to prove their citizenship, but of course many of the poor have none or don’t have the right ones. The CAA and proposed NRC sparked countrywide protests, with continuous sit-ins in public places, meetings and demonstrations: an impressive show of widespread discontent against Modi on the streets.

Finally, there was the long-delayed decision by the Supreme Court to allow the building of a Hindu Temple on the site of the 16th Century Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya. This mosque had been razed to ground in 1992 by the Hindu right-wing led by the BJP, an incident which sparked the worst wave of communal violence across the country since 1947.

Notwithstanding the fulfilment of the “Ayodhya promise” and the siege of Kashmir, the BJP lost the Delhi legislative assembly election on 8 February this year. Not only that, but anti-CAA protests continued in the form of sit-ins in several of Delhi’s Muslim neighbourhoods. So with Trump’s visit in the last week of February, came the ideal moment for the BJP to take its revenge on the local Muslim population and at the same time prove its anti-Muslim credentials for Trump’s own crusade against the “Muslim threat”. A prominent local BJP politician made a rallying call for the sit-ins to be ended. This sparked one of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in Delhi in decades. Several poor districts of North-East Delhi were ravaged. Hundreds of houses were burnt down, together with shops, workshops and mosques. Officially, 53 people were reported killed and over 200 sustained serious injuries, although the real number of casualties is certainly higher. As to the Delhi police, directly under the authority of Modi’s government, it merely looked on when it did not actually join the pogromists. By unleashing terror against Muslim neighbourhoods in the capital and stopping it at will, Modi had demonstrated his control over India’s huge Muslim minority and, more generally, his ability to crush domestic dissent.

The lock down has definitely helped the government quell dissent and revive its Hindu nationalist agenda. The sit-ins were disbanded and the demonstrations came to an end with the lock down. In the following months, the police arrested the movement’s leading activists, accusing them of a “conspiracy aimed at bringing the government of India to its knees” and blaming them for the Delhi riots!

On August 5, in a publicised TV event Modi performed the Hindu prayers for the inauguration of the Hindu temple at the site of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya. In September, several senior leaders of the BJP who were accused in the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition case, were acquitted on the grounds that the demolition of the mosque was not “planned” but “spontaneous”! By condoning Modi and his partners’ criminal past, the verdict has signalled that the judiciary is ready to justify Modi’s anti-Muslim policies, however heinous they might be. Not surprisingly, the Hindu right now plans to “liberate” the Hindu temples of Varanasi and Mathura by destroying the mosques that are alleged to have been built over them…

Modi at the service of the capitalist class

The slump in the global economy triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has proved disastrous in India. By 2010, it was already clear that a decade of over 8% average annual growth rates had come to an end - and since then, growth has steadily slowed. In the aftermath of the 2007/8 world financial crisis, capital investment had been falling steadily. In 2019, the economy was officially declared to be in recession. Despite stimulus packages and Modi cutting corporation tax from 30% to 22%, the second half of that year saw job cuts in the textile, steel, leather and car industries. The car industry alone saw job losses of over 350,000. As it became clear that the economy will be derailed even further with the pandemic, Modi responded by trying to make India as attractive a destination as possible for foreign capital. A little over a month into the lock down, on 12 May, he announced his “atmanirbhar bharat” or “self-reliant India” programme in a televised speech. But this nationalist demagogy is merely a way of distracting attention away from his bending over backward to attract international and domestic capital.

Having hosted Trump so lavishly just a few months back, and having revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a regional body for military co-operation between the US, India, Japan and Australia (which Trump described as “Asia’s NATO” against China), Modi hopes to attract foreign investment which would normally go to China. In fact BJP ministers claimed that three new labour codes, passed into law this September, would make India more attractive to capital which was leaving China. This policy has already had a few results. Foxconn, the company which assembles Apple’s i-phones among other products, has already moved some of its operations to India, and in July, Samsung opened the world’s largest smartphone factory just outside Delhi. However, these measures could backfire. China’s economy is three times the size of India’s; China is India’s second largest trading partner after the US, and China is the biggest exporter into India! The production of a number of commodities - importantly, cars - takes place across the borders of these two countries.

Unsurprisingly, such a policy has increased Indo-China tensions, which broke into open violence on 14 February, when 40 Indian soldiers were killed in a border skirmish with Chinese troops. This provided Modi with an opportunity to whip-up anti-Chinese sentiment among the petty-bourgeoisie. There followed the short-term slapping of tariffs on Chinese products, insisting they be ‘inspected’ by customs officials at airports and ports, and bans on Chinese apps. Right-wing nationalist groups staged demonstrations outside Chinese stores and factories and publicly burnt Chinese products. Members of a right-wing group, the Hindu Raksha Dal (Hindu Protection Force) burnt effigies of Xi Jinping, Chinese products and the Chinese flag outside an Oppo factory in Delhi’s industrial suburb of NOIDA. However, these “protests” were clearly staged and hardly reflected the attitude of the population at large.

Modi is also trying to speed up the privatisation of nationalised companies and the removal of state controls on the domestic market, to make the Indian economy more accessible and attractive for international companies. Privatisation is not new - it has been a policy since the early 1990s under Congress and has continued under all governments since. However, in the last few months, this process has been sped up. The government announced it would sell off its stake in the railways, banks, mining, defence, airlines, petroleum, shipping, logistics, power distribution and life insurance, among others. State control of the agricultural market has been loosened to allow for the entry of large agribusiness. In sectors such as defence and agriculture, a greater proportion of foreign direct investment has been allowed.

Such policies, of course, have direct consequences for hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers. Take the railways: privatisation was first proposed under Narasimha Rao’s Congress-led government in 1995, after which it has remained on the agenda of Congress and BJP-led governments alike. The Indian Railway is an enormous integrated operation with a workforce of over 1.2m - plus about the same number of current pensioners. It carries 8.4 billion passengers a year! Obviously, no one private company nor even consortium of companies could buy the whole operation. So, it is being broken into zones, routes, trains, maintenance, production units, etc., each to be sold off. This September, Modi put over 150 trains that run on 109 lucrative routes up for sale with 35-year concession periods. Bombardier, Alstom, Siemens, NIIF, GMR and ISquared Capital, among others are preparing to place bids.

The results of privatisation for the railway workforce have already been disastrous. The State Railway Board announced in 2019 that it intends to reduce its staff wage bill by 10% in three years, while cutting the workforce by 50% and curtailing the privileges of 50,000 union office bearers in the railways! As workers retire, their positions are not being filled and by September 2019 already there were 300,000 vacancies. The gaps are being filled by workers on temporary contracts. There are already several hundred thousand contract and outsourced workers working in the railways on severely degraded terms and conditions.

Obviously this also impacts passengers: fares on the private trains are higher; 1050 stations will bring in “user charges” integrated into ticket fares, putting them further out of the reach of the poor. While private trains and freight get priority on the tracks, 500 “unprofitable” trains running through the poorest parts of the country will be axed. The public hospitals, schools and housing which currently exist for rail workers, as well as land owned by the railways on which there are numerous informal settlements are to be sold off. In the middle of the pandemic in September 45,000 people faced eviction from Delhi’s railway lands, for the time being, stayed by a court order.

In addition to the attack on public sector workers, private sector workers right across the board have lost their jobs, severely exacerbating the unemployment crisis which had already reached unprecedented levels before Covid struck. The twenty million jobs which Modi had promised to create back in 2014 during his election campaign, unsurprisingly, never materialised… on the contrary, already in 2017-18, the unemployment rate in the country was the highest for 45 years! Between August 2019 and August 2020, 21m salaried employees and 11m daily waged workers lost their jobs. Significantly, the numbers of jobs lost were particularly high in July (480,000) and in August (330,000), after the lifting of the lock down. These figures however, hide an even deeper unemployment crisis, if one counts long-term unemployed and those who have given up the hope of finding work; in the first three weeks of September the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) reported only 37.9% of India’s working-age population was employed!

Attacks on the Indian masses: the new labour and agricultural laws

Modi has been trying to make a show of how good he is for the capitalist class, by introducing measures aimed at counteracting the ongoing effects of the world crisis on their profits. This has meant one thing first and foremost: attacks on the few protections which the working class and peasantry still have. In this, he has continued the work of the Congress-led governments which came before him - and Modi has redoubled his efforts in this respect since the pandemic.

In May, just over a month into the lock down, a number of regional governments started modifying labour laws citing the need to “attract investment” and increase the “ease of doing business”. It made little difference whether the region was ruled by the BJP or Congress, or regional allies of either of the two. They used the fact that issues affecting “labour” can be legislated on by both the central and state governments, to vie with other states for investments. For workers’ legal rights, this was a race to the bottom.

For example, the Uttar Pradesh government suspended all but three labour laws for a period of 3 years. The Madhya Pradesh government exempted new industries for the first 1000 days and those which employ less than 40 workers from being bound by most labour laws. Other ordinances increased working hours. At the beginning of April, the Gujarat government extended the permissible hours of work from 8 to 12, six days a week, for a period of three months! This was the first time the bosses have been able to legally enforce a 72-hour week in almost a century, since the passage of the Factory Act of 1922! Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Punjab, Shiv Sena-ruled Maharashtra, BJP-ruled Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh all followed suit. Legal limits on overtime were also extended - the Maharashtra government raised the overtime limit per quarter, from 75 to 115 hours and the Karnataka government to 125 hours!

Then, in September the central government got through parliament the ‘simplification’ into 4 labour codes of 29 labour laws related to trade unions, contract labour, social security and health and safety, many of them in place since the 1940s. In the process, it integrated into national law, many of these changes already made by the regional states. Some of the resultant changes are worth mentioning. For instance, restrictions on the right to strike which previously only applied to workers in “essential services” have now been extended to all workers. Workers are now required to give 14 days’ notice of a strike and the notice must be submitted to and approved by the employer. An illegal strike can lead to heavy fines being imposed on workers and the cancellation of the registration of the trade union. Companies can now directly employ workers on infinitely renewable “fixed-term contracts” without having to offer them permanent contracts. And worse, permanent workers can be “converted” into fixed-term workers at will.

Finally, while previously factories employing less than 100 workers did not have to give workers a written contract, this now applies under the new code, to factories employing up to 300 workers, with regional states empowered to raise this threshold even higher. Such factories will also no longer have to get government permission to shut up shop or sack workers. This law puts 90% of all factory workers outside the framework of a contract!

Of course, labour laws only really applied in practice in the nationalised and bigger companies and even here there were many exceptions, especially for temporary and casual workers. In many respects, the reality of exploitation on the ground is far worse than what the new labour laws legalise: the bosses have got away with ignoring the law for a long time. After all, the degree to which workers benefited from any legal protection has always depended on the balance of forces between them and their employers. In this context, on the one hand, these changes to India’s labour laws are clearly a green light by Modi to the bosses: if the bosses turn the screw on the working class beyond the ‘legal’ limits of exploitation… the government will willingly make the law catch up with it! On the other hand, the bosses have not yet been able to implement many of the changes made in the labour laws on the shopfloor. They know that when they try to use the new legislation to turn the screw further - they will have a fight on their hands.

Farmers have also come under attack. Three new agricultural laws have been passed which remove the so-called “mandi” system, in place since 1966, whereby minimum prices for 23 types of crops were guaranteed, cheap agricultural imports were restricted, local markets were protected and hoarding prohibited. This system has protected a significant section of farmers from price fluctuations on the world/national markets and has also helped to keep food affordable for the population. Under Modi’s new laws, all these protections are abolished, allowing large private agribusiness to gain full control of the market. Private traders will be able to buy directly from farmers and sell products anywhere in the country at any price they negotiate. And this is happening in a context where an increasing number of agricultural products are already being imported from the USA into India, after the trade deal concluded between Trump and Modi earlier this year. As a result, domestic market prices for certain foodstuffs have already slumped.

The beginning of a fightback?

Neither workers nor peasants have taken these attacks lying down. At the end of September India’s farmers, led by 350 of their organisations staged large protests. In the predominantly agricultural northern states of Punjab and Haryana, demonstrators blocked national highways and railway lines and effigies of government ministers were burnt. Whole villages, women and children included, mobilised. In Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, farmers came out to protest in huge numbers. They were joined by trade unions, Dalit and women’s groups. Again, on 5 November, a million farmers were on the streets, blocking highways and holding meetings. This mobilisation forced the peasant unions, some of them dominated by the richer peasants such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Indian Farmers’ Union) - - into standing unambiguously against the government. As the agitation grew, a member party of Modi’s ruling alliance from Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal, and their MP in Modi’s cabinet resigned from the government. Fearful of the consequences, Modi’s government could take little action.

And they are not yet done. On 27 November, tens of thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh converged on Delhi, bringing food and blankets with them, determined to camp in the city until the new agricultural laws were repealed. All along the way the police and various paramilitary bodies of the state (the Central Reserve Police Force, the Rapid Action Force, etc.) tried to stop them using tear gas and water cannons. But they broke the police barricade and as this article goes to press, have entered Delhi!

Of course it is the fightback of the working class which will be decisive against Modi and his attacks. So what has been the reaction, so far, of the traditional working class organisations?

As is the case elsewhere in the world, for many decades now, India’s trade union leaderships have proved themselves to be the willing tools of the capitalist class, determined to control workers’ militant energy rather than organise it to fight for their class interests.

That said, the leaderships of the Communist Parties’ and Congress Party confederations feel obliged to justify their existence from time to time, by calling token “general strikes”, and demonstrations in the larger cities. But this year, given the depth of workers’ anger against conditions made so much worse by the corona crisis, they have felt the pressure to do more than just engage in their usual gestures.

To show opposition to the government’s privatisation plans, they issued a call to workers in the nationalised industries in late June. As a result, from 2-4 July, despite the deployment of paramilitary troops to intimidate them and protect strike breakers, no less than 550,000 miners and transport workers across nine regions of the country went on strike, protesting against the privatisation of India’s coal industry and demanding a wage rise.

On 26 November, these trade union confederations called a general strike across the whole country, co-ordinating this with the action of farmers’ organisations to which they are linked. Despite the arrest of several trade union activists on the eve of the strike (and certain states declaring the strike “illegal” by imposing Section 144, which prohibits the public congregation of more than five people), on the day, millions of oil refinery, government and municipal, steel, bus, mining, telecom, banking and insurance, electronics, defence, construction, shipyard, dock and hospital workers struck. In some places trade unions organised marches and demonstrations. The strike was strongest in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Bengal where parts of the state were effectively shut-down for the day - and there were clashes with the police. Tea plantation workers burnt Modi’s effigy in Assam. In fact the anger and willingness to fight of India’s young working class was there for all to see!

It is worth mentioning another strike which has been taking place since 9 November in the car industry - among a section of the working class which was not called out by the union leaderships on 26 November.

Fed up with the sacking of 500 contract workers during the Covid lock down, the speeding up of the production line and the harassment of a union rep, 1200 workers occupied the Toyota-Kirloskar car factory outside the city of Bengaluru in the southern state of Karnataka. Their strike was “illegal” and the bosses told workers that they were “compromising Covid-19 guidelines” by collectively sitting-in!

Fearful of the unrest spreading, the company declared a lockout of the 6,500 workers employed at its two plants. Within days, the number of striking workers rose to 3500. Despite the suspension of another 39 union officials and the regional government “directing” workers to resume production, twenty days in, the strike is still on.

In recent weeks, there have been strikes and factory occupations in the textile, shoe-making and car parts industries against the bosses’ attempts at retrenchments and reducing wages, under pretext of the Covid crisis. We can only hope that the Toyota-Kirloskar strike, and these other mobilisations, including the very determined and ongoing protests of the peasants and farmers, are an indication of the much-needed fights to come.

27 November 2020