The politics of general strikes in India

General Strike in India 

On February 28th, India’s major trade union federations declared a general strike, with early estimates of workers participating in the one-day industrial action in the tens of millions, making it the largest strike in India since the nation’s independence in 1947.  This is the first time that the trade union federations (which are all affiliated to one or another political party) have come together to protest against “neoliberal economic and labor policies” pursued by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress Party) government; the action was also supported by more than 5000 independent unions.

This reveals two important things about India that are usually forgotten by the western media.  First, that India is not merely a seething mass of desperation composed of peasants and the abject poor; it has a massive working class with some real organizations that are capable of bringing out their own forces.  And second, that the economic realities of neoliberal growth do not go unchallenged indefinitely.  Even in the places where the vice grip on workers has been tightened to extreme levels, people still find a way to fight back.

Among the demands that the unions made were the establishment of a national minimum wage, the ending of temporary employment (what are called “contract laborers” in India) in favor of permanent jobs, more effort to curb runaway inflation (hovering at around 7.5%), guaranteed pensions, and an end to the privatization of publicly owned companies.

The banking and insurance sectors were hit the worst by the strike, but other workers including dockworkers, postal workers, and transportation workers were heavily hit.  The coordination of a national strike of this scale marks the beginning of a new stage in the confrontation between labor and capital in India, as the benefits of India’s boom have produced a sclerotic economy, with benefits accruing to the few at the top.

Despite threats from the central government and a last minute offer to negotiate, the strike proceeded and brought out millions.  In places like Kerala, the state government threatened workers with a “dies non” order (no work-no pay), while in other places like Delhi, the government attempted to enforce the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) to force workers in industries like power generation back to work.  In West Bengal, cadres of Mamata Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) also attacked and injured strikers.

Slumdogs, Millionaires, and Manmohanomics

For the past decade, India has been the darling of the economic pundits globally, with massive growth rates and a burgeoning middle-class whose consumptive powers have fuelled the national mythology of “India Shining.”  According to current estimates, the Indian economy grew at around 7% last year and is projected to grow again at a similar rate in 2012.

At the same time, the benefits of that growth have been massively skewed.  As Katherine Boo’s new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, demonstrates, the growth of the Indian economy has happened at the same time as the growth of its underclass.  Mumbai, the symbol of India’s new economic power and famous for its massive film industry, is now commonly referred to as “Slumbai”; more people live in slums in Mumbai than not, where they work in the hyperexploitative informal economy (if they work at all).

Agricultural reforms implemented in the past twenty years have immiserated people in the countryside.  Last year alone there were more than 15,000 farmer suicides as a result of indebtedness and bad harvests.  Desperate farmers then migrate to the larger cities and towns where they form the massive reserve army of the unemployed which drives down wages.

At its core, the national strike is a response to these conditions and the pinch that workers are feeling throughout the country.  Last year there were some spectacular job actions at places like Maruti-Sazuki in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, where workers fought a pitched battle for wages, and occupied the factory for almost two weeks.

At the same time, the official line of the Congress Party-led Government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is that neoliberal economic policies are going to continue.  At the heart of the fight with the unions is the controversial Pension Bill in Parliament currently, which would tie the pensions to market-driven financial instruments and put employee retirements in jeopardy.

But also at issue are Singh’s plans to sell off major state holdings in order to finance repayments on international loans and budget deficits.  Singh did, after all, cut his teeth as the economic architect of India’s neoliberal reforms which began to be implemented when he was the Finance Minister under PV Narasimha Rao.

It is the twin pressures that workers in India feel, both from the immiseration into which they are sinking from below (from inflation and from a growing underclass which they are trying desperately to unionize) and from above (in the form of neoliberalism and attacks on union rights) which has produced the conditions for greater militancy in India.

The Official Trade Unions

There are two reasons though that this confrontation between labor and capital in India will not be decisive, which are also the reasons that the unions have only put forward a tentative one-day strike with a rather long and vague list of demands.  First, the official trade unions are all connected to various political parties, and these massive days of protest are usually connected to political gamesmanship that the parties play against one another.

The unions at the head of the strike were dominated by the official left in India, which is still dominated by Stalinist and Maoist political organizations.  So in India there is the All-India Federation of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML-Janashakti), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML), All India United Trade Union Center run by the Socialist Unity Center, the All India Trade Union Congress (run by the CP), Center of Indian Trade Unions (CPIM), United Trade Union Congress (run by the Revolutionary Socialist Party).

Now since many of these parties are no longer revolutionary parties in the long run, they tend to play a dampening rather than developing role on class struggle.  Which is not to say that workers don’t fight back, they do, but that their fights are limited from the top.  In 2006, there was an attempt to form a federation of Independent Trade Unions called the New Trade Union Initiative, which holds out some of the best possibilities for an independent trade union movement in India.  Many of their unions also participated in this one-day action.

Second, there are also reactionary trade unions like the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sabha [this was corrected thanks to a comment below -NRI] run by the right-wing BJP and the Bhartiya Kamgar Sena, run by the ultra-right Shiv Sena which brought out their members.  Both of these unions also participated in the strike, largely because the leftist unions kept the slogans vague enough that the right-wing could use the one-day strike as cover for the purported populist politics.

Part of the reason that the right and the left were able to come together (as they have in the past, as under the Janata Party government in the 1970s) is because they are both now in the opposition to the Congress Party’s UPA coalition which runs the central government.  In fact, despite agreeing early on to support the strike, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (run by the Congress Party) withdrew, after the party leadership put substantial pressure on it.  “The strike is politically motivated and illegal.  We will oppose it on Tuesday,” said Ashok Chaudhary, the national president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).

But this alliance can only be temporary and opportunistic, as the BJP and Shiv Sena are both pursuing neoliberal policies (in Gujarat and Maharashtra respectively, where both of them play much larger regional roles).  It also sets forward a danger, since the right wing has not been shy about stoking up ethnic and communal hatred in times of economic contraction.

Communist Party and West Bengal

Part of the reason that the strike took place in as spectacular a way as it did was because of the routing the official left received at the polls in the last elections.  While they were in power in places like Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, they were able to play a dampening role on industrial actions.  Once they were removed from office, they have found it possible to release the discontent that their members face, in order to embarrass the current government, but only up to a point. Too much worker militancy threatens their own ability to contain mass anger, which is the only real thing that they have to offer in exchange for capital investments in their economically impoverished states.

It was also in those places where the strike was strongest and was able to do more than simply industrial work-stoppages but actually stop much traffic and business throughout major cities.  In other places throughout the country (Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka) the effects of the strike were not as strongly felt.

But the most significant showdown in the strike was clearly in West Bengal, where Mamata Bannerjee attempted to flex against her muscle against what she called “the politics of bandhs” (shutdowns of cities).  Having recently beaten the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the polls, Bannerjee is now in the position of having to do the bidding of large capital, despite having organized strikes and bandhs herself in the past.

In Kolkata, the police were out in droves attempting to get people back to work, while Bannerjee’s TMC sent many of its members to break up rallies and pickets throughout the city.  Bannerjee came to power on the basis of a negative referendum on the CPM, when it tried to raze entire villages in order to make way for a manufacturing campus in the countryside for industrial giants like Tata Motors.  Bannerjee’s opportunistic about-face (now doing the work of the same capitalists that she claimed to oppose) will only expose her to greater challenges.

What the general strike reveals is the simultaneity of ordinary working class anger at the economic and political system in India as well as the inability of the major left groups to deliver anything but symbolic and token changes in their lives.  The general strike revealed that the working class in India is quite large and has the muscle to topple capitalism, but it will require new forms of political and union organization than the ones that are currently on offer.

The Infinite Regress of Translation

Translation from Hindi of high canonical literature poses some really interesting challenges.  I’m currently working on a novel by Ajneya (Sachhidanand Vatsayan) with this very interesting line:

चीन की एक पुराणी कविता है, जिसका भावार्थ है, “व्यक्ति क्यों यह इच्छा लेकर अलसाया पड़ा रहे की उसकी हड्डियाँ भी उसके पिता की हड्डियों के साथ समाधिस्थ हों?  जहा भी कोई चला जाय, वहीं कोई शस्य-श्यामला पहाड़ी मिल सकती है.”

This is both what is really cool about Ajneya and maddening.  So the sentence begins by saying that there is an ancient Chinese poem that he’s about to translate for his reader (I don’t know what ancient Chinese poetry Ajneya had access to, so I tried to google it … with little success).  So I have to operate on the idea that his translation is good, though he is likely reading a translation of the Chinese (probably into English) and then working back to the Hindi.

Then as the passage continues, he throws in “शस्य-श्यामला” (shasya-shyaamalaa) which is famous for every post-independence Indian as a phrase from the opening verse of the former national anthem (“Vande Mataram“) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.  My knowledge of Indian poetry is limited to the stuff that I read in classes or the stuff I read for my research, but the presence of the phrase is distinctive, something like coming across “amber waves of grain” in a random bit of prose.

So Ajneya is using Bankim’s phrase in a translation of an (imaginary?) ancient Chinese poem, my guess is to give the idea in the passage some ancient-cultural wisdom that doesn’t have a corollary in Hindi by connecting it to something that everyone would recognize as Indian.  Something like compensating for a familiarity deficit with a familiarity surplus.  Most Indians I know don’t know what “shasya shyaamalaa” means despite knowing the line from the poem (one could say something about how religious and patriotic memorization works here).

Here’s my attempt at a translation:

There’s an ancient Chinese poem which roughly says, “Should a man be lulled into a stupor by the desire that his bones be buried in the same tomb as his father’s?  Wherever one goes, one can find rolling hills ‘dark with the crops of harvest.’”

So he needs it to be a Chinese poem to get the idea of family burial grounds into the novel (Ajneya’s worldview is pretty well-framed by Hinduism of a particular kind, and I don’t know where he might have turned to in order to find that particular idea in Hindi or Sanskrit … he seems to have avoided, too, English poems which could have contained similar ideas).
But the presence of “शस्य-श्यामला” is interesting because it’s so connected to the former national anthem and to a history of vernacular poetry in India. It’s not quite the same as “amber waves of grain” which sounds to me like a bit of purple prose more than good poetry, while “शस्य-श्यामला” still has something of the high poetic feel to it.
So in a passage that is about not needing to return home to die, he smuggles in a phrase about the beautiful landscapes of the country (the Bankim poem is about the nation as mother, figured like the Goddess Durga) in order to talk about his obviously Oedipal relationship to his father.  But when he wrote the passage (early 1940s), Vande Mataram was not the national anthem, even though it was famous (Tagore read the poem aloud in a meeting of the Indian National Congress).  So I am not really sure how the phrase would have felt to Ajneya or his earliest readers — perhaps it would be immediately recognized, perhaps it would just sound familiar?
I settled on using Aurobindo Ghose‘s translation of Bankim’s phrase for the language in the passage, in part because it is the official translation of the poem that the Government of India uses.

I show gratitude to thee, Mother,
richly-watered, richly-fruited,
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests,
The Mother!

Her nights rejoicing in the glory of the moonlight,
her lands clothed beautifully with her trees in flowering bloom,
sweet of laughter, sweet of speech,
The Mother, giver of boons, giver of bliss.

But there are two parallel problems that are not resolvable, for me, simultaneously.
One is the chain of associations that are interesting but hard to collapse back into manageable prose:
home-Kashmir-father-death
nation-land-mother-poetry
(Is the canon of poetry the thing you are trying to run away from when you compare Kashmir to Bankim-as-father?  Is it the nation yet, since he’s in Punjab when he has this thought about Kashmir, using a phrase from a Bengali poem?)
The second is the translation within a translation problem:
Hindi prose–ancient Chinese poem–Bankim’s Bengali turned into Hindi
 The ancient Chinese poem thing is relatively easy since in English “ancient Chinese poem” means more or less the same thing as it would mean to a Hindi reader (ancient wisdom turned into pithy aphorism).  But no matter what phrase I use for “shasya-shyamala” I can’t get the association to work in English.  I might have taken a cheap shortcut (put a footnote, use the official translation) but it seems like the only way to leave a trace of the readerly problem one might encounter with the line.  But then the feeling seems so remote, even to me, of homesickness for a land (I certainly don’t feel that way about Houston for obvious reasons) while living in another part of the same land (India?) while using a poem about the unity of those two pieces of land figured about yet another piece of land (Bengal).
There’s also a problem with geography, since I don’t know if Kashmir ever has hills that are dark with grain (at least not in the way that they are in Bengal), since the line in Bankim is probably referring to thick rice paddy (I’m just guessing here) and not wheat fields (which is the only thing, I think, that could have the same association).  But noticing that seems more like a critical problem than a translation problem, so I avoided doing anything about it.
I don’t think that I’ve ever been as close a reader as when I am translating from Hindi.

Self-determination for Balochistan

Last week, three Republicans (Dana Rohrabacher, Louie Gohmert, and Steve King) sponsored a bill “recognizing Baluchistan’s right to self-determination.” This sparked widespread condemnation by the Pakistani ruling and military class (who saw the maneuver as meddling in internal politics) and enthusiastic support from several voices in Balochistan (who saw the resolution and the hearings that preceded it as evidence that their case was finally getting a hearing in the west). The problem is that the Balochi right to self-determination is being caught in the same ambush which trapped the Kurds in Iraq: the weakness of their position vis-à-vis Pakistan is forcing them into a compromise with American imperialism, which has already shown itself no great ally of national liberation struggles.

The Obama administration and leading Republicans were quick to distance themselves from the resolution; the establishment line continues to be that Pakistan is more important as an ally than as an enemy. David Dreier (R-CA) spoke to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to assure him that the US is fully behind the national integrity of Pakistan. All mention of the Pakistani government’s role in the horrors in Balochistan was quickly swept under the rug. At the same time, the bill is the latest salvo in the Pakistan-bashing which has been commonplace in the US as an explanation for the Afghan quagmire, the seemingly endless sources of Islamists, and the like; Rohrabacher’s bill is part of a small but vocal line of thought which sees the break-up of Pakistan as important to the “war on terror” and the coming conflict with Iran.

The fight between Christine Fair and Rohrabacher reveals some of the thinking that is behind this resolution. The real injustices done to the Baloch people are being used as sticks with which the Pakistani establishment will be humbled. In fact, offhand comments by members of Rohrabacher’s staff were picked up by the Pakistani press; one of them was overheard saying that the resolution was an opportunity to “stick it to the Pakistanis.” One suspects, too, that the decision to support the Baloch cause was opportunistic; there has been so little debate and discussion about the longstanding grievances of the Balochis in the US.

As Praveen Swami recently reported, the Pakistani military has long conducted a dirty war in Balochistan: assassinations, rape, collective punishment, disappearances. Since the establishment of Pakistan, there has been a dominant strain of Baloch politics which sought independence from Pakistan; there is also a strain which has been coopted into the establishment of Pakistan which prefers unity over independence. The Baloch Liberation Army is only the most recent formation under which the Baloch organized themselves to fight the Pakistani military.

Almost immediately, the Pakistani government cut a deal with Baloch leaders who were living in exile, presumably so that they could both pacify restive Balochis and re-establish connections to erstwhile allies. A package of economic reforms was also announced for Balochistan:

INCENTIVES: The meeting decided that the federal government will release Rs4 billion to the Water and Power Development Authority on account of its share of subsidy for farmers of Balochistan.

A total of 15,000 graduates and post-graduates from the province will be given jobs under the prime minister’s Internship Programme.

They will work as schoolteachers and get a stipend of Rs15,000 per month.

About 2,400 federal government jobs will be filled on merit with the assistance of members of the National Assembly and Senate from Balochistan.

The meeting decided to award one-step promotion to any officer coming to Islamabad from the province on deputation.

It also decided to double the number of beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme to 750,000.

The strength of Federal Levies Force will be raised from 3,500 to 6,500 through fresh recruitment.

The meeting decided to increase the number of brilliant students from Balochistan to 500 from 150 for providing free education to them with effect from the next academic year and to create an endowment fund of Rs5 billion to sustain the programme.

The Capital Development Authority will allot plots to the Balochistan government for construction of two hostels for students and officers in Islamabad.

The Frontier Corps will not be move in any district without the permission of the deputy commissioner and will not set up any check-post without the approval of the chief minister.

Confident that it has the ear of the west, the Baloch Republican Party rejected the package and praised the Republican congressmen for their support. While American imperialist interest and Balochi national interest may move in similar directions for a while, they will necessarily diverge as Balochistan is asked to be the military-base-of-the-month (which is the only way, it seems, that independence happens with American backing) against Iran and Pakistan. This is not the preferred option for the American ruling class, but it’s hard to imagine that either Santorum or Romney doesn’t start picking up this line in the debates very soon.

The Committee of Progressive Pakistani-Canadians gets the analysis right, I think:

While any publicity about the discrimination and violence faced by Sindhis and the Baloch is to be welcomed long experience, more recently confirmed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now in Syria shows that US and western concerns about human rights violations are merely a fig leaf to provide a cover for the naked pursuit of their own selfish imperial interests.

The Pakistani state’s unjust and ruthless treatment of the Baloch, even when their elected leadership accepted the constitutional framework adopted during Z.A. Bhutto’s government in 1973 in good faith as a step toward equitable relations, is the direct cause of the desire among many Baloch to seek independence; as are repeated ‘actions’ by the military in the rise of the Baloch armed resistance movement – reminiscent of the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) in East Pakistan’s war of independence.

Friend and comrade in Pakistan released!

I received the following from Farooq Tariq of the Labor Party of Pakistan:
Thank you for your immediate response on the arrest of Ammar Ali Jan, general secretary Labour Party Pakistan Lahore. He was taken to a court by Kot Lakhpat police this morning. On hearing the arguments, the judge ordered to release him on bail bond of Rupees 30,000. Rabia Shahzadi advocate and member of Lahore LPP committee represented Ammar Ali jan in the court.

Ammar was picked up by CIA police yesterday afternoon. they dodged him to come along to Liberty police station where he was handed over to Kot lakhpat police.

Today, we had tremendous response to our message on SPN and facebook. We also sent an sms to all our contacts.

Asma Jehanghir former president Supreme Court Bar Association called me to offer her help in the court. She also advised how to go further on this issue.

Thank you Asma for this timely advice and offer of legal help.

Scores of Ammar friends and party activists were at the police station along with leaders of Progressive Youth Front. It was here when Ammar along with local youth led a demonstration in 2010 against continues power cuts. He was arrested at the time along with five others. This successful blokade of the main road led to a complete victory at the time and WAPDA has to buy a new transformer from private company on urgent basis to provide the electricity for the whole area.

On our demand, Saad Rafique member national parliament intervened in support of the youth and forced police to release all of arrested one. However, police arrested Ammar on the charges that were dropped at the time.

Labour Party Pakistan Lahore will organise a protest demonstration against this arrest and has called an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.

Friend and Comrade arrested in Pakistan

If solidarity actions are possible from abroad, I will post details here.
Ammar Labour Party

LAHORE – Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) Lahore general secretary, Progressive Youth Front (PYF) organiser and Beaconhouse National University (BNU) teacher Ammar Ali Jaan was arrested by CIA personnel from Ghora Chowk around noon and placed in the Kot Lakhpat police lockup for being an absconder in a road blocking case registered in 2010.
According to sources, Ammar left home around 12pm and stopped at the Ghora Chowk petrol pump where four-five police officers asked him for ID, and began to check his vehicle. The police officers reportedly claimed that his chasis number was incorrect and he would have to come to the police station. Once taken to the CIA office Liberty Police Station, he was told that he had been arrested for an outstanding FIR against him at the Kot Lakhpat police station. He was later taken to the Kot Lakhpat police station where he was put in lockup.
Speaking to Pakistan Today, Kot Lakhpat police Naib Muharar Abid said Ammar Ali was an absconder in FIR 555/10 registered on August 10 2010 under sections 147, 149, 353, 186, 290, 291 of the Pakistan Penal Code, for blocking a road. He said that Ammar was arrested by the investigations wing. However, asked to clarify why CIA police were involved, Abid said, “Anyone can arrest an absconder.”
Investigating Officer Zulfiqar Ahmed could not be reached.
LPP has called for protest outside the police station in the morning.

Paul Frolich’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg

The book is quite interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its passionate defense of the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg from her many detractors. I read the book as a companion piece to Reform or Revolution, which a number of people in Austin are reading at the moment.

While the book has many things to recommend it, I found two arguments to be particularly provocative (either because I haven’t heard them before or because they didn’t strike me the first time I heard them – I can’t decide which).

First, Frolich argues that the historical conditions were against the German Revolution (1918-23) from the beginning:

And to top it off, there was another fact of the greatest significance: history provided the movement with no direct or imperative objective that could be brought about only by revolution. Peace and land were the two great slogans which had carried the Russian Revolution to victory, but in 1918 peace was already a fact, and defeated German imperialism was prepared to pay anything for ti, providing it could retain power at home; and although a broad section of the small-hold peasants made a rather precarious living, land-hunger was not strong enough to rouse the rural areas into revolt. Having been kept until then in complete servitude by Junkers and rich land-owning peasants, the agricultural labourers made only hesitant use of the ‘coalition right’ and their new-found political freedom. The working class was certainly in favour of the socialization of the economy, but the greater part of the masses came to realize what this demand meant and how it could be carried out only after all chance of doing so was irrevocably lost (263).

Frolich adds to this grim picture the following proviso: “However, there was one factor which forced matters to a fateful showdown: sections of the working class were armed.” This makes it appear as though the German Revolution was really only ever about the disarmament of the German working class so that German capitalism could force through its own agenda on the German workers. If the revolutionary prospects were not really all that good, then all revolutionary action in Germany in 1918 really did amount to putsches.

Second, Frolich argues about the pivotal events of January 1918, “The truth is: there was no Spartakus uprising … The truth is that the January fighting was cautiously and deliberately prepared and cunningly provoked by the leaders of the counter-revolution.” (285) This argument seems to flow from the first (that the advantage was in the hands of the bourgeois reaction and that there could only have defensive actions by the working class at the moment).

This is fairly different from the picture painted by Pierre Broue, for instance, who argues that there was an attempt to push forward in 1918 when the KPD did not have a decisive advantage (due in part to the adventurist politics of Liebknecht).

Part of Frolich’s argument seems to be the result of focusing on Rosa Luxemburg’s role in the events of 1918, but there does seem to be an important debate here about whether or not any party would have been able to push the German Revolution to a decisive conclusion early on. The proletariat of course gets another go at it in 1923, when conditions are more favorable.