Indian lessons for NZ workers – the January 8 general strike

by Phil Duncan

On Wednesday (January 8) another massive general strike took place in India.  Some 250 million industrial workers, white-collar workers, transport workers, agricultural labourers and other employees struck against the government’s economic policies and attacks on the Muslim population through new proposed citizenship rules.

This is the fourth massive general strike in the country since September 2015.

The strike hit a wide section of the public sector – in mining, coal, steel, oil, natural gas, power, communications, wharves and ports the withdrawal of labour was near-total.  Big chunks of the private sector – garment industry, telecommunications, metals, car plants, engineering and other major industries – were also heavily impacted.

Public transport services – trains, buses and taxis – were widely disrupted too.  Students boycotted classes in 60 higher education institutions.  Workers also blocked some of the national highways.

Workers in the public sector acted in defiance of government instructions not to take industrial action.

A particularly encouraging aspect of the strike and other recent mass protests has been their political nature – central to these actions have been a rejection at government attempts to deepen sectarian religious divisions.  The BJP is, after all, a Hindu exclusivist party.

The economic issues are high unemployment rates, rising prices and stagnating wages, rural indebtedness, low prices for peasants’ agricultural produce, growing privatisation, and government stockpiling of much-needed food supplies.  New industrial legislation meanwhile proposes to allow capitalists to extend working hours.

In 2019 there was continuous struggle by the exploited and oppressed masses all over India.

Workers mobilised in defence of basic rights and against privatisation and corporatisation.

Real wages in the organised manufacturing sector stagnated from 1995/96 to 2009-10.  Although they began to rise after that they have not returned to mid-1990s levels.  This happened while workers’ productivity and output increased, so there was a bonanza for capital while workers’ living standards declined and workers’ share of the wealth produced by their labour-power declined.

Workers have also been confronted by a massive increase of contract labour – it almost tripled as a percentage of the workforce in the organised manufacturing sector from 12% at the start of the 1990s to 34.6 some 20 years later.  In the car industry the number of contract workers rose a gigantic 13-fold from 2000-01 to 2011-12.  This meant that, while there was a huge demand for more and more workers, which market economists tell us leads to rising wages, pay in the car plants actually fell throughout this period.

Women have mobilised against rape and other violent misogyny.  Dalits (the lowest-caste) and adivasis (indigenous peoples) fought against new attempts to steal their land and small farmers fought against debt robbery and low prices for their produce.

Encouragingly, all these strands of protests have more and more come together, strengthening all of them and putting the Modi government on the defensive.  Hindu sectarian supremacy has been weakened as a result.

Moreover, attempts to legally institutionalise prejudice and discrimination against religious minorities have been increasingly widely rejected.  There is clearly a vast pool of progressive, democratic, secular opinion in India.

The Indian working class now numbers over 500 million, the second biggest in the world.  It dwarfs the working class in any of the First World/imperialist countries of Europe, North America, Japan, let alone Australia and New Zealand.  And thanks to colonial-imposed under-development, maintained into the epoch of imperialism, India and the Indian working class, along with the small-holding peasants, remain super-exploited.

Class relations are much sharper and more brutal in India.  There is less grounds for illusions in the system because the system has less on offer to buy loyalty and create illusions.  A chunk of the surplus-value is skimmed off by the imperialists leaving less surplus-value for the Indian bourgeoisie to buy loyalty and create illusions.

Therefore the resistance of the exploited and oppressed masses is more determined and militant.  Along with struggles by workers and peasants, there is a mass Maoist insurgency in substantial parts of western India, ‘the Red Corridor’, with the state deploying as many as 200,000 members of its repressive forces against the revolutionaries and the communities in which they are embedded.  Extra-judicial killings of Maoists, union and peasant activists and human rights activists are carried out by state forces.

India has a magnificent tradition of industrial militancy, peasant struggles and rebellion, and armed revolutionary insurrection.  If the NZ working class wants to ever free itself it will need to become more like Indian workers and far, far less well-behaved.