A Workers’ Struggle in India to ‘Make the Land Proud’ as Global Unrest Spreads

This has been one of the largest general strikes in the world, writes Vijay Prasad from Kerala, as social unrest grows in Morocco, Sudan, Nigeria and Los Angeles. 

Workers Around the World Greet
2019 With Wave of Demonstrations

By Vijay Prashad
Tricontinental: Institute
for Social Research

Over two days—Jan. 8 and 9—more than 160 million workers went on strike in India. This has been one of the largest general strikes in the world. The workers, exhausted by almost three decades of neoliberal policies and by the attack on their rights, came onto the streets to make their case for better livelihoods and workplace democracy. Blockades on train tracks and on national highways closed down sections of the country.

In Bengaluru, information technology workers joined the strike. In Himachal Pradesh workers gathered to demand an end to precarious employment in government service. Workers from a broad range of sectors, from manufacturing to health care, joined the strike. There has been no response from the government. Please read my report on the strike. 

My report is written from Kerala, where almost the entire workforce went on strike. This strike comes after the powerful Women’s Wall that was built on Jan. 1. For a fuller sense of what brought 5.5 million women to form a wall along Kerala, see my report. The title for this newsletter comes from a well-known poem by the late radical poet Vayalar Ramavarma (1928-1975). When workers struggle, Vayalar wrote, “isn’t it something to make the land proud?”

Morocco, Sudan, Nigeria and Los Angeles

This two-day strike comes as workers around the world greeted 2019 with a wave of demonstrations—from the “month of anger” launched in Morocco by trade unions, to the protests in Sudan over rising prices; from teachers’ strike in Los Angeles, to the potential general strike in Nigeria over wages.

Protesters in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Rahul)

Protesters in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Rahul)

An International Trade Union Confederation report from last year showed that more countries are excluding workers from labor laws–65 percent of countries, at last count—excluding migrant workers and public sector employees and others from the rights afforded to them. There is every indication that the attack on workers’ rights and workplace democracy will continue despite the unrest amongst workers.

India

Brinda Karat, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), reflects—in our January Dossier—on the record of the current far-right government in India, the BJP, and on the challenges before the left to produce an alternative agenda to put before the people in the April 2019 general election. Karat offers a sharp assessment of the attacks on women and the denigration of the project of women’s emancipation in India:

“Over the past several decades, women have entered public spaces to work and to live. They have established their talents, their skills, and their capacities in numerous spheres. There has been a backlash against this increased assertion. The backlash is shaped by extreme misogyny – or a strong feeling in sections of our society that women have a specific place and anyone who crosses the boundary is liable to be punished. These cultural walls behind which women and girls are expected to live (with some exceptions for certain classes), are stronger than the high walls of a prison. When a woman is raped, she is blamed for entering public space, for being a free citizen, for the clothes she wears, for the person she speaks to, for the place and time where she was. It is the woman who is held responsible for the crime. That is the character of the misogyny.”

Kerala, 2019. Photo: Sivaprasad Parinhattummuri.

Kerala, 2019. (Sivaprasad Parinhattummuri)

Karat’s interview goes into depth about the difficult situation under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For example, she makes the following points:

  • Because of India’s government policies, agrarian distress is acute: An average of 12,000 farmers committed suicide every year of this government’s rule. Unemployment is at its highest.
  • India stands out for its increased inequalities under Modi’s rule. Just 1 percent of the population holds 68 percent of all household wealth, an almost 20-point increase in the last five years. On the other hand, according to the government’s socio-economic survey, over 90 percent of India’s people have an income of less than 10,000 rupees, or $143, a year.

It is not axiomatic that high inequality and social distress lead to a progressive politics. In such a context, it is as likely that the culture of working-class solidarity erodes, and social violence grows, producing the seedbed of neo-fascist politics. To that end, Karat makes the case that the left in India—but also elsewhere—needs to engage with the rigidities of our culture.

Cultures promoted by capitalism and the market promote and glorify individualism and promote individualistic solutions. All these add to the depoliticization of a whole generation of young people. This is certainly a challenge: how to find the most effective ways of taking our message to the youth. Then again in India class exploitation is intensified through the caste system and vice versa. To build resistance struggles against the caste system and caste oppression and to link such struggles with the fight against capitalism in terms of struggles and goals is also a challenge. Trade unions and other class organizations certainly have to be more assertive and attentive to these aspects.

The left, Karat suggests, needs to enter fully into the struggle over how to define the terms of a culture. Questions of dignity as well as discrimination are fundamental to the development of a progressive politics. No emancipatory movement can turn its back on any form of social hierarchy. The democratic impulse must work its way into the most rigid of cultural forms.

Karat offers a clear-headed assessment of the challenges for the left in India’s upcoming elections.

Brazil

Meanwhile, from Brazil, João Pedro Stedile looks back at the Brazilian election that elected the neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. Stedile’s interview, which you can read here, explains the current, ugly context in Brazil. Bolsonaro has rapidly proved correct all the concerns about his politics. Stedile believes that the only antidote to Bolsonaro is a vibrant working-class movement; rooted not only in the countryside but also in the urban periphery.

Meanwhile, our Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research team in São Paulo—André Cardoso, Cristiane Tiemi and Olivia Carolino – have a full assessment (in Portuguese) of the Brazilian economy for 2019. A new law drops the minimum wage while another set of decrees directly attacks Brazil’s indigenous communities. The department in charge of indigenous rights, or FUNAI, will lose its oversight to the ministry of agriculture, which is dominated by agricultural, logging and mining business interests. Bolsonaro’s Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina Dias was the leader of the agricultural business lobby in the Congress. Sonia Guajajara, the leader of the National Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, or APIB, said after Bolsonaro’s decisions: “We are the first to be attacked. We have to be the first to react.”

Palestine

We have to be the first to be react. This would have been a phrase familiar to the Palestinian communist Shadia Abu Ghazaleh, born in Nablus in 1949 and killed in 1968. In 1967, Abu Ghazaleh joined the newly formed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She abandoned her studies in Cairo to the consternation of her family, who had lost their home in Palestine. “What good is a university degree,” Abu Ghazaleh questioned them, “if I have no wall at home to attach it to?”

Last year, 56 Palestinian children, most from Gaza, were killed by the Israeli military forces. Focus has turned to the elections in Israel, but there is little concentration on the Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians.

This week’s painting—above—is by Suhad Khatib, a San Francisco-based artist, designer and filmmaker, born in Oman, raised in Amman and currently living in the United States and unable to live in the hometowns of her parents due to colonialism. ‘This painting is to hold on to this smile, the one that makes her eyes disappear like that’, Suhad tells us. “It’s a gift from me to the generation of revolutionaries like Shadia… that will rise up again.”

Painting of Shadia Abu Ghazaleh by Shad Khatibi. 

Adalah, the legal center for Palestine, notes in a new report that Israel has shown no willingness to conduct an inquiry or investigation into the killings at the Gaza perimeter. It calls for the intervention of the International Criminal Court. None will be forthcoming.

It will remain to brave people to follow the example of Shadia Abu Ghazaleh and act to force the opening of a new road towards peace in Palestine. Their struggles will be struggles to make their land proud.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, journalist, commentator and a Marxist intellectual. He is the Executive Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books.

Photographs in this article were by Rahul, an independent journalist based in Anantapur (Andhra Pradesh), whose work can be seen at the People’s Archive of Rural India.

16 comments for “A Workers’ Struggle in India to ‘Make the Land Proud’ as Global Unrest Spreads

  1. solly
    January 17, 2019 at 05:58

    Thank you for the coverage of this important event in India, which has been totally ignored by mainstream outlets in the USA, as well as several sites that are considered progressive. It is obvious that the plutocrats do not want the public to be informed about the magnitude of unrest in the world.

  2. Waldemar
    January 16, 2019 at 21:41

    This is the way.
    The next step is global coordination and cohesion.

  3. mike k
    January 15, 2019 at 11:19

    Those who continue to dream of a world based on love and fairness are murdered and starved by the ruthless Rulers and their phony money enslavement schemes. The worst among us have the rest of us in thrall. Their techniques of oppression have historically been all too effective.

    Unless we can overthrow the wealthy and powerful, and establish a real democracy that works for all, I am forced to say that all living beings would be much better off if the human species were to disappear from the Earth.

  4. vinnieoh
    January 15, 2019 at 08:49

    As john wilson stated, a massive strike in India, and watching US “news” not even a mention, even in passing.

    So, here is a clue: To understand the adjacent article concerning the smearing of Corbyn and Assange – specifically, why the establishment wishes to crush Corbyn or anyone like him – this article by Vijay should be read first. When we proles are treated to the spectacle of the persecution and vilification of anyone in a leadership role who speaks truth to power or even attempts to, we are meant to absorb the message that “resistance is futile,” or that “this too, shall happen to you.”

    The 1% are worried. No matter how intense the propaganda, whitewashing, posturing, etc. there is no hiding the massive global inequality working at a slow boil. People everywhere are beginning to realize that concentrated wealth and power intend to channel humanity into a permanent state of modern medievalism. There will be only lords and peasants. Carl Rove was one of their many, many prophets.

    • Bob Van Noy
      January 15, 2019 at 09:46

      Thank you vinnieoh. I was mentioning to a fellow reader/commenter that I was researching the concept of Grace because I was feeling positive that We (The People) would have a say in the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, when I realized that there were people that were so reprehensible, that they probably deserved no careful regard, people like the one you mentioned here…

    • vinnieoh
      January 16, 2019 at 10:28

      I used to be a hopeful person; not an optimist, but a realist with hopeful inclinations. During the W Bush years I watched with horror how this nation committed itself to war to the farthest horizons and beyond. And I also watched in awe as Rove, Cheney, et al so deftly outmaneuvered any and all criticisms and protestations. Rove is truly a sick individual; what’s worse is all of the other sick individuals (whose names and functions remain hidden from us) – their minions – who are truly and faithfully on board with this wrong turn for humanity.

      Those things which gave me hope, accomplished in the nation of my birth: abolition of slavery; universal suffrage; abolishment of child labor and the brief period of workplace fairness; the environmental awakening and subsequent efforts to mitigate the worst of our industrial disregard; and lately, the subsidence of persecution of non-heterosexual persons. And now it becomes clear that at least 40% of my fellow citizens (abetted by the electoral college) would see all of that repealed. To clarify, I did not support or vote for HRC, and knew full well we were screwed no matter which piece of offal was “elected.”

  5. Peter Panicker
    January 15, 2019 at 08:24

    Yes indeed, a struggle of monumental proportions. Yet being originally from Kerala it does give me pause when I think that this is the one state in the Indian Union where industries are non-existent. That the most significant stream of revenue for the state is from foreign remittances, from people like myself who have had the opportunity to go abroad and make a living. It is the Gulf oil wealth from the 70’s onwards which was in Kerala’s reach that led to hordes of educated and blue collar workers finding jobs in countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the like, otherwise the state would have been the poorest of the 29 states of the Union. To the extent that workers rights have been espoused by the various Communist governments that have come into power, in fact the first state government of Kerala if I have my facts right, was the first democratically elected government in the world. On the downside it has deterred enterprise and industries from wanting to establish for fear of labor strife and there are plenty of instances of that happening. Women in particular have found a voice partly because of the state’s high rate of literacy, but also the gumption to challenge the establishment – yes even in supposedly only male dominated holy places such as Sabrimala. It appears to be that it’s only women from the majority religion such as Hindus who do protest their exclusion from these shrines, whereas other religions – Christians, especially the Eastern Orthodox types and Muslims are still content to be back seated by those paternalistic edicts, after all those are the religions that espouse misogynistic values in their faithful.

  6. Alois Muellert
    January 15, 2019 at 04:51

    United for the first time?

    “Workers from both the public and private sectors were joined by teachers and students from across the country, forming possibly largest strike in history.”

    Deep State get ready to die!

  7. DH Fabian
    January 14, 2019 at 22:46

    A key point defining any nation’s chances of build a modern, successful country rests in its response to the failures of current policies — poverty.

  8. Jeff Harrison
    January 14, 2019 at 21:29

    The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards Justice – Theodore Parker 1810-1860, U.U. minister

    That doesn’t salve the pain of here and now but it can help.

  9. DW Bartoo
    January 14, 2019 at 20:24

    I wonder if there will be any coverage of this massive protest against neoliberalism in the media in the US or in France or in the U.K.?

    Hopefully, at some point there will develop international awareness and support among the many in this brutal class war.

    Doubtless, the US will come late to any such understanding as US mythology asserts that there is no such thing as class in this exemplary society.

    One imagines that the people of India and those of France, as well, are not constrained in their understanding by such nonsense.

  10. Truth first
    January 14, 2019 at 20:20

    I have visited India several times. I have had to conclude that this may be the most screw-up country on the planet. Pollution worse than China, kids mutilated to make them more effective beggars, horrendous inequlaity, unchecked violence against women and untouchables still exist even after this was outlawed years ago.

  11. rosemerry
    January 14, 2019 at 17:40

    Thanks to Vijay for this and his previous report on the huge strike in India.

    We can see why so many worry about Dem Star Tulsi Gabbard ready to stand as a candidate for POTUS next year. Despite her progressive points she is a devoted supporter of Mr Modi and his BJP. workers beware, and peacemakers too.

  12. john wilson
    January 14, 2019 at 16:30

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about this piece is that its the first I have heard of it and I am an avid follower of news. These kind of numbers makes the yellow vests seem quite paltry by comparison. I would regard this strike as a major event by anyone’s standards yet there is nothing about it on MSM A very interesting report.

    • Tom Kath
      January 14, 2019 at 23:02

      Quite right john, although I would suggest that it is the SAME protest as the yellow vests. I see it as a revolution or struggle for CONTROL. – Not just transferring control from one party to another, one sex to another, one bank to another, one wealth sector to another, but a struggle for people to take personal control and responsibility for their own lives. Think things like accountable, publicly verified, not centrally controlled, not centrally regulated, guaranteed, or centrally supervised.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 15, 2019 at 10:18

      Labor protests? Rubbish, now back to work.

Comments are closed.