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Backstory | How the loco workers' strike of May 1974 foreshadowed the Emergency

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The 20 day strike of 17 lakh workers of the Indian Railways led by George Fernandes started a major showdown between the workers and the Congress government headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The government repression during the days showed the first signs of what was going to follow in the Emergency.

Backstory | How the loco workers' strike of May 1974 foreshadowed the Emergency
One of the biggest strikes in the history of labour movements anywhere in the world took place in India in May 1974 when 17 lakh workers of the Indian Railways struck work demanding better working conditions and higher wages. The strike was led by George Fernandes in his capacity as the President of the All India Railwaymen's Federation, one of the two unions recognised by the Railway Board along with the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR).
There were many reasons for the strike. But the primary discontent of the workers stemmed from a peculiar British-era condition whereby their work was classified as "continuous". This meant that loco workers were required to be on duty as long as a train was on trip. Often, this meant working for several days at a stretch.
This wasn't the first strike on the issue. The workers had been demanding an eight-hour working day on par with other government staff for a while. Between 1967 and 1974 there had been four such strikes but the one in 1974, supported by over 70 percent of the railway staff, was the most significant. By this time, many rail workers were disillusioned with their recognized unions’ inability to secure their rights. This had led to the creation of independent, category-based unions, such as the Loco Running Staff Association.
As detailed by Stephen Sherlock in his brilliant book The Indian railways strike of 1974: a study of power and organised labour, ahead of the planned strike, all these unions along with the central trade unions as well as some of the opposition parties bandied together under a National Coordinating Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle (NCRRS). To start with, the strike was extremely successful with workers and their families squatting on the tracks to prevent trains running. What alarmed the government even more was when electricity and transport workers as well as taxi drivers in Mumbai joined the protests.
What followed was brutal government action with the Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) deployed to put down the protests. Thousands of workers were thrown into jail many of them under the draconian Defense of India Rules and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and others were summarily dismissed from service. Fernandes along with many of the leaders was arrested on the night of May 2, 1974 in a clear signal that the government of Indira Gandhi was in no mood to negotiate. Indeed the repression with which the state moved to quell the movement was a foretaste of events that would play out a year later across the country when Emergency was declared.
Strangely, the political leadership of the non-Congress parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) which might have been expected to support the movement, showed a strange lack of will. Mostly these parties were keen on a quick negotiated settlement instead of a prolonged strike. This lack of political support confused the workers along with their mistrust of their own unions.
Eventually the strike lasted only 20 days. Its reverberations though would be felt for decades to come since it was here that the first seeds of the Emergency were sown.
—Sundeep Khanna is a former editor and the co-author of the recently released Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions. Views are personal
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