By Amarjeet Kaur
October 31 is approaching, the day of foundation of the first national level organization of trade unions in India. A collective of trade unions from all sectors, formal and informal, gathered at Bombay and AITUC was founded with Lala Lajpat Rai, a tall leader of the freedom movement at that time, as its Founding President.
It was not a sudden event. The process was initiated in 19th century itself as a new working class was emerging along with the country’s colonization. The first strike by the workers is recorded in Indian labour history having taken place in 1827. Unionization had not yet begun. But there was general awakening against extreme exploitation. Farmers were the other section rebelling against the British policy of forcible land acquisition. Tribals were also victims of eviction from jungles. Colonialists were keen to loot the rich resources of the forests. These three sections of our people in a way laid the foundation of the political opposition to the exploitative foreign rule.
The agitations and revolts became a significant factor in the background for uprising against British rule in 1857, which we term as the first war of independence. After oppression by British Raj and having crushed the movement, the workers were once again on streets from middle of 1860s. There were efforts to organize the workers on community basis for their welfare. It was only from 1870 onwards that the unions were initiated on the basis of the work/sector. The demand for reducing working hours was raised in the middle of 1860 in India.
It is high time that the working class should revisit its history of great contributions towards the freedom struggle of the country.
In 1908, when the British government had arrested Bal Gangadhar Tilak, there were protests all over India demanding his release. The workers all over India had organized protests. The workers of Bombay had organized Bombay bandh for six days since punishment pronounced was for six years jail term. It definitely left a deep impression on the minds of those leading the anti-colonial freedom movement.
The freedom movement later on was an influencing factor on the workers movements whereas the working class movement showed the path of mass struggles, mass mobilization and direct confrontation with the exploiters.
In its very second conference in Jharia, AITUC debated the prevailing situation in the country, the massacre of Jalianwala Bagh in 1919 in Amritsar and mass protests in response to noncooperation movement called by Mahatma Gandhi. AITUC session adopted are solution of ‘sampoorna swaraj’ (complete independence) from British Raj. The working class not only adopted the resolution but went into actions of more unionization, more agitations including strikes not only for the reduction in working hours, wages, workplace occupational safety and social security but also for the legalization of union formations and its democratic rights to agitations, freedom of expression and right to dissent. The organization mobilised in front of the INC session every year demanding resolution of complete independence from the then existing political platform.
The AITUC also adopted constitution in Jharia session in 1921, which enshrined the above mentioned issues along with the objective of establishing socialism in India.
It is worthwhile to mention here that the unions were organized by the persons of all political shades in the freedom movement of the country, including the communists who were working in groups whereas the communist party was yet not founded (it was founded on December 26, 1925). Many amongst its founding leaders were organizers of trade unions.
Another important aspect to be mentioned here was that the working class got support from all the political shades of freedom movement. When the legend Bhagat Singh threw bomb in the assembly for noise to draw attention to the point they wanted to make, the pamphlets they threw in the assembly included the demand of withdrawal of draconian Dispute Act meant for workers.
It is to recollect here that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was president of AITUC in 1928 when AITUC had called for agitation against visit of Simon Commission. It was during these agitations that the founding President Lal Lajpat Rai was lathicharged in one of the protest marches and he succumbed to the injuries. In 1929 Netaji Sabhas Chandra Bose became President of AITUC who further took the organization to militant struggles as well as asked them to be aware of communal divisive forces which are serving the ruling masters with their actions but the workers’ agenda had no meaning for them. V V Giri who took great interest in organizing of workers for their cause also headed the organisation in 1942.
The other stalwarts who held the post of President or General Secretary of AITUC during different periods included C R Das, N M Joshi, S A Dange, R S Ruikar, S S Mirajkar, Ranen Sen, Indrajit Gupta, Maniben Kara, A B Bardhan, Shibnath Banerjee, Thengadi, Diwan Chaman Lal, Joseph Baptista, C F Andrews, Ginewala, R A Khandigkar, Suresh Chandra Banerjee, Harihar Nath Shastri, V S Chettiar, Chaturanan Mishra, K G Srivastava, Homi Daji, M S Krishanan, K L Mahendra, J. Chitharanjan, Promod Gogoi and Gurudas Das Gupta.
This was to bring the point that the working class and their trade unions were never devoid of the understanding of the political developments around them and they did not fail to respond to them.
AITUC being the umbrella organization of all unions took lead in putting forth the opinion of workingclass before the available platforms, political and otherwise.
The working class through its unions was the first to reject the proposal of British Raj for seeking some concessions and self-rule under their rule. AITUC demanded from the political parties not to accept such a proposal but rather should strengthen the freedom movement to achieve complete independence and simultaneously should initiate work for the making of the Constitution to govern free India. Once the constituent assembly was formed, the first memorandum with suggestions for inclusion into the Constitution was submitted by AITUC.
The AITUC had also demanded debate on the economy and vision for development in free India, about management of its natural resources and the assets created by the hard labour of people.
Those discussions and recommendations by three committees became the stepping stone for the debate of establishing public sector in building heavy industry base and infrastructure developments, etc, in independent India’s Parliament and in taking steps for building institutions for skilled and highly skilled cadres to carry out the dream of self-reliant economy in independent India. Nothing surprising that the forefathers of the ideological forces in power today had opposed the self-reliant model of development then inside and outside Parliament.
The growth in science and technology, research in all fields including in atomic and space science became significant features in development of the country facing hostile environment and denial of any assistance by the western world. The then USSR responded in helping in building some major Public Sector Enterprises (PSUs) and then transferred the technology to run these on our own.
Today we are facing severe challenge to our PSUs, the government departments, subversion of everything built to make India self-reliant. The trade unions which oppose those policies are under attack through retrograde changes in labour laws and their codification. The huge tracts of land of the PSUs and government companies as well as those belonging to farmers are the targets of this RSS-BJP government for transferring to its most favoured corporate houses and foreign corporates.
The government which has pushed the economy to deep crises, growing inequality, increased pauperisation, rising living cost, hunger index touching 112 amongst 125 nations, daily wage labourers committing suicides, rising unemployed youngsters’ suicides, old people in distress with no pension to vast majority, those covered under pension in EPS 95 are getting between Rs 500 to 1000 only. The demand for restoration of old pension scheme has caught the imagination of younger generation also.
On the other side the corporate taxes are reduced, the loans by corporate are being written off, about 25lakh crores written off during the last 10 years, the laws are being amended to further help them to make their loot into white money. Indian top rich are richer than their counterparts in Germany, UK and France, and the poorest Indians are poorer than those in Burundi and Madagaskar.
In this background the various sections of Indian masses are building resistance. The cultural movements, the students and youth, the women and the other deprived sections are in agitations.
The workers’ movements are on rise, the farmers are once again gearing up and both fronts have planned for Mahapadav at Raj Bhawans on November 26, 27 and 28, 2023, against the ruling regime in the Centre which is undermining federalism in India.
This is the time to remember the historic role of Indian working class before the formation of its national centre and then in the leadership of AITUC after its foundation.
The nation is at crossroads once again. Those in power are anti-theses to democracy, pluralism of religious belief, cultures, languages and social values of harmonious living. They shelter the hate mongers, the vigilante groups, pervert against women rights of equality and dignity.
AITUC is just opposed to the very ideas of the ruling regime in the Centre which has used all administrative institutions and instruments at its disposal to crush the voices of dissent and freedom of expression. The voice of media is being gagged and the police, bureaucracy and military forces are also being dragged to the agenda of publicity of the government.
This is the time to observe AITUC foundation day October 31 in the spirit of its birth in the uprisings against foreign rule as because once again the sovereign Indian Republic, the core values of its existence as a secular democracy are endangered, its natural resources, assets and wealth are being mortgaged, the indebtedness has reached dangerous level, the government shamelessly stands with USA-Israel nexus.
We call upon all AITUC unions to hoist flag outside their offices, hold seminars/workshops, take out processions, distribute pamphlets exposing anti-worker, anti-farmer and anti-national policies of this government with appeal to people to oust this government from power in 2024 elections.
That would be the real tributes to the martyrs in the freedom movement and those who laid life in defending the sovereign India, those who built India and defended the core values of Indian Constitution. (IPA Service)