Workers’ Unity (WU) is a news outlet that reports on working class movements in various parts of the country, from Bangalore to Rajasthan to Punjab and Delhi. They go to demonstrations, protests, and events wherever they’re happening, and interview common people and leaders about the problems they’re facing and why they’re out in the streets.
We conducted an interview with Sandeep Rauzi and Santosh Kumar of WU in early January, and used the opportunity to ask them about the recently formed front of industrial labour unions, the farmers’ protests, landless labourers’ issues, and their perspectives on political struggles in academia (links lead to sections of the interview). We have added some explanations and interjections in a small font like this one.
While these topics may seem remote from the usual concerns of NotA, they are not. We cannot reform the academy while ignoring the outside world. Political struggle inside the academy cannot happen without alliance with political struggle in society, as they explain in the final section of this interview.
NotA: Could you please introduce our readers to Workers’ Unity (WU)? What does your work involve and what are your aims etc?
Santosh Kumar: Basically the thought process behind starting WU was that traditionally the mainstream media in the 60’s and 70’s used to capture the labour beat within society by showing the working and living conditions of workers, their culture, their day to day life etc in magazines, journals etc. However, post the 1990’s, after liberalisation especially, this labour beat completely disappeared from mainstream media. At the same time, the condition of workers continued to degrade due to privatisation etc. In this manner, their voices completely disappeared from society.
In fact, despite new forms of social media resulting in new forms of news sources (thereby decentralising media), labour as a category or as a subject was not focused upon, nor were there any efforts to cover labour-related news. On the other hand, if you think of other communities, like dalits, they developed a vibrant social media network as witnessed by the emergence of more than a 100 youtube channels and newspapers. Similarly issues related to adivasis, women’s issues were being discussed and an ecosystem was being formed. However, we observed the lack of labour as an altogether different category, from the perspective of the working “class” and their identity. To fulfil that void, we started Workers’ Unity.
Some good new media outlets covering dalit issues in English are Round Table India, Velivada and Dalit Camera. Also see this article1 about the ecosystem of dalit youtube channels, including National Dastak, BahujanTV and National India News. The instagram page The Adivasi Post covers adivasi issues, and Maktoob covers minority issues, especially those that affect Muslims. There are of course many others.
Sandeep Rauzi: Our aim was to create an ecosystem specially for working class news and utilise the scope of digital media for perception building because it is very difficult to produce and distribute print material. In fact, the print form of news distribution lags behind in the sense that by the time a magazine gets published and distributed, the news becomes irrelevant, while a lot more information is being made available in digital form and is successful in creating a perception amongst people (e.g Maruti incident2 or Honda incident3). Therefore, we strongly believe that there is a dire need for a source of media that can reflect the working and living conditions of the “working class.”
It is not the lack of news but the perception of the working people that is lacking in mainstream media. Take the example of the Wistron labour struggle.4 The workers were working for more than 8 hours a day, up to 12 hrs in fact, despite their salaries getting cut during the lockdown (a trend observed in other companies as well, on the excuse of decrease of production and profits), and the perception that came out in the mainstream media was that of the workers “rioting,” while the real reason for their struggle was the conditions they were living in, news of which was suppressed in the media.
Basically, we realised that there was need of a source of media which can instantly react to these incidents and counter the narrative raised by the mainstream, imperialist media. Therefore, we wanted to create an ecosystem which will resonate with other workers and people thereby forcing these issues to be taken over by the mainstream media, similar to what we have seen with other dedicated media channels such as that of women’s issues, dalits and tribal issues. In fact, although workers have their own unions and newspapers, these sources are unable to convey to the general public about workers and hence we decided to fill this void by forming WU and so far our experience has been great
NotA: What you are doing is great. How do you pick the rallies or strikes to go to? India is such a big country and your videos seem to cover every corner of it. So what is your process for figuring out where to go and what to cover?
SK: The idea is that we do not consider ourselves as a media platform only. We work in an “activist mode.” We also have an organic relationship with many unions, working class organisations, left organisations etc. In the beginning, we used to rigorously follow the facebook pages of many organisations like those in Punjab, Delhi, Gurgaon etc. But, since the past two years, it has become a two-way process and these organisations flag their news to us and invite Workers unity to cover the news
In fact, we constantly keep track of whatever little news is covered by the news sources via twitter handles or facebook, such as Newsclick, The Wire, Scroll, Article14, Forward Press etc. The moment we feel some incident is significant that needs to be covered, we go there and interact with the workers. We don’t want to go there as a reporter and stay there for an hour to report on the relevant issue, but we stay there for a day or two, we build up interactions with the workers there, and carry out political discussions. Therefore, unlike other media channels, we don’t just do dry reporting, we actively participate to understand the situation and fortunately, the unions also provide us with access and brief us offline about their struggles.
So, this is our process. In every region, we recognize the local outlets that cover important news such as TN Labour in Tamil Nadu, Ground Xero in Kolkata, Gauri Lankesh News in Karnataka, Mehnatkash in Uttarakhand etc with whom we coordinate closely.
SR: When we started, we started building up coordination with the auto sector and their unions in the belt that goes from Delhi-Gurgaon to Jaipur. They provided us access in such a manner that wherever we went we were not unknown to the people and they knew that someone from workers unity was going to report and also primed the workers to provide us with access to information and not misbehave and even now they regularly flag us about the incidents.
And fortunately, these unions have a large front known as Mazdoor Adhikar Sangharsh Abhiyan (MASA) with more than a dozen unions. So, we became an integral part and participated in their unions and because their networks were widespread all over the country, we got access all over the country. So, we consider WU to be embedded journalism for the working class.
Mazdoor Adhikar Sangharsh Abhiyaan (MASA)
NotA: Can you talk about MASA? What is its significance and size? For instance, Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) brought many farmer unions together, is MASA as big and as significant? How is MASA related to the broader labour movement in India?
SK: I will give this answer with the disclaimer that I overlap and belong to MASA and therefore I might overassess it.
There has been a crisis in the trade union movement in the past 20 years; it’s stuck in this mode of economism or kanoonwad, where we saw mainly very passive resistance like with the one- or two-day ritualistic strikes that the 11 central trade unions (CTUs) keep organising. The working class, like those in the Delhi-Gurgaon industrial corridor etc, were very exhausted by these failures.
Let us explain the meanings of the words “economism” and “kanoonwad/legalism.” Trade unions can serve broadly two different purposes. The first is fighting for the interests of their members, in terms of wage rates, working hours etc; these are called “economistic” struggles, since they have to do with the economic aspects of workers’ lives. The second purpose that trade unions can serve is to organise workers politically*, so that they can strengthen the working class movement as a whole and bring an overall improvement in the political situation. Economism is the word used when unions completely ignore the political aspects and focus only on the economic aspects. Similarly,* kanoonwad or legalism is the word used when trade unions focus more on getting concessions in the legal system via filing cases etc, and neglect to organise workers for increasing their political power.
The 11 central trade unions are actually coordinating bodies for trade unions, each affiliated to a different national political party. A list can be found on wikipedia. Five out of the eleven are affiliated to socialist and communist parties, and the criticisms here apply to them as well.
The unions that came more from a revolutionary tendency, the ones who try to build political consciousness, were working only in their little pockets in disparate areas. They were small, working in a small zilla or panchayat level, but they actually recognised workers’ political agency in a way that the central trade unions just didn’t. And they had a strong wish to take this to a larger scale. There were informal talks on this possibility for three–four years, which I was also a part of. In 2017, we finally felt that we could make these ideas concrete. But there were a lot of unions and organisations from very different parts of India; of course, language was a big problem.
So we decided on three points of unity to start things off:5
- The basis of determination of minimum wage; we decided based on a formula at that time on Rs. 25,000.
- The end of contractual work.
- Resistance and awareness-raising against the labour codes.
SR: To your question of whether MASA can do something like what SKM did, the answer is that MASA just doesn’t have large enough strength. The majority of the organised labour force is represented by the 11 central trade unions. MASA has been created by the most radical and militant unions, and only a few years ago in 2017, so it’s just not that prominent at the moment.
Slowly but surely, however, the CTUs’ ritualistic behaviour — the yearly general strikes — alienates people and fails to address their political needs, and this will lead people to organisations like MASA that are more militant and ready to fight trade union struggles in an uncompromising way. So it is a rising force, but it is not yet a force the size of SKM. Right now, it is not even strong enough to do the sorts of things the CTUs do, forget about SKM.
The Farmers’ Protests
NotA: Now we would like to ask a few questions about the farmers’ protests, given the importance of the event and the amount of work you did there.
You worked towards documenting the parallel struggles of agricultural and landless labourers along with that of farmers struggle. Can you describe the commonalities and differences in the goals and methods of these two struggles? Are there demands that overlap between labourers and land owning class?
SR: In the first month of the protest we asked Darshanpal Singh,6 the leader of the SKM, where in the struggle are the landless labourers, the industrial workers, the dalits? He said that this moment, this struggle, was a struggle only of the farming community. That we should not make the mistake of diluting the message by mixing all these different sections and their demands in with the protests. Amazingly, ten months later, his tune had completely changed! He said7 that they had failed at including the working class in the struggle. He further said that they were afraid about the issues of landless labourers pitting the Jats vs the Dalits, which the Modi/RSS government used initially as a tactic to isolate the Jat Sikhs from the support of the dalit community.
However, this initial fear was soon overcome when slowly the landless labourers and their unions — Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union (KPMU),8 Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU)9 etc joined the struggle.10 Although the contradictions between landless labourers and the landed farmer community11 did come forward very starkly with conflicts arising frequently; their unions strived to slowly convert their enmity into friendship in the past one year during the protest. That is why, it was the farmers unions — BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) and BKU (Krantikari) — who organised the logistics during the gherao of the seven landless labourer unions outside the CMs house in Patiala. There are also recent instances where the farm leaders visit the places of struggle of the labourers to support them, e.g. a company in Mohali removed 1100 workers, who then went on strike and the farm unions including the SKM leader visited the workers and jammed the highway, which eventually led the company to agree to the demands of the workers and take them back. It was extraordinary.
This is definitely the level of progress the unity of industrial worker unions, farm unions and landless labour unions have achieved. They realise that the struggle is ultimately against corporatisation. The most important thing is that one of the three farm laws is directly linked to the working class — the Essential Commodity Act (ECA), which allows unlimited storage of essential commodities that directly affects the prices and the daily necessities of the workers and their spending power. By keeping the essential commodities in storage for long, their prices can be increased or decreased based on demand by the corporate sector (instead of being regulated by the government) and the real wages of the workers reduce because they have to then spend more for the commodities on the market.
SK: Apart from the aspect that SR mentioned about ECA, the other aspect is of contract farming and infrastructure development. Adani is developing these huge silos with ample automation and infrastructure in Punjab. The situation is that currently the dalit labourers in Punjab work in the farm only for a short term in the year while the rest of the year they work in the mandis cleaning and washing the food to be sold on the market. All the other jobs done by the labourers including the migrant workers currently will be deemed unnecessary by the development of the infrastructure by the corporate sector entering agriculture, thereby creating a huge labour market. So, using this, the farm unions tried to spread the awareness that the farm laws were also an issue of the labourers.
There have also been differences amongst the farm unions and the labour unions. Certain issues have resulted in conflicts since the past 70 years, and still do! We will talk about how some of these issues were addressed by the current Farmers movement and the extent to which they were resolved. The first issue is about farm labourers wages,12 their working conditions, their working hours (labourers work for 12 hrs, not 8 hrs as assumed), the lack of living facilities etc and all other factors where they are not given the status of a labourer. The second issue is of common land distribution that happens every year, where 1/3rd of the Panchayat land should according to the law be given to the labourers/dalit workers, but is instead taken over the landed jat farmers under a dummy/proxy name using their dominance in the state bureaucracy. There are huge clashes over the land issue and the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC) since 2014 and KPMU (since 2008) work extensively towards this. The third would be the caste atrocities, especially towards women. Underrepresentation in key bureaucratic positions is also an issue where although both jats and dalits constitute approximately 1/3rd each in the state of Punjab, Jats are overrepresented in bureaucratic positions and therefore hold the most decision power. Another contradiction since the past decade is lack of loans provided to dalits by institutions such as banks. Dalits then resort to borrowing loans from moneylenders — often big farmers themselves — who charge very high interest rates. These are the issues that various organisations are trying to address by negotiation, bargaining and coordination with the various parties involved.
NotA: How are people trying to address the internal contradiction within their villages when they have to make alliances with the various unions of the landed peasants?
SR: The point that various (including left) organisations were making since the past 20 years about corporatization, capitalism etc has now become an integral part of the psyche of Punjab and people are uniting to fight against corporatization, capitalism or whatever it can be called. They have united to fight against Adani-Ambani, which to them represents the Corporate. The other aspect is of Hindutva. The people of Punjab were criticised and told (by the left and other organisations) not to unite on the basis of Sikh religion and nationality. However, the irony of BJP perpetrating religious Hindu ideology related politics is quite contradictory and hence, the people of Punjab are angry about the Hindutva agenda and this acts as a uniting force
NotA: The point about alienation with the Hindutva ideology is very interesting. We saw an interview in WU with members of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) Tikait13 and how they were deceived by the Hindutva ideology.14 So, how were they able to recognize this deception and do they still support the Hindutva ideology still in villages while saying this in the cities?
SK: There was certainly a pro-Hindutva wave during the Muzzaffarnagar riots in West UP in 2013 in which Naresh Tikait, brother of Rakesh Tikait of BKU was also allegedly involved. It was shown later that Naresh Tikait did play a role in spreading hatred by partnering with the BJP and was involved in the rioting. However, the Jat unity that was observed during the farm protests between the farmers of Punjab and Haryana spread to the Jat brothers of western UP and the farming community of UP also felt that their lands were in trouble. While the Jat community of western UP thought of BJP as an ally, the farmers agitation and the SKM have successfully spread the message that the BJP is now acting against the farmers of UP and therefore, the farmers in UP are also trying to forget the 2013 riots and come together to stand in unity with their other Jat brothers. This was evident in the Muzzaffarnagar rally of 5th September, 202115 where the hindu and muslim jats stood united and showed their solidarity, while the Tikait brothers apologized for their participation in the riots. This rally truly brought unity amongst the hindus and muslims of western UP where they stood united and vowed to stand in opposition to the RSS, a feat not yet seen in Haryana or anywhere else. A message was therefore successfully delivered amongst the people that the RSS and BJP are supporters of the corporate sector and the Hindutva blitzkrieg since the past seven years was put to a stop.
We recommend watching this video:12
SR: Another point I would like to add is how the BJP uses any crisis that emerges anywhere in the country and gives it a different direction. They used riots to counter the agricultural crisis in Muzaffarnagar in western UP. Recently, around 4 years back, there was discontent in Haryana because of the agricultural crisis, which the BJP converted into a Jat reservation related Andolan and same is the case with the Patidar reservation movement. So, essentially agrarian stress related issues have been successfully converted to other problems by the RSS. Now this strategy of the RSS/BJP was clear to the people of Haryana as well the fact that their electoral representation was completely removed by the BJP. These issues along with the fact that the Punjab Jat farmers were well articulated about their issues and had strong leadership in the agricultural protests really pushed the farmers in Haryana to join hands together. This is the grander perspective of the unified farmers struggle in Punjab and Haryana.
Sanjha Mazdoor Morcha (SMM) and Landless Labourers’ Issues
NotA: Can you talk a little about the Samyukta Mazdoor Morcha17 that has formed recently and also whether it will spread across India?
SK: During June/July 2020 after the farm laws were introduced, the farmers went around and created awareness amongst the masses to stand against the farm laws and finally started the agitation in Delhi on 26 November 2020. The labourers then slowly started joining the farmers protest. Although there were a few clashes, ultimately both sides, the farmers and labourers learnt from each other and supported each other. A consciousness was created amongst the labourers regarding their issues and the farmers’ agitation made them think that they could also come together and form a united front of labourers. The organisations that constitute the SKM are very heterogeneous, coming from far left to right. All seven organisations that constitute the SMM — Punjab Khet-Mazdoor Union, Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union,18 Dehati Mazdoor Sabha, Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, Punjab Khet Mazdoor Sabha, Pendu Mazdoor Union and Khet Mazdoor Sabha — are left fraternal organisations. All of them have consolidated the struggles and articulated the demands of the labourers.
Here are the demands:
- Homeless labourers should be provided with 300 yard plots for making homes.
- Labourers belonging to primary agricultural cooperatives should be given 1/4th of the loans. Rs 50000 loan should be provided unconditionally without mortgage.
- Food subsidies should be provided to counter inflation.
- Rs 5,00,000 donation should be provided to construct homes.
- At least 200 working days of work should be provided via MGNREGA and take relevant action to control corruption in MGNREGA.
- The daily wage should increase to Rs 700.
- The old age and widow pension should be made to Rs. 5000.
- The institutional credit on labourers should be nullified immediately.
- Another organisation, Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, has carried out significant protests/dharnas against the microfinance companies that have doubled or tripled the interest rates and the reduction of these interest rates is one of the demands.
- Include wheat, sugar, pulses, tea and other food items in the public distribution system.
- Household items should be provided on subsidy. 12 cylinders of Natural/Rasoi gas should be freely provided.
- Light/electricity bills should be cancelled and those whose metre was cut should be provided with the same.
- Caste atrocities should be dealt with with high level inquiry.
- Families with members who have died of COVID should be provided ex gratia payments.
- Compensation to families of farm labourers who commit suicide. While farmers are given compensation for suicide, the farm labourers are not, despite more deaths due to suicide amongst them.15
These are the exhaustive demands being articulated during the protests.
NotA: You mentioned the important demand by labourers to provide work through MGNREGA. The Modi government is systematically removing this because a social safety net is bad for imperialism. Has this point also come into the consciousness of the labourers’ rank and file, similar to how it has entered the rank-and-file of SKM?
SK: Yes, such a consciousness has come because of their personal experience. Due to heavy mechanisation in Punjab, intensive labour is required only for around 25 days a year, for sowing paddy. Otherwise, the work is entirely done by machines. And even this little bit of intensive labour is done by migrant labourers from Bihar and UP. So, the workers of Punjab depend for basic livelihood on MNREGA, since it actually guarantees work. This is why this demand came to the fore. The workers came together to form various pendu mazdoor (rural labourer) unions, which put forth demands about non-farm work in the village — things like fishing, beekeeping, dairy etc. They fought many battles over terms of employment, wages etc. So this is very important for them.
NotA: Does SMM have a chance of becoming more widespread outside Punjab and Haryana?
SK: Consider the history. If you remember, farmers’ agitation is much older than the SKM. A few years ago, tens of thousands of farmers marched into Azad Maidan in Mumbai.20 There was already the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), which was a national network of farmers coordinating struggles. The SKM in fact grew out of the AIKSCC only, and may not have been possible without this history and network.
Right now, across India, there are a lot of agricultural unions that address the issues of agricultural labourers. While the formation of SMM is a very new phenomenon, on Oct. 4 there was a two-day conference in Delhi between various unions that work with landless and agricultural labourers. So we see that there are attempts to make the same sort of national coordination. Everyone knows that victory is impossible without a large scale.
SKM was made from 32 unions out of the 500-union AIKSCC. Right now, there are 400–500 landless and agricultural labourer unions, at least. The farmers’ protests provided a boost to kisan unions across the country. Similarly, it looks like the labourers’ unions will need a boost to go to the next step.
The aspiration is there. We’ve had many labourers’ unions, from West Bengal, Bihar, etc, watch WU videos and ask us to put them in contact with someone we interviewed. But, overall, all the unions are very exhausted by their own struggles, and this makes creating a network harder. But there is a living possibility, if some of the bigger unions take initiative.
NotA: This is great news. In many parts of India, like Bihar and the central Indian adivasi belt, there is a high density of migrant labour. What is the effect of migrant labour on the prospect of this sort of unity?
SK: It has a negative impact, because it pits migrant labourers and local labourers against each other. Bihari migrant labourers in Punjab work at the rate of Rs. 250-300, while local Punjabis demand at least 350. So the Punjabi labourers feel like the Biharis are taking their jobs. Secondly, because migrant labourers are so mobile, it is very hard to get them together and organise them.
Clearly, progress will only come when the local labourers learn that the migrant labourers are not their enemy. Many left-leaning unions spend a lot of time explaining to people that they don’t have jobs because of things like the defunding of MNREGA rather than because of Biharis. But this hasn’t been very successful yet. Further, the migrants have a different identity and language and so that also creates a divide.
NotA: Can you also describe whether the current decision by the central government to accept the demand of farmers has had any impact on the kisan-mazdoor ekta and their struggle? And whether the Sanjha Mazdoor Morcha is planning to continue the struggle of landless labourers at a national level.
SK: The labourers’ unions in Punjab come in two varieties. One, those that address issues of MNREGA, landless labourers, mandi workers, etc. Second, those that address the all-important issue of land, principally the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC).21
ZPSC says that they are not just labourers — they are basically landless farmers. So they don’t go to either farmers’ struggles nor to labourers’ struggles. We asked them why they weren’t directly taking part in the farmers’ protests, and they replied that the protests were led by the landed community and they were landless. And we asked them why they didn’t join in with the SMM demonstrations, and they replied that workers’ unions were not giving importance to the land question yet and ZPSC’s demands were much more than those of regular labourers.22 They are landless farmers.
Their demand is that the common land, and the private land that violates land ceiling laws (17 acres), be redistributed. Now, the farmers’ protests have given confidence to the landed Jat community. For example, the CM issued a notification regarding stricter enforcement of land ceilings and the landed farmers got it rolled back.
The ZPSC held its line through these reversals, in a very impressive way. Firstly, they have never stopped emphasising that the government hasn’t even given the minimum amount of one-third of Panchayat-held land guaranteed by Punjab Village Common Land (Regulation) Land.23 Secondly, they demand that lands that are newly available for sale be sold to them at a subsidy. Thirdly, they have been doing co-operative farming in a few places where they have land. This is a very interesting and important experiment.
KPMU in 2008 and ZPSC in 2014 started a struggle for one-third of Panchayat land. Even when they get the land, its rent is Rs 50,000 — which no dalit family can afford, given that the rent has to be given in advance. And this land is too small to make the whole business viable, when you take into account the small amounts of land (around an acre) and costs of seeds, tractors, threshers, etc — all costs that you have to pay in advance and farmers will only see the returns after the harvest. This is why the co-operative aspect is so important. Instead of giving five farmers an acre each that they can’t afford to live off, they can come together and split the costs and labour of five acres between them. This also gives them more time to do wage labour elsewhere and get more income. They use a section of the profits for the next bidding for land. This model isn’t well-established yet, the model is still in early stages, but we can see the creativity here.
NotA: Workers’ Unity has covered the struggles of both agricultural and landless labourers and those of factory workers. What according to your experience is the socioeconomic overlap between the factory (especially contract) workers and farmers with small or no land holdings?
SR: There has been a study released recently showing that 93% of the Indian workforce is in the informal sector — including farm labourers, industrial workers, gig workers etc. Out of these 93, 87 come from adivasi, dalit and backward caste backgrounds. So we see that in the Indian working class, class and caste have a large overlap. All caste annihilation projects and movements from a left perspective have been clear on this point.
So, when the lockdown happened, most of the people leaving en masse were construction workers, domestic workers, and street vendors. Their social status is the same in the village and the city. Rural dalits come to the city and settle in the slums. Uprooted adivasis come to do construction and live in the nearby slums. This will be very important in future while organising and mobilising the workers of the unorganised sector. If the trade unions wake up to it.
People have been trying to mobilise more on class lines. But consider the safai karamcharis (manual scavengers), who have built a national infrastructure for mobilisation — Safai Karamchari Andolan. Upper class and castes don’t participate in this work, it’s all dalits and even among the dalits it is only the “most dalit.” Breaking these sorts of barriers might lead to new frontiers in mobilisation, I think.
SK: To be clear, this cuts both ways. Those who have been working exclusively on caste lines also need to work on class lines as well, and those who have been forwarding the class struggle need to address the specificities of caste. Anand Teltumbde famously said, “Annihilation of caste cannot happen without the class movement, and the class movement will never succeed without the annihilation of caste.” People who have been working only on identity lines, land question, etc are on the wrong path. And those in the trade unions who don’t understand the specificities of caste are also on the wrong path. There can be no comprehensive struggle without these two perspectives integrating.
NotA: Completely agreed. Just like recently in the Foxconn struggle,24 the womens’ struggle has come together on a class basis.
SK: On the gender question in Punjab, I would like to highly recommend Ranjana Padhi’s Those Who Did Not Die. It’s available in English, Hindi and Punjabi.
It’s a great book on the agrarian crisis in Punjab from a Marxist feminist point of view. When we talk about farmers, we’re often implicitly talking about male farmers. But more than 70% of people working on farms are women. Padhi makes the very important point that the feminist movement has completely ignored the needs of dalit women landless labourers. We interviewed Surinder Kaur25 and also Paramjeet Kaur Longowal,26 a dalit woman landless labourer activist, who made this point beautifully. We also did an interview27 with Padhi and some women at the protest.
NotA: Not to mention, even in the farmers’ struggle women farmers came forward in very important ways and found their own integration of gender and class questions.
Political Struggle in the Academy
NotA: The next question is about education. Privatisation is a big problem for education as well, especially with policies like the NEP. And because of this, we are seeing a lot of strikes, resistance etc by professors and students in many institutes. Do you think this can grow into a nation-wide struggle?
SK: Recently, there’s been a huge teachers’ strike for the last few months in Punjab.28 A few days ago, there was a lathi charge upon them and so a bunch of farmers’ union representatives also visited them — I got to see this when I was covering the landless labourers’ rally in Patiala.
On the issue of NEP, children of working class people being left behind by online education in the lockdown, and contractualisation of teachers, student organisations like Punjab Student Union (Lalkar), Punjab Student Union – Shahid Randhawa, Students for Society, etc have been campaigning on it continuously, and you can find many documents on their facebook page on these matters. These people also were present at the farmers’ protests and farmer leaders also went to their demonstrations. So, clearly there is some form of understanding and unity forming; and the momentum and energy created by the farmers’ protests is interacting with these other struggles in a positive way.
SR: The first thing to note is that there hasn’t been a large movement like the farmers’ protests. Secondly, to bring in NEP they haven’t opened universities properly. JNU, DU, etc aren’t fully open yet. Students from the fifty-five colleges of DU have been protesting for a month to re-open the university.29 The authorities are worried that re-opening might lead to a large, focused movement. That’s why the Modi government has no interest in opening the campus. And it’s looking like, on the excuse of the omicron variant, they’ll stay closed even for the coming semester. So it’s hard to say now, whether people will be able to return to campuses and whether the government will succeed in implementing NEP without a protest.
Just yesterday, there was a protest at the Income Tax Office where they submitted a memorandum against the NEP to the Delhi government,30 since Kejriwal’s government dissents against the centre on many issues. So they’re applying pressure on the state government first. So these sorts of local flare-ups are happening all over the place, like in Kolkata, Patna etc. But its full form is not coming out, because the base of the struggle, the students, are just not there in the campus.
Another thing is, the teachers’ bodies are also not able to stand up properly. RSS and BJP have a large presence among their organisations. In this time’s Delhi University Teachers’ Association elections, after 25 years a BJP candidate has won.31 So we see that even the teachers’ body is on the backfoot in a way. If NEP is implemented, the 4000 ad hoc teachers of DU, some of whom have been teaching for over a decade, are going to be the first affected, and still the BJP candidate won at this crucial moment. So, despite JNU struggles etc being generally very militant, we don’t see a strong opposition forming against NEP.
For the last 25 years, DUTA elections have been dominated by left and centre parties. And in the last five years they’ve been dominated mainly by left parties. This election — see how ridiculous this is — happened when the university was closed! And this happens when they’re trying to push NEP.
This is a problem in every sector; this is why everyone is watching SKM. It’s as if SKM is a messiah. Students, teachers, workers, everyone wants to do that. I think that going forward, we’ll see less and less of sectoral struggles. In the farmers’ protests, you saw teachers’ unions, railway unions, karamchari unions etc. Kapurthala railway union even sent a trolley and collected some funds from their members. So, while this was a farmers’ agitation in name, it was also an upsurge of the full community.
And one of the most important things that SKM did: they managed to create anti-corporate sentiment. This same corporate sector is imposing NEP, labour codes, farm laws, everything. And this is another reason that in the future we’ll see a broader struggle. These corporates have brought together land-owning peasants and agricultural labourers — who are literally each others’ class enemies! And I expect these corporates to also bring together students, workers, etc.
Finally, going back to the Foxconn case, those women workers are being housed in private engineering college hostels. And the colleges are continuing to charge students for the hostels. Here, there is simultaneous exploitation of students and workers.
NotA: In the last few years, student politics has become more high-profile and more widespread. Do you feel like this student politics has been able to take up the interests of the working classes or have they been working within their own circles? Do you feel there’s an actual increase or is it just that there has been more publicity given to them? Do you feel like the overall political trajectory is getting better or worse?
SR: Even where student movements are active, they’ve rarely taken up the cause of contract workers inside the campus. It happened in JNU last time in 2007, and of course in IIT Kanpur Citizens’ Forum (but that’s only seven people).32 None of the non-academic staff are permanent now, if student politics can’t take this up how can it hope to align with the full working class movement?
But still, in some sense working class and student movements are very natural allies. In DU, the safai karamchaaris’ contracts were cancelled immediately after lockdown began. Students, professors, everyone came together for their cause. And also in Ambedkar University, a similar thing happened.
Another thing is, in every working class struggle, we find that student groups go there. And Santosh can tell you very nicely, how after the Maruti struggle began all these research scholars from DU, AUD, JNU etc, went and created these “organic links.” They didn’t just go there, chant some slogans, and come back, no! They were involved on a longer term basis, and publicised it both on an international stage and also within Delhi. And, as a result, the Maruti workers joined in during the Nirbhaya campaign.
SK: The first thing is, the working class movement is at a low. And same with militant student politics.
Let’s start with the Maruti example. At that time, the Maruti workers and the student movement were both very vibrant and militant. That’s why the students went and stayed with the workers (in Manesar, 20-30 km from Delhi), as Sandeep mentioned. They translated the workers’ demands into English and spread them around the world.33 The moment the workers produced a poster or pamphlet, the students would translate it.
In continuity with these events, the Delhi students rose up when the Nirbhaya incident happened. Despite the bad class politics of this agitation, we should understand that there was a very real anger expressed at this time. This anger and militancy peaked after the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula a few years later. Students in Delhi (JNU), Chennai (Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle), Hyderabad, Punjab, everywhere rose up at that time! News doesn’t always reach the English media and so many of these are not that well-known.
When article 370 was scrapped, the biggest demonstrations against this happened in Punjab. There were 10,000–20,000 people at these rallies. It was an amazing showing from the left, with a lot of help from student organisations. And in 2016–17, for the first time a radical left-wing group, SFS, won the elections in Punjab University. And they’ve been talking about kisaan-mazdoor ekta ever since then!
These are all specifics. In general, we see that the working class movement is in a big crisis. And universal/generalised phenomena are not seen in the working class itself. It’s a lot of different movements in different pockets. And there’s lots of spontaneity, it’s not that organised. Take the Munnar struggles,29 Bangalore PF struggles,30 Surat lockdown struggle31 etc. With these spontaneous struggles, it’s always hard to build organic connections.
A third phenomenon is that the working class sections in the campus, who always formed the militant core, are articulating more on identity lines, like Dalit groups etc. There is a real vibrancy in these identity-based groups. And they have many differences with and complaints against the left groups; they haven’t been given representation in leadership, their issues are ignored, etc. And so we see, unfortunately, a lot of tensions between Ambedkarite and left groups. We always have to remember this complexity.
NotA: Recently, we did an interview with a Dalit student organiser,32 and he told us this story about SFI: they used to get in the way of organising Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in the name of being against identity politics and actively organise Durga Puja celebrations, as if that isn’t identity politics.
SK: Certainly. This is a serious problem, that all left leaders are sophisticated english-speaking people from savarna backgrounds. You go into JNU, TISS, etc. The way they talk, it is just completely exclusionary to a dalit kid from a village. From songs to movies to literature to writing style to jargon, all of it. No matter how much these places look like bastions of the left, this is their essential content.
NotA: And let’s not forget that with stipends being delayed for months and years, poor kids can’t even stay in the institute.
Mandal, D. (2020, February 5). What Mooknayak was for Ambedkar, YouTube is for Dalits today. The Print. https://theprint.in/opinion/what-mooknayak-was-for-ambedkar-youtube-is-for-dalits-today/359196/ ↩︎
The Historical Struggle of Contract Workers in Manesar Honda. (2019). Ground Xero. https://www.groundxero.in/2019/11/23/the-historical-struggle-of-contract-workers-in-manesar-honda/ ↩︎
Criminalising workers eruption of rage, the real story at Wistron. (2020, December 18). Ground Xero. https://www.groundxero.in/2020/12/18/criminalising-workers-eruption-of-rage-the-real-story-at-wistron/ ↩︎
Thakor, H. (2021, March 19). Report Of Third Kirti Panchayat By Karntikari Pendu Mazdoor Union On March 17th. Countercurrents. https://countercurrents.org/2021/03/report-of-third-kirti-panchayat-by-karntikari-pendu-mazdoor-union-on-march-17th/ ↩︎
Singh, S. (2021, January 7). “We Are One”: Why Punjab’s Landless Dalits are Standing with Protesting Farmers. The Wire. https://thewire.in/caste/punjab-landless-dalit-farmers-protest ↩︎
Yadav, A. (2020, December 4). Why landless and marginal farmers are the backbone of farmer protests. Newslaundry. https://www.newslaundry.com/2020/12/04/why-landless-and-marginal-farmers-are-the-backbone-of-farmer-protests ↩︎
Singh, P. (2021, March 22). In the farm laws protests, are Punjab’s landless peasants getting left behind? The Caravan. https://caravanmagazine.in/agriculture/in-the-farm-laws-protests-are-punjabs-landless-peasants-getting-left-behind ↩︎
Singh, S. I. (2020, May 22). Covid-19: Labour Crisis Pulls Apart Rural Society of Punjab. NewsClick. https://www.newsclick.in/COVID-Labour-Crisis-in-Punjab-Pulls-Apart-Economy ↩︎
BKU (Tikait) was crucially involved in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar massacre of Muslims. See Sawhney, N. S. (2021, February 1). One or Two Things About Rakesh Tikait. RAIOT. https://raiot.in/one-or-two-things-about-rakesh-tikait/ ↩︎
Sawhney, N. S. (2021b, September 7). Nine Meanings of Muzaffarnagar Mahapanchayat of the Farmers Movement. RAIOT. https://raiot.in/nine-meanings-of-muzaffarnagar-mahapanchayat-of-the-farmers-movement/ ↩︎
Majumder, S. (2021, December 28). ‘Punjab Dalit Groups Supported The Farm Protests. The Ordinary Dalit Did Not.’ — Article 14. Article 14. https://www.article-14.com/post/-punjab-dalit-groups-supported-the-farm-protests-the-ordinary-dalit-did-not–61ca852818c48 ↩︎
Pendu means rural. ↩︎
Khanna, R. M. (2021, March 29). 7,300 farm labourers ended lives in 18 years: Study. Tribune India News Service. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/punjab/7-300-farm-labourers-ended-lives-in-18-years-study-231816 ↩︎
Shantha, S. (2018). After 140 Hours of Walking, Maharashtra’s Protesting Farmers Arrive in Mumbai. The Wire. https://thewire.in/agriculture/after-140-hours-of-walking-maharashtras-protesting-farmers-arrive-in-mumbai ↩︎
Read more about the ZPSC here: Thakor, H. (2020, September 20). Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee Led Movement In Punjab-A Turning Point In Revolutionary History Of Punjab. Countercurrents. https://countercurrents.org/2020/09/zameen-prapti-sangharsh-commitee-led-movement-in-punjab-a-turning-point-in-revolutionary-history-of-punjab-and-india/ ↩︎
It should be noted that the ZPSC did take part in both of these movements indirectly. They were involved in education regarding the farm laws and encouraging landless farmers to join the movement, and they had their own demonstration along with Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union after the 3-day SMM program. ↩︎
Village Common Land (Regulation) Act 1961 | Official Website of Department Revenue,Rehabilitation and Disaster Management, Government of Punjab,India. (1961). Department of Revenue, Rehabilitation and Disaster Management, Government of Punjab. https://revenue.punjab.gov.in/?q=village-common-land-regulation-act-1961 ↩︎
editor. (2021, December 29). Foxconn Food Poisoning Incident: Management Reorganised at TN facility. Gauri Lankesh News. https://gaurilankeshnews.com/foxconn-food-poisoning-incident-management-reorganised-at-tn-facility/ ↩︎
Workers’ Unity. (2021c, August 14). कारपोरेट का कर्ज़ माफ़ हुआ तो खेतिहर मज़दूरों का क्यों नहीं? Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=1513675382309052 ↩︎
Correspondent, H. T. (2021, December 3). Protesting teachers marching towards Punjab CM’s house lathicharged in Mohali. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/chandigarh-news/protesting-teachers-marching-towards-punjab-cm-s-house-lathicharged-in-mohali-101638565074884.html ↩︎
Ghosh, S. (2021, October 26). Students on a 48-hour hunger strike as they urge DU to resume offline classes. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/students-on-a-48-hour-hunger-strike-as-they-urge-du-to-resume-offline-classes/articleshow/87266077.cms ↩︎
Kaushal, R. (2021, December 24). Withdraw NEP, It Will Ruin School and Higher Education in Delhi: AIFRTE. NewsClick. https://www.newsclick.in/withdraw-NEP-ruin-school-higher-education-delhi-AIFRTE ↩︎
Special Correspondent. (2021, November 27). NDTF member elected new DUTA president. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/ndtf-member-elected-new-duta-president/article37731511.ece . ↩︎
NotA has republished many of the documents produced by the IIT Kanpur Citizens’ Forum. ↩︎
See Workers of the world Unite : Solidarity with the Maruti Suzuki movement. (2017, April 6). தொழிலாளர் கூடம் (Thozhilalar Koodam). https://tnlabour.in/automobile-industry/5156 for some examples of the international solidarity that this movement invited. ↩︎
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, November 11). 2015 Munnar Plantation strike. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Munnar_Plantation_strike ↩︎
Khanna, S. (2020, May 9). Migrant workers throw stones at police in India in protest against lockdown. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-india/migrant-workers-throw-stones-at-police-in-india-in-protest-against-lockdown-idUSKBN22L0JZ ↩︎
Sharma, M., Kohli, S. R., & Ghosh, D. (2016, April 19). Bengaluru Riot Over New Provident Fund Rules, Massive Traffic Jams. NDTV.Com. https://www.ndtv.com/bangalore-news/violence-in-bengaluru-as-workers-provident-fund-withdrawal-rules-1397136 ↩︎
The NotA Collective. (2022, January 9). De-Recognition of SC/ST/OBC National Fellowships: An Interview with Arunesh X About Systematic Exclusion and Inclusivity in Indian Campuses. Notes on the Academy. https://notacademy.in/2021/12/15/pondicherry-university-and-the-national-fellowship-for-scheduled-castes-an-interview-with-arunesh-babu-about-inclusivity-on-our-campuses/ ↩︎