History’s Largest Strike in India

Aled Iestyn Lewis | Student Contributor

On 26 November 2020, 10 trade unions and several left-wing parties in India organised a mass general strike with an estimated 250 million participants, roughly 18% of India’s population (working out as 1 in 30 people on the planet), making these strikes the largest in history. Historically, some of the only general strikes to even reach the tens of millions were the 1920 German workers strike protesting the Kapp Putsch and the French general strike of 1968. In comparison, the strikes we’ve seen in India are as much as 20 times the size.

Strikes have been a fairly frequent occurrence for Narendra Modi’s India, with trade unions calling for industrial action to protest his Bharatiya Janata Party’s anti-worker policies. These policies include harmful changes to India’s labour code impacting jobs, working conditions, and worker’s rights. Whereas these strikes usually die down after a few days with little mainstream media attention, recent strikes coincided with protests launched by farmer’s organisations protesting neoliberal reforms to the agricultural sector. 40% of India’s workforce is employed in agriculture, so the opening up of this sector to corporate interests (whose main mantra is to place shareholder profits before employment) is seen as threatening the already precarious livelihoods of millions. In response, farmers marched on the capital of New Delhi, using their trucks and tractors to break down barricades set up by police to keep them out of the city.

The Indian labour movement has developed and utilised tactics other than demonstration to make their demands. Gherao is a tactic similar to picketing where protestors surround a politician or building until they achieve their aims, dharna is a form of sit-in which sometimes includes fasting, and raasta roko is a form of traffic obstruction when a large group prevents the use of busy thoroughfares. All of these tactics have been used by protestors over the past few months. Social media has also played a large role, not only in organising these protests, but also in reporting instances of brutal police retaliation. A photograph of an elderly Sikh man being beaten by police went viral, and was shown in the Indian Parliament to criticise the Modi government’s handling of the situation. Social media also helped start a Sikh solidarity protest in London.

As of writing the protests are ongoing, with strikers’ demands including the withdrawal of these anti-worker labour code changes and anti-farmer laws, a stop to the privatisation of public sector corporations, the provision of pensions to everyone, and an increase to employment, wages, and grain rations, among other things. On 30 December 2020, the Indian Parliament agreed to two of the farmers’ demands which had to do with new pollution laws and amendments to an Electricity Ordinance. Talks are still ongoing regarding the other demands.

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