The great strike of 1974 was gradually lost in the memory of the organised working class. In its aftermath, no prominent leader of the struggle tried to write a comprehensive account of the strike. This is unlike what happened in the cases of the Telangana peasant struggle, on which leaders later wrote their histories, or the Tebhaga peasant struggle, or even the Naxalbari peasant upsurge. Even professional historians in post-Independence India have avoided writing about it. Possibly one of the important reasons, earlier alluded to, is that a historical account of the railway strike without a political analysis of the event and its time is nearly impossible. The great accounts of India’s Partition were published fifty years after Independence; indeed, they were provoked by the occasion, which presented Partition as the other side of Independence, and produced studies that went deep and laid bare its political nature. Perhaps we shall have to wait for a similar occasion for a historico-political account of the strike. Its leaders were too confused about the strike they led. Professional historians also played safe. Thus, much depends on the aftermath. In this case, the aftermath of the strike is even more obscure and fuzzy than the event. What happened in the aftermath of the strike? Where did the unknown heroes of the struggles go? What happened to the victimised workers? How did they preserve solidarity till they were reinstated, if they were at all? What happened to those grassroots leaders in towns, stations, workshops, and workers like the locomen, always in transit? What happened to women who had come out in large numbers in different parts of the country during the strike? After the organisation was frozen at the top, what happened to the NCCRS (National Coordination Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle) committees that had sprouted at all levels during the strike?
In some sense, the history that the strike created is equally important as the history of the strike. Time changed after the strike. Organisational patterns changed. Likewise, the dynamics of unity changed. The structure of the relation between the leadership and rank and file also changed. A history of the strike will call for an inclusion of material relevant to these questions. This will show what happened in the aftermath to the strikers and their legacy.
On April 8, 1975, V. Nagarajan, a casual worker in the Trichy Division and activist of the Southern Railwaymen’s Union, wrote a letter by hand to the AIRF president, George Fernandes with these words,
I had been dismissed from the Railway during Railway Strike, 1974. The high Courts of Andhra, Gujrat, and Kerala have ordered to reform the dismissed candidates. But yet (nothing) has been done. By the help of G. Ramachandran (president SRMU) 90 per cent of the candidates have regained the posts. But we the ‘CASUAL LABOUR’ are suffering without job. You are not giving financial help. When you came to Trichy I gave you a petition. You assured to consider my case. But your word is remaining as a word only. No action have been taken by the union. I am in a very pitiable condition. Here the price of rice and other food is too much. YOU MUST GIVE ME A JOB. OTHERWISE I WILL FIRE MYSELF BEFORE THE STATUE OF LOTHRA IN TRICHY DIVISION.
Dear Comrade Nagraj,
I have your letter of April 8. I would suggest your meeting the officials of the Southern Railway Mazdoor Union at Tiruchirapalli. Both the SRMU and the All India Railwaymen's Federation are doing their best to secure the reinstatement of all the victimised workers. Across the country we still have about 18,000 workmen, including 15,000 casual workmen like you, who have not been reinstated like you. I can appreciate your difficulties, but one should not become desperate.
In this exchange is found the condition of a rank and file worker and the ineffectiveness and helplessness of the leader to come to the help of the fallen soldier. Helplessness, hunger, weakening of the union, petition to the authorities at every level as the only way out, bitter rivalry among the leaders, etc. seem to have marked the situation. Possibly, the installation of the Janata government in 1977 slightly improved things. But it would be safer to say that unionism changed forever after that. Petitions, demonstrations, processions and deputations remained, but the unique prestige of the NCCRS as the tribune of unity and the uncompromising mood, bordering on defiant politics, was never to return. Also, the casual labour bore the brunt of the non-reinstatement of workers. Thousands of casual labourers were not reinstated. In many places, the collapse of the strike offered government the opportunity to rationalise the workforce....
The All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) president, George Fernandes, replied to hundreds of letters from union militants approaching him for help with the same words, “The AIRF is seized of the matter, and is doing all it can. Meanwhile do not lose heart”. In some cases, local NCCRS officebearers met and urged him to visit them and undertake an all-India tour. Desperate railwaymen, thrown out of jobs, seeking legal advice also wrote letters, which are in the Labour Archives and from which I am citing. A superintendent of a mechanical workshop at Golden Rock rejected the appeal of a dismissed machinist, T. Rajarajan on September 17, 1974; of an ex-fitter M. Sivapatham on September 21, 1974 and of a loco driver, Ganapathy, on October 12, 1974.
The ground for dismissing appeal on verification ranged from charge of incitement, threatening fellow employees, demonstration within factory or workshop, setting fire to some building, etc., to obstructing trains, sabotage, and the like. By the second week of October 1974, in Tiruchirapalli alone, 476 workers had been removed or dismissed, 201 reinstated, and the appeals of 56 rejected. Amidst the sufferings and the despondency of defeat, the workers at times stuck to the expectation that the NCCRS would reorganise the workers. Yet, we find not a single letter from NCCRS convenor George Fernandes telling the workers the truth, i.e. that he would never call any meeting of the NCCRS. It had been frozen at the top—freeing the leaders of all the responsibility of leading the workers back to the path of struggle, unity, and defence. As late as the last week of January 1975, workers were hoping that the magic entity of the NCCRS would re-emerge.
Noteworthy in these correspondences are the persisting idea of workers’ democracy, of the living ideal of railwaymen’s unity, the lofty position of the NCCRS in the mind of the worker, and the continuing relevance of the institution called the NCCRS in not only the political imagination, but even the trade-UNIonist consciousness of the workers. On the other hand, the stunning silence of the Federation leadership on the issue of NCCRS, workers’ unity, etc is to be noted and the emphasis on routine union issues like cooperative bank elections, which gave the leaders money and muscle and marginalised the political sense of the workers, should also be considered.
After 1974, workers lost political prestige and unions their legitimacy. It allowed authorities to impose strict measures.
Perhaps, thus, as the evidence suggests, the unions heavily lost legitimacy in the eyes of the workers. Left and democratic activists all over the country noted the vacillation of the socialists and the traditional Communist parties who broke ranks and returned to work. The national Emergency diverted workers’ attention to some extent; some steps of the Janata government after 1977 partially restored the legitimacy of the leaders. And, perhaps through the politics of petition and representation of workers’ economic interests, the unions somewhat became relevant again. But workers lost political prestige as a leading class in the eyes of society; and in the eyes of the government every worker became a potential troublemaker. Also, the fact that the political solution to the crisis came only through a change of government also suggests that the economic had stolen a march on the political. Though in several ways the crisis was ongoing, yet through exceptional mechanisms the crisis allowed authorities to impose measures on workers that they would have never been able to get away with under normal circumstances. In this sense, several national Emergency measures became part of the routine history of rule in India. Emergency inaugurated what may be called a permanent revolution in the business of ruling. The NCCRS and the strike it led were only histories to be remembered and invoked in each organisation’s own way. Given the history of bitter quarrels among trade union leaders in the Railways, numerous events, conferences, struggles, pettiness, divergences, and differences, it meant that the generality which the strike had produced had also become a product to be appropriated in manifold ways. Instead of the strike being an interruption, it became one more moment of this vast, unending history of 1.5 million railwaymen. The interruption had been absorbed in the two parallel cycles of production and politics.