The student movement and working class struggle : Is an alliance possible?

Both the working class  movement and students movement in India are under siege. Campaigns like Make in India and the closely associated labour law reforms are  taking away the basic rights of the workers, making it exceedingly difficult for them to organize and resist this onslaught. The student community is India is also under siege due to a fatal combination of Hindutva, which   is trying to impose RSS idelogy on campuses and Neo-liberal forces, which aims to privatize  all levels of education by means of reforms like  New education Policy and increasing emphasis on FDI in education.

In such times, is it possible for the two movements to join hands and reinforce each other ? As there are many commonalities between the two struggles , what is it that stops these two movements from coming together and build a cross class alliance. 

To analyze such questions, we spoke to two young political/student activists in Delhi. Amit  is a PhD  student in department of Economics at  JNU and  is organizing secretary of Workers Solidarity Center, Guragaon. Nayan is a research scholar in Social Anthropology  at DU as well as part of Krantikari Naujawan Sabha(KNS) which has, over the years, precisely tried to build such a alliance between student community and the working class.

Q : Can you tell us briefly about the engagement of student movement in Delhi with workers struggles in last 10 years.

Amit, Nayan : The initial engagement of students with the workers struggle in Gurgaon-Manesar automobile belt started with the Manesar Honda workers struggle in 2005. But a proper engagement materialized during the Maruti struggle.

When in the 2011-2012 period Maruti struggle started and reached its peak, we were part of a youth organization called KNS (Krantikari Naujawan Sabha) which was in its formative period. Although KNS was a youth organization comprising of many from university campuses, its initial goal was not to engage with campus related issues but rather with social, political and cultural issues outside of campuses in the society at large. The initial activity of KNS revolved around the Maruti struggle, both in terms of active participation and solidarity work. During the 3 strikes that took place between 2011 and 2012 in Maruti-Suzuki Manesar plant, there was a rather strong participation of students from JNU, from different left progressive student groups . Even a section of students from DU and Jamia university engaged with workers during these strikes. There were events held at JNU where workers from Maruti plant came and spoke about their struggle. Thus overall at this stage there was a non-trivial engagement between (atleast a certain section of politically aware) Delhi students and Maruti workers. However this interaction has decreased after that. Occasion participation of students, mostly those who take interest in workers issues, contitinued during the struggles of contract workers, mostly female, of Asti company, struggle of Baxter, Shriram Piston etc in Manesar-Bhiwadi belt, of steel workers in Wazirpur, Delhi etc . Now the struggles of Honda Tapukara, Bellsonica, Daikin workers are going on and there have been a participation of and solidarity activity by some student groups. In the garment sector in Gurgaon, occasional engagements, fact finding works and campaigns have been initiated by concerned students in last few years. But these are not the engagement of ‘student movement’ as such with the workers movement. We can recall one such instance, apart from Maruti struggle, when practically ‘student movement’ actively engaged with the workers struggle, as the contract workers struggles for minimum wage in JNU in 2007 and again in 2009-10. All major left progressive student groups stood with it and some student leaders were rusticated for a period during this struggle.

Q : Can you elaborate on the Maruti-Suzuki struggle more. What were the stand-out features of this struggle which helped it in building a strong class alliance and a cross-class alliance in later stages?

A,N : Well there is a rather long history to this. We should perhaps note that before we ask about various cross class alliances between working class, Student communities, Peasant communities etc, it is important to note that the working class movement itself has suffered severe blow due to increasing contractualization of labour. This has caused the movement to become fractured as contract workers are most often not part of unions. The first thing Maruti workers did and in fact this was one of the key components of their struggle was to build this sort of alliance between permanent and contract workers and alliance with other factory workers. For example in Honda, after the formation of union in 2005, the gap between permanent and contract workers increased as the permanent workers were in some sense better position to negotiate. The participation of permanent workers in Honda in the struggles of contractual workers was in fact Minimal or at worst, absent. In Maruti plant also, the management tried to split the movement by creating a divide between permanent and contract workers. In November 2011, it let permanent workers inside the factory but did not allow contract workers entry. This was on 8th November, 2011. The permanent workers struck work inside the factory and demanded a return of contractual workers. They occupied the factory for 7 days and only after a high court order they vacated the premises.

It is also important to remember that this new generation workers are tech savvy. In Maruti also workers used different avenues and forms to build cross class solidarity. For example just before the first strike, the Maruti management had given smart phones to all permanent workers. Workers made videos of their dismal situation inside the plant and also the unity and militancy of their struggle and circulated it among various student groups as well as many civil rights activists.

In 2012 after the arrest of the 147 workers following the death of a general manager and the dismissal of 2300 workers including 546 regular workers, it was difficult to continue the struggle inside or around the plant because of unprecedented level of repression. The workers then tried to build broad class alliances with other workers and students, peasants and section of civil society through a variety of initiatives. They called automobile workers convention in December 2012, pasted few thousand posters and distributed over 40,000 pamphlets in Gurgaon-Manesar

belt and articulated a broad demand on behalf of entire automobile workers. They had cycle rallies in different districts of Haryana to extend their campaign to the masses in January-February 2012. They organized an all India protest day on 5 February 2013 with the help of various plant level unions, workers groups and pro-worker progressive sections of society, which got success in 32 cities of 14 states. Unable to continue their demonstration in Manesar, when they shifted their protest site to Kaithal in Haryana in March 2013, they tried to mobilize the local villagers, families of workers and village sarpanches in their support. After they were lathi charged and arrested on 18-19 May in Kaithal, they had a program on 18 July 2013 in Gurgaon which saw the presence of thousands of police and also an active participation of around 250-300 students and social activists from Delhi. In January 2014 they had a 15 day rally from Kaithal to Jantar Mantar, Delhi via Gurgaon and Jawaharlal Nehru University where at different points the workers tried to forge a cross class alliance, albeit inconsistent and fractured, against the mighty opponents like Maruti Suzuki-Government-Administration at a relatively low ebb of workers struggles.

Q : So what is the situation now? Are progressive student groups in Delhi still engaging with the working class issues?

A, N : Delhi is probably in some respects better then some other parts of the country as it is a hot-bed for national politics and hence there is a constant churning of ideas among student groups as far as political and social issues go. There are some working class issues where JNU students for example actively participated. One example that comes to mind is involvement of JNUSU(students union) in the issue of conditions of contract workers in JNU campus. This struggle was of course campus specific but sustained and went on for 3 years (from 2007 to 2010). Students took up the issue of Minimum wages, paid leave for these workers. Even in the slum demolition issue in different parts of Delhi, including the areas around JNU, students have on and off joined the resistance. However as far as the engagement of students from Delhi and worker movement goes, one problem is, in Delhi the worker movement is weak. Its strong in Industrial belts like Gurgaon-Manesar-Bawal but this often occurs away from the eyes of Delhi public and students.

One must also remember that through various civil society organizations as well as media exposures, students are likely to get engaged in social issues more readily. However as media does its best to under-report or in a lot of cases completely blackout workers struggles, students do not even get to know about it. On Facebook etc you see that even among socially aware students posts regarding workers struggles is far less in number.

Q: If we take the example of the current struggles like the Honda struggle, has there been an awareness and participation by students in Delhi?

A,N : Well I mean there is always solidarity with workers in campuses like JNU. Recently few solidarity programs were done on the Honda struggle in JNU and in Delhi University, and some of the workers spoke there. When such events happen or subsequently some protests happen, there is a support but usually its not sustained and does not mostly go beyond formal support and solidarity.

Q : So looking back at recent history it seems like there is a significant willingness by student organizations to view their struggles concurrently with the working class struggles? This seems fairly optimistic.

A, N : Well, certainly there are cases of radical student organizations taking a rather holistic view of society and hence understanding centrality of working class struggles in our society. However as a whole students do not have a noted agenda towards the working class. If you ask whether or not working class is a central category in a student psyche , even the advanced section of students who are aware of how the society around them, the answer to us appears to be no. Of course in campus you often hear words like Lal Salaam, but this does not mean that even for a left leaning student, the working class struggles take a central role.The one reason for that is also the fact that the students are influenced by the immediate political milieu in society. Workers struggle at this moment does not have the strength and intensity to polarize the students progressive intelligentsia in its favour. Whenever workers movement has been an influential signifier in society, it has radicalized a section of students towards it. In West Bengal, where workers issue historically has been an agenda in radical politics we saw radical student groups participating in significant workers struggles like Kanoria Jute Mill,Hindustan Lever, Paharpur Cooling Tower struggles in 1990s, Hindustan Motors in 2007 to Humukchand Jute Mill struggles last year. During the Singur and Nandigram struggle, apart from the land issue, the question of agricultural labourers suffering from corporate land grab was an issue and a section of student community was very active in these socially influential mass struggles. In Mumbai, in the Heydays of workers struggle till 1990s, there was a connect of radical students and workers. Now the virtual invisiblization of workers struggles in popular political milieu, only a small conscious group of students with a definite pro-working class political bias connect to it.

Q : So far we have talked about the engagements (or lack of) students movement has had with the working class struggles. However what about the reverse direction. Are workers, via central trade unions or as part of factory based unions aware of the attack on campuses today? How much is their participation?

A : Well there are a number of factors due to which involvement of working class in students issues is perhaps even lesser. First of all, workers, do not have time as they are under increasing pressure to fight for even their most basic rights like unionization , 8 hour working day and minimum wage. Even when workers become aware of certain issues, it is of course not true that they necessarily take pro-student positions. For example, in the recent nationalism debate which emerged from JNU issue, we found workers on both sides of the debate. In Gurugaon, workers were constantly discussing this issue on platforms like Whatsapp, but the opinion was clearly divided. As there is no convergence between the two strands of movements,we cannot expect workers to see that they and the student community are fighting against much the same forces.

Those workers or unions, like Maruti in Manesar, Mico Bosch in Jaipur, Daikin in Neemrana, Baxter, Autofit, Bellsonica , Honda Tapukara workers, Rico Dharuhera etc who experienced the positive support of students including the JNU students, are clearly in a better position to understand the situation. Some advanced workers from these factories and central and local unions/organization like AICCTU, IFTU, IMK, WSC etc participated in rallies in Delhi in the issues like JNU students, Rohit Vemula, Dadri incident etc along with students. It has symbolic importance, but for real mobilization it needs a long way to go.

Q : During Maruti-Suzuki as well as other workers struggles, where students from Universities like JNU participated, what was the dynamics like between workers and students?

A : After the 2005 Honda movement, next significant and militant workers struggle in the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial area happened in Rico. This was an militant 45 day strike in which over 3000 Rico workers had participated. The strike had a lot of support from other workers in the area. A particular one day strike during this period involved over 100,000 workers from that belt! During this phase, we as part of KNS started engaging with the Rico workers. Initially they were very suspicious of us, as university students coming and expressing solidarity with the workers was something new to them as well. In the initial days they used to check our identity cards even! However with a sustained participation the trust and engagement increased. By the time Maruti-Suzuki struggle started in 2010/2011, there was already some familiarity with KNS students. After the first Maruti Strike, that is in the second phase of their struggle over a 100 students from JNU/DU used to go at their factory gate. It is important to note that this was not an engagement where workers were not something as ‘vulnerable’ asking for help and students as an aware section was civil society was ready to help out. The workers were fighting and when students got involved they both fought as equal. The small section of students who were engaged in this struggle , on them certainly there was a significant effect due to their involvement. A new platform where students and workers came together as equal during a period of intense struggle had been created. This was something truly unique about the Maruti movement. Later in the asti contract workers struggles many student activists spent nights in the roadside tent with the protesting workers who were mostly women and were struggling against all social odds Unfortunately there has been no consistent interaction which could have solidified this alliance into something long term. We regularly try to organize some informal/formal meetings with workers and students both participating in both Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt and in universities in Delhi.

Q : What about the engagement of Haryana students with the workers movements in this industrial area? One would think that the close proximity would make it easier for these students to engage with workers from Gurgaon-Manesar.

A : Well unfortunately, in Hariyana, the student movement is rather weak. It does not have so much history I think. Of course among the ITI students there is certainly some awareness about the future that awaits them in these industries, however we are not aware of a significant participation of ITI students into workers movements. In other college/universities, the student union is banned. This time, the struggling Honda Tapukara workers did a good job by having a strong campaign against Honda company in different ITI institutes, which saw some success.

Q : What are your thoughts on Lal Salaam/Jai Bhim? Does this mean that a new cross class alliance between proletariat and anti-caste forces is emerging?

A : Well this is mostly a slogan used by a section of student/social activists at this point. However we do not think anything concrete can be associated with this slogan right now. To reiterate, in campuses even when social , political and economic issues are discussed, working class is not anywhere near a the central category. Similarly, in a place like Gurgaon-Manesar where workers struggle is taking shape, the assertion of Dalit movement has been too weak to influence the trade union struggle still now.There are some tangible hints of possibilities that such an alliance can emerge with sustained effort. For example, when the Protest about Rohith Vemulas institutional murder took place at Jantar Mantar, some working class organisations etc participated. Similarly when trade unions like AICCTU and others did a program on Pricol workers who were given double life sentence, Rohith Vemulas issues was mentioned. The President of last Maruti Manesar Union was a Dalit worker. On 18th February 2016, when there was massive rally in Delhi in support of Kanhaiya Kumar, workers who are with AITUC participated. But these are often formal and symbolic still now. Thus there are isolated episodes where possibilities of an alliance between students and workers movements are hinted at. However it does not mean that Lal-Salaam/Jai Bhim has concretely manifested itself into a movement

Q : At this point a variety of student movements are directly in confrontation with the RSS. How do you see working class participating in such a anti-fascist struggle?

A : One has to understand that there are sort of 3 layers to working class struggle. At broad based level, struggles are carried out by central trade unions which means they are at best economic in nature and divorced from political and social issues. The nature of central trade unions is such that beyond economism it does not care about anything else right now, and even those struggles are superficial and symbolic. The top layer of the struggle involving trade unions may involve an anti-BJP (anti-ruling party) electoral sentiment among the workers to a very limited extent but due to its purely economic nature it does not have an anti-fascist political perspective. If we go at a deeper level, a mass workers struggles are factory specific and hence are against a particular management or industrialist. They are based on his demands regarding wages, working hours, transportation , meal-breaks etc. struggle of a worker is area(his section) specific and involves continuous struggle against oppressive nature of supervisors on the shop floor. At the third level, there are generalization of class struggles in an area or in a sector and incipient forms of resistance/organizations are emerging. It requies a consolidation around a militant class political expression to fight neoliberalism and Hindutva politics on the ground. But we think that the task of both trade union movement and political movement of workers have to confront the twin enemy, neoliberal and Hindutva forces. We saw how Shivsena rose to power in Mumbai by smashing the old trade union movement. We saw how Hitler fought the communists and class organizations in Germany in the first phase. We saw how an office of IFTU in Noida was burnt down when their trade union leaders visited the brother of Mohammad Aklakh, a contract worker in Denso Company in Noida, after the dadri killing. We see how ‘cow politics’ is promoted and vigilante groups are formed among workers in Haryana to divide them along religious lines. We are emphasizing more on the advancement of second and third level of struggles where workers learn from struggles the need to combat Hindutva divisive forces and neoliberalism and build their own trade union organization and class organization.

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