Who is that outsider? Countering the narrative of the powerful whether its social protests or labour reforms..
Till January 22nd 2017, the police, administration and media had used words ‘protesters’ to identify those who had congregated in various parts of Chennai including Marina and OMR, Coimbatore, Madurai etc to protest the Jallikattu ban. The bonhomie and the orderliness of the protests were emphasized again and again by the powers to be. In social media, the tag ‘Tamilan-da’ appeared prominently when a police personnel was photographed giving water to a protester, illustrating the bonhomie of those who were protesting and those who were in charge of ‘law and order’.
This changed between January 22nd and January 24th when the police, supported by mainstream media, started categorizing the homogeneous protesters as ‘peaceful innocent protesters’ and ‘anti-social, anti-national outsiders’. Headlines in some Tamil dailies screamed of infiltration of naxals, maoists and IS. In a subsequent interview with Hindu, Police Commissioner George said ‘We could see that anti-social and anti-national elements had infiltrated the congregation. So, we acted upon the intelligence inputs’. Then Chief Minister O Pannerselvam alluded to bikes with images of Bin Laden. In Alanganallur, the epicentre of the struggle, a day after the community had refused to let Chief Minister to enter the village on January 22nd for conducting Jallikattu, the villagers passed a resolution announcing the date for conducting Jallikattu and asked ‘outsiders’ to withdraw the protest.
Both in Marina and Alanganallur, unfortunately for those in power, events did not play to the script. While Police Commissioner maintained that ‘anti-social elements were incited and consequently mobs that gathered started attacking police’, ample evidences by citizenry have shown that it was the police that unleashed the violence on protesters and their supporters which included the neighboring fisher community in Marina and in the case of Alanganallur, women in the village. Since then, the police have arbitrarily picked up youth and community leaders in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, imprisoning and beating them up. As one woman fish vendor in Nadukuppam said a month after the incident, ‘they(police) keep coming and filming our neighborhood randomly..as if we are terrorists..we who have lived here for decades’.
A similar narrative, albeit subtly, has been playing out in the relationship between industrial labour, employer and the state. The NDA government has been relentlessly pursuing anti labour reforms by amending existing labour laws in favor of industries. One such is the Industrial Relations Code, which combines and amends the existing laws – The Trade Union Act 1926, Industrial Disputes Act 1947 and Industrial Employment (Standing Order) Act 1946. Through this new code, the Modi Government has sought to redefine who can be part of a trade union. As per the existing law, up to 50% of the office bearers in a union can include lawyers, trade union activists or other representatives chosen by the workers to represent their interests. In the new code, only workers will be allowed to be office bearers in formal sectors. In informal sectors, two members who are not working in the sector are allowed as per the new code.
The idea of ‘outsiders’ in this context is used to bring those who exploit(the employer) and those who are exploited(the worker) into a the camps of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The employers and the state use the ‘outsiders’ to restrict anyone who they identify are not playing a role in the production in a factory. However what they are really doing is to restrict the choices of the workers. If the office bearers, selected and elected by workers to represent their interests are deemed outsiders, then who are the insiders and who gets to define these insiders? Consider, for example, when workers went on strike in Asian Paints factory in Sriperumbudur, the management brought bouncers with the intention of keeping the workers out. In countless examples including SPEL, Diamond Engineering, Greaves Cotton to name a few, workers during their strikes were not allowed to even stay within 100 meters of the factory.
The workers are never given a choice in defining who are allowed into the factory. In fact, the workers in large industries are not even allowed to be in the premises when they are not working. Using modern access codes, employers are even able to restrict workers from moving between departments. The employers get to decide when the worker works longer hours, shorter hours, production target, the breaks, cost etc. The employers even get to decide the identity of the worker in their every day lives . Recently, a worker in Hyundai was suspended for few days when the worker gave a TV interview outside the factory. Workers of Renault were given show cause notices for appearing in uniforms in a protest far from the factory.
On the other hand, the employers have all the control over who are allowed into the factory and when. Not only do the employers bring bouncers and security guards to maintain ‘industrial peace’ at workplace, the employers even get to decide if and when the state authority can enter into the work place. In Renault Nissan, when a maintenance worker died a horrible death, the police was not allowed to enter the factory according to media. The state has facilitated this process by withdrawing the monitoring of factories by its agencies, allowing for violations of every kind, resulting in precarious labour and unsafe working conditions.
Through these processes, the state not only allows itself to withdraw from its role of balancing the power relations in the factory on behalf of the workers, it ensures that it can keep its power over the citizenry by keeping the workers from knowing their rights and means to counter these power equations. The state also benefits from not allowing the workers to come together and engage in sustained interaction between themselves or with the other social groups whether it is political parties, students and other groups to facilitate democratic control of the state and challenge the dominant political economy.
An argument that is made by industries is about the ‘influence’ by political parties especially those of left parties on the workers. However, the employers through various means including political funding, lobbying, associations are able to negotiate and control the political power behind the state. Till now, the state has resisted to curtail or regulate the control of the capitalist on itself. Hence, Narendra Modi can fly in the jets of Adanis for campaigning and the ministers of various parties can transition between being in service of capital when they are not in power.
The workplace continues to be a site of subjugation where workers do not have any control over either the production process nor the benefits accruing from the production, where the employer holds all the power. Any worker organization including trade union is a counter to this process. By allowing the narrative of insider vs outsider, the state is allowing the employer to control this process. The workers may want to seek expert help in terms of legal information, strategies of struggle, solidarities across sectors and regions and political education. Denying access to these support can severely curtail the rights of the workers in factories. It is up to the workers to deliberate the merits of having civil society members as office bearers, and come to a decision in a democratic manner. The workers could decide one way or the other but it should remain only the workers’ choice.
When those in power seek to exclude a section of community whether it is based on caste, gender, religion or production relations, it is important for those exploited classes to reject the narrative and redefine the power relations in favor of themselves. In the case of post Jallikattu narrative, the working class of Chennai came in solidarity with the youth and blocked the city. It is important that we continue this fight when it comes to labour reforms, as the NDA government is hell bent on pushing these initiatives through and will undoubtedly continue to promote a narrative that divides us.