Thousands of workers took out a 4km rally from Jamul Labour Camp to Bhilai Powerhouse Railway Station in Bhilai to pay their respects and homage to 15 of their comrades who laid down their lives on the very tracks of the rail station on 1st July 1992. Shaheed Diwas, as it is referred to locally, is an annual affair for the past 25 years since the bloody massacre of workers on that fateful evening. The workers who took part in the rally are part of the various factions and unions of Chattisgarh Mukhti Morcha (CMM), a political movement founded in 1982, led by the legendary union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi. The rally began from Niyogi Chowk at Jamul Labour camp, after workers offered their respect to their leader’s statue. The rally proceeded to the Bhilai Steel plant before turning back to the railway station grounds. The family members of the workers who lost their lives, along with leaders and workers proceeded to Railway Platform one to pay their respect to the martyred workers.
In 1992, contract workers at Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) and various factories in the industrial area launched a month long protest demanding that their jobs be made formal and their wages be raised commensurate to formal workers. The demand itself was decade old by then. Frustrated with continued delays by state authorities and companies, the workers blocked the railway tracks at Bhilai Powerhouse Railway Station. They demanded an end to contractualization of work. With the prospect of the struggle becoming even stronger, the state decided to use utmost force to disperse the workers and break the movement. Thus, on the evening of 1st July, the police opened fire on the workers including women, killing 15 and injuring hundreds. In the aftermath of this incident, even though many workers failed to gain permanent status, the organization of the contract workers became strong enough to enforce collective bargaining and wage negotiation on behalf of contract workers. The workers have assembled every year since then to pay homage to their comrades who paid the ultimate cost for the sake of the working class.
Contract labour was and continues to remain rampant in the private and public sector enterprises in Bhilai, be it the steel plant, the mines or the ancillary factories. Poor working conditions, long work hours and low wages characterize this form of employment, representing the pinnacle of labour exploitation in India. Weak Legislations, diluted rules, and lax implementation has marked the State’s tepid response to curb contractualization of work. Since the workers formed the Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh in 1977 under the leadership of Com. Niyogi, the struggle to improve their working conditions and gain parity with permanent workers has been a major demand in this region. In 1977, a similar struggle in Dalli-Rajhara iron mines (From which BSP gets its Iron Ore) had led to police firing in which 11 workers died. Such violent reprisals of workers, peasants and tribals have punctuated the history of our country. State’s brutality towards workers collective action against corporate action is clear evidence to the partisan nature of the State. In such a political environment, minimal gains for the workers comes at a cost of many lives and broken families.
To the resounding chants in praise of their sacrifices, workers and family members filed past the photos of the martyred workers, paying their homage to them and promising to continue the struggles. CMM had split into multiple factions in 2004-05. Yet all constituents came together to observe ‘Shaheed Diwas’ in an expression of unity and solidarity. Young and old, joined the rally with enthusiasm. Workers’ Cultural Group ‘Relle’, performed to entertain the assembled workers. Leaders for varying factions, workers and supporters expressed their views on the present condition of labour and politics in India. The present government came for serious criticism, both for its anti labour policies as well as its cultural fundamentalism.