Workers struggle and right to self determination : Tracing Kashmir’s struggle through working class perspective

Kashmir has seen over 150 days of uprising which continues in spite of brutal and uncompromising oppression by the Indian state and its machinery. The Indian government is trying to give it an implicitly communal colour, on the one hand invoking the presence of Pakistan at every stage of the conflict, and on the other hand savagely attacking the Kashmiri protesters. All forms of protests including non-violent ones are brutally suppressed. This treatment of the Kashmiri protesters is markedly different from the treatment the Jats got during their far more violent uprising, as well as the treatment the Patels received during their long agitation.

One wonders what precisely is the role of Kashmir’s working class in this conflict. The Kashmiri economy has been destroyed in the past 26 years as militarization and violence have adversely impacted key sectors of the economy like tourism. Jammu and Kashmir have a large number government employees, teachers, and civil servants, who constitute the core of the working class. Where are their voices in these times? Where are their struggles as a labouring class situated in the struggle for the right to self determination?

In order to understand this issue, we revisit the history of the trade union movement in Kashmir. The books that have been written on the subject are few, but remarkable in their content.

A recent book by Nandita Haskar [1] which documents the history of the trade union movement in Jammu and Kashmir is an invaluable resource. Sampath Prakash, a seasoned trade unionist who is a central figure in that book has himself written a number of articles on the subject [2].

We draw heavily upon these resources and attempt to understand these working class struggles within the violent political and religious landscape that shapes them.

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Kashmir has had a long history of working class movements. We can go as far back as the mid nineteenth century when there was a protest march by Shawl weavers in 1865. Even though Kashmiri shawls were exported heavily to Europe in the mid nineteenth century, the weavers themselves were exploited immensely. Each weaver was required to pay Rs. 40 per year as a tax over the salary of Rs. 84 per year. Thus half of their meagre salary was taken by the Shawl Department set up by the state administration. The weavers and apprentices decided to carry out a peaceful march on 29th April, 1865 towards Gove palace, which was in charge of the Shawl department. They raised slogans and burned effigies of the governor. The response from the state was similar to the response of the Indian state today. The protesters were shot at point blank range and charged with spears. Many jumped off a bridge to save themselves.

Exploitation of Kashmiri workers continued in the 20th century. A report prepared by Sheikh Abdullah in 1932 documents conditions of the workers in the state silk factory and the humiliating treatment they faced at the hands of their managers (very few of whom were British). The “New Kashmir manifesto” which was put forward by the National Conference in 1944 (led by Sheikh Abdullah) was drafted by communists affiliated to the CPI. It included a workers’ charter, a peasants’ charter and a women’s charter [1].

It should be noted that the trade union movement in Kashmir (especially in the 50’s) was primarily due to presence of communists in the Kashmir. In the 50’s, communist and working class literature and magazines were freely available in the valley. No organization at the time had an objection to such literature. Things were more difficult in Jammu as it already had a significant presence of Jan Sangh (established in 1952) which was avidly anti-communist Thus Kashmir saw a rise of many trade unionists who were affiliated with a variety of left parties.

Some of these trade unionists had been active in a peasant organization called Kisaan Mazdoor Sabha. In the 1950’s they had also organized sector-wise trade unions including the Silk Labour Union, the Telegraph Employees Union, and the Bus Drivers Union. However among the working class population of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were a significant number in various government departments. The government employees in Kashmir were exploited and humiliated in a variety of ways. In various departments, their bosses often treated them like serfs and their monthly salaries barely lasted their families two weeks. In some departments like the Sheep and Animal Husbandry Department, arbitrary firings were frequent. From 1964, a union called the Low Paid Government Employees Federation had existed and was in fact formed by the then prime minister of Kashmir, Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq (who was known for his pro-working class stand). However, the union was initially inactive and was revived by communists, among them Saraf, Sethi and Sampath. This revival gave rise to the golden period of the trade union movement in Jammu and Kashmir, which lasted from 1966 to around 1975. Their revival was based on making separate trade unions in each government department which would all be associated to the federation.

The first real success of this union came in the form of the famous 1967 strike which started in December and involved a remarkable number of government employees from various departments in both Jammu and Kashmir. The preparation for this strike involved mobilizing the employees from over twenty departments in both Kashmir and Jammu, where Jan Sangh had a strong presence and was trying to divide employees along communal lines. This preparation went on for almost a year and involved detailed discussions as well as training government employees in sloganeering and marching. The strike had two basic demands. Regularization of services and payment of dearness allowance at par with what central government employees were paid. The strike lasted for almost a month and in the first phase it involved the employees going to their offices and striking work. A decision by the leadership to have the employees simply not show up to their offices backfired and the strike fizzled out. However the cadre building during the preparation for strike meant that the government employees union had truly been formed.

During the strike 37 workers were arrested in Jammu and 7 in Kashmir. Trade unionists from Kashmir (like Sampath Prakash) toured India and mobilized support for the jailed workers by contacting various unions in different parts of India. This was a time when the trade union movement in India showed solidarity with workers of Kashmir. Leaders from various regions and affiliated to various left central trade unions went to Kashmir and sat on a two day solidarity hunger strike, and announced that they would call for Bharat Bandh if the arrested workers were not released. This pressure resulted in the Kashmir government finally releasing the arrested workers. When we see today that the central trade unions are conspicuous in their absence in raising their voices against the brutal oppression of Kashmir and its working class, this event seems truly remarkable.

By the 1970’s efforts were underway to make independent associations in each department with significant employees being part of these associations. The May Day of 1970 in Kashmir was a grand affair in which each association made their own flag and banner and marched through the streets of Srinagar.

By 1971, the federation had built up a significant cadre base in Jammu as well as Kashmir, and had close ties with other unions like the Textile Mills union. Some truly remarkable strikes and successful campaigns took place in next few years:

(1) The Safai Karamchari (cleaning staff) who were employed by the Municipality went on strike in 1973. These sweepers were considered untouchables by Hindus and were also stigmatized by Muslims. They lived in segregated and abject conditions. Their demand was for special risk allowance (which in India is a relevant demand even today). As many officers had dry toilets in those days, the strike had an immediate effect. There was also a memorable incident of women sweepers marching into the Chief Secretary office with their babies, depositing babies in the office and leaving. It was monsoon and workers blocked all sewers. These measures had dramatic effects. The strike itself lasted nine days and was a success. Workers got better salaries and permanent jobs. Women sweepers started getting maternity leave. Sweepers remained a core part of the government employees union in the years to come.

(2) There was also a successful strike of gardeners who were employed by the Gardens and Parks Department, and the employees were the main reason why Kashmiri gardens were a major tourist attraction. However their own conditions were miserable. They had no regular working hours and hence often worked longer then expected, and had no uniforms or regular contract. They were also used by officers for maintaining their private gardens for which they received no pay. In 1973, the gardeners organized with the help of the union and marched in the streets with black flags. Their strike was a resounding success with regularization of jobs, regular working hours, provision of uniforms, an hour of lunch break and overtime.

(3) Under leadership of Sampath Prakash, the federation also organized coolies who were considered socially backward and were used by engineers to do household chores without pay. Their strike in October 1973 lasted for a week, but they did a protracted protest after that and continued to organize and campaign. In 1978, the campaign finally paid off and they were regularized, granted class IV status as well as given gratuity and pension.

As Nandita Haskar notes, “achievements of trade unions inspired every section of government employees. Many participated in their marches, rallies and attended their meetings…..Living and working conditions of more then four million government employees including teachers, clerks and workers in public sector units improved significantly.”

We should note that by this time, the trade union movement in Kashmir had also started fighting another battle. That against increasing strength of communal forces in both, Jammu and Kashmir. On one hand in Jammu, RSS was accusing trade unionists as being Chinese agents, and on the other in Kashmir, Jamaat e Islami, a communal organization, had increased its presence. As is evident from testimonies of trade unionists in that period [1], the government employees federation constantly tried to combat these influences by bringing secular politics into the debates among the workers. Testimonies of many of the leading trade unionists of that era(many of them, like Sampath Prakash, were pandits) makes it clear that they clearly stood for Kashmir’s right to self determination. When in 1974 Sheikh Abdullah signed the pact with Indira Gandhi, according to which Kashmir was recognized as constituent unit of India (albeit with a special status), the unionists were furious and publicly criticized Sheikh Abdullah. When Emergency was declared in the rest of India and Sheikh Abdullah also brought it to Kashmir, the trade unionists either went underground or were arrested. The movement suffered a blow.
The state government critically targeted the leaders of the government employees federation. Hundreds of employees were put behind bars and dismissed from services and tortured at interrogation centres during the Emergency.

After emergency the union also underwent a political shift. Till then the top leadership of the movement had a Marxist Leninist ideology and unambiguously stood for self determination of Kashmir. However after Emergency, there were fissures in the leadership and the low government employees federation joined CPI(M) (although it continued to use the same name).
In the 1980’s the federation continued to unionize workers in all government departments and in various corners of Kashmir. One of the unionists, Punoo, even organized workers in the Ladakh area and led strikes demanding implementation of the fourth pay commission. As Punoo testifies [1], “the most important contribution the federation had made was that employees continued to work through months and years of insurgency and saved Kashmir economy from complete ruin.”
In the 1980’s, prior to the insurgency the federation continued to fight for implementation of fourth pay commission. 1987 also witnessed growing influence of MUF (Muslim United Front) which comprised mainly of wealthy Muslims . They had even set up their own union. However their rallies were of a religious nature and the government employees federation timed their own rallies precisely with rallies of the MUF which were for implementation of the pay commission. Till the advent of insurgency, the union was fighting to oppose any communalization in Kashmir.
After the insurgency began and as Kashmir saw an unprecedented wave of militarization and repression by the Indian state, the government employees and the trade unions were not spared.
In 1990, there was a 72 day long strike organized by the government employees federation. In all 24,000 employees were detained, which included teachers, workers and daily wage labourers. The detention period ranged from 6 months to six months [2].

There were other notable and long strikes in 90’s by the government employees union , namely a 42 day long strike in 1991, another 42 day long strike in 1999 and a 23 day long strike in 1995. All of them were accompanied by brutal repression by the police. In some sense the treatment Kashmiri working class saw since the 90’s (which involved explicit violence and disregard for workers’ rights by police) has now spread to other parts of the country.

There have been killings of government employees as well. Sampath Prakash estimates 400 employees, teachers, and workers were killed by security forces and unidentified gunmen during this period. The disappearance of youth and torture in interrogation centers, which is an integral part of the last 26 years of Kashmiri life, has not spared government employees and workers either. 300 employees have disappeared, thousands have been detained, and hundreds tortured in interrogation centers.

In the 21st century one is also witnessing a new wave of strikes and mammoth protests by the Kashmiri working class. The employees of Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (JKSRTC), which is a state owned enterprise, started their struggle in 2008 when management was forcing workers to take VRS while also refusing to pay the cost of living allowance and other back wages. After unions intervened, management made a false promise to pay the back wages. However, when in 2009, back pages were still not paid, there were a number of strikes and demonstrations by JKSRTC workers. In this instance the union has even been accused of diluting the militancy among the workers [4].

Non-payment of back wages to government employees is a chronic phenomenon in Jammu and Kashmir, along with the other demands for better pay and job regularization. On 3rd April 2010, a remarkable 450,000 government employees struck work. Schools, public transport and government offices were closed down. On 5th April, the government invoked the Essential Services Maintenance Act [ESMA] which meant that if workers did not end the strike, they would face a year of imprisonment. On April 10th, thirteen striking workers were arrested, resulting in a march by other workers demanding their release. Police attacked the marching workers with batons and this resulted in workers fighting back [4]. This violence in Kashmir, which did not involve militants but was a conflict between the working class and the state machinery, went unreported by mainstream media.

[1] The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism: From the Cold War to the Present Day, Nandita Haskar
[2] http://www.ntui.org.in/alliances/peace-democracy/tupd/repression-and-the-trade-union-movement-in-jammu-kashmir/
[3] http://www.kashmirnewz.com/n000342.html
[4] https://libcom.org/news/kashmir-amidst-gun-battles-between-indian-state-separatists-half-million-workers-assert-the

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