The Historic Railway Strike of 1974


Dr A. Mathew, Secretary, Kamgar Ekta Committee (KEC)

The 20-day strike by 17 lakh workers of the Indian Railways is the largest recorded industrial action in the world! It is not surprising that very few people are aware of this. After all, the capitalist class that is ruling our country does everything in its power to stop us workers from becoming conscious of our strength.

Today, fifty years later, we salute the workers who faced all odds and participated in this action. The unity and the bravery of the workers, the capacity of the workers and their families to face the extreme cruelty of the Indian state, of the then Congress Government at war with its own citizens, the support they received from other members of the working class and people at large is a source of great inspiration.

At the same time, it is vital that we draw valuable lessons from the strike to guide us in future and ask and answer some questions about this “democracy”.

The strike which was supposed to have started on May 8th 1974, started on May 2nd itself because the Indira Gandhi led Congress Government arrested thousands of leaders of the railway workers on that day. This included even those leaders who had come to Delhi to negotiate with the Central Government on the demands of the workers. In the most treacherous fashion after the discussions were over on April 30th night, they were again asked to come back on 2nd of May for further discussions and in the intervening night of May 1st , Workers’ Day, the mass arrests took place. The death of Comrade VR Mhalgi, one of the leaders in police custody on May 2nd, as well as the mass arrests of their leaders enraged the workers and the strike started on May 2nd beginning with the Central Railway.

The strike was led by National Co-ordination Committee of Railwaymen’s Struggle (NCCRS) which had been formed on 27th February 1974. The NCCRS was a joint forum of all railway unions to prepare for the coming railway strike. This had as its constituents, AIRF, AIREC, CITU, AILRSA, AITCU and 125 railway unions, with George Fernandes as its Convenor. The main reasons for the strike were the low wages of the rail workers as compared to other industrial workers, long hours of work and harsh working conditions.

Background to the Historic Strike

The Central Government, after Nationalisation of the Railways in 1951 refused to treat the railway workers as industrial workers and kept them out of the purview of the Factories Act (1948). Also, they treated the railway workers as a part of the Government and their wages were fixed by the Pay Commission recommendations.

The railwaymen had been demanding that they should be treated as industrial workers, with duty hours not exceeding 8 hours a day and full trade union rights i.e. the right to choose or form their own Association and facilities for collective bargaining. The railway workers demanded need based minimum wage or at least parity with the wages granted by several wage-boards to comparable major organized industries of the country. They wanted protection against erosion in their real wage by introducing the principle of linking D.A. with price index and full neutralization – a principle which had been accepted by many wage boards. They also wanted abolition of the casual labour system – a demand based on the principle of “equal pay for work of equal value” as defined in I.L.O. Convention No.100, which the Govt. of India had already ratified in 1958 but refused to implement. They also demanded “Bonus” which was being granted to industrial workers as a measure of “deferred wage” but not to railway men. A demand for cheap grain shops with adequate supply of rations was also raised by them.

Railwaymen, who have a proud heritage of struggle, had earlier struck work for 5 days in 1960 on these demands, forging links with the Central Government employees. Again in 1968, a call for a one day token strike was given. The Government on both the occasions ruthlessly suppressed the struggle.

In the 1960’s, when the railway management refused to address their demands , many railway workers felt that their demands would be better served if they were organised based on their trade or craft. This led to the rise of craft unions or trade wise unions among the drivers, guards, station masters, S&T staff etc. who agitated for their trade wise demands without the involvement of the recognised federations. Independent associations such as AILRSA, AIGC, AISMA, IRS&TA etc. were set up and a confederation of these associations, AIREC, was also formed.

The 3rd Pay Commission recommendations had been announced on 31st March, 1973 and none of the basic demands of railwaymen were conceded. There was practically no rise in pay. On the other hand, the implementation of the report would have reduced the monthly pay packet of some railwaymen. This was in the background of rampant inflation with the rising prices of crude oil in the international market.

The grounds for the strike were laid by the heroic strike of loco running staff (engine drivers) led by the All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA) in May 1973 and August 1973, which forced the Railway Minister to promise implementation of a 10 hour work day from sign on to sign off instead of the prevailing 14 hours workday. The fact that the promise was never implemented angered the loco pilots who were at the forefront of the 1974 strike.

The Guards of the Indian Railways, under AIGC (All India Guards Council) had also gone on a work to rule after the announcement of the Third Pay Commission recommendations. This brought the goods train movement all over the country to a complete halt. On March 10th, 1974, The Railway Ministry was forced to announce a revision in the Guards’ basic pay package.

All the above struggles helped to increase the class consciousness of the railway workers and prepared the background for the historic rail strike of 1974.

The rail workers recognised that if they were to achieve their demands, they needed to have unity among all sections of rail workers. It was with this aim that the NCCRS was formed. This had as its constituents AIRF, AIREC, CITU, AILRSA, AITUC and 125 railway unions. The principle followed in the formation of NCCRS was that all organizations were treated with equality having one representative each in the committee irrespective of size of the constituent union or association.

The strike and the extremely brutal response to it by the Government and Rail Authorities

It must be noted that the Central Government was aware of the rising anger of the rail workers and that a confrontation was inevitable as they were not interested in conceding to the just demands of the rail workers. Accordingly, while a facade of talks with the union leadership was kept up in the early part of 1974, behind these talks the Government and the rail authorities were drawing up a diabolical plan to crush the workers when they went on strike. They first made an assessment as to how many people would not join the strike. Secondly, they ensured that the steel plants, power plants and other essential industries were kept with a full supply of their required raw-materials. They also built up a surplus stock of food grains in the deficit states. After the strike notice by the rail workers was served on 23rd April 1974, they cancelled 700 passenger trains and gave preference to movement of freight to achieve these objectives. They also drew up a plan to arrest the leadership at the “appropriate time”. Payment of all arrear dues, P.F. loans etc. was stopped so that the workers did not have resources to prolong the struggle.

As explained earlier the leadership of the railway workers was arrested when they were in Delhi to participate in “talks” on the night of May 1st. As a result, the strike actually commenced on 2nd of May, 1974, in the Central Railway and in others on 8th of May as scheduled. Even with most of their leaders in jail, the railway workers all over the country responded magnificently to the strike call. The sweep of the strike was much more than the Government had anticipated. The Chairman of the Railway Board tried to belittle the strike. All media of mass communications were pressed into service to circulate false claims that the strike had failed.

In responding to the railway strike, the fascist character of the Indian State was brutally exposed to the brave workers. Never before in Independent India was there such a terror spread over all parts of the country, in all states, in all towns and cities simultaneously. The police raided the houses of the railway workers all over the country and tortured those who fell into their hands. Workers were mercilessly beaten and tortured to go back to their duties, some even at gun point. Drivers were chained to the EMU Coaches or were under police escort, so that they could not run away. Instances of train drivers being shackled in their cabins were reported at the height of the strike. Meetings were prohibited. Important leaders were arrested and arrest warrants issued against active workers. Even those in hospital beds were not spared. About 30,000 were arrested and 20,000 warrants were pending.

Any attempt by railwaymen to organize protest was ruthlessly suppressed. Prohibitive orders including curfew were imposed on all railway colonies and their surrounding areas so that the striking workers were not able to keep any contact with those who had not joined the strike or hold meetings, processions etc. Lathi charges and tear gassings were reported at Hubli, Egmore, Mugalsarai, Mysore, Calol, Jhansi, Burdwan, Kharagpur, Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, Kota, Guwahati, Gangapur city and many other railway settlements.

In protest against the arrests of their menfolk the women in railway colonies heroically came on the streets all over India at various centres like Sarai Rohila, New Jalpaiguri, Adra, Kharagpur, Pandu, Kanchrapara, etc. However, the fascist Indian state did not spare even the women. Old and pregnant women or even children were mercilessly beaten. The lathi charge at Gangapur city was so severe that a pregnant women suffered abortion on the spot and there were many having 8 to 11 fractures on their bodies.

Reports of opening fire on the demonstrators came from Chitpur, Kutch and other stations. Arrests were conducted on a mass scale. At Gurgaon, all those present including 162 Electric Motormen were arrested from one spot. At Maldah, the entire working force of the night shift on May 7 was not allowed to leave the station and forced to perform duties on May 8, as well. Similar reports were received from New Bongaigaon, Bombay and other places. The Electric Motormen of Bombay when called by the officers, refused to become the first strike-breakers. They were arrested and detained without food.

Beating of workers after arrest became a normal incident. At Kurla, workers were hand-cuffed and paraded on the platform. At Uluberia, Gangmen were roped and detained for 72 hours in a small room without any food or amenities. Torture and indignities knew no bounds.

During the period of the strike, railway colonies were turned into battle fields The para-military forces, such as Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), were deployed in the railway colonies. The colonies were surrounded and all male members arrested and told that they have either to go to jail or go to work. Those who refused to go to work were also subjected to physical torture like pushing pins in the finger nails, putting the workers on the railway platforms in the hot sun, etc. The Police made rounds in the railway colonies, raided railway quarters and arrested all strikers. There were cases when workers were not found in their quarters and their sons were arrested.

In establishing this reign of terror, free reign was given to the police and the anti-social elements. This was the case in Delhi, Bombay, Kanpur and almost everywhere. Armed goonda gangs moved about in the colonies terrorizing the workers, beating them, abusing the family members, forcibly evicting the railwaymen from their quarters etc. The doors of the railway quarters were being broken open and the household goods thrown to the streets and women were dragged by their hairs. It was not limited to victimized workers alone. Even those who were under medical treatment and those who did not join strike were not spared. In some case, authorities failing in their attempts of eviction rendered the quarters uninhabitable by breaking the doors, windows and the roof.

Railway workers had from the beginning anticipated that they would be tortured after arrest till they were forced to join duties. Hence, they left railway colonies and took shelter in the nearby villages, towns or even jungles. At Chittaranjan, Hubli, Miraj, Dangaposi, Pathankot, Kazipet etc. they were in the jungles and had no food for days. It was in such circumstances, the women of the railway colonies were made a special target. The incidents at Jhansi, Mughalsarai, Kanchrapara, Kharagpur, Kishanganj, Lumding, Sitarampur etc. need special mention. Reports of rape and molestations of women were received. Hundreds of women from Railway colonies were put in the jails. These barbarous tortures went to such an extent that the Government’s own labour department was forced to condemn this inhuman torture.

Payment of Wages Act was suspended from May 5, so that workers could be kept in a state of starvation. They cut off electricity and water supply at Bombay, Delhi, Kishanganj, Sakurbasti, Malda railway colonies, etc. The ration cards of the striking workers were cancelled by the respective B.D.O’s in some places.

Nearly 1 lakh railway workers were removed from service under the service clause 14(ii)/149. About 50,000 casual workers were terminated without any notice. Almost 30,000 employees were kept under suspension and ten of thousands of workers were arrested. Authorities become so inhuman in their approach that even medical aid was stopped from railway hospitals. At New Jalpaiguri, women expecting babies were refused admission. At Bhojudih even in serious cases, the Public Dispensaries refused to attend to the patients.

It was a total war against railway employees and their family members. Army technicians were posted at all important stations in readiness to take over. Territorial Army, Border Security Force and Regular Army were posted everywhere. Arrangement for patrol trains were also made. Even the Navy at Cochin and elsewhere was alerted.

The rule of law was thrown to the winds and jungle rule was established for about a month throughout the country. The Statesman of May 10, 1974 carried a report that 3125T Territorial Army men were arrested for refusing to run trains. A special CRP battalion was air-lifted from Delhi to Mughalsarai. At Bongaingaon, a battalion of the Assam Rifles was used to strike terror amongst railwaymen.

Never was there more determined resistance, so uniformly and courageously, everywhere in all states, in all towns and cities. The heroic women and children in the railway colonies faced the tormentors courageously and helped to sustain the fighting morale of their husbands and fathers. The Times of India of May 14,1974, carried an interview with the wife of a guard under arrest. She said “Now that the strike is on, my husband would stand by the strikers till the end.” At various centres of the country, they organized themselves and led the resistance.

Solidarity support actions from all over India

In Mumbai, electricity and bus transport workers, taxi drivers and auto rickshaw drivers went on strike. P&T workers and Central Government employees of Kerala and West Bengal went on a three-day strike, from May 8th to May 10th. There was an all India support strike of on 15th of May, 1974.

It is important to note that all State Governments fully coordinated with the Central Government in attacking the rail workers.

However, faced with such a massive onslaught by the Central and State Governments and with all their leaders in jail, the strike began to weaken after a few weeks. On 28th of May 1974 the call was given by leaders of NCCRS from inside the jails to withdraw the strike and resume work.

The decision for withdrawal of the strike created mixed feeling amongst railwaymen. At places where the strike was weakening, the decision was accepted with a sense of relief. But at places where the railwaymen were continuing the strike despite all odds, it came as a surprise and workers refused to go back to duty. At Santragachi, the withdrawal was delayed for more than 12 hours. In NFR, workers refused to believe the press or AIR (All India Radio – which is in control of the government) and waited till they contacted the leaders of NCCRS. Unlike 1960 or 1968, there was a high morale amongst the workers and in many places they joined back in a demonstrative manner, through processions and shouting slogans like disciplined soldiers going back at the call of their organization. They were not prepared for abject surrender, as was reflected in further agitations at Samastipur (NFR) against fresh arrests, or at Kurla Car Shed (CR) for reinstatement of their colleagues.

However, even after calling off the strike the Government continued with its victimisation and brutal onslaught. About 25,000 permanent employees were summarily removed/dismissed from service without giving any opportunity to defend themselves under 14(ii) of the D&A Rules. 5000 employees were kept under suspension, 30,000 temporary and causal workers were also removed from service. There was no rhyme or reason behind these orders.

Simultaneously with this onslaught against the striking workers, the Government announced different kinds of encouragement to those who did not join the strike in the shape of cash reward, advance increment, extension of service and employment of children. There were instances when even applications were not received and appointment order was issued not in the name of the candidate but as son of a particular employee. This was intended to create a set of permanent strike breakers among the workers.

It must be noted that with the change of the Government in 1977, with the coming to power of the Janata Party, most of the dismissed permanent workers were reinstated without break in service. However it was the casual workers who continued to bear the brunt of the victimisation. 30,000 of them were never reinstated.

Lessons from the historic strike

The heroic strike of the rail workers and the heroism shown by them and their families will always inspire us. It was a glorious chapter in the history of the working class movement and there is much for us today to learn from it.

The weakness in the 1974 strike preparations was that they did not take steps for establishing broad based strike committees at all levels particularly at the departmental levels so that the strike preparations could continue in each department and the workers could face eventualities unitedly. It was necessary to establish NCCRS committees at every branch, division and zonal level.

They did not prepare the workers for a long struggle and instead gave them the false hopes that if they could carry the strike for seven days the Government would give in to their demands. Unlike the Government which had put in place plans for crushing the strike well before the strike started, there were no similar preparations made before hand by the workers leaderships.

The railway strike of 1974, and the extremely brutal response of the Central and State Governments has shown to the railway workers and the working class of India, that the working class needs to prepare for any class action with even more planning and determination so as to defeat the machinations of the Government and the top management. We need to mobilise all members right from the grassroots upwards and they should all be enabled to participate in decision making on how to conduct the strike and when to call it off. It is only the democratic involvement of all the participants that can ensure that the strike is successful. The many successful agitations of loco drivers, guards in the Railways as well as outside of the railways show that only when all the members are fully mobilised is victory possible.

It is also necessary to educate the people of our country about the reasons of going on strike, so that more organised support is possible from amongst them.

While the working class implements even more strongly the slogan we love, “An attack on one is an attack on all!” it also needs to ask and answer some deeper questions. For instance, wasn’t the government responsible for many criminal acts, including lying about having talks, and treating its citizens with extreme brutality? Why did it go scot free? To whom is it accountable?

The preparations the government made reveal that it is only accountable to the ruling class of capitalists. Remember how it cancelled 700 passenger trains and added freight trains or goods trains in order to ensure that the wheels of industry kept turning and generating profit for the capitalists.

The attempts to create divisions among workers on various counts have to be defeated. The working class needs to build its own fighting unity amongst itself, among the members of a particular factory, industry or trade as well as among all members of the class irrespective of the divisions that are artificially imposed on them in the name of permanent versus casual labour, skilled versus unskilled labour, managerial versus unionised labour, Government employee versus private sector employee, or any of the many ways that the authorities try to keep us divided.



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