Millions of workers in India staged a one-day strike on Wednesday against the hard right government of Narendra Modi. Some unions say nearly a fifth of the population stayed away from work.
Modi’s BJP party was riding high after elections last spring. It won a parliamentary landslide so big that many on the left thought no opposition was possible.
But the strikes, combined with a huge protest movement against Modi’s anti-Muslim citizenship act, and a growing student revolt, show that the right can be fought.
The strike stopped railways and busses, and shut business from banks to coal mines. Many states reported a complete shutdown of town and city centres.
In West Bengal, strikers fought police and burnt busses seeking to cross picket lines, while blocking train tracks to prevent travel to the main centres.
In Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the southern state of Kerala, the streets filled with strikers bearing red flags.
Police in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh arrested leaders of the left parties and trade unions as they tried to stop state-owned buses and staged road blockade.
Students and teachers at the Punjabi University in Patiala blocked their campus, while surrounding traffic was in gridlock because of the strike.
Unions took action over a host of economic issues, including wages, pensions and privatisation.
A sharp slowdown in economic growth has led to spiralling unemployment, particularly for graduates. Meanwhile the proposed privatisation of state-run airlines, banks, power generation and mining makes the prospect of millions of redundancies all too real.
As well as appealing to workers, the strike drew in farmers and students too.
A growing crisis in agriculture saw thousands of farmer suicides in 2019. The collapse of fuel subsidises, and increasing costs of fertilisers and pesticides is making small scale farming almost impossible.
As debts and vicious landlords encircle the poor many are driven to killing themselves and their families.
Students are also reeling from a wave of attacks. Gangs of right wing thugs broke in to the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi last week to attack those known to support the radical left.
As goons set about beating defenceless students with iron bars, Modi’s police stood by and watched—only to return later to arrest some of victims.
Videos of the assault have sent a wave of revulsion across India. The right and the police have been forced into a series of badly concocted stories to explain what happened.
The unions coordinating the strikes added support for the injured students to their list of demands. Importantly, they also linked their strike to the campaign against Modi’s anti-Muslim laws.
This is vitally important.
Muslims have been under sustained attack the first of series of discriminatory citizenship laws were passed in December last year.
A widespread protest movement has erupted in response. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most Muslim state, the police are off their leash. They beat and jail even teenagers who dare to shout in defiance, “We will not show our papers”.
The huge support for the strike shows the potential to link together many issues into a movement against Modi. Last year’s election shows the mistake of waiting for the parliamentary left, or the liberals of the Congress Party, before acting.
Indian trade unions have made a habit of calling successful one or two-day stoppages, then leaving the field of battle, hoping a new government will come to their rescue.
The stakes now are too high for these kind of manoeuvres.