250 million join general strike as mass movement erupts against new draconian citizenship law

On 8 January, India came to a grinding halt as more than 250 million joined a general strike across the country, called by the 10 central trade unions, raising demands against the brutal policies of the Modi regime. A.R. Sindhu, national secretary of the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) told the media that 15 states came to a complete halt. 

Public sector workers in most departments across the country were on complete strike, whereas the heavy industry and automobile sector in many states were also on complete strike. Unorganised workers were also on strike according to estimates, along with small traders in many areas, and most of them came onto the streets to participate in protests across the country. The transport sector was on strike across the country, disrupting daily activity, and in many places, railway lines and main highways were blocked by marching protestors.

The banking sector saw a strong strike across the country, and all public sector banking services came to a grinding halt. Associations of the banking employees, like All India Bank Employees’ Association (AIBEA), the officers’ association AIBOA, in addition to BEFI, INBEF, INBOC and others joined the strike and pressed for their demands. The banking sector is facing an onslaught of privatisation by the Modi government, which is leaving hundreds of thousands of bank workers unemployed.

In rural areas as well, huge protests were also held as agricultural workers for the first time joined the strike and came out in large numbers in various parts of the country to protest for their demands. The All-India Kissan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) is an umbrella organisation of 175 peasants’ and rural workers’ organisations, which participated wholeheartedly in the strike.

In recent years, the economic situation of the country has worsened and more than five million have become jobless in the last two years. Unemployment is at an all-time high. According to a report, 73 million are unemployed: a total unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, while in urban areas it is 8.9 percent. This has also pushed down wages, and one of the main demands of the strike was to raise the minimum wage to Rs. 21,000 per month. The current minimum wage is shamefully low and even that is not being paid to most of the workers. Other demands included regularisation of contractual and daily wage workers, an end to the policy of privatisation and FDI in railways, defence, coal and other sectors, along with other economic demands. Rural workers and farmers added their own demands of a better price for their crops, and a cancellation of debt, which leads to thousands of suicides every year.

Rural workers have participated widely in this movement / Image: Redfish

The slowdown in the Indian economy is also hitting the poor very hard. Along with losing jobs and facing high inflation, they have been burdened by new taxes, like the implementation of GST by the Modi government. The government has also given huge handouts to the rich by cutting the corporate tax from 30 percent to 22 percent, which amounts to more than $20 billion of relief to the rich of this poor country. But this measure has also not helped to raise the growth of GDP, which is at a six-year low of 5.8 percent: a drop from near seven percent in the previous period.

The growth in the GDP rate never meant any prosperity for millions of workers across the country, who were condemned to live in poverty and misery and had to face massive attacks and exploitation from the rich by reductions in real wages and increase in working hours. But the slowdown has brought more havoc by pushing the middle layers of society towards poverty, while those living on the edge are being thrown below the poverty line at a rate never seen before. This has brought the anger and fury of the masses surging to the surface, and they are beginning to move against Modi’s brutal, anti-people policies.

This was the 19th general strike in India since the beginning of the implementation of widespread privatisation and austerity policies in the 1990s. The participation of workers is growing every year and more and more layers of workers and rural population are participating in this strike every year. Last year, around 200 million participated in the two-day strike of 8-9 January, but this year more than 250 million are reported to have participated in the strike, especially from the rural population.

But the most important feature of the strike this year is that it was organised during an ongoing mass movement across the country against the new citizenship law, enacted by the Modi government in December last month through parliament. This has created a political debate in this strike movement for the first time, which was before restricted to only economic demands. This shows a qualitative difference in the workers’ movement, and in many places the protesting workers added the political demand of scrapping the new citizenship law, as did some trade union leaderships. A large number of students also participated in this strike as well for the first time. At least 60 university campuses across the country participated and extended solidarity to the striking workers, as well as raising their own demands against fee hikes and other issues, including repression by the Modi government. This will also give a new impetus to the student movement across India, which is facing brutal repression by the Modi government and its goons through the student wing of BJP and RSS cadres.

Mass movement against citizenship law

In December, the Modi government was able to pass a new citizenship law in parliament, which paved the way for the start of a process to register all 1,300 million Indian citizens from scratch, and if proved ineligible, they will be deemed illegal citizens and sent to special detention centres.

The new law, called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), will allow the government of India to create a new register of all Indian citizens, called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and issue an identity card to those citizens who meet the criterion. The process will start this year in April, using a scheduled census in which a National Population Register (NPR) will be created by filling in separate forms. In the NPR, citizens will be asked some additional questions about their parents’ date of birth and their last address, along with their own place of birth. This information will then be used to carry out the process of the NRC, when all the required documents should be provided to prove one’s citizenship. If any document cannot be provided then the relevant authorities will have the power to revoke the citizenship of any person, and send them to a detention centre.

The Modi government is saying that this exercise is being carried out to give citizenship to the oppressed religious minorities of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The new law also mentions that persons belonging to religious minorities of these Muslim-majority countries will be given Indian citizenship. The bill mentions all religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity – but not Islam, because it is stated that Muslims are not oppressed in these three countries. But even setting aside the bigoted nature of this bill, it is clear that every Indian citizen will have to prove their credentials with authentic documents, otherwise he or she will be stripped of citizenship from the country where they and their forefathers have lived for centuries. Also, protestors are saying that, if the Modi government is so benevolent to the oppressed, then there are many Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka who are oppressed, along with the Muslim minorities in Myanmar and China, on which this law is silent. Also, many Muslims are also being oppressed in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who have no protection under this law. This, and many other issues, show the bigoted nature of this law, which the Modi government will use to further its agenda of right-wing Hindutva. The main aim is this is to cut across the rising class struggle and to galvanise a reactionary layer behind the regime.

250 million people, making the action the largest of its kind in Indian history. https://t.co/FxPLaM8K0Q https://t.co/FxPLaM8K0Q— Karen Haggard (@quailfailz) January 9, 2020

This practice has already been carried out in the eastern state of Assam where at the end of the first round six million people were declared illegals. After many appeals and lengthy trials the figure has come down to around two million. Now the detention centres are being prepared across Assam, where these illegal people will be sent and left to die. Already, dozens have died in some detention centres due to living in poor conditions. The Modi government has denied that detention centres are being prepared for these people but reports have appeared that the process is going on for acquiring land, and a budget has been released to build such detention centres in many parts of the country. In Karnataka, a southern state, a detention centre is being built near Bangalore, while land is being acquired in Maharashtra and West Bengal.

In Assam, this exercise has left the whole population in disarray and they are being forced to line up in long queues all day to prove their identity, and that they were living in this state before 25 March 1971. This is the date when the Pakistani Army entered then East Pakistan, and started a war that led to the creation of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. It is assumed that millions crossed the border at that time due to the atrocities of the Pakistani Army, and settled in Assam, thus changing the demography of Assam. Though the results have shown that those who migrated at that time were mostly Hindus fearing persecution, rather than Muslims as propagated by BJP. Now, according to the new law, all will be given citizenship except the Muslims, who will be sent back.

This exercise was started in Assam in 2011, before the Modi government (on the orders of the Supreme Court of India) but has now culminated in a sheer disaster, provoking the national and religious question in Assam once again. Huge protests have been organised in Assam after the results of this registration were announced, as the local Assamese believed that they will be outnumbered by the Bengali-speaking population and that they will become a minority in their own state. Also, a large proportion of the Muslim population is also organising around its own leaders and is protesting against exclusion from citizenship. There has been a fierce crackdown on these protests and at least one student died from the bullets fired by the local police. Students are at the forefront of this struggle and are protesting against all the mainstream political parties in the face of these brutal tactics of divide and rule.

This situation has also opened up a new Pandora’s Box among all other smaller states of north-east India, which has one of the most-diverse populations on the planet and some have even seen secessionist movements in the past decades, especially in the northern state of Nagaland. There have been huge protests in Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura and other states against this new law and millions have come out on the streets as they sense a bleak future for themselves and their children under these laws.

The movement has since then spread to the whole country, as this new law is being enforced upon all the population and will open the door for the persecution of political opponents of the BJP and RSS. The corruption, bribery and apathy in the state departments mean that every citizen will have to go through a long and agonising process of registration, which may take several years and, if not passed people can end up in detention centres. The protestors are saying that these detention centres are like the concentration camps constructed by Hitler and that they will fight against these laws until their last breath.

Students at the forefront

Mass protests have been held in every state of the country against this law, in which hundreds of thousands have participated. In Delhi, police cracked down on a protest by the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University on 15 December, attacking the students with batons and tear gas. Police even entered the hostels and library and dragged students out to beat them up. Many were arrested and sent to jail on false charges. The leaders of the BJP are calling these students urban Naxals and terrorists supported by Pakistan and are supporting the police brutality publicly. Since then, the movement spread to other universities, not only in Delhi but across the country, and also ordinary citizens came out to protest against these brutal measures. The government tried to crush this movement with extreme brutality and in many places, internet and mobile phone services were shut down to disrupt the demonstrations. At certain places, Section 144 of the Indian legal code was enforced, which proscribes the gathering of more than four people and renders any protest as illegal. This law was introduced and used by the British imperialists in India was used once again by the Modi regime to crush the movement against his draconian policies.

In the largest state of Uttar Pardesh (UP), the protests were huge and the police brutally attacked the protestors under the leadership of right-wing reactionary chief minister of the BJP, Yogi Adityanath. More than 28 people have been killed so far in these protests by the police forces across the country but 19 are from UP. In Meerut, a city in UP, Police entered people’s homes and beat men and women randomly to crush all forms of dissent. In many cities of UP, live rounds were fired by the police to disperse the crowds, resulting in many deaths. But despite all these draconian measures, the movement is still alive and moving forward.

An important feature of this movement has been the protests in the industrial city of Mumbai. This large city has been a centre of left-wing politics and the labour movement in the past. But in the recent period, right-wing reactionary politics has taken over, with bigots like Bal Thackery and now his son in leading political positions. It was being said that life is so busy and alienating that nobody has any time for politics here. But after a long period of inactivity, huge protests have now broken out in Mumbai against this reactionary law and millions have mobilised in this important city. Mass protests were held in Dharavi, one of the largest slums of Asia, but also in Azad Maidan grounds, huge public meetings have been held. Even some film stars and famous directors have joined these protests, stepping outside of their luxurious lives. But here also, students are leading at the front, with hundreds mobilising against this injustice.

In Banglaore, Hyderabad, Chennai and other southern cities, huge protests have been held in which hundreds of thousands participated. These protests were led mainly by communist parties and other left-wing organisations. In Hyderabad, a right-wing Muslim leader Asaduddin Owaisi is at the head of the movement, which led a protest of more than 50,000 people in this city, where he is also an MP. In the eastern state of Bihar also, huge protests were held. One such protest was led by a student leader of JNU, Kanahiya Kumar. He is also now a leader of CPI and ran in the last general elections from Begusarai district.

In West Bengal, the issue is more acute due to the law highlighting the migrations from Bangladesh, and this process will decide the fate of all those migrants. The collapse of the left-wing government more than 10 years ago has opened up a political situation in which the main political rivals are now the right-wing ruling party Trinamol Congress (TMC) led by chief minister Mamta Banerjee, and the BJP. In the recent general elections, held in April last year, the fiercest fighting was seen in this state among these two right-wing parties in which dozens of political workers were killed on both sides. The BJP is using its bigotry and Hindu chauvinist politics to bring forth the nightmare of the partition in 1947 to get more and more support. This is being countered by another brand of right-wing nationalist rhetoric from the TMC. The new law has taken this bitter rivalry to a new level and the state and national government have daggers drawn, preparing for the state elections next year. But despite all this, the student movement has still moved forward, led by the students of Jadavpur University, and is protesting against this discriminatory law.

In Delhi, and other northern states, many protests were also held. The Saheen Bagh area of Delhi has seen a continuous sit-in by Muslim women on the main highway, despite a severe cold spell. Many student and political leaders have addressed this sit-in and extended solidarity with their demands.

Weakness of opposition parties

The opposition parties across the country have given a weak response to this law generally. In fact, they have been exposed in front of the masses who are out in large numbers to protest against the Modi government. The Congress party has given verbal opposition to this law and reluctantly participated in the protests. Priyanka Gandhi, leader of the party, has participated in some protests in UP and has visited the homes of some people affected by police brutality, but the party has not given a comprehensive alternative to the law. In the recent period, Congress has moved significantly to the extreme right wing to gain the Hindu vote from Modi and return to power. In the important state of Maharshtra they have aligned with the quasi-fascist Shiv Sena to form a coalition government against the BJP, giving support to Uddhav Thackeray as chief minister. In the last general elections, the leadership was clearly seen on the extreme right wing trying to appease Hindu voters by visiting several temples. The party has not only significantly moved from its so-called secularism, but also wholeheartedly embraced the right-wing policies now carried out by the Modi regime. All the economic and political policies of the Modi regime were in fact drafted during the Congress regime and the tactics of divide and rule are also the same as those used by Congress during its time in power. The only difference is that the crisis of the capitalist economy and the system as a whole has pushed the Indian state down a road never seen before.

Many analysts are comparing the current brutal attack on protestors by the Modi regime to the Emergency Period of Indira Gandhi in 1973. At that time also, all the opposition was thrown behind bars and all the demonstrations and protests were brutally crushed. This led to the fall of Indra Gandhi’s government in the subsequent election and the opposition parties joined together in a grand alliance of the Janta Party, which came to power for a brief period. This mass movement of the 1970s also gave birth to BJP later on and many other regional parties across India, which led the opposition under the later regimes of the Congress Party over the decades. The current mass movement has also many similarities with that movement, as it combines all strands of opposition from the far right to the left, though there are important qualitative differences as well. The most-important difference is the rottenness of the whole political spectrum, along with the sheer weakness of Indian capitalism, which has no chance of recovery in the near future.

Not only has the Congress party has failed to give leadership to this movement (with all hopes of its revival dying), but many regional parties have also been exposed in this movement. In UP, the regional parties Smajwadi Party SP and Bhojan Smaj Party BSP had been key players in state politics. These parties have relied on caste politics to rule the state for some decades. But they have also not come forward to oppose this law and have been silent spectators most of the time. In other states as well, many regional parties had the chance to lead this movement and crush the BJP in their respective constituencies but they have not come forward boldly. In Maharsahstra, Shiv Sena has given some verbal opposition but was still not able to give any leadership. This has opened up a situation in which many new faces and leaderships are emerging on the state and national level to lead this movement.

For a working-class struggle!

It is important to highlight the character of this movement, which is ambiguous at the moment, with many strands participating, from extreme right to the left. An important emphasis of the movement has been on the secular basis of the Indian constitution, and that the new laws have abrogated these basis, and are thus against the spirit of this constitution. Most of the analysts, commentators and leaders of the movement are coming out in support of what they perceive as the democratic values of the Indian constitution and the country as a whole, and are trying to defend Indian democracy, which is being usurped by the fascist Modi. The main slogan of the movement is Azaadi (freedom), which means freedom to associate, freedom to express one’s opinion and freedom to live. The left-wing leaders have added the freedom from poverty, unemployment and illiteracy to this slogan as well. The students are also chanting revolutionary poetry in public meetings, especially of the iconic Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the legendary Habib Jalib. Pictures of Bhagat Singh are also being carried in huge numbers in all these protests by the students who consider themselves to be his followers.

But despite all this, the movement is foremost for democratic demands and religious harmony in the country. The speakers at the large public meetings are saying that the discriminatory law against Muslims is an insult to the Indian constitution, and Muslims are much a part of this country as people from any other religion. Many have demanded to build unity among people of various religions to fight against this law. Also, leaders from some Dalit organisations, like the Bhim Army, have also extended solidarity to the Muslims in their protests, asking for unity among oppressed people from various religions and castes. Posters of Ambedkar can also be seen in large numbers in these protests. But all this again plays in the hands of the ruling class, which has used bigotry and religious hatred to divide the working class and enforce the rule of capital for more than a century now.

Only in a socialist planned economy, led by a workers’ state, can all the people in India live a life without poverty, misery and unemployment / Image: Redfish

The real unity cannot be established by identifying people on religious basis and then making efforts to bring them together, but to building a genuine class unity. The ruling class of India comprises people from all religions and castes and it is important to fight this battle on a real class basis. BJP and Congress are both parties of the ruling class, along with many other regional parties. All of them have used various means to continue the rule of capital and oppress and exploit the masses across India. The communist parties have also degenerated and have become parties oppressing the working class in their respective areas. These parties have also not shown a way forward for the several oppressed nationalities in India. Especially in Kashmir, and now in Assam as well, these parties are clueless on the national question and have no programme against the national oppression inflicted by the Indian state.

All discussion of the supreme role of the secular Indian constitution also confines the movement within the limits of bourgeois nationalism and strengthens the rule of capitalism in India. It is now time to go beyond these narrow limits of the bourgeois Indian constitution, which is designed to protect the interests of the capitalist class against the working class. The new reactionary law and other policies of the Modi regime are just a symptom of a decaying capitalism, which cannot be brought back to its previous level. The ailing Indian economy also cannot recover through any means to the level of the 1970s and 1980s. It will continue to drag millions into poverty along with it. Any efforts to reform this economy on a capitalist basis will only save the capitalists and their enormous wealth, while pushing millions more into poverty. In the postwar period, a period of relative economic upswing, the Indian constitution could serve as a means to stabilise the country. But it cannot play that role any longer and trying to reform it will only lead to reactionary explosions on religious, national, caste lines on a scale never seen before. The recent attacks on the people of Kashmir by the Modi regime have shown the real intentions of the Indian ruling class, which will be followed by similar draconian attacks on other oppressed nationalities. The only way forward out of this abyss is a struggle to unite all oppressed nationalities and castes on a class basis to overthrow capitalism and build a socialist workers’ state with a new constitution that doesn’t serve the interests of big business.

Only in a socialist planned economy, led by a workers’ state, can all the people in India live a life without poverty, misery and unemployment. National and religious oppression will also end when this bourgeois state is replaced by a workers’ state through revolution. In a bourgeois state these differences will be continuously used to divide and oppress the masses. A socialist transformation in India will open up the revolutionary potential of the working class in the whole region and the world. The working class in Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries will follow the lead set by the Indian working class and will come forward to end the hated, artificial boundaries drawn and protected by imperialist powers, and will build a socialist federation of South Asia, as a step towards a world socialist federation.