CLASS STRUGGLES IN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY INDIA
‘The chief executive officer of a Greater Noida-based gear manufacturing company [Graziano Transmissioni India Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of an Italian TNC] was lynched to death inside factory premises on Monday, allegedly by a group of dismissed workers.’
‘“Around 125 dismissed workers armed with iron rods barged into the factory and went on rampage. They broke computers and machinery and smashed windowpanes. When Lalit tried to pacify them, they assaulted him with rods,” board of director Ramesh Jain told Hindustan Times.’ See report here
‘Companies in the area are known to employ contract labour in large numbers, though the law clearly states that such workers can be used only for non-core functions and not on the shop floor.’ says another report.
They’d never had it so good. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the party had gone on. Unrestrained. Unrestrained in its vulgarity and its opulence. Like vultures on a feast, they had descended in hordes. All the land was theirs – whichever and wherever they wanted. They paid no taxes. Initially, they evaded taxes. But then wiser counsels prevailed and governments themselves exempted them. They were to be given tax-holidays and incentives to keep them with us. They looted the money of nationalized banks. Labour was gagged, tied hand and foot and thrown at their feet – to serve them like the slaves of yore. The cities were ‘cleaned up’ for them and their cars. Flyover, expressways, glitzy malls and car parks took over city spaces. For them and their consumers. The poor had no right to be in the city. Thus arrived the new era. The Judge, the Bureaucrat, the Politician – all marched in a procession, announcing its arrival.
The party began. Like the din of the dance floors of New Delhi’s upstarts, the noise levels kept on rising. Louder and louder. Shriller and shriller. Anybody who raised any question was a ‘party-pooper’. They knew it. They knew they were partying and they knew that decibel levels inside the dance houses had to be kept up to levels where nothing else could endure. Nothing but mindless gyrations to the trumpet and brass-band of Capital would be allowed. You could enter. Anybody could, but only on that condition. Mindlessness.
And so the neo-classical hacks and mediots, cheer-leaders of capital (see for instance, the Indian Express lead today), got into the act, dancing to the jingle of money, as the neon signs of global hypermodernity gradually lit up the night skyline of Indian cities. They told us how indispensable capital was ‘for us’. Without it, we would be condemned to the dust-heap of history. The state had to stop interfering with ‘the economy’: capital should be allowed to hire and fire workers at will; it should be allowed the best conditions to make profit, else it will ‘leave us’ – bereft and Fatherless – and ‘go away’. We would have ‘no jobs’. No industry. No highways. No Malls. No glittering Neon Signs. Truly the End of History (at least, the end of ‘our’ history). Pages of newspapers and ‘screens’ (and the air around!) of televisions all filled up with mindlessness. Entire newspapers and channels became ‘Page 3’. Book reviews vanished. Literary and other sections of Sunday newspapers disappeared – all in the service of cultivating mediotic mindlessness. (The appearance of art in the media in more recent days, is another phenomenon, yet to be studied. It is geared to a large emerging corporate market, not to ‘art’ as such, but more on that some other time).
And so the cheer-leaders told us, we must give them special concessions: Give them Special Economic Zones, where they can live in peace, till such time as all of India becomes an SEZ. Give them cheaply acquired land; free them of the bondage of Indian laws of trade and commerce; let them make their own airports inside these Zones and then, the party will really take-off into the high skies. (Not for one moment do champions of free-market even see the irony of this blatant call for all round state intervention – but that is not our point today). So much has this idea of capital’s ‘indispensability’ become common sense, that governments are expected to throw in tax-payers’ money to bail-out bad businesses. Industrialists have begun to see such intervention as ‘natural’. Thus, one of the reports on the NOIDA affair cites a horrified entrepreneur: “If a private business is not doing well, the government does not foot the bill or take care of the losses. Who will support industry during a bad cycle?” said Sarbjit Singh, chairman and managing director, Noble group, which manufactures consumer electronics at Noida.’
And why not? Hasn’t the crumbling US Empire recently been bailing out bankrupt mega investment banks with the tax payers’ money? That is the model after all.
So, the government must intervene to ensure the best terms for capital, else it will run away. But if it intervenes to fix wages, ensure implementation of labour laws (almost always violated by capital), then this is ‘unwarranted ‘state intervention’, ‘socialism’ and what have you. This is a logic that has been accepted by all including the successive governments and there are, in fact, rare exceptions like Oscar Fernandes who would at least take this opportunity to remind the NOIDA industrialists that the recent unfortunate incident in Graziano Transmissioni should be taken as a warning. Understandably, there was a furore over Fernandes’ statement – among ‘India Inc’ and its cheer-leaders. Poor Fernandes had to apologise.
So let us put in the word that Oscar Fernandes had very mildly tried to. We can even extend the warning beyond what he intended to. The writing on the wall is there for everybody to see. The Party might well-nigh be over. There are threads here that connect Singur, Nandigram, Jagatsinghpur, Kalinganagar and such other land related issues to the struggles that have of late been breaking out in urban industrial areas in recent times. We will return to these presently, but for the present let us just look at what the writing on the wall says.
Bengal To Delhi: Land rows singe industry, read the front-page headlines of a leading daily some days ago. Its main point:
‘First it was Nandigram, then Singur. Then the emotive issue of aquisition of agricultural land for industry land triggered unrest in Gurgaon and Noida. Now, protests have caught up with the capital. ‘
‘Hundreds of farmers from five villages of the north-west district have taken up cudgels against the acquisition of 1,450 acres of agricultural land — a face-off that may just end up haunting the state government ahead of the Assembly elections later this year. ‘
The report went on to say that ‘on Friday, the farmers blocked the entry and exit points of the deputy commissioner’s office for the second consecutive day during office hours and declared that they would continue doing so until the government gave them compensation for their land at market price.’
The intense struggles around the land question are of course, widely acknowledged by now. What is not so clearly visible is the situation in the cities, in urban industrial areas. Three years ago, we did see the violent struggle of and police repression against the workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India Pvt Ltd. Just to refresh our memories, it was precisely when the workers started raising issues of ill-treatment and workload and eventually formed and registered a union – the Honda Motor Cycles and Scooter India Employees Union (Reg. No: 1811) affiliated to All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) – that the company declared an illegal lockout. The Honda incident (see details here) had revealed only the tip of the ice-berg.
Now, in similar, highly exploitative conditions, we are witness to another unfortunate violent incident. The workers of Graziano allege resort to devious and illegal methods on the part of the management. Says a Business Standard report:
‘On their part, a number of Graziano workers expressed their ire at being replaced by contract workers. As such workers are not on their rolls, companies make substantial savings on their wage bills. Some of these men said that the Graziano plant was being run by 400 contract workers in two shifts for the past three months.’
Incase, we thought this was a one-off incident instigated by some mad trade unionists, let us also cite the following from today’s Indian Express report:
“Accidents” like that on Monday are not new to the industrial hub, say NOIDA indutrialists. ‘Vinod Kumar Vajpayee, president of the Noida Phase-II Industries Association, said: “There are many other companies that have seen violence over the last few years.” ‘
* Workers of Jaypee Greens in Greater Noida attacked the company’s office in 2004 and killed one person.
* Similarly, employees at Daewoo attacked the office of the company after it went bankrupt. Some 125 workers and 10 policemen were injured in the clashes.
* Hindon Rubber, another company that was based in Noida, wound up operations after similar protests by employees earlier this year.
‘Most clashes in the past, industrialists say, have been because of expelled or suspended [read retrenched or laid-off] employees.’
We can go on multiplying examples but for the present let us stop with these indicative instances. Let me underline that these indicents suggest a more widespread mood that is spreading rapidly across the country. It might merely be the beginning of a wider phenomenon. Just as the story of struggles against land acquisitions did not begin with Nandigram and were in fact preceded by innumerable struggles and an accumulation of struggle-effects, so these instances might simply presage the coming of another, industrial Nandigram.
Seriously mistaken are those cheer leaders who belive that Graziano-NOIDA is the outcome of ‘militant trade unionism’. On the contrary, what both Honda and Graziano like incidents reveal is the utter inefficacy of trade unions whose only job has been to channelize workers discontent into legal and legally acceptable forms of struggle. They reveal the powerlessness of the mass of workers who, in situations of despair, initially seek out the trade unions to help them but eventually cannot be contained within their sterile and ritualistic methods. These incidents reveal that workers discontent, hitherto hostage to the formal or informal compact between the managements and trade unions, is struggling to break free of this stifling control. That said, whatever our criticisms of trade unions, we must also underline that their ineffectivity (at last of some of them, since not all are ‘sold’ to managements) is at least partly a consequence of the new order that was instituted in the beginning of the 1990s. In that order, as I said above, no avenues of airing grievance were left open. In that new order, the powers that be rode roughshod over popular sentiments and grievances with supreme arrogance – ably backed by the Judiciary. Recall how the decade long peaceful struggle of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was reduced to ineffectivity.
Ineffectivity therefore, is not simply the result of faulty trade union strategies. It is also the index of the fact that all avenues of communication are now closed – that power has become a one-way traffic that simply flows top down. It is an elementary fact that any student of power will point out, that it is precisely in this moment of power’s becoming-opaque, that it begins to expose itself to maximum threats – from without and within. For power’s opacity is first and foremost, opacity to itself. It ceases to be able to see itself and the new threats that it poses to its own being.
Now, the important question that links Nandigram to Graziano: Who are these workers? Who are those who flock into the cities in search of jobs and end up as workers in Grazianos or such other companies? They are those uprooted from their habitat, from their land and livelihood and ‘hurled upon the urban labour market’ (Marx). Some become workers, soem eke out a living as hawkers and vendors and many remain unmeployed and get sucked into networks of crime. Those uprooted in the long winter that set in in the beginning of the 1990s, people our cities.
It is this Capital and Industry that will apparently deliver us from joblessness. It is for them that the CPM-brand Left wants SEZs in West Bengal and Kerala – in the fond hope that they will provide jobs to the youth of their states. Those who live on agriculture – may be at subsistence levels – will now be thrown to the wolves, where they neither have decent wages nor any job security. But that is Progress – according to pundits of the Left bourgeoisie as well as the cheer leaders.
24 thoughts on “Graziano Transmissioni and the Cheer-Leaders of Capital”
All this reminds me of the debates over the formation of the American underclass. Goodness knows what label is going to be tagged on to our workers! In Kerala the embourgeoified CPM intelligensia is decidedly wary of the workers. Interestingly, in the discussions around Chengara, CPM-identified intellectuals seemed more concerned about either the ‘non-availability’ of land for redistribution, or the prospect that those who obtained land may not pursue farming. But this distrust, I suspect, has a much longer history than the advent of neoliberalism. But since the 1990s we have seen consistent attempts to generate negative images of those who were generally found worthy of the paternal care of the governmentalising state, as non-reformably bad, deserving of violence and ‘law enforcement’ rather than care. The difference between, say, the working class woman and the sex worker, starts getting eroded.
I think in Kerala, post 2000, workers are beginning to face similar processes. So subtly, the worker looks more and more like a criminal, and this becomes an interpretative framework which gives sense to all acts by workers, political or not. I’m not a believer in conspiracy theories, but given the recent record, it may be possible that the mainstream parties’ ‘inability’ to lift the trade unions’ blockade at Chengara is indeed the continuation of a subtle process of demonising the worker.
Thanks for this post. In line with Devika’s comment on the demonizing of workers, here is a report of an incident that occurred four days later. The CEO of a Texas based company was dragged out of his car and hit on the head by four men.
Notice nowhere in the report does it say that it was in fact workers who pulled him out of his car, but by bracketing it with the Grazioni incident thus:
“NOIDA: The CEO in India of a US-based software firm was dragged out of his car and viciously attacked in Noida, police said on Saturday.
The incident comes just four days after the India CEO of an Italian firm was lynched by workers in nearby Greater Noida. ”
and then having him say:
“A resident of Sector 61 in Noida where his office is located, Dwivedi is now scared to go to work although there has never been any labour trouble there. “This city seems unsafe,” said Madhu. ”
The image of the criminally deranged working classes is complete. And just so we are not in doubt about the fact that we are faced here with yet another example of mediocy at its best, here is his comment on the car they were driving:
“Kashir Dwivedi said: “I had left my office in Noida Sector 63 around 9.30pm(local time). Four men in a Tavera overtook my car (a Honda Civic) and parked in such a way that my vehicle got trapped.”
A Travera, for those of us who don’t know, is the Chevrolet Travera which costs the piddling sum of 7.5 lacs only. So obviously it MUST have been the workers!
Thanks Aarti. This is ridiculously sublime!
“This city seems unsafe…” said the CEO…
Unsafe for the poor, for women, for street children, for gay men, for hijras, for Muslims, for Christians, for people in market places – but now it’s unsafe for CEOs. Time for action.
Serves these “evil” CEOs right. It is time to kick some capitalist ass. Next lets target the glitzy malls and multiplexes. How can the educated middle class youngsters dare to work for these satanic MNCs and take their parents out for what would be their first multiplex experience or their first dinner in a five star hotel while farmers in vidharba are committing suicide. Bring back the good old days when all telephones were black (and it took 8 years to get a telephone connection) all cars were white ambassadors and anybody who managed to get a decent education migrated to greener pastures. In the meantime lets crack open the skulls of the rich.
Prashant, how right you are. “Educated middle class youngsters” have dreams, desires for multiplexes, and parents. Workers, who have none of these, cannot be expected to understand…
I’m not sure how to read your comment Prashant :)
Shouldn’t be such a big problem Aarti. Umberto Eco has shown us the creative importance of “misreadings”!! :)
I find your comment extremely disturbing and not just for inciting violence. I think the point of an equitable society is not that the rich have to become poor but that the poor have to become rich. I have been to glitzy malls and expensive dinners and I have also donated (not out of guilt, but solidarity) for various causes relating to people who will never go to these malls and those expensive restaurants. Beyond black and whi9te there are other colours, not just shades of grey.
“I think the point of an equitable society is not that the rich have to become poor but that the poor have to become rich” –
I profoundly disagree. This is a very industrial-society point of view where being “rich” is almost like a value to be attained, and in its name, all questions of “difference” – of cultures, habitats, identities, etc – are sidelined. It is through arguments of helping the poor get rich that the dams and the factories are being thrust upon people whose sense of livelihood is not just about earning more money but also other important issues like displacement. You are surely as aware of it as I am. The poor-getting-rich rhetoric is a Nehruvian policy which has most seriously come under criticism. The issue is about generating what Amartya Sen calls “entitlements”, without having to disturb people’s “life-worlds” (to borrow the term from Habermas).
So instead of believing in naive ideas of an “equitable” society, let us sharpen our critiques towards anything “rich” and fight for at least a more humane society, where the idea of being “rich” itself is vulgar and inhuman.
Hmmm…is there a way to think through both Shivam’s and Manosh’s positions?
See sometimes people might wish their life-worlds to be disturbed. What this seems to boil down to is a question of agency: how much control can I excercize over the conditions of my life. But how do I take political positions in situations where this is not clear cut in any sense. For instance, let me share some snippets of a debate I have been having with a close friend over some years.
This friend of mine is a model. She is not originally from Delhi. Not a big model or anything, but she models for a living and earns enough money to live independently by herself, away from her parents. Now I have, as a feminist, very strong reservations about the way in which women’s bodies are displayed, represented etc. I also have reservations about the ways in which certain ideals of feminine beauty are set up as the normative against which all women must judge themselves. I am painfully aware that my subjectivity does not lie outside of these images, that I too try conform in my life to certain ideas of what an attractive woman should look like.
But on the other hand modelling as a career has opened certain worlds for my friend which she finds, personally, very liberating. And this is the correct word to use in her case. For her the precise things that worry me, are the things that enable her to explore her body and life and sexuality in a way she could not, would never have, in the town where she comes from.
Now obviously I am not saying anything new or unique or something feminists have not engaged with. The point of course is to be able to not see these two as paradoxes in the first place, rather to fashion languages that account for the ways in which a personal lifestyle or choice, is not wholly explained by a political position. Nor is a political position invalidated by personal choice. And I have a fidelity to a feminist critique of the construction of images of beauty and in fact this critique itself enables me to see the liberatory potential that my friend gestures to.
The same issue arises maybe when we think of what others have termed “dalit capitalism” and chandrabhan prasad’s position which sees a liberatory potential in the entry of dalits into commodity capitalism. I am not saying that there is not something problematic with his position or that i agree with it in its entirety. But it has to be engaged with and here I don’t think Manosh that one can outright say, being “rich” is vulgar. This might also be the way to read Mayawati’s insistence on wearing diamonds, wearing silk and cutting 100 kilogram cakes on her birthday. She is making a political statement about consumption and luxury and the claiming of a symbolic world which has hitherto been closed to dalits.
Just some random thoughts :)
Just one more thought to add to yours Aarti. Manash’s position still is something that we might want to hold as a horizon (if like all horizons, ever-receding), in these days of global warming and climate change. Now there are absolute limits to what humans can consume – and hence, curtailing consumption of the filthy rich is what will make dalit capitalism or a black bourgeoisie possible. To invoke a mad old man, long dead: the world has enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed!
You have mixed up many issues!
But leaving that aside, the example of your model friend reminded me of the provocative point Austrian Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek makes in her essay ‘I want to be shallow’. She finds actors on stage to be making subjectively dishonest and objectively unreal representations of the world, with a “false unity” of a supposedly “higher meaning” of life. In contrast, she finds fashion shows to be making more sense, where “women speak sentences through their clothes”, as both forms dissolve into each other, and in a way, pretend to say nothing “outside” their own forms.
And a small correction – my name’s spelt Manash, not Manosh. I prefer the original pronunciation rather than the Bengali rasagulla-ization which turns all ‘A’s into ‘O’s. :)
As members of a privileged class I don’t think we even know what people less privileged want. But in Kerala where modern education is widespread and the media’s reach is considerable, aspirations for consumption, among both rich and poor are sky-high. In other words, equal rights to consume are being effectively demanded, whether the privileged have misgivings about it or not. So now the question of how much to consume (or maybe how to consume as well), for Kerala, is one that may be potentially addressed to both privileged and underprivileged, but the access of the privileged to outright dangerous levels of consumption needs to be kept in focus. In fact I do feel we need to keep our arguments against consumption separate. They are separate anyway, even logically.
While responding I missed these lines in Prashant’s comment: “Bring back the good old days when all telephones were black (and it took 8 years to get a telephone connection) all cars were white ambassadors and anybody who managed to get a decent education migrated to greener pastures.”
Manash, I think that the poor-must-get-rich kind of idea is much wider, and I’d rather leave it to individuals to decide how they want social mobility to impact them, or how they deal with such an impact. As for questions of difference and issues such as displacement, let’s just follow a rights based mode – the idea of a ‘humane’ society does not have to be mutually exclusive with the very sane idea of a social mobility.
Is it possible to get rich by not making some one else poor or poorer ??
After complete decline of Stalinism and its later version- Maoism, the sections of working class, facing crisis of leadership, seem to have started moving by themselves. The class struggle, is unfolding itself in its most crude forms. This situation of vacuum would pave the way for new currents to assume the leadership of working class and transform the local spontaneous rebellions of workers, directed against individual capitalists, like this one, to a conscious political struggle against the entire class of world bourgoeis and their stooge governments. The skirmishes are salutory sign of this nascent spirit of workers, after getting out of the stranglehold of old and worthless Trade Unionism which has played no role for the last many decades except to hold back the working class from revolutionary struggles.
[This comment has also been posted on the blog above but has not been approved]
Nowhere does Aditya justify violence and you know it. The”smileys” you point to occur in four places: one where Manash corrects my spelling of his name, the second where I end a comment on the nature of the commodity, the third where Manash speaks of Umberto Eco and misreading and the fourth where I query Prashant on an interpretation of his comment.
Truly they must be the sinister grimaces of the rich-hating communist fanatics that people Kafila!
Oh I misread. This is some Citizen fanatic. This is even more serious and exceptional! If a good bourgeois feels bad citizens shouldn’t make it worse by smiling about their views, we are getting into a more sinister ‘order of things’!