Looking back at the first all-India general strike of 1982

Every year, trade unions commemorate the all-India strike of 1982 which was also supported by farmers’ movements. This year’s events will be especially significant as they seek to cement worker-farmer unity ahead of a major strike in February

January 18, 2022 by Ronak Chhabra
A scene from the general strike of 1982

The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), along with the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) [All India Farmers’ Association] and All India Agricultural Workers’ Union (AIAWU), has given a joint call to observe Wednesday, January 19, as ‘Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta Diwas’ [Farmer-Worker Unity Day]. The day is the 40th anniversary of the 1982 all-India one-day general strike.

January 19 holds great significance in the history of the country’s trade union movement, for it was arguably for the first time in independent India that the peasantry and the rural-urban workforce came together in a joint action to protest the economic policies of the Central government.

Every year, sectoral federations in the coal, steel, insurance and telecom sectors, among others, hold a convention on this day, while demonstrations and rallies are carried out at the district level across the country in a bid to highlight the importance of the worker-farmer alliance.

Such an alliance between the two sections to wage a united fight against a “common enemy” has been in the making for many years now. This idea was given a further fillip last year, as farmers, under the leadership of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) [United Farmers’ Front, the body which coordinated the farmers’ struggle] and supported by the trade unions, registered a “historic victory” against the Narendra Modi-led Central government by ensuring the withdrawal of the controversial farm laws.

Against this background, the 1982 general strike anniversary holds even greater importance this year, trade union leaders tell NewsClick. According to them, it will also be an important step towards successfully observing the upcoming two-day general strike in February, called by the 10 central trade unions.

1982 and now

The nationwide strike action in 1982, observed to press for a 13-point charter of demands, was called by the National Campaign Committee of central trade union organizations, which had the participation of all the major trade unions including CITU, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and even the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangha (BMS) [the right-wing trade union associated with the BJP], along with the all-India federations of the numerous public sector enterprises.

Among the major demands were the repealing of the Essential Services Maintenance Act of 1981 and the introduction of a need-based minimum wage for the workers, along with a remunerative price for agricultural produce and central legislation for agricultural workers for their social security.

On June 4, 1981, a convention was organized in which the call for the general strike was given. This was followed by regional conventions across different States and a rally to Parliament in the national capital in November. According to one news report from the time, over 6,000 labor activists across the country were arrested by the then Indira Gandhi-led Central government in the days leading up to the general strike.

Moreover, as per the estimates of the unions, ten protesters were killed in police firing on the day when the general strike was observed.

The similarity between the events of 1982 and what the country is seeing in recent years under the Modi government is clear, Tapan Sen, general secretary, CITU, told NewsClick in a phone interview. According to him, the support of the peasants and agricultural workers’ unions strengthened the strike action in 1982, just as the help of the trade unions strengthened last year’s farmers’ movement.

“When the workers and peasants come together on a common platform, it gives an altogether different dimension to the struggle that is waged against the common enemy of both sections– the corporates and the government that serves their interests,” he said.

Sen added that it is to push forward this idea that demonstrations and public meetings will be organized throughout the country, especially at the village level, on Wednesday.

The worker-farmer alliance

Vikram Singh of All India Agricultural Workers’ Union shared a similar view and pointed out that the slogan of ‘Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta’ [Farmer-Worker Unity] in recent times did not evolve in a few days but was the result of a long-planned process. In September 2018, a joint demonstration of workers and farmers was held in Delhi for the first time against the Modi government, thereby, laying the ground for unity between workers and farmers. Over time, this resonated with other groups representing these two sections.

More recently, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), which consists of 250 farmers’ unions from across the country, extended solidarity to the programs announced by Central Trade Unions and vice versa. Subsequently, a ‘Mazdoor Kisan Ekta Diwas’ [Worker-Farmer Unity Day] was also celebrated last year at the border protest sites located on the outskirts of Delhi, where slogans celebrating this unity rent the air during the farmers’ agitation.

“The programs of the workers and the farmers have coincided to form joint actions more so in the recent past than ever, which is a good sign for future struggles in the country,” said A.R. Sindhu, national secretary, CITU. According to her, the January 19 anniversary will remind the numerous constituents of the history of this unity and will serve as an “important step” in further strengthening it.

Upcoming general strike

There is another reason why January 19 holds more importance this year. Ten central trade unions have given a call for a two-day general strike on February 23 -24 to press for the withdrawal of the reform-oriented four Labor Codes and the rollback of the policy decisions that involve privatization of the national assets.

Earlier this month, SKM also extended its support to the strike call.

Sen said that Wednesday’s programs would be the “launching pad” for successfully implementing the upcoming general strike. “The government will see that the anger against its policies has spread across the nation and that the farmers and the workers have resolved to fight against them jointly,” he added.