Thursday, December 27, 2012

A union in shambles-literally and figuratively.

            It was by sheer chance that I decided to visit what was once the headquarters of the SI Railway Labour Union at Golden Rock. The sprawling compound, where five railway workers were shot dead by the Malabar Special Police on September 5, 1946 was deserted that day. No one was there. Some wreaths placed on the spot where Pappa Umanath was buried was evidence that some activity was there in the morning. The marigold flowers in the wreath had not dried and December 18 happened to be her death anniversary.
            Having spent almost a month in this compound, sleeping on the benches on the verandah of the DREU office, some 30 years ago, I could not resist lamenting at the state at which the premises lay now. I had spent a lot of time there to research on the union’s history; first out of some strange passion and subsequently for my MPhil dissertation. I was drawn to SFI after having spent some time writing wall posters and grafittis for the DREU. And it was in that brief while that I developed a passion to know more about the union and its history.
            Raju, Ramachandran, Thiagarajan, Krishnamurthy and Thangavelu were names that I had heard from my father; that they were martyrs who laid down their lives in the cause of the movement; that September 5, 1946 was a day when the Malabar Special Police force, led by Harrison, entered the union’s premises, perched on horses, shot dead the five workers, injured over hundred others, vandalised the buildings there and arrested the leaders of the SIR Labour Union. Comrade M.Kalyanasundaram and K.Anandan Nambiar had established themselves as leaders of the workers in the Golden Rock workshop and the strike they led in 1946 had shaken the British Indian administration.
            Having heard all these and having met Comrade Nambiar when he had been to Erode to address a public meeting, I grabbed the first opportunity that came my way to visit the premises. And that was in summer 1984. There were three separate buildings in the compound then. The DREU’s headquarters, the printing press from where Thozhilarasu (the union’s official organ) was printed and the living quarter for Comrade S.K.Nambiar, then the office secretary of the union. And in the middle of all these was the martyr’s column. There was the flagmast, taller than many of those that political parties had, which stood in the premises. I was told, by Comrade SKN that the flag mast was erected in 1946 and just before the strike had commenced; it was meant to broadcast news.
            The union then had captured the imagination of the workers and their families in the railway colony to the extent that they all assembled in the union’s compound every evening to listen to leaders addressing them and that was considered the day’s news by the workers and their family members. The flag mast stands there to this day; but there was no one there. Not even the leaders on December 18, 2012. The sprawling five acre compound is no longer the headquarters of the DREU. The union has shifted to a floor of a building in Chepauk. It is now one of the recognised unions in Southern Railway.
            I must explain the process now. The South Indian Railway was among the railway companies that came up during the late 19th century and Golden Rock was its hub. The workshop at Golden Rock employed as many as 20,000 workers at some point of time. The other such workshops were in Perambur, Liluah, Jamalpur and Bombay. And by the mid-1920s, communist led unions had emerged in all these places. The SIR Labour Union,was established first in Nagapattinam and moved into the premises in Golden Rock in 1927. The five acres land was bought by the union from contributions from the workers; and the foundation stone for its headquarters building was laid by Mahatma Gandhi; that was on August 17, 1927.
            A general strike in 1928, led by the union, made a mark in the history of Indian trade union movement and was part of the strike wave where the working class of India challenged the might of the British rule. The mighty action of the trade unions, then led by the communists, was indeed the provocation for two important developments; the Trades Disputes Act, 1929, which restricted trade union activities in a big way and banned strikes by workers expressing solidarity with workers in another industry or for political causes; and the Meerut Conspiracy trials and the ban on the communist party in India. It is apt here to add that the Vellore Conspiracy trials, that precursed the Meerut trials, was provoked directly by the strike in the Golden Rock workshop led by the communist led SIRLU.
            The repression and the 1929 act against trade unions did not kill the SIRLU. The union continued to represent the workers. The communists led the union. And the workers rallied behind them without demur. The communist hold over the union in Golden Rock as well as in the other industries in the then Madras Presidency was in fact an irritant for C.Rajagopalachari, who headed the Madras Provincial Government between 1937 and 1939. Rajaji had initiated legislation, similar to the Trades Disputes Act and was determined to decimate the union. But the union grew in strength and its decision to go on a general strike in August-September 1946 received total support from the workers in the Golden Rock workshop as well as in other parts of the SI Railway.
            The strike was total even though the AIRF, with whom the SIRLU was affiliated, dissociated itself from the strike. The SIRLU was disaffiliated from the AIRF for having gone ahead with the strike. And that was the context in which the MSP force, led by Harrison, struck. Interestingly, India at that time was under the interim government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru! Comrades M.Kalyanasundaram, K.Anandan Nambiar, P.M.Subramaniam and others were prominent communists and as leaders of the strike enjoyed theconfidence of the railway workers. The workers assembled, evening after evening, in the premises where the union’s headquarters was located, to listen to what these leaders spoke and believed all that was spoken by them.
            The split in the communist movement and the formation of the CPI(M) in 1964 led the SIRLU too to split and the pro-CPI(M) sections in the union led by K.Anandan Nambiar decided to form the DREU. They also managed to retain the premises; the sprawling 5 acre compound where Comrades Raju, Ramachandran, Thiagarajan, Krishnamurthy and Thangavelu had laid down their lives on September 5, 1946. I must say that the DREU, though a force since then, had turned into a pale shadow of its glorious past. The All India Loco Running Staff Association, known for its militant actions in 1967 and 1968, incidentally, was led by another legendary leader from near Golden Rock; Comrade Rathnasabapathy did not belong to the DREU; but he did regard Anandan Nambiar as a leader. The fact is that Nambiar was elected to the first Lok Sabha as a representative of the railway workers and he continued to win elections until 1977.
            My first visit to the sanga thidal at Golden Rock had made its impact. I wanted to study the union more. And hence decided to do my MPhil dissertation on the history of the union leading up to the September 1946 strike. And on completion, I dedicated the thesis to the memory of the five comrades. I had the opportunity, as part of my research for the MPhil dissertation to spend a few weeks there in the premises. Comrade S.K.Nambiar was my host this time and I slept in the verandah of his quarters there. On December 18, 2012, I could not even find a trace of that quarter. The building had fallen into disuse and razed to the ground on its own. Scrubs seemed to have concealed even the few stones that may be there as remnants.
            The Thozhilarasu building, which was the union’s head quarters since Gandhi laid its foundation stone in August 1927, is now on the verge of meeting the same fate as did the residential quarters where Comrade Anandan Nambiar and S.K.Nambiar lived for many years. The stone tablet that says about Mahatma Gandhi and the foundation stone is still intact; but the walls will collapse any time. And the building where the DREU headquarters stood, until the union decided to shift to Madras, was locked up that evening.
            A union with a glorious past is now a recognised union. Its leaders, at all levels, enjoy such facilities as free passes for travel in the cause of the union. I do recall an occasion meeting with one such leader travelling II AC from Erode to Chennai. Not different, in any way, from those belonging to the Southern Railway Mazdoor Union. I recall Stephen Sherlocke’s seminal study on the 1974 railway general strike; more specifically his analysis of how the unions in the railways were coopted by the administration. Special passes for travel, premises for union offices and Special Casual Leave to the leaders to keep the union activities going.
            The SRMU and the Congress-party leaning Employees Sangh were the two recognised unions all the while since independence. The DREU replaced the Employees Sangh in 2006 when the railway administration sought a secret ballot among the railway workers to decide on recognition.
            Golden Rock itself is a ghost of what it was. The workshop now employs only five thousand workers. The DREU may have its own reasons to move out its headquarters to Chennai. But to let the premises dilapidate is to show contempt to history and that is indeed so un-communist. The five workers who laid down their lives and the hundreds who were injured and the several families who parted with their sweat and blood in building the premises deserve some respect. Not just a few wreaths and some slogans in their memory on the anniversaries year after year.
            Neither the British Indian rulers nor the independent government’s police succeed in destroying the union and its premises. The police did vandalise the office on September 5, 1946. But the leaders returned soon after and restored the place and continued to lead the workers from there. It is a fact that the destruction was achieved this time and carried out by the union’s leaders. The Talibans destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. This seems to have been un-necessary in case of the sanga thidal in Golden Rock!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Am reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. I had breezed through the book earlier. Am reading it now and while browsing the web, saw the following link. Did not know this fact until now. Am a little struck.