Remembering George Fernandes is remembering life during the Railway Strike

Nikhil was only a year and eight months old when his father a supervisory cadre staff posted at Eastern Railway’s Mughalsarai Jn (as DeenDayal Upadhyay Jn was then called) was jailed for 27 days.

The reason- his father had struck work as part of the Indian Railways Strike of 1974 which started on May 8. Mughalsarai Jn, a station usually abuzz with trains all day long, wore a deserted look for the next 7 days.

Always used to seeing his father, the toddler could not fathom the fact that he would not be able to see his father for the next few days and this stress caused a severe stomach ache. Medication did not help and finally the old physician opined that the child was longing for his father and would become normal only after seeing the father.

And so, he did. So much, that he instantly recognized his father who had grown a long enough beard to not be recognized after the 27-day imprisonment. The stomach ache was gone. Nikhil’s neighbour’s wife could not withstand the trauma and started to hallucinate as a loss of a government job for her husband in those days meant social stigma.

In those days, the railway administration deliberately ran a couple of bogies attached to a shunter loco between Mughalsarai Jn and the neighbouring town of Varanasi. The objective was to shatter the morale of railwaymen who were lodged in jails at Chaukaghat and Shivpur (both close to the railway tracks), according to Nikhil’s father. The administration wanted to show the striking workers that it was business as usual.

Administration talks tough

Stephen Sherlock in his book “The Indian Railways Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organised Labour “, wrote on how railway colonies were practically under siege.

The strike was dealt by the then Central Government with an iron fist. Electricity and water supply to railway quarters were cut, women and children beaten up, striking workers along with their families squatted on the tracks.

Similar stories emanated from the towns of Barauni, Chittaranjan, Asansol, Kishanganj, Howrah and Delhi.

Furore in Rajya Sabha

Socialist leader Raj Narain raised this issue in the Rajya Sabha along with other parliamentarians such as Bhupesh Gupta demanding a statement from the then rail minister Lalit Narayan Mishra.

Livelihoods lost

The most affected were the casual labour employed by Indian Railways who lost their livelihood as a result of the strike.

The All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) the union which called for the strike notes on its website “During this strike 50,000 railway workers were arrested, over 10,300 railway men were dismissed from service, service of over 5,600 temporary employees were terminated and 4 employees lost their lives. This was a historic strike which attracted worldwide attention.” 

The New York Times in its reportage observed “A nationwide railway strike began this morning, threatening food deliveries, industrial production and power supplies. Thousands of railway workers in such cities as Bombay, New Delhi, Calcutta and Madras walked off their jobs at dawn, following a breakdown of Government efforts to resume talks.”

The Time Magazine in its May 20, 1974 edition called it a ‘strangulating strike.’

George Fernandes

The name George Fernandes is synonymous with the railway strike of 1974.  He was a disciplined and honest socialist trade union leader who led the strike under the aegis of National Co-ordination Committee of Railwaymen’s Struggle (NCCRS).

Having interacted with George Fernandes often, Nikhil’s father said that his greatest strength was his ability to take a diverse set of people along. So much that a leader from Jamalpur belonging to the rival union (which did not participate in the strike) also struck work and in the process was removed from railway service.

The strike paralysed the movement of trains across the country leading to chaos as commodities could not be transported. Food prices spiralled and after three weeks, the strike was called off.

Those who were removed from service were reinstated after about a struggle spanning four years including Nikhil’s father whose case was represented by senior advocate Somnath Chatterjee (who later became Lok Sabha speaker).

 During the struggle, Nikhil family eked out their lives with a paltry dole from the trade union. In addition, his father supplemented that income by selling shirt and pant pieces on a bicycle mostly on credit. He would sell for two weeks in a month and do collections from customers during the remaining two weeks besides travelling to Kolkata from Mughalsarai for sourcing supplies for the next month.

The Aftermath

The year 1974 was the only occasion when two railway budgets were presented in a non-election year.  The need for a single trade union was stressed, fair price shops were opened for railway employees in railway colonies; a new management style was mooted for the rail administration; crash programme undertaken for rolling stock and locomotives; block rake movements were implemented for moving food grains, coal and fertilizers.

Loyalty might not pay

The then Railways Minister, announced in a speech in the Rajya Sabha on May 3, 1974 certain benefits for the workers who continued to work in whatever difficult situation that may arise during the period of strike. The assurances given for the loyal workers who faced the difficult situation were full protection; extension of service for those who were due to retire; preference in employment to children of loyal workers besides rewards and special recognition of their services; increment in pay and rapid promotion to deserving people.

However, workers loyal to administration assumed that their children would be automatically absorbed by the railways. It happened in a few cases and did not happen in a few others as the demand for jobs far exceeded supply.

People knocked the doors of the High Courts for getting a job in the Railways on loyalty grounds. Much to their chagrin, the courts looked into merits of each case and decided accordingly.

A famous example was a case filed in the Allahabad High Court (Ram Chabila Pandey & Another versus Union Of India & Others) where the employees’ children did not get the job based on loyalty.

Irony of life 

Over a period of time, most of the demands made during the railway strike of 1974 were met. In fact, the railways started the best practice of providing jobs to the spouse/children of employees who died in service, on compassionate grounds.

However, this practice, ironically, also benefitted children of those employees who were loyal and opposed the strike, observes Nikhil’s father.

This would not have happened without George Fernandes’ yeoman service to the cause of workers unity. May his soul rest in peace.

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About the Author: Raghavendra Rao

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