With the sad passing away of George Fernandes, it is time to reminisce about the Railway Strike during the Emergency. What we present are the memories of some of our acquaintances who were with Indian Railways at that time.
As President of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), George Fernandes called the strike mainly to press for a eight-hour shift for running staff like Loco Pilots and Guards, besides seeking a raise in pay – the pay was rather stagnant compared to government employees in other sectors.
The strike was hugely successful and went on from 8 May, 1974 to 27 May, 1974. Suppressing the strike with a iron hand as part of the proclaimed Emergency left behind scars – some that would heal with time and some that would be permanently etched in the psyche.
The hilarious part of the strike was the no-work-no-pay rule applied for the striking employees. What made it hilarious was that striking employees who were arrested and jailed did not have to forego their pay – the reasoning by the employees being that they were prevented by the government from attending work.
Ensuring the workforce reached offices, the government had designated some union office or some nearby location for workers to assemble. They were ferried to their workplace under strict security, and dropped off at the same place after the work hours. Leave was not granted and some were subjected to medical examination when they applied sick leave.
Some striking workers across India were rounded off from their homes and dumped in jails. The jails were will with striking railway employees. A nonagenarian today, who was a middling 48-year old in 1974 was rounded off from his home in Hubballi, with his brother and brother-in-law. All three of them were whisked away to Belgaum jail. Not a member of the families knew what had happened to them. These three, who were very devout and tending to family-owned Shiva Temple near their home, were the cynosure of all eyes at the jail. They escaped doing anything – after the bath, all three just walked to the temple in the jail and started chanting mantras and performed long pujas without eating breakfast. The authorities and other inmates congregated for the aarti and also provided some coconuts and sugar for naivedhyam. These three were the first to be released even before the strike was called off!
Another family, on a summer vacation did not get off at Gulbarga and instead decided to go to Solapur to connect to a train to Bijapur. The lady was travelling with two of her own children and two kids of relatives, the oldest kid being 8 years old. They missed the connection at Solapur, and were stranded in an unknown town with no train to Bijapur for a indefinite period. Some good samaritan came forward and dropped them off at the bus stand from where they took a bus to Bijapur.
Stories apart, if IR staff are able to lead a comparatively comfortable life with sane working hours, good pay and perquisites, they have none other than George Fernandes to thank. Are the unions today up to those lofty ethical standards set by George Fernandes? We leave it for you to decide.
Pic Credits: Outlook India