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Labouring in an Illiberal Society

In the first volume of Das Capital, Karl Marx writes: ‘‘A cannot be ‘your majesty’ to B unless at the same time majesty ...

Written by Mahmood Farooqui |
July 30, 2005

In the first volume of Das Capital, Karl Marx writes: ‘‘A cannot be ‘your majesty’ to B unless at the same time majesty in B’s eyes assumes the bodily form of A.’’ That is to say that ‘‘one man is King only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary imagine that they are subjects because he is a King.’’

This could be extended to the authority enjoyed by the police. As long as the police retain the aura of having a disciplinary and coercive power which is sanctioned by the state, their authority might be regarded as legitimate. But when the people they seek to control come to regard their use of force as illegitimate they (the police) are reduced to little more than lathi-wielding hooligans. This is exactly what happened in Gurgaon on July 25 and on the following days.

Irrespective of the role played by ‘‘outside agents provocateurs and vested interests’’ in precipitating the violent clash between the police and the workers of the Honda factory on 25-7, the next day anti-police sentiment had extended to at least half the city. People who had nothing to do with the Honda factory or with the workers turned up at the Civil Hospital, relishing the chance to teach the police a lesson.

When Mahatma Gandhi had attempted to de-legitimise the institutions of the colonial power — its police, its courts, its armed forces — he was severely criticised even by many nationalist leaders for ‘‘this open invitation to anarchy.’’ As it turned out, Gandhi too was left wringing his hands in disappointment, for ‘Indians,’ he said in 1947, ‘had all along only wanted English rule without the Englishmen.’

If I were the editor of one of the leading newspapers of the country, my most natural reaction on Monday afternoon, as the workers of the Honda factory clashed with the police, would have been to ring up someone high up at Honda to find out what was going on. It would be natural, because I might know the Honda big-wig personally and would admire this person for his/her entrepreneurial success. After all, foreign investment and investor confidence are of supreme importance to the country. But above all I would do so because the word ‘‘union’’ today only implies obstructive opportunism where labour leaders, like so many villains of Hindi cinema, always betray poor, simple-minded workers. Twenty years after unionism and working class mobilisation have been buried under the discotheques and bowling alleys of Girgaum in Mumbai, what legitimate concern could any worker have? As one editorial pontificates on Thursday, let them work, or let other workers do an honest day’s work.

Naturally then, my paper’s cover age of the event would begin with the description of the event as a ‘‘clash’’ between workers and policemen. This would be so notwithstanding the fact that in this clash over a thousand workers were injured; that they had nothing to match the police’s lathis; that they were lured into a closed compound to present a memorandum; that they were then beaten up in an enclosed space until they lay prostrate on the ground and then some more of them were made to crawl while holding their ears and beaten on their backsides; that while many workers ended up in hospital, others simply ‘‘disappeared’’; that the Deputy Commissioner of the city joined in with a baton, and that the police had made advance preparations for teaching them this ‘‘lesson’’ by requisitioning troops from Rewari, Rohtak and Faridabad.

Of course I would mention the losses to the Honda factory in an agitation that has now gone on for many months, and which has made them halve their production. But I would not carry any reaction, not a single sound-bite or interview with the workers about what they wanted. I would even shy away from locating the families of the injured and eliciting their reaction until Wednesday.

The dashing, hands-on DC, a very ‘‘one of us’’ fellow who bravely fought alongside his men to take control of the situation, wanted to know why workers who are unhappy with their management should turn against the state. He ought to know: the negotiations have been on for almost a month and the administration has taken a leading and proactive part in them — so why are the workers upset with the police? For the simple reason that, right through colonial times, for the agitating and striking workers the police always appears on behalf of the management to quell ‘‘riotous’’ or ‘‘violent’’ workers. Indeed the colonial police’s disruption of nationalist rallies and their assault against Indian workers sprang from the same impulses and was carried out in a similar fashion.

In spite of their significant theoretical and methodological differences, two leading historians of the Indian working class, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar and Dipesh Chakrabarty have both pointed to the importance of workers’ socialisation, the civic-material culture in which they live, in determining their attitude towards Capital and the State. Chandavarkar shows us how the working classes of Bombay derived their identity from their neighbourhood activities, and that to them the state, especially the police, often appeared indistinguishable from the management. Chakrabarty wonders how the workers’ struggle for an equal and fair treatment might turn out in a society that is otherwise very hierarchical, unequal and illiberal.

In Gurgaon these past few days we have seen both these aspects of labour. The workers, though beaten and bruised, remain defiant. The media and the commentariat, on the other hand, wants a free and fair treatment for Capital but an illiberal one for labour. Let them then think of India and get on with production, the insurrection can await their children.

The writer is a historian, columnist and performer based in Delhi. A version of this piece appeared in Mumbai’s Midday on July 29.


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