Internationalism - Work in India and establishment of GurgaonWorkersNews

This article is part of a wider 'internationalism series', produced by comrades from the 'Let's get rooted' network:

Submitted by AngryWorkersWorld on October 7, 2020

This is my experience of trying to establish an exchange with comrades and workers in the industrial fringes of Delhi, India. If you want some impressions from the area and the work of the comrades you can watch this documentary by a friend:

In 2001, I went to India for the first time, mainly to visit friends who were active in the Bhopal solidarity campaign. [1] I didn't know much about India, even less about the political landscape. I was aware of the 'Indian peasant movement', as it was presented by the anti-globalisation movement, but didn't know much about the political and class composition of that movement. The only group on the far left that I had heard of apart from the Naxalites was Kamunist Kranti (Communist Revolution), a small collective in Delhi, through their pamphlet 'Ballad against work'. [2] In order to understand the difficulties of establishing an internationalist perspective and exchange it is useful to step back a bit and situate the development of this group in a wider historical context.

Like in many countries of the global south, the early revolutionary groups often had informal international dimensions. The first founders of the Communist Party in India learnt about Marxism when meeting the Bolsheviks in the border areas of what is now Afghanistan. They had gone there as Muslims who wanted to organise the anti-colonial struggle for a Caliphate, but returned as communists, mingling with Bengali agricultural workers and poets in their commune in Kolkata. The unorthodox character of the early CP was quickly brought in line by the headquarters in Moscow. Another early international organisation was the so-called Ghadar Movement [3], an anti-colonial and semi-socialist organisation formed primarily by migrants from Punjab. They went via Singapore to Argentina and the US, using temples and local union offices as bridge-heads to form a vast network of contacts, in order to prepare an armed uprising against the colonial power. In the US, they had close links with the early IWW. Their efforts were spied on and betrayed by an equally vast police network of the British Empire. The failure of official organisations didn't mean that the working class in India itself didn't develop international links and forms of struggle. The first oil workers strikes in Iran in the 1910s were led by migrant workers from India [4], many strikes in the emerging industries in Africa (railway, plantation etc.) were led by workers who had been brought there from the subcontinent.

From the 1930s on, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was the main 'communist' organisation. Given India’s vast rural hinterland and small industrial centres, anarchism or even Trotskyism were, and still are, minoritarian political tendencies. The politics of a 'peasant and workers alliance' was embodied by the CPI. They followed the Stalinist deviations, thereby undermining working class internationalism. During the Second World War, the CPI supported the British state by calling on workers in India to join the British army to 'defend the Soviet Union against the fascist onslaught'. In 1947, the CPI mirrored the policy of the Communist Party in Italy and called on insurgent peasants and workers in the Telangana region to lay down their arms and join forces for 'democratic development'. In 1962, during the Indo-Sino war, the CPI had another chance to prove their patriotic credentials by supporting 'Mother India' against the socialist aggressor. Last but not least, in 1975, the CPI supported the State of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi's government, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of tens of thousands of militant workers and radicals, to enforced mass sterilisations and slum demolitions. The justification was, as usual, one of state politics and tactical alliances: the Soviets had supported Gandhi and declared the State of Emergency an 'antifascist measure'. Hadn’t Gandhi nationalised the banks and mines and inscribed 'socialism' into the constitution? Who cares that, from then on, anti-strike laws prohibited miners from fighting back against the new nationalised mining regime. [5]

This point in history was formative for our Kamunist Kranti comrades, who were students and workers at the time. One comrade was expelled from university and went underground with the Maoists, who were the main force on the left that opposed the State of Emergency. He was sent to organise 'subsistence' farmers and forest dwellers. His experience underground clashed with the official party line: he discovered that even the 'Adivasis' (indigenous population) were largely wage workers for the timber mafia and landlords, rather than simply ‘subsistence’ farmers. He reported this to one of the party bosses, together with a political proposal to shift the focus to industrial wage workers, and was subsequently expelled for 'trying to form a separate party'. Since then, the Maoist left in India continues to uphold that India is a semi-feudal country and that, therefore, an alliance with the progressive bourgeoisie is necessary in order to enact a national democratic revolution. Patriotism and parochialism are staple food for many leftists in India.

Our comrade decided to do what he had been accused of and formed a Marxist-Leninist party in Faridabad, one of the biggest and newest industrial areas in India during the 1970s. During the 1980s, their Leninist conviction that 'trade unions are the primary workers' organisations' was questioned by reality: they saw that trade unions were either powerless, or became an instrument in the hand of the bosses when it came to redundancies and restructuring. The traditional Leninist view that sees the 'private form of property' as the main problem to be overcome revealed its limitations because of the obvious role of shareholdings, bank credit, and state measures when we deal with modern corporations. The idea that you can easily force an individual capitalist to bow to trade union pressure clashed with the reality that the company is ‘owned’ by hundreds of individuals, organisations and corporations. The comrades created workers' circles in bigger local 'international' companies (Ford Escorts, Eicher, Bata etc.) and experienced the flaws of their antiquated political outlook first-hand when they were organising.

They needed a new compass for their politics. They started reading and translating Rosa Luxemburg. One of their pamphlets made its way to Europe, where comrades of the Internationalist Communist Current (ICC) [6] became aware of the small, unorthodox group. Through the exchange with ICC comrades, the comrades in Faridabad heard of the Italian, German and Dutch left, [7] who had been critical of the early Soviet Union’s foreign policies - up to that point, these currents were only known in India through Lenin's denunciations. We can see how both concrete experiences of class struggle, together with contacts with comrades from abroad, opened the door towards working class internationalism.

When I met the Kamunist Kranti comrades for the first time in 2001, I was impressed: these were not intellectuals in a swanky coffee house in Delhi. They lived in the industrial slums and published a monthly workers' newspaper with stories from dozens of workplaces, combined with a radical criticism of capitalist relations without having to use lefty jargon. Thousands of workers read the newspaper every month. It was the first time that I had left Europe, and I learnt more by walking around an industrial area in Faridabad and talking to comrades and workers than by reading a dozen books. Realising the relationships between the rural origin of most workers, the slum economy and modern industry where 12-hour shifts are the norm, was revelatory. The significance of the rural hinterland questioned some of my assumptions that the working class can primarily organise along lines of industrial co-operation. The idea of a 'global working class' became more real, but also more complex. Part of this picture is the fact that me, as a minimum wage worker from Europe, can fairly easily get a visa and the necessary money to travel to India, while this is impossible for industrial workers from the global south. While urban life and factory work create a lot of common experiences, these quite essential differences remain. [8]

Five years after this short visit, I decided to move to Delhi for a longer period. There were a few factors that contributed to this decision. As a collective in Germany, we were mainly occupied with a workers' inquiry into call centres [9] and by the early 2000s the trend to outsource call centre work to India and other regions of the global south became more apparent. During this period, we discussed and translated Beverly Silver's book, 'Forces of Labor', [10] which emphasised the need for global working class organisation to counteract the global movements and command of capital. I had never been anywhere else but India, and I was still impressed by the comrades. Hindi, unlike Chinese or Korean, seemed like a language that workers could teach themselves in a quiet spot on a construction site or while waiting for a machine run to finish. And working class existence itself can help you to move around: rather than going somewhere just as a tourist, you can get a job somewhere else. By chance I found a call centre job for German speakers on the outskirts of Delhi. I decided to outsource myself. The final impetus to make the move came from workers' struggles. Young workers at the Honda factory in Gurgaon near Delhi took on management and were brutally repressed by the police. [11] Shortly before I left, we organised a solidarity action in central Berlin. I didn't have very defined ideas about what to do in India, I mainly wanted to learn and to translate some of the experiences for a wider audience. Over the next ten years, I went back and forth, working six, seven months a year in low-paid jobs (road sweeping, factories, construction sites) in Europe and spending three, four months in Delhi.

The call centre job was pretty surreal. It was a market research company with 800 workers, 100 of them internationals, most of them business students on internships. After spending the mornings with the comrades in the slums, I would do my ten-hour shift, calling, amongst others, German five-star hotels asking them what kind of private television channels they provided for their guests. It was interesting to see the differences in terms of class background between call centres workers in Germany and England on one side and India on the other, where mainly kids of the lower middle-class manage to learn good enough English in order to find jobs in international call centres. Later on, together with young comrades from Delhi, I distributed a small pamphlet with experiences of struggle of call centre workers in Europe and the US amongst the thousands of call centre agents in Gurgaon. We also re-published our book 'Hotlines' with a new preface for an Indian audience. [12] I don't know how much of a difference it made for local workers to read that call centre workers in Europe faced similar issues and found ways to combat the bosses, but it won't have done any harm. We covered more call centre workers' stories in the Hindi newspaper, building little bridges between culturally divided workers in factories and offices.

With the help of the comrades I managed to rent a room in a garment workers area. 100 people lived in 25 rooms on one floor, sharing one tap and three latrines. As the only whitey within ten square miles, I stood out. But if you speak Hindi many might think you are a fair-skinned Kashmiri, which, given the political situation there isn’t always a good look either! The more the surroundings become your home, the market becomes the place where you buy the veggies for your dinner, the more you blend in. After six months I felt confident, I was able to have decent conversations and (slowly) translate articles from Hindi into English. The experiences of industrial workers were more interesting to me than the call centre world. Thanks to friends and comrades, and by helping to distribute the workers' newspaper, 'Faridabad Majdoor Samachar' (Faridabad Workers’ News), I got to know workers employed at Maruti Suzuki, Honda, Bosch and other major automobile suppliers. A series of wildcat strikes and factory occupations, primarily by temporary 'agency' workers kicked off in 2006/7 [13], matching a similar upswing of struggles in other 'emerging countries', such as China and Brazil. Together with the comrades from Faridabad, we met and spoke to these young workers, told them about previous struggles and the various pitfalls, for example, the risk of representatives either being corrupted or smashed. There is more to say about the actual work of the Faridabad comrades, but in terms of 'internationalism' I pretty much focused on getting the news about the struggles that were happening in Delhi out there. For this purpose I set up 'Gurgaon Workers’ News' [14] and tried to send news in a more targeted fashion to comrades who were close to automobile and other industrial workers. As it turned out, 'spreading news' is never enough.

The example of the Rico Auto dispute in 2009 [15] is a good example of the global character of the industry and for the urgent need of political organisation to help unearth this potential. Rico manufactures parts that are also supplied, more or less just-in-time, to General Motors (GM) and Ford in the US. A dispute around union recognition led to a lock-out and severe violence. After a week of reduced production in Gurgaon, parts were missing in the US and the production at the biggest industrial company of the major industrial nation of the world was impacted. The factories in the US had also seen recent disputes and the UAW union had just signed a new contract allowing GM to hire new people on half the wages of older workers. Many workers were pissed off about this contract. During recent years, bosses at GM - like all bosses - had used the 'cheap labour and 'downward spiral' argument ("Workers in India or China are willing to do your jobs for a handful of rice") in order to force workers to accept wage cuts. Now we had an example where it was exactly these workers - in a so-called low wage region – who were not only demanding better conditions, but had managed to stop assembly lines on the other side of the globe. And what does the trade union do? Do they emphasise that this workers' struggle can serve us as inspiration and encourage us to refuse the bosses' blackmail? Of course they didn’t. You can probably guess that the regional UAW officials did exactly the opposite. They ignored the workers and spoke about 'technical issues at a supplier' that impacted production and 'that will hopefully be solved soon'. We sent reports abut the Rico struggle to comrades in the US, but we doubt that they were organised enough to spread them amongst local car workers. Here, the question of internationalist and rooted working class organisations becomes pressing. In the meantime we have to make do with the various channels that do exist. In the case of the Maruti Suzuki workers struggle, [16] we contacted a far-left railway workers’ union in Japan, consisting of perhaps a handful of Maoist pensioners, who organised a solidarity action in front of the local Suzuki headquarters. It didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The real existing international channels through which workers get 'connected' across the globe, or through which news is spread, are insufficient. During my two and a half years in Delhi I primarily came across the traditional Marxist-Leninist organisations, the NGO sector and academia as channels of distorted internationalism. Let's go through them briefly.

Initially there were hardly any left groups active in the Gurgaon - Manesar industrial belt. It was the Rico dispute in 2009, with the spectacular highway blockades and violence, that initially attracted various Marxist-Leninist organisations. Most of them stem from a spilt of the Maoist CPI (ML) in the 1970s. Their general political outlook hampers working class internationalism. For example, they emphasise the fact that companies like Suzuki or Honda are 'foreign' and often try to present themselves as the better patriots. The structure of their parties is similar: at the top are older, middle-class men, such as professors or doctors. They have influence over younger student comrades and encourage them to 'organise' amongst workers. Because they lack first hand experience of industrial work and struggle, their prime vehicle to ‘organise’ are the trade unions. It is relatively easy to register small unions – but not to have them recognised by the employers. The parties are relatively opportunistic when it comes to trade unions, for example, they form 'migrant workers unions' in order to exploit the divisions between rural workers and local workers; they demand a 'fair wage', knowing that there is no such a thing; if they see a tactical advantage, they organise actions which are likely to fail and lead to victimisations of workers. They have less interest in mass 'spontaneous' and underground workers' actions, which might be more successful. Instead, they mainly engage in symbolic actions led by permanent workers who have an interest in establishing a trade union; according to the law, temporary workers cannot be members of the same union, which means that 70% of the average workforce are excluded from company unions. They want to 'organise' the stable permanent workers core, despite the fact that these permanent workers are often in supervisory positions. Their main recruiting ground are victimised permanent workers who become dependent on the material support of these leftist organisations and enjoy being invited to university and international gatherings as 'exemplary workers'.

The stuff they 'teach' the permanent 'advanced' workers is vile, too: the beauty of Stalin's Soviet Union and the glory of the Cultural Revolution. Through the fact that these organisations have their own interest, they focus on forms of struggle which are actually to the detriment of the majority of workers. So for example, they propose forms that are prone to result in repression and disregard underground collective actions. When hundreds of Maruti Suzuki workers burnt down some of their factory buildings, beat up dozens of managers and killed the factory manager, these organisations presented this as a 'set-up' by management and portrayed the workers as victims - also in order to represent those 150 permanent workers who were jailed in the aftermath of the riot. [17] In the fall out, various Marxist-Leninist organisations started to fight amongst themselves, dragging attached workers into the mud.

The other side though is that they manage to create regional bodies of 'permanent workers militants' of various enterprises, which survive the ups and downs of individual struggles. Through these bodies they get in touch with Marxist-Leninist organisations and trade unions abroad. I have to admit that I was impressed when I saw a sticker of the German MLPD in a car workers' hut in the desert region of the Haryana-Rajasthan industrial border area. The MLPD manages to organise international car workers' meetings, where the official speeches might be superficial, but workers might actually have the chance to exchange experiences during workshops and informally. The question is of course how much of these exchanges – of a handful of 'privileged' workers who are invited to these meetings - is actually fed back to the ordinary worker on the shop-floor.

The world of NGOs is even more degenerated. Various 'worker NGOs' emerged, especially amongst garment workers, partly funded by international NGOs and funds like the Ford Foundation. The first thing they do is to 'buy' some outspoken workers as organisers. While it’s pretty awful to watch the competition for paid 'organiser' positions in Europe, is even more sad in a relatively poorer region like India. Workers fall over and fight amongst themselves to get close to the middle-class NGO officials who dish out jobs and perks. Their understanding of unions is completely legalistic, their campaigns a big show of victimhood. They have to put pressure on the big buyers (H&M, Next etc.) by showing the misery of workers. Their internationalism mainly targets the guilty conscience of consumers in the global north. I lived close to the main garment factory area and anyone who has seen one, two, three hundred thousand workers marching on foot to their factory shifts will have had similar thoughts to me: "That's power!". Every second month, smaller or bigger wildcat strikes and violence against management erupt in this area, up to frequent large scale riots. [18] While they never reached the cohesion and unified force like in Bangladesh, they definitely were not expressions of victimhood. Having said all this, we ourselves organised symbolic pickets in Oxford Street in front of fashion retailers in solidarity with a particular garment workers' strike in Delhi, partly because we were clueless how else to support workers practically. Things were different when some comrades worked in the main H&M warehouse for Europe near Hamburg [19], where direct links between workers north and south seemed easier to imagine.

Somehow related to the world of the NGOs is the world of academia, in the sense that they are both carried out by a layer of professionals with interests separate from those of the workers. Gurgaon Workers News attracted dozens of international PhD students who wanted a piece of information for their academic work. People visited from Australia, UK, USA, Germany. A few academic comrades like Immanuel Ness [20] or Joerg Nowak [21] came to Gurgaon for book research. There is an unease about the relationship between academics, comrades and workers. The fact that they have to publish something 'in their name' often makes it a one way street: they want contacts to workers they can interview, but they cannot share the interviews with the wider working class audience until 'their work' is published - and even then it is not always easily accessible. You see a lot of them when they need you and very little afterwards. There also seems little political impetus to turn their 'knowledge' into practical working class organisation. The large numbers of 'academic comrades' is not matched by revolutionary intellectuals who are really willing to get their hands dirty and work collectively. Finally, and this is ironic, the work of most academics is actually not very good. They have little time to get to know workers, they depend on NGO and local academic and trade union sources, who are similarly removed or have their own take on things. They also target a 'wider audience' in terms of their readership and therefore might chose to present a more palatable version of events. For me this became apparent, for example, in Immanuel Ness version of the Maruti Suzuki struggle in his book 'The Southern Insurgency', which not only had factual errors such as the wage gap between permanent and temporary workers, but presented a distorted story about the inner-dynamic of the factory occupation, reducing it to the demand for an independent trade union. When I met him in a meeting in London and pointed this out, he revealed himself as an arrogant professor who thinks he knows better than a working class militant who lived amongst Maruti Suzuki workers for two and a half years. All in all, there is no communist or revolutionary organised 'morality' that would give a compass to these academic comrades: if you have this free and paid time to 'research us', this and this is what we expect in return.

Instead of continuing this rant about the shortcomings of other people's 'internationalism', I should finally look self-critically at our own limited forces and our challenges. Working class internationalism requires organisation. Sometimes these evolve out of concrete struggles and immediate organisations, for example, the international solidarity of dock workers. But more often than not, international links depend on conscious political organisation, rooted in the working class. In this sense Kamunist Kranti, my comrades in Faridabad, are very contradictory. The newspaper depends on an older comrade surrounded by workers and students who support him, by writing articles and helping with distribution of the paper, which takes 15 days each month. In the 1990s they tried to establish an India-wide workers’ news paper, travelled for a year, meeting dozens of groups in the main industrial cities. The project failed due to Maoist manipulations. The main group of comrades are older, now retired metal workers who joined the group during its Marxist-Leninist phase, when they held reading groups, formed alternative union lists, in short, when they tried to create 'workers cadres'. For good reasons they look at this period self-critically. The problem is that since they prefer 'informal structures' and 'self-organisation' they have mainly attracted students or workers who already have some political background. The second generation of worker militants joined during a very focused 'solidarity campaign' for a group of metal workers who an academic comrade from the US did research work on or with. What I want to say is: the group criticises 'militantism' or the idea of 'cadre building', but hasn't managed to reproduce itself and is still primarily dependent on one comrade, who despite his criticism of 'militantism' is the living embodiment of a militant. Around 2015, the group tried to 'formalise' itself beyond the newspaper by setting up 'workers meeting points' to support each other - in a way like a solidarity network. There were four rooms and four comrades responsible, but publishing these 'meeting points' in the newspaper was not enough. After a year this effort was halted.

Since then, the comrades continue to do what they do best: they visit hundreds of workers each month, travelling dozens of miles around the Delhi industrial belt. If they meet workers in struggle, they provide dozens of back issues of the newspaper with reports about similar struggles and possible lessons. Thanks to contacts into hundreds of local factories they are able to get striking workers in touch with workers in relevant companies who might be able to offer direct support through informal solidarity actions. They make suggestions, but are wary to 'lead'. Given their age and experience, workers in struggle actually tend to listen and discuss their ideas of 'self-organisation'. Gurgaon Workers’ News, my initiative around the online blog, tried to mediate politically between an older generation that had 'had enough of the left' and younger 'leftist' students - seeing that a new generation would have to take over in order to guarantee some continuity. This failed. The younger students wanted a clearer vision of 'what has to be done' and the older generation refused to respond to that apart from saying 'the workers are doing things already'. The experience in India helped to enrich the debate in Europe. We organised various meetings, wrote a small booklet as part of the German Wildcat magazine. We also tried to bring some of the European debate, in particular about Operaismo and workers inquiry to Delhi, through workshops and articles in Gurgaon Workers’ News. But when our AngryWorkers initiative to get rooted amongst workers in west London took up more energy, Gurgaon Workers News came to a standstill. Speaking Hindi though still came in useful though. It became a major door-opener amongst the many South Asian workers in the warehouses and factories in west London.

Workers themselves become more connected globally. When I moved to Delhi in the mid-2000s workers had no connection to the internet, now most workers have smart-phones. What remains is a clear language apartheid; most workers don’t speak or read English. The rural areas themselves get more attached to the metropolitan centres. When I went to visit Honda workers in their remote village 1,800 km east of Delhi, the only young people we met were guys who had just returned from Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai on sick leave or for short harvest stints on family fields. Workers are to a certain degree aware of what is happening to other workers globally. When a Maruti Suzuki worker came out of 10 days of factory occupation he showed us news from Occupy Wall Street on his mobile phone. He said: “You see, our struggle has spread to New York!” In west London we are acutely aware of how the class struggle and wider political atmosphere in India influences the consciousness of migrant workers. In the 1970s Punjab was a hotbed of agricultural and industrial unrest, partly organised through Maoist organisations. Migrant workers from India who fought against exploitation and racism in the UK were influenced by these experiences ‘back home’ and formed radical left organisations, such as the ‘Asian Youth Movement’. In the 1980s the Punjab became India’s Afghanistan and slid into nationalist-religious fundamentalism. The ‘Khalistan’ movement also took over the hegemony amongst Punjabi migrant workers in the UK, in particular in our neighbourhood, Southall. Currently a lot of our workmates from Gujarat come from rural areas with little working class activity – their support for Modi primarily stems from their ‘small peasant’ and ‘small traders’ background.

There are no catchy conclusions. With our small forces we dig in the right places, we discover what workers are actually doing. Our own theoretical positions are influenced by our (international) experiences. [22] In our aversion of the 'vanguard' and often middle-class left, we refuse to take our role too seriously. This means we often lack the resources and networks, to, for example, establish independent relationships between struggling workers at Rico Auto and disgruntled General Motors workers at a precise point, when it would make a difference. Looking back, I think we are right when we say that we don't need an academic or otherwise dependent apparatus in order to do internationalist work. But I also think that we do need more formal organisations that combine practical support in day-to-day struggles with a understandable communist internationalist perspective. Organisations that work hard to become independent from the work of one or two or a clique of comrades.









A comparison of minimum wages in Delhi and London, based on my calculations:














We are sure that without our first-hand experience in India we would not have written the following article on 21st century revolutionary strategy in this way