A first person account by Dharampal/Comrade Burmee of a lifetime of work and struggle on the Indian railways from the 1960s to the early 2000s.
I came to India on January 8, 1965 as an Indian repatriate from Burma. My friends call me Burmee as I came from Burma. The coup took place in Burma in 1962 and every bit of business was nationalized.
Every businessmen left for home in the evening after closing his shop or establishment. (There was not a single factory in my birthplace Tannggyi, the capital of Southern Shan State). One day in 1962, when the shopkeepers returned to open their shops, they found to their astonishment that two military personnel were on guard at their shops and they were asked to hand over the keys. It was announced that everything was nationalized and nobody, not even the Burmese nationals, have the right to run any business.
The bazaars and eatery shops were allowed to run as before as it involved no direct business but were dependent on traders to buy their stuff, prepare it and sell.
The same day the currency was changed and the entire nation was in a fix and all were finding it very hard to digest but there was no rebellion. Everything was accepted as Gods’ will.
My parents had settled in Burma in late 1920s and I was the youngest in my family. My elder brothers and sisters could not get proper education because of the War. They were unable to settle in one place.
I was born after the second world war and my parents were able to send me to proper convent school, St. Anne’s Convent High School, run by Italian missionaries. My entire schooling up to matriculation was done in this school. I was in first year of college when I was refused the citizenship though I was born there and was a state football player.
Though no one was asked to leave the country, people started leaving the country for their countries of origin like India, Pakistan, Thailand, Australia and other countries. In the same way my parents thought of sending me to India as they thought my future in Burma was very dim.
I joined the Railways when the transition from steam to diesel and again to electric locomotive engines was taking place. More importantly, I am also one of those railway workers who has not only been a witness to, but has been actively involved in the most glorious and militant period of labour politics in India.
I was appointed as a loco cleaner on March 3, 1965 in Old Delhi loco shed. Though the duties of loco cleaner was to clean the steam locos, rubbing the engines, to collecting the token from the time keeper. The job was almost like a contract work. Once a group of cleaners had gathered, a jamadar would distribute the work to everyone. The other part of the engine to be cleaned meticulously was the smoke box from the wastes that had gathered there. But apart from merely cleaning it we had to make it shine too, and because of my English language skills I was put to work as a telephone attendant. After sometime I was asked to work as coal checker. My work was to note the amount of coal in tonnes in the incoming trains, to keep a record of the loaded coal etc. For almost three years I continued this job.
In January 1968 I was transferred to Tughlakabad (TKD). I was allotted a quarter at the railway colony in TKD. My quarter was very close to my heart for many reasons. My entire working period as a fireman, Diesel Assistant, trade unionist, political activist, happened during my stay there. The best part is that I met my lifelong friends there. Hard work apart, I enjoyed my days off, always involving myself with one activity or the other. At times I went to workers colony, where many of the firemen and drivers whom we used to call Purabias because of their specific local dialects, stayed. I still am not clear to which part of India do they belonged to. Usually they would prepare a chillum (a pipe to smoke marijuana) and sing songs in their own language which I used to enjoy. I still remember a few lines. On other days I used to sit along with my colleagues and over a peg or two and sing Ghalib or Cliff Richard. Because of my Burmese background I still could not write Hindi. I could only speak it. In order to sing Ghalib’s poetry I used to write it in Roman English, understand the meanings and the pronunciation and then sing. For me life without music is just not possible.
Once in a month I used to take my family for a movie or trade fair or whatever outing was possible. At times I used to go to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and spend the night with my student activist friends. I happened to read Zola’s Germinal and to my surprise the Railway Colony was almost the same. The abuses, the quarrels, the fights among the workers were the same.
It was also when I was in TKD that I was a witness to and an active participant in the most glorious and militant period of labour politics in India.
On 19 September 1968, one days’ token strike was called by A.I.R.F. (Northern Railwaymen’s Union). Knowing nothing about the union, demands or the hardships I was merely a spectator. I just couldn’t figure out what was happening. All I remember is that at the level crossing one of the loco cleaners was arrested along with some other workers and he was shouting slogans from the police truck he was put into. Afraid and sweating I crossed the level crossing and attended my duty.
Ferozepur division (Punjab) was much more organized than Delhi division. Railway administration had always crushed the strikes. It is their principle till date not to concede to any demand of workers on strike. Firing was ordered and six workers were killed. That was 19 September 1968.
Earlier in late 1950s, either in 1958 or 1959, the workers of Kalka shed and workshop were on demonstration to give a memorandum to the assistant mechanical engineer for their very genuine demand.
Kalka is a small hilly station where the broad gauge trains terminate and you have to take meter gauge train for going to Shimla. The only mail train operating from Kalka in those days was Howrah-Kalka mail. Railwaymen were not allowed to travel with passes in the train. The memorandum containing the demand to allow the railwaymen to travel in Kalka mail by passes was to be submitted. Here also, firing was ordered and many workers were injured.
Only some selected railwaymen enjoyed some exclusive priveleges. N.F.I.R. (National Federation of Indian Railwaymen), U.R.M.U. (Utari Railway Mazdoor Union) have the history of never participating or organizing any form of strike, as they were affiliated to (I.N.T.U.C.) of the Congress Party. These were recognized unions.
Both the recognised unions’ leadership at branch, division, or zonal levels would enjoy the perks given by the railways. The perks included marking of attendance without working, passes to meet the administration, getting a railway accommodation out of turn and of their choice. They were allotted huge accommodation on prime location to run as union offices.
All they would do was first ask the administration to suspend a particular worker and then after taking bribe from the affected worker, they would get him back to duty. At the most they would get the railway quarter exchanged with ground floor of their follower or any worker ready to spend some money, arrange a booze party and if at all he can arrange a woman then, nothing like it. There are many horrifying cases like that which comes to my mind.
Fed up by the non-functioning of the recognized unions and the hardships faced by them, the railwaymen started making their own categorical associations and one of the most effective associations was All India Loco Running Staff Association (A.I.L.R.S.A.).
In 1960, firemen grade A (or boy fireman) as they were called by loco workers, tried to make a Firemen Council containing only firemen gr. A. Firemen gr. A were the workers appointed directly as firemen. They were first given theoretical training about the steam loco engine and then put to work as leading fireman on mail trains. Immediately after two years of service they were promoted as shunters. Their seniority was also separate. In five years time they would become driver gr. C (driver of goods train). Their seniority was combined with the rankers (drivers who became drivers after a long service period of twenty five to thirty years) only after they become drivers.
The initiative of creating a firemen council was taken by the Southern railway but because they were very few in number when compared to entire loco running staff, the idea of firemen council was a failure but it was an opening for Loco Running Staff Association (L.R.S.A.).
My trade union life started after I was transferred to TKD. By late 1950s there was a split in N.R.M.U and Northern Railway Workers Union (N.R.W.U) with affiliation to A.I.T.U.C. (C.P.I.) came up. Initially, I joined the N.R.W.U. I was very much impressed by the speakers at the gate meeting. They would talk at length about the difficulties faced by the railwaymen. For me it was as if I was witnessing a revolution.
It was 1969. I was a keen observer and a quick learner. From 1972 onwards L.R.S.A. was also showing its prominence in Northern Railway, simultaneously. Among the loco workers the anger was against all the unions. So, I and others like me had to maintain a fine balance. In order to get the support of the loco workers I would claim that my first priority was the category union, the loco running staff was my mother body and the workers union came next. But because of differences with the leadership of N.R.W.U. I left the workers’ union. In the party run trade union, which whenever I used to question about the union’s commitment from the office bearers, the leaders used to talk of the political activities happening internationally in socialist and communist countries. For them what was happening in China or Russia seemed much more interesting rather than listening to the problems faced by the workers. I was not acquainted with these larger issues but was more concerned with workers’ immediate problems and demands. I started working full-time for L.R.S.A.
Eastern and N.F. railway was very much organized from the beginning. Many strikes had taken place in eastern, NF and Southern railways but were never made public by the government and the media. The communication system was very poor and it would take days even for a telegram to reach its destination.
In 1963 Eastern Railway along with other organized railways called a meeting consisting of representatives of all the nine zones and All India Loco Running Staff Association (A.I.L.R.S.A.) was formed. M.R. Sabhapaty of Southern Railway and Mr. N.K. Barua (a very mature and soft spoken comrade) of Guwahati were elected president and general secretary respectively.
The manifesto of A.I.L.R.S.A. clearly said that we wouldn’t do politics and only work as trade unionists’ representatives of loco running staff. The other thing it said was that only the loco running staff workers could be the office bearers of L.R.S.A. and no outsider would be allowed to become our leader, hence it was never affiliated to any political party.
Political activities were very much taking place within the organization and the comrades of CPI (M) were trying their level best to get hold of the central leadership. Secretary General Com. Barua knew what was going on and he decided to quit the association in a dignified way and opted to work as loco inspector, so that he can simply say “I do not belong to loco running staff’. Thus began the dominance of CPI (M) and comrade S.K. Dhar of Kharakpur (Eastern Railway) became the Secretary. The central leadership consisting of the Joint Secretary, Assistant Secretary, Treasurer, and Vice Presidents were mostly CPI (M) cadres.
A.I.L.R.S.A. had a unique way of planning a strike. First the zonal office bearers would meet and the date of strike would be fixed. The code word would be known only to the zonal secretaries. The secretary of the particular zone would then call a divisional meeting in short notice and pass on the date of strike. For confirming the execution of meetings, personal messenger would be sent to every zone and then to the divisions. I was once sent to Bhatinda on the 17th December 1973 and the strike was from 20th December. The code being mineral water. I felt honoured at that time to be assigned such an important job.
1969-1972 were my years of learning to become a trade unionist. I had always the eagerness and urge to learn something new. In 1973, I happened to meet my life long friends from JNU who were doing either researchers or post-graduate students of history. I had spent many nights in JNU discussing the workers, their role in the world and so on. When alone I would think what my life would have been had I got a chance to complete my studies in college. Anyway, these thoughts were never deep rooted and I was happy to be a worker. With my JNU friends I used to organise study circle in my railway quarter. The theoretical knowledge that I thus gained would be translated into workers language when I was with the workers.
Apart from the demands for the reduction of working hours, there were other grievances faced by the loco men; low pay was a major issue. Compared to other railway workers, the pay scale of the loco running staff had dropped dramatically since independence. The pay scale of Station Masters, Assistant Masters, Signal Inspectors, Guards had increased manifold when compared to that of drivers and firemen. Physical condition of work was never taken into account.
Of the three strikes of 1973, June and December strikes were the best planned. The strike which took place in August 1973 was to bail out the Western Railway which had gone on strike because of some differences with L.R.S.A. leaders and General Manager, Western Railways.
The 1973 strike from 20th to 26th December was any eye-opener for the railway administration. All were taken by surprise and for the first time in the history of railwaymen, trade union or non-recognized categorical association of A.I.L.R.S.A. were called by the railway administration for negotiations and President M.R. Sabhapaty from the Southern railway and Secretary General S.K. Dhar signed an agreement of maximum 10 hours duty with the railways administration.
The confrontation with the railway authority was on the issue of working hours. In steam engine at that time once the workers were in charge of the engine nobody knew when they will be relieved. It could go on till 16-17 hours but never within ten hours. At times when the weather was not favourable and the coal was bad, we used to claim rest wherever the train stood after 10 hours. Even when waiting for relief, some work or the other had to be done like breaking of coal, sprinkle water, maintain the steam of an idle engine.
Tai Khand is a small village located between TKD yard (from where trains use to depart) and Okhla industrial area. The villagers were angry with the railways in particular and government in general for giving very less money for their land acquired by the government. Whenever the running staff was on strike the villagers were very happy and many times they had given shelter to the strikers. I remember spending one night at the tea-vendor’s place of the village.
My way of organizing the running staff was very simple. In the running rooms, at the tea shops, at different places, at the stations or in the yard, my topic of discussion was only the sufferings of the railwaymen and by 1973, I became a popular trade unionist and the loco running staff started loving and respecting me. To lead the running staff it was not enough to be a good orator, you have to be a good fireman as well. Otherwise the workers would complain, as was the case with my mentor, that “he can explain the demands well but can’t maintain steam and water”. Workers would avoid working with him but I was accepted with open arms. I never accepted any portfolio, also because to become a leader of running staff you must at least be a shunter or a driver. The designation counts a lot. It was also a time when in mass meetings and gate meetings workers would demand - “Let Burmee speak”. Those were the moments which forced me to learn more and more and come up with new ideas and new ways to explain very minutely about our importance in the railway, and our extraordinary power to bring the railway to a stand still. I never deviated from my prime duty to be constantly in touch with the workers. This helped me to remain at top for a longer period. At times my mentor, who should have been happy on my progress, was jealous and sad. He would shout at me for nothing in front of other workers but such petty things never affected me; my urge to become better and better kept me going. At every point my meetings with my JNU friends had always rescued me from derailing.
After the three consecutive strikes of 1973 the government was taken aback by surprise and the recognized railwaymen’s unions A.I.R.F. and N.F.I.R. were forced to accept that loco running staff as supreme.
Immediately after the December 1973 strike, the then president of A.I.R.F. George Fernandez, proposed to A.I.L.R.S.A. leadership and also other categorical associations, the idea of forming a national co-ordination committee for railwaymen’s struggle (N.C.C.R.S.) and then think of going on All India strike.
All eyes were on the response of the loco running staff. All the railwaymen were of the opinion that if the loco staff joined then the strike would be successful and if the loco running staff did not join the strike would not be successful.
Loco running staff had throughout maintained that we were railwaymen first and then loco workers. Hence A.I.L.R.S.A. also knew that we would be called betrayers and all the popularity and respect gained would be washed away had we not joined the N.C.C.R.S.
May 8, 1974 was declared the date of All India strike for the main demand of bonus for railwaymen. The time from mid February 1974 to March and April 1974 were the period of mobilizing and preparing for a successful strike.
From the early 70’s till the whole of 1974, the waves were in favour of workers. And resentment amongst the workers of all the departments - postal and dock workers, banks, life insurances, to name a few were on high point. We had the support of all the workers. When May strike took place some other organizations went on strike in solidarity with the railwaymen's strike.
On the other hand the government also left no stones unturned to stop the strike. Senior leaders of the congress party along with the wives of bureaucrats came to TKD to convince the workers to not to go on strike and that the government would do a lot of things for the workers. But it was too late and the writing on the wall was very clear - STRIKE.
Then the Railways prepared for an offensive measure to crush the strike. Territorial Army was called in to work on strike days but that did not work because many of the Territorial Army personnel refused the plea and many others stayed away from joining the Territorial Army.
Preparing for a general strike was not that easy. We had to work harder and mobilize the railwaymen who had not witnessed any strike as yet. Since A.I.R.F. leadership was also in favour of the strike it made our task easier. National Thermal Power Station Badarpur also showed their solidarity with the railwaymen and called us to address mass meetings. We would talk of the railwaymen’s problems and the general structure of a worker’s condition at work, the pay, and the torture we had to face. Our hard work of four-five years was showing colours and we were very much sure that the strike would be a cent percent successful.
Then came May 1974; George Fernandez and other national leaders were arrested on 2nd May 1974. TKD was the most important shed of Delhi area and the government in order to create terror made a police post in one of the railway quarters on the ground floor.
The 7th of May 1974 was the finest day of my trade union life. On 7th May some more leaders were arrested and one of them was from TKD. The senior leaders were unable to decide what to do. Then I took the initiative. With a thali (plate) and a stick in my hand, I roamed around the colony and announced for a mass meeting against the arrest of our leaders. From a single handed initiative that I started with to the time I took a full round of the colony, there was a gathering of about 6000 people – men, children and women altogether. I was leading with a flag in my hand. The police was present and threatened to arrest me but the women present there challenged them to do so. I was circled by the women and slogans against the police were chanted more loudly. The mass meeting was at the front of arrested leader’s quarter. Around 9 pm, I spoke for about 40-45 minutes and then and there I announced the strike even though it was scheduled to begin from the next day. After delivering that speech I went underground with other workers. At that time I thought I was born for this day and it was the day on which I recognized myself as a trade unionist.
It was a very successful strike. For at least more than one week there was no train movement. The leaders were arrested under Maintenance of Internal Security Act (M.I.S.A.) and the workers were forced to work under Essential Services Maintenance Act (E.S.M.A.). Gradually workers started joining the duties. We also joined after the strike was called off from jail on 28th May 1974, after 20 days. The historic strike came to an end and with that the short lived N.C.C.R.S.A. also faded away, which was the saddest thing to happen.
The impact of the railwaymen’s strike was so powerful that, though there could be many other reasons for imposing emergency by the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi (a dictator under the umbrella of democracy), 1974’s railway strike was one of the reasons. I have never seen or heard of a more humiliating death of the then railway minister L.M. Mishra. He met with a railway accident and it was rumoured that he was not given medical attention intentionally because the high command was not happy with him. It was humiliating because, though principally I was against it, the railwaymen distributed sweets on his death.
Post emergency the political change took place in 1977. George Fernandez, whom people still think as the hero of 1974 strike, was offered the railway portfolio to which he refused and opted for Industries Minister. The cunning, shrewd, greedy and the betrayer of railwaymen was exposed. How can rail-workers forget his betrayal?
The railways started penetrating and enhanced the pay packet of the important categories who can bring the work to a stand still. In railways it was the loco running staff and for instance in port and dock workers, the crane operators. Apart from the demands for the reduction of working hours, there were a long listed grievances faced by the locomen. Low pay was a major issue. Compared to other railway workers the wages of the loco running staff had dropped dramatically since independence. The pay scales of the station masters, assistant masters, signal inspectors, guards had increased many folds compared to drivers and firemen. They were also angered by the lack of concern for their physical condition of work. One of the important demands was that the mileage allowance should be at par with travelling allowance (T.A.) of other railwaymen. In those days the T.A. was around Rs. 60 per 100 kms whereas a fireman was given Rs. 5 to Rs. 7 per 100 kms. This demand was conceded and as a result the entire pay structure became almost double. But that was just a lollypop given by the railways. It was the beginning of breaking the unity of the loco running staff. Loco-men started thinking of themselves as superior to other railwaymen.
The railways on the other hand made several divisions out of one division. Delhi division was converted into two which made very difficult to organize the loco men. More divisions mean more Divisional Railway Manager’s (DRM) office and more bureaucrats. The divisions were made also on zonal levels. When I joined the railways there were nine zones and now they are 17.
Three years back, on my return from Guwahati to Lucknow in March 2010, I travelled with the driver in his seat. While talking to him and the other workers, I was told by the running staff that two DRM offices are ready but the railways have not yet decided which shed will go to which DRM office. The railways have succeeded in breaking the unity and the loco running staff is facing the same problems as it faced in the 1970s; duty leave is hard to avail and the drivers are put to officiate but not promoted. Vacancies are not filled. Basic salary of all the drivers, i.e. goods, passenger and mail is the same Rs. 9300/-. The average pay packet being 25-30, 30-35 and 35-40 thousand respectively. The A.I.L.R.S.A. which was so strong is no where to be seen.
By 2016 all the loco-men who have worked on steam engines would retire and with them the memories of the A.I.L.R.S.A. will be forgotten unlike the 1926 strike of the miners of Durham, Northumberland coal field. The miners, particularly those of Durham, Scotland, Wales and Northumberland have an interest for their own history which is almost devotional.
The years from 1974 to 1980 were the high point of my union life. Though there was no more strike between 1974-1980. The loco running staff was reorganizing itself. There was another divisional strike in 1980 in which I was removed, but it was expected. The government used the repressions of the strike to weaken the union movement as a whole by employing divisive means. But personally I got three promotions in 15 years which would have been impossible earlier. In total 750 loco-men were removed. From Delhi Division 42 and from TKD 7. The other six workers removed along with me had nothing to do with trade union politics or militancy. Their only crime was they were strikers. The action taken by the railways was to demoralize the staff which in the long run worked.
After my removal my frequency of going to CPI (M) office became more. Slowly I came to know that the party had decided to disown me. I had also started hating the party for certain reasons. I was still on the safer side because being a government employee I could fight the case in court. I understood that C.I.T.U. (CPI(M)'s Trade Union) had made many private factories unions in Okhla Industrial Area and other parts of Delhi. When the workers were thrown out they would come to party office for advice and help. At this point they were shouted at, they were told “why did you make a union when you can’t face small things like removal. Go to your village” and so on. C.I.T.U. had spoiled the lives of many. I was aided for about six months; gradually the monthly collection became less and less and finally the aid was stopped. On the other hand, over the issue of aiding me, the party workers started showing their grumbles after which I severed any association with the party itself. I had never gone to CPI (M) office since 1981. To hell with them.
My hatred for communist parties does not ends here. I used to respect China a lot for the way they had developed into a world recognized power but the day they started firing on the heroes of the world (Vietnam), China just disappeared from my mind. For me they are butchers and nothing else.
We lost the case in 1986 from Supreme Court. It was a three bench judgement consisting the then Chief Justice of India, Mr. Chanderchud and two other judges. Mr. Chief Justice and one judge was in favour and one judge was against it. It was the last day in office for the Chief Justice. The next day he retired. I think it was 26 June 1986. The Judgement says “Any government employee can be removed from service without notice or inquiry.” Apart from railways, thousands of workers from other organizations were affected. It was a black day for the workers.
The railways remembered the children and their education of the removed railway employees after fourteen years. The letter for taking them back on duty reads “it has been fourteen years of the removal of the employees.” The railway is running smoothly and chances of any strike are bleak. It is recommended that they may be taken back on duty without any promotional or monetary benefits and the period be counted for pensionary benefit only. That is how the removed loco-men were given duties in 1993.
When I rejoined the railways in 1993, I was quiet surprised to see that almost all the active workers whom we thought will be our successors had joined the recognized unions and A.I.L.R.S.A. was not at all visible.
Now, when I look back it is crystal clear to me that the credit for the successful strikes of 1973 (L.R.S.A.) does not go to any party or any party comrade. It goes to the steam engine itself which had the power of draining physical structure of even body builder. It was just the fever of strike or the waves were in favour. The Divisional Secretary (L.R.S.A. - 1980) Mr. A.K. Gupta, an acclaimed Marxist, used to say - “What type of secretary is he if no strike take place during his tenure? Because of his foolishness the loco-men went on strike in 1980 and exhausted their strength and there was no strength left for A.I.L.R.S.A.’s strike of 1981 which was a failure.” These days he is living in Haridwar in some ashram with Sadhus (ascetics).
Divisional President who later on became zonal president of northern railway was a goon-turned L.R.S.A. unionist, a politician as well, (he contested the M.P. election and lost) got a huge plot allotted and is running a high school in Ghaziabad. He was medically de-categorized, which he wanted, and his son was appointed in railways in place of him.
Though majority of the loco-men loved me there were many who hated me as well. Once I was charged by the Branch President that Burmee always keeps pasting posters without taking the permission from him or the Secretary, to which the Divisional Body laughed and said – “as long as someone is not doing any anti-organization work it is okay.”At times I was charged that I kept abusing God which is not tolerable. This charge was never made in my presence but always behind my back. The workers would ask me whenever they had the time to listen. I would very politely tell them it is not true that I don’t believe in God. I do believe in God as you do but my first target is to become a human being and then if I’ll be in Jammu I’ll look for Mata Vaishnoo Devi, if in Punjab for Guru Nanak, if in U.P. for Ram, if in Bihar for Gautam Budh, if in Bengal for Kali Maa, if in Goa for Jesus and if at all in Bangladesh for Allah. It depends on when and where I become a human being. The workers would laugh at me and leave with smiling faces.
In a country where after every 500 kms God changes and workers are divided by race, caste, gender and religion, it is not that easy to organise workers. The regional facts, political or otherwise will always obstruct the workers joint movements.
In my lifetime I had seen and I am proud to have participated in the strikes for the betterment of the railway workers. But, for the present generation and the generation to come it will be very, very hard. Due to technological revolution there are less jobs and those workers who get the jobs are under uneasy pressure for their security because there is always a substitute ready to work with lesser pay.
In the railways the new recruitments of loco-men are from the state of Bihar, when compared to other states. It is because the railway ministry had most of the years been with the politicians of Bihar. In 2010 the loco-men of N.E. Rly told me that the latest 80 driver assistants (all from Bihar) are under training. Though the minimum qualification for diesel assistant is matriculation, even diploma and degree holders are applying for it.
Remembering again of 1980 strike, I went to CPI (M)’s office to report about the progress of strike. It was first week of June 1980. I reported the TKD is on full strike but GZB (Ghaziabad) is a bit shaky. The reply from M.R. Chakraborty, secretary (CPI (M)) was “I don’t know how, but create terror.”
In a split of a second my mind started revolving around the party comrades of TKD. They knew that I along with my co-worker Roshan is meeting the JNU friends. They will warn us not to meet the JNU students. They would say, “these students belong to rich class, they will ask you to throw bombs, and they will spoil your life and you will have to spend your entire life in jail and so on.” And now, the secretary was asking me to create terror. Who was trying to put me behind bars. The party or my JNU friends?
I along with Roshan (who left the railways in 1976 and set up his own printing press along with his brothers) were stamped to be removed at the first opportunity. When the time for removal came Roshan was no more in the railways. He was absconding since 1976 but, there was another booking clerk by the name of Roshan Lal S/o Bela Ram and the poor guy was removed from service. Roshan Lal who was to be removed was Roshan Lal S/o Bala Ram. Such was the madness of the railway administration. The poor clerk after running from pillar to post got back his duty after several years but, his service record was spoiled.
When running an organization you had to take into account that you are regarded as a tough guy as well. I’d always see to it that every six to ten months one worker loyal to authorities is beaten mercilessly or a slapped in full public view. I would first choose the person who is weaker than me in the first place and coward in the second place. In total I had beaten about seven loyal workers. On the other hand loyal workers were not spared by the loco-men also. After the strike was over they would force two or three loyal workers who had worked during strike, blackened their faces, and with a placard saying “I am a betrayer”, forced them to ride a donkey. The children, workers, women of the railway colony, laughing and shouting, would say “look, the betrayer on a donkey”. “Swear, that you will never become one” - the women were at liberty to slap, abuse, through hot or cold water on them.
The women of TKD have always played their role in the strikes of 1973 and 1974. All we had to do was give them little tips for 10-15 minutes and then we would go underground. In 1973 December’s strike they went to the running room and threw about ten buckets of water on the kitchen’s cooking place. The cooking was done by using coal in those days. I was liked by them because I used to speak about the problems faced by them. It requires no extraordinary skills. The need of the hour was to understand their problems and narrate them in public meetings and corner meetings in the colony.
I never hesitated discussing even sex in my meetings. I would explain why a newly wed women looked double her age after two years, whereas women outside the railway became more beautiful. It is because they were unable to get proper nourishing diet.
Then I’d speak at length how a women came loaded with gold and in two three years time the expensive items are either pawned or sold. Every railway worker is under debt in one way or the other. Some had sold their property, some had taken loan from the railway. Some had made final withdrawal from their Provident Fund. These things had deep impact on them and they started talking to me freely about their problems. They would ask for help in instructing their husbands not to drink or gamble. Such small gestures gave me pleasure and my confidence level got boosted and I started feeling that I was on the right track, I promised myself to keep it up.
Money lenders were also exploiting the railway workers a lot. They would lend money @ 10% interest per month. Suppose some worker needed 1000 rupees. He would be given 900 by saying that one month interest was deducted and now he had to pay Rs. 1000 and till he returned the entire amount he’d have to pay Rs.100 as interest. Initially there were money lenders from outside but later on the cashiers, who were supposed to distribute salary, took over. They knew that their money was safe. When giving the salary they would deduct their dues from the salary itself and gave the remaining balance to the worker who is under debt. Such dismal was the financial condition of the worker who was already under pressure from other monetary stress.
A fireman always dreams of becoming a driver one day, and his dream becomes the mission of his life. I could never become a driver in the Indian Railways. I joined the Railways in 1965, and by 1980, I became a diesel driver’s Assistant. I was promoted to Assistant in 1980 and was removed from service the same year. Fortunately for my dream, I was selected by a Greek company as an independent locomotive operator. Here, I understood how terrible my life would have been had I not got a chance to drive a locomotive. The workers in Saudi Arabia were from other countries as well, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Philippines and Greece. After my contract with the Greek company expired, I came back to India, and again after eleven months was selected by a Korean company to work as a locomotive operator in Iraq. The other workers were from Korea. Though they could not speak or understand English, when off duty, they would listen to music and dance in duos as if they were Americans, not Koreans. I noticed their astonishing way of running after dogs, and catching one when the animal was completely exhausted. Then they would strangle the dog with a thin wire until it was dead. One of the Koreans would then skin the dog and it would be a feast for them in the evening. I still remember some Korean words.
The slogan “Workers of the World Unite,” became more meaningful to me because all over the world I saw workers doing the same. Only the language differed. The work experience in Saudi Arabia was a bit different. The labourers were mostly from Punjab. Though I used to drink at times in India, I became an alcoholic in Saudi Arabia. It might sound a bit funny, but it is true. The labourers from Punjab were experts in preparing alcohol. They had their own distilling system. It consisted of one huge drum, a copper pipe, and a gas stove. I had never watched it being made because I was never a member of the preparing team. Being a locomotive operator, and their senior in pay, they would respect and love me. I would only give money to them to buy grapes and the required materials. Friday was a rest day for them, and seldom for me. They would go to the market to but grapes and oranges, and other things like sugar were taken from the Indian mess. The procedure was to grind the grapes and other materials, mix them with warm water, fill the mixture into five cans of 25 liters each, seal the cap, and keep it in a warm room for 8 to 10 days. When it was ready, it would be distilled in a secret room. The huge drum would be filled and put on a large stove the cover of the drum would be made air-tight, and the gas would be lit. The copper pipe would go through a bucket filled with ice, and at that point the steam would change into water, and drop by drop, seven or eight bottles would be filled. The first bottle is of the highest potency. I remember that when I was served a small peg of that bottle, I could not drink more than one peg. On my return, I was in the habit of taking four pegs of pure alcohol daily. I know this might sound a bit strange because everyone knows that in Saudi Arabia, no one drink as the punishment for it is very severe.
After returning from the Middle East, I worked as an attendant to my friend’s doctor. Simultaneously I joined his other son’s Australian Company. I got my railway job back in 1993 and was put to work as diesel driver assistant. Although I was not too happy since those who previously were my second firemen were my drivers now, I still carried on with the consolation that I was at least working in a locomotive. I was medically de-categorized in 1996 and was sent to Chandansi for the training of a commercial clerk. I worked as an inquiry clerk, goods clerk, parcel clerk but I was never happy and I was just dragging myself through life.
I was working as an inquiry clerk in New Delhi and staying at Pahar Ganj Railway Colony and on my way to duty I would see drug addicts dozing off on the pavement in the park and outside my office. I thought smack gave a good kick which is why they were sleeping. I had tried smack earlier in cigarettes and later on in coils but when I became a drug addict I realized that smack doesn’t contain anything which makes you sleep. The drug addicts were taking multiple things along with smack such as sleeping pills and so on. You just can’t give it up unless you have the desire to do so. Finally I shared my problems with some friends and it is because of them that I am leading now, a clean life. I was put into rehab arranged by them. At times I still wonder how I am still alive and on the other hand I am positive and happy that I will not die as a drug addict.
I had been a learner throughout my life and I am still learning. It feels beautiful. Let me today finish by narrating few lines from my days as a railwayman:
अगर जो तुम बन गए बद्गमा दोस्तों,
मिलना मुमकिन नहीं फिर अमा दोस्तों !
एक मुद्दत हुई हैं नशे मनजले,
दिल से उठता है अब भी धुआं दोस्तों !
कह के कसम खाते लाल झंडे की हम,
रुकने देंगे न कारवां दोस्तों !
अगर शोला जो भड़का जुल्म का कभी,
फूँक देंगे ज़मीं आसमां दोस्तों !
(A)gar jo tum ban gaye baadgama dosto
Mil na mumkin nahi phir amaa dosto
Ek Mudaat huwi hai nashe manjale
Dil se uthtaa hai ab bhi dhuwan dosto
Kheke khaate kasam laal jhande ki hum
Rukne denge na hum kaarwa dosto
(A)gar shola jo bharka zulm ka kabhi
Phuk denge zameen assman dosto
Dharampal or Comrade Burmee (as he is fondly called by comrades) is a retired Railwaymen and a former Unionist.
Note: A version of the article was presented at the International Labour History Conference, 2012, at V.V Giri National Labour Institute organised by Association of Indian Labour Historians (AILH). A shorter version of this paper was published in Critique Vol-2 Issue-1, 2012
Taken from http://nsi-delhi.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/making-steam-roll-personal-narrative-of.html?m=1