Hadataal! Quarter of a Billion Indians Go On Strike in Largest Demonstration in History


Joshua Ricatti

In response to new agricultural laws pushed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government, over 250 million farmers and workers across India are striking in the largest action in history.


Despite the COVID-19 Pandemic, 2020 has been quite a remarkable year. The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has sparked a reckoning with our racist history, from institutionalized bigotry in the criminal justice system to monuments glorifying Confederates and colonizers. Protests have renewed democracy in Bolivia, where the left-wing president Evo Morales was ousted following a military coup in 2019, and in Chile, where the legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s fascist dictatorship still remains. Meanwhile, demonstrations rage on in Colombia, Nicaragua, Belarus, Hong Kong, and Russia’s Far East.


On November 26, however, a record was broken. Over 250 million people across India took to the streets out of frustration with prime minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing administration. Anger against Modi, who was elected in 2014 with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, has been simmering for years. Tension finally reached a boiling point, however, after a slew of reforms that will liberalize the economy and suppress working-class voices were passed earlier this year.


Why are Indians protesting?

India’s urban working class is tired. For years, they have demanded better working and living standards, including higher wages, price controls on basic amenities, and an end to contract work. These demands have consistently fallen on deaf ears, and the Modi government remains apathetic to downright hostile toward the working class. They have suppressed labor movements, undermined workers’ rights, and allowed big corporations a more free hand to exploit the people. Demonstrations and dharnas (hunger strikes) have been organized, and general strikes have been called in 2015, 2016, 2019, and earlier this year, but to little avail. 


Now, the Modi government is implementing four new labor codes that will further put workers at the will of their employers, suppress unions, and make it harder for workers to demand better conditions and higher wages while increasing their workload.


Farmers have also been taking the brunt of the Modi government’s liberal reforms. Farmers in India have long felt abused and exploited by the government, which is at least partly a factor to their worryingly-high suicide rates


Like urban workers, farmers have been aggravated by a series of Modi’s reforms that will liberalize the agriculture industry and give corporations more influence. These reforms include repealing crop price protections and deregulating APMC trading restrictions.


These new measures, combined with the disparity brought on by the COVID-19 Pandemic, seem to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. They have met overwhelming backlash by workers and farmers nationwide, who deem them corporatist, anti-farmer, and anti-labor. They undo years of progress in labor rights and protections.


Who is participating in the strikes?

The strike was organized by a coalition of ten of India’s biggest trade unions, including the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, the All India Trade Union Congress, and the Labour Progressive Federation. Many of these unions have ties to left-wing organizations within the nation. The AITUC, for example, is India’s oldest union and had been pivotal to the founding of the Communist Party of India. Numerous farmer movements have also helped organize the strike.


Other labor organizations have also been involved. For example, the All India Bank Employees’ Association organized a strike of 30,000 bankers, while the  Independent Sectoral Federations and Associations issued a strike notice for workers in agriculture, retail, and commerce.


The strikes are led by farmers and urban workers in manufacturing, transportation, and service sectors. They have been joined by women’s advocacy groups, student organizations, minority and left-wing activists, and many others. Muslim activists have been particularly vocal in the strikes as a result of heightening racial tensions and Modi’s increasingly-discriminatory policies.


What is each side demanding?

Workers are demanding:

  1. 7,500 rubles ($101 USD) per month for all families making less than the income tax threshold.
  2. A grain ration of 10kg per month for everybody in need.
  3. Expansion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to increase rural employment and wages, as well as extending the act towards those in urban areas.
  4. Repealing of the anti-worker and anti-farmer bills passed.
  5. Stop the privatization of a number of state-owned corporations, and stop the corporatization of state-owned entities in manufacturing, service, and transit.
  6. End the forced retirement of workers in government and public sectors.
  7. Guarantee every Indian a pension.


Farmers are demanding:

  1. Repeal the agriculture reforms.
  2. Guarantee the right to minimum support prices and state procurement of crops.
  3. Put MSP protections at at least 50% more than the cost of production.
  4. Cut diesel prices for agricultural use in half.
  5. Legalize stubble burning and other practices banned by the Commission on Air Quality Management in NCR. Release farmers arrested for stubble burning.
  6. Abolish the 2020 Electricity Ordinance, which farmers fear will stop their free/subsidized access to electricity.
  7. Withdraw legal action against protestors.


The strike officially began on November 26th, when over 250 million Indians took to the streets in what is now the largest general strike in history. This coincided with Constitution Day, which celebrates the signing of India’s constitution in 1949.


The strike, which has now gone on for nearly a month, has shaken India to its core. Highways have been blocked and public transit has been occupied by squatters. The industrial and mining belt across the central and eastern parts of the nation have essentially shut down, and activity in major metro areas like Mumbai and Kolkata have come to a screeching halt. In the capital of New Delhi, after breaking through blockades and a confrontation with the police, farmers occupied areas in and around the city. And the provinces of Punjab and Haryana had been a hotbed of farmer protests even before the general strike was called.


Police have responded mercilessly, using violent tactics like water cannons, baton marches, and rubber bullets. They are vigilantly patrolling areas where protestors have been camping out, decked out in heavy riot gear.


Despite this, the strikers are undeterred. While the Modi government has tried negotiating with the strikers on some of the provisions and will continue its efforts, they’re refusing to back down unless all their demands are met. The strikes have steadily ramped up in intensity as time has gone by and deadlines for the government to give in have passed.


“The workers and peasants will not rest until the disastrous and disruptive policies of the BJP government are reversed. This strike is only a beginning. Much more intense struggles will follow,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions.


Summed Up:

  • On November 26, over 250 million people rose up across India in defiance of neoliberal reforms that aim to weaken the working class and empower corporations, in what is the largest general strike in history. Now, almost a month later, the unrest continues on with no signs of losing steam.
  • The strikes are organized by several labor and farmer movements, including some of India’s most prominent trade unions. They have been joined by women’s rights groups, student unions, and Muslim and left-wing activists, among others.
  • Demonstrations have rattled the country, bringing activity in cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata to a jarring halt and essentially shutting down key sectors of the economy.
  • Among the strikers’ demands include reversing a number of reforms to liberalize the economy, such as price protection repeals and disinvestment from ___, and implementing and expanding welfare policies to aid rural farmers and others seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Law enforcement have fiercely engaged with the demonstrators, using violent tactics like water cannons, baton charges, and rubber bullets. In spite of this, the seemingly-unmoved demonstrators aren’t backing down.