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Mainstream, VOL LV No 26 New Delhi June 17, 2017

Nationalising’ Workforce: Indian Labour and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh

Saturday 17 June 2017

by Navneet Sharma and Divyanshu Patel

Workers of the world, Unite.—Marx

Workers, Unite the world.—Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh

If unity is to be of an abiding factor, it must be founded on a sense of kinship.—B.R. Ambedkar

Class, as an economic category, at least theoretically and in certain exceptional circum-stances, has vertical mobility. On the other hand, caste, being a social category, neither theoretically nor exceptionally, has vertical or horizontal mobility. The staticity is such that one takes birth, lives, marries, reproduces and even dies in the caste s/he is born in. No amount of highest possible hard work or for that matter luck is said to bring about change in one’s caste. Caste is pre-determined and supports the destiny-based allocation in hierarchy. The only reprieve from caste is being ‘honest’ and committed only to the work assigned to the caste one is born in.

In India, the National Labour Day is ‘celebrated’ on Vishwakarma jayanti. Vishwakarma —as the name suggests—is the shilpi (craftsman) of the world. He belongs to the group of brahminical deities and finds mention as one of the grandsons of Brahma—the creator in the triumvirate of the most important Hindu gods, the others being Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiv, the destroyer. Besides this brahminical incarnation of the god of labour, five other kinds of workmen—carpenter, ironsmith, mason, goldsmith and potter—belong to the cohort of the Vishwakarma clan. These groups of workmen are marginalised groups forced to the periphery of the social order by dwijavarnas (twice born) —Brahmin (Priest), Kshatriya (Warrior) and Vaishya (Merchant). These (Vishwakarma) caste groups, not exactly being ‘avarna’ or shudra, are still what we in modern parlance call ‘OBCs—other backward castes’. These castes are neither very welcome in the sanctum sanctorum of the very ‘temples’ they build nor do they have any say in matters and concerns of religious nature.

The National Labour Day conveniently excludes all the working caste groups as mythically any worship or celebration of/with god is the sole prerogative of the priestly caste. The idea and concept of labour in this context is not to celebrate the ‘work’ for its fruition as work has to be done for sustenance of the godly creation of the world. (Makarma-phala-heturbhurma tesango ’stvakarmani—Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.)

Hindutva, Nationalism and Labour Rights: Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh

Lewis Hyde (2007) in his book, The Gift: Creativity and Artist in the Modern World, differentiates between work and labour; the idea, though sounds elitist, emphasises that one is ‘dictated’ and the other is interior. Another interesting difference is that of ‘physicality’: labour is physical whereas work can be otherwise. Labour has an economic end whereas work may have a political, social or cultural end. Labour is akin to surrendering one’s manual force to another either by contract, which may be mutual, or by force. Work can be or may be worship but labour is more of necessity or inevitability. Gandhi (1929), while sermonising on ‘Bread Labour’, pointed out that every individual must earn his (her?!) own bread; yet this could not suppress the idea that those who only do ‘mental’ work (dwi-janma) consider themselves superior to those who do ‘physical’ work (a-varna). As per the 2011 census India has 487 million labourers and 94 per cent of these work in non-corporate, unorganised sector.

This census does not include 4.4 million child labourers in its ambit; all child labourers must be working in unorganised sectors only. According to a study by the Campaign Against Child Labour (CAC), India had more than 12 million child labourers in 2001 and there has been a steady decline in these numbers and the study credits NREGA and RTE for this. This also punctured the myth that poverty results in child labour; rather it is other way that child labour produces and increases poverty.

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), on its website, claims that it has been retaining the ‘numero uno’ position in membership since 2002 by having more than one crore members, and this must be largely constituted of those in the organised sectors where labourers with minimum awareness join various labour unions. It claims that ‘national interests’ are supreme and workers interests (rights?!) are promoted and protected within this framework. Further, reading of this website informs one that this organisation ‘aims’ to establish a Bharatiya order of society and to provide for ‘living wage’ through maximum industrialisation of the nation. This would help, according to the organisation, to instil the ‘spirit of service, co-operation, and dutifulness and develop in them (sic) a sense of responsibility towards the nation in general and industry in particular’.

Recently the Central Board of Workers’ Education (CBWE, an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Labour and Employment) has been renamed as the Dattopant Thengadi National Board of Workers’ Education and Development. Dutta Samant,who was one of the foremost leaders of the trade union move-ment, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, who is even known as the father of the trade union movement in India, or Anusuya Sarabhai, the pioneer of the women’s labour movement in India along with Narayan Malhar Joshi, Basawon Singh, R.S. Ruikar, Ashok Mehta, Mrinal Kanti Bose, Bhalchandra T. Ranadive, P. Ramamurthy get relegated despite their immense contribution to the labour movement and struggle for labour/human rights. Dattopant Thengadi is hailed as a child prodigy being the President of ‘vanarsena’ (monkey’s army) at the tender age of 15; he went on to establish, as a ‘Hindutva ideologue’ the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, Samajik Samrasta Manch and was also founder member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and many other offshoot affiliate organisations of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh which believes in the Hindutva order of the nation and society.

Hindutva ideologues are misleadingly recog-nised as championing the cause of national unity. The idea of nation and nationalism propagated is then deployed as the guise to silence any voice protesting against the ruling caste/class hegemony. Any dissent to these is seen as a plot against India or better the Akhand Hindu Rashtra. This organisation also believes that the state must be ‘minimalist’ in economic matters and ‘maximalist’ in law and order situations. Translating this would imply a situation wherein an Indian industry/indus-trialist removes a worker for being ‘redundant’ or reduces her/his wages. This is classified as an economic matter and by the ‘minimal intervention’ doctrine the state has no role. In the same situation when the protesting workers raise their voice, it is considered a matter of law and order and to clamp this unrest the nation-state is recognised to have maximum role. This is how the liberal economics cosies up with the conservative political Hindutva agenda. The concepts of Hindutva and sanatana dharma have an umbilical relationship and establishing the Hindutva order tantamounts to refurbishing the ‘varna dharma’. Varna Dharma legitimises quadruple social stratification where the labour class, being the shudra caste, has no right to question or protest the dominance of vedic brahminism and they must selflessly work for the nation aka Hindu Rashtra.

Dignity, Labour and Nationalism: Ambedkar

Ambedkar could perceive what Marx could not. When Marx gave a call for the workers of the world to unite—he did not differentiate between work and labour, his analysis being economic in nature. He observed the difference that labour is external to the worker in his theory of alienation. The estrangement from the self forms the theoretical basis in society which is structured by the capitalist mode of production. In the Indian context the society, not being capitalist, but scriptural-brahminic stratified, the division of labour is not about the division of work but, as Ambedkar(1935) observed, “caste is not division of labour but labourers”.

Ambedkar’s efforts are seminal in recognising the issues that plague the conditions of work and employment in the Indian context. He articulated and addressed the concerns of the masses, guided by the vision of striving towards an inclusive social set-up. The reforms and policy initiatives undertaken by him are instrumental in changing several facets of how the rights of the work force are looked at. His efforts were directed at bringing about a constructive and potentially liberating change in this sector. He emphasised on the recognition of the ‘worth of work’ and initiated efforts to effect transformations and create conducive conditions of work. His was a multi-dimensional perspective and a multi-faceted approach with the intent of maximising the benefit to all. It was an action-oriented approach in recognising the complexities of the social-political matrix of the 1940s and 1950s. He vigorously worked for the enactment of measures for the welfare of the employees.

Instances of the same include the Coal Mines Safety (Stowing) Amendment Bill for the benefit of the workers (January 31, 1944); ‘Mica Mines Labour Welfare Fund’ that helped the workers with housing, water supply, education, co-operative arrangements; ‘Tripartite Labour Council’ (1942) safeguarding the social security measures for the workers and seeking to give equal opportunity to the workers and employers to be active contributors in the formulation of labour policy and strengthening the labour movement by introducing compulsory recog-nition of trade unions and worker’s organi-sations. These are indicative of the fact that he recognised the exploitative tendencies that mar the efforts of the workforce and facilitated interventions that were important.

Ambedkar’s reformative approach is impor-tant in the contemporary milieu because the labour landscape in India is still riddled by blatant inequalities. There are still work conditions where there are unjust impositions of work hours, unsafe and even hazardous exposure, unequal and less payment of remuneration and exploitation of vulnerable groups, particularly women and children. When a reference is made to the ill-recognised participation of women, both in the organised and unorganised work sectors, initiatives under-taken by Ambedkar to facilitate the framing of laws for the protection of the interests of this section of the workforce are exemplary. These include ‘Mines Maternity Benefit Act’, ‘Women Labour Welfare Fund’, ‘Women and Child Labour Protection Act’, ‘Maternity Benefit for Women Labour’, and ‘Restoration of Ban on Employment of Women on Underground Work in Coal Mines’. These affirmative actions are a telling reminder of the need for similar affirmative actions in today’s context because labour concerns, especially with regard to their social and economic welfare, remain partially addressed.

It is important to recognise the concern that there is selective enabling, that is, laws are primarily garnering protection for a select section of the labour force. For instance, the recent Maternal Maternity Benefits Act recog-nises the concerns of those women who are working in the organised sector, neglecting the idea that there is a considerable chunk of the population who are not part of the same and thus their needs and requirements remain unaddressed. It informs about the vulnerability of the workforce and is indicative of the urgency to take concerted action that incorporates the welfare of all. It is essential to note that women’s participation is not to be seen as divorced from the biased expectations of the society. It is necessary that in recognition of these constraints substantive efforts are made to enhance whole-some participation of women in the workforce. For instance, the employment of women in domestic work is a major chunk but the lacuna is that there is minimal protection ensured in this domain with respect to employee rights. Largely it is subject to individual negotiations and often it is marked by exploitation which is manifest in various forms—such as that of underemployment and underpayment.

Another concern is that of the non-recognition of unpaid work that women do. This is vital as welfare measures need to be cognisant of such concerns so that the policies made are ‘actually’ beneficial. It is of utmost necessity that the state addresses these concerns on a priority basis, taking into consideration the milieu of the beneficiaries which requires an understanding of the work conditions and ways in which the employment opportunities are limited.

Sukhadeo Thorat and Newman (2010) in their work, Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in India, point to the above discrimination theoretically and put forward four types of discrimination—complete exclusion, selective inclusion, unfavourable inclusion and selective exclusion. In liberal India, the attempt of the government at the Centre is to inculcate nationalism with nationalist fervour into the work-force via modes of unfavourable inclusion and selective inclusion where Dalits are included and excluded from party politics and decision-making is contingent upon the ‘severity’ of caste. In the present Lok Sabha (2014), the BJP has 40 DalitMPs (making it the largest Dalitparty in Parliament) but only two happen to make it to the Minister of State rank. It is almost prophetic as Ambedkar (1955) had observed: “[Common Electorate] would elect Dalit nominees who would really be slaves of Hindus and not independent people.”

Ambedkar wrote: “Nationality is a subjective psychological feeling. It is a feeling of a corporate sentiment of oneness which makes those who are charged with it to feel that they are kith and kin.” Ambedkar differentiates between nationality and nationalism. According to him, they are two different psychological states of the human mind. Nationality means “consciousness of kind, awareness of the existence of that tie of kinship”. Dalits in the Indian subcontinent suffer from ‘social invisibility’. Dalits and outcastes are not ‘kin’ in any religious manifestation in the Indian sub-continent. This is more peculiar with the Hindu religion as Ambedkar observes: Ask a Mohammedan or a Sikh, who is he? He tells you that he is a Mohammedan or a Sikh as the case may be. He does not tell you his caste although he has one and you are satisfied with his answer. When he tells you that he is a Muslim, you do not proceed to ask him whether he is a Shia or a Sunni; Sheikh or Saiyad; Khatik or Pinjari. When he tells you he is a Sikh, you do not ask him whether he is Jat or Roda; Mazbi or Ramdasi. But you are not satisfied if a person tells you that he is a Hindu. You feel bound to inquire into his caste. Why? Because so essential is caste in the case of a Hindu that without knowing it you do not feel sure what sort of a being he is. That caste has not the same social significance among Non-Hindus as it has among Hindus is clear if you take into consideration the consequences which follow breach of caste. There may be castes among Sikhs and Mohammedans but the Sikhs and the Mohammedans will not outcaste a Sikh or a Mohammedan if he broke his caste. Indeed, the very idea of excommunication is foreign to the Sikhs and the Mohammedans. But with the Hindus the case is entirely different. He is sure to be outcasted if he broke caste. This shows the difference in the social significance of caste to Hindus and Non-Hindus. Ambedkar, while replying to a question post-conversion to Buddhism, said: ‘I am out of (Hindu) hell.’ On December 6, though the contemporary memory commemorates this day as Vijay Diwas (Victory Day—Babri Masjid at Ayodhya was demolished on this day) but this was recognised as Mahapari-nirwan Diwas—the day Babasaheb died as a Buddhist though born a Hindu.

The idea of nation and nationalism, if it is based only on the ‘nationalist’ freedom move-ment and elitist, casteist and exclusivist in nature, it would lead to what Aloysius (1998) scathingly calls nationalism without a nation —a nation without Dalits, Adivasis, women and minorities. This concept of nation and nationalism would only get jibe and scorn by being the law of the fishes. (Matsyanyaya—big fish eating small fish is the due course of nature—the minority must abide by the diktat of those whose fatherland and holyland is India—Savarkar1921.) The dignity to the individual and to the nation and nationalism can only be restored when we craft an alter-native narrative of nation and nationalism where either we include Narayana Guru, E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, Jyotiba Phule, Mangoo Ram, Swami Acchootanand and many others or else we keep construing the idea of labour bereft of workers and ‘celebrating’ National Labour Day instituted in the name non-working brahminical varna deity vishwakarma.


Aloysius, G. (1998), Nationalism without a Nation in India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press

Ambedkar, B.R. (1940), Pakistan or The Partition of India, Bombay: Thacker and Co.

Ambedkar, B.R. (1945), Castes in India, Delhi: Siddharth Books.

Ambedkar, B.R. (1955), Dr Ambedkar remembers the Poona Pact in an interview, http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3797:dr-ambedkar-remembers-the-poona-pact-in-an-interview-on-the-bbc&catid=116&Itemid=128

Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, http://bms.org.in/pages/BMSAT Glance.aspx

Hyde, L. (2007 Reprint), The Gift: Creativity and Artist in the Modern World, New York, Vintage Books.

Gandhi, M.K. (1929), ‘The Gospel of Bread Labour’, Young India,http://www.mkgandhi.org/momgandhi/chap40.htm

Savarkar, V. D. (1921), Essentials of Hindutva, http://www.savarkar.org/en/hindutva-hindu-nationalism/q

Thorat, Sukhadeo and Katherine S. Newman (2010), Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. (navneetsharma29@gmail.com)

DivyanshuPatel is presently doing his Ph.D from the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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