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1974 Railway Strike that shook Indira government and sparked National Emergency

A saga of heroism describes the strike of Indian Railways workers in 1974 when they bravely  stood up to the Indian state. It was the largest strike in the history of Indian Railways and the  largest revolt by the working class in independent India.  

On May 8, 1974, the strike had begun; there was a railway strike of 20 days, involving 1.7  million employees. This strike was led by the union leader & the president of the All-India  Railwaymen’s Federation George Fernandes. The strike to demand a need-based  minimum wage, food insurance, the formalization of jobs and a limit to the number of hours  railway workers can work per day. It also called for a safety net against rising prices and  workers’ rights to protest and negotiate.  

Since British times, locomotive staff have been referred to as ‘continuous workers,’ meaning  they would be required to remain at work for the duration of the trip, often for several days at  a time. This has not changed since India’s independence. Indian railways, an independent nation  since 1947, did not implement the eight-hour workday due to the Railroad Board, a quasi 

government bureaucracy. Labor, especially locomotive pilots, were dissatisfied as a result.  


The role of women/children

The Indian Railways divisional headquarters in Madras was attended by 1,000 women and  children on April 20, 1974. In a rally with slogans, they presented the chief station officer with  a brief document describing their grievances. The Trichy railway colony had a similar morcha (procession) which was taken out by 1,800 women and children that made up 20% of the  residents.  

The divisional superintendent at Madurai was gherao (encircled) by a thousand women who  demanded he accept their grievance memorandum. A rally attended by 400 women in purdah  (veils) in Guntakal called for support and education among the general public.  

Women played a key role in making the strike happen, and to ignore their role would be  irresponsible.  

Result of the strike 

Thousands of workers were jailed and forced to lose their jobs as the government crushed the  strike. On 28 May 1974, the strike was called off. Politicians from across the political spectrum  were forced to take a stand during the 1974 strike. Despite its reputation as a failure, the strike  eventually achieved what it sought to accomplish at the time.  


But the rail workers were neither chivalrous combatants nor passive victims because they were  either viewed by the media as chivalrous or oppressed.  

The struggle of workers after being arrested  

Likely, thousands of rail workers did not return to their jobs after being arrested. Many others  were tortured in jails for years. Ram Singh’s family must have been thrown out of the railway  colony in Jhansi after his arrest. The only thing we know about Singh’s ordeal is that he was  without money and did not know where any of his family members were. He is only known  for the incomplete search for his wife, children, and parents. 

It is impossible to ignore the sickening continuation of the same precariousness and atrocities  as we examine the struggles of rail workers.  

Strike effort on Government  

Although the rail workers fought against the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, even before  the Janata party government took office after the emergency ended, 24,000 casual workers of  the 40,000 had been impacted, plus 95% of the 16,898 regular employees who had been  dismissed had to return to work.  


As a result, Indira Gandhi lost her seat in the general election in 1977, while George Fernandes,  the strike leader, won. A bonus offered to railroad employees, one of the demands of the 1974  strike, was conceded by the Charan Singh government in 1979.  

Strike cause emergency 1975  

This strike is one of the reasons for Emergency 1975, a wave of unrest against the government  led by Indira Gandhi centered in 1973-75. There were several times during this period when  many party leaders within congress called for a more presidential system in which party  executives would be directly elected.  

Students, peasants, workers’ organizations, unions, employees, and opposition parties were  among those involved in revolts against the government during that time.  

In light of many reasons, the Indian government took advice from its ally, the West Bengal  Chief Minister Sidhartha Shankar Roy, who suggested that the country declare an ‘internal  emergency’. 


Due to the prevailing anti-government atmosphere, Indira Gandhi decided to suppress the voice of  people and local journalism to keep her track record clear and stainless. 


In Indian Railways history, trade unions have always “rewarded” their leaders for their “job”  of discipline by playing the government’s tune. Slowly and steadily, the distance between  unions and their ranks widened as ordinary railwaymen realized that they were not being  represented by the unions before the government. A combination of working-class discontent,  disillusionment and a union strike led to the 1974 rail workers’ strike. AIRF has accepted this  fact in some respects.  

As independent India was experiencing its peak of labor militancy at the time, the strike and  how it was put down marks a turning point in Indian history.


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