Defining Moments: Transformation of Contemporary Class and Caste Politics in the Jharia Coalfields
1 October 2018 – 30 April 2019
My work in Delhi involved visits to Teen Murti library, National Archives, National Labour Institute, CSDS as well as head offices of all the central trade unions – INTUC, BMS, AITUC, CITU etc. My study required visits to the coalfield of Dhanbad where upon I took oral interviews of nearly 30 workers. I also collected letters, court case documents, and other valuable documents pertaining to the coal miners’ movement in Dhanbad.
Coal miners of Dhanbad under the leadership of a left trade union, waged a heroic struggle against the infamous coal mafia and their political bosses in the late 60sand 70s. They succeeded not only in securing many economic benefits for themselves but dominated the political arena of Dhanbad for nearly a decade. Their leader A K Roy won the parliamentary seat of Dhanbad three times and their representatives won 5 out of 6 assembly constituencies twice. From the 90s the strength and influence of this union began to wane. Simultaneously influence of the right wing party BJP and its affiliated trade union among the coal miners started increasing. Today the left trade union, though exists, is just a shadow of its past glory.
The object of my research was to understand this process of decline of left trade union and the marginalization of left politics. In order to do that, I had to study the factors responsible for the growth of this movement in the first place. Archival records, books, newspaper articles written by other scholars on the subject as well as oral interviews of old miners enabled me to prepare a narrative of events that happened in those days. Then I tried to identify the limitations inherent in its growth, the forces that led to its demise and the social and political tendencies emerging from its debris. The search for the inherent limitations of labour movement led me to study the records and literature related to various central trade Unions. To identify the forces responsible for the decline of labor I had to look into the experiences of other countries (western as well as non western) where a similar process was under way. Economic crisis followed by structural change in the world economy, challenges from civil society organizations, ‘a shift from language of class to the language of community foregrounding the community as the site of contestation’ etc. have been identified by many scholars whose works I had the opportunity to study because of this fellowship.
Caste, ethnicity, regionalism played important role in the movement of the coal miners. Particularly, the movement for a separate state of Jharkhand had impacted the miners’ movement considerably. Of late, new forms of caste based organizations particularly those of Dalits are emerging in various parts of the country and the coalfield – where most of the workers belonged to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities- is witnessing the impact of that. Though the Dalit politics places community before class, the subtext of its agenda includes objectives which are not different from those of the traditional trade union movement of the working class. This in some way is an antidote to the right wing politics of class collaboration and religious fundamentalism. This transformation of class and caste politics is another aspect of the present research.
The growth of right wing among the working class is also a related topic of my research. This is also a global phenomenon. Hence the literature on the growth of right wing politics both in India and abroad has been looked into.
He has been a trade union activist in the coalfield of Dhanbad since 1970. In between he completed his MA from JNU in 1982 and then PH.D from Calcutta in 1992. His association with the union is still continuing.