New Delhi: Has the May Day, which is celebrated in India as Labour Day on 1 May every year, lost its relevance? Is it just a matter of time before India would officially replace ‘1 May’ with ‘Vishwakarma Day’ to honour the contribution of workers in nation building?
Such questions are now raised increasingly on 1 May every year as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the largest trade union in India, has shunned the celebration of 1 May as Labour Day as a relic of the obsolete past when Communists dominated the trade union movement in India. One of the key symbols for the BMS is the celebration of Vishwakarma Day as national Labour Day to send a message across that the Left has lost its most traditional bastion to the nationalists.
How BMS displaced Left
BMS was founded on 23 July 1955 — the birth anniversary of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak — by a Pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Dattopant Thengadi. Thengadi is revered within the Sangh Parivar as one of the key ideologues. He is also credited with setting up of organisations like the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the largest farmers’ organisation in the country now, and Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, an outfit that has batted for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ since early 1990s.
When the BMS was set up, the labour movement in India was dominated by the Left – and Congress-backed trade unions. BMS took a different approach. Shunning the Marxist approach that believed in confrontation between the workers and the owners, it adopted a consensual approach based on ‘nationalism’.
Thengadi played a key role in building the organisation, brick by brick, over the next few decades. Initially, the organisation kept the focus on the unorganised sector to create a toehold. According to BMS’ official documents, “Shri Thengadiji and the local efforts of his then colleagues resulted in setting up of a union here, and a union there. Of course that looked insignificant in the broad canvas of the trade union field like tiny dots on a large map. Most of these unions were in the unorganised sector. With the increase in experience, slowly, BMS unions sprung up in important industries. In a few States, State Committees were formed.”
The first watershed movement came in 1967 when, 12 years after its formation, the BMS’ first all India Conference was held in Delhi, in which the initial national executive was elected. At that time the BMS had 541 affiliated unions and its total membership stood at 2,46,000. Thengadi was elected the General Secretary and Ram Naresh was its first president.
In the post-1967 phase, the BMS went on a rapid expansion, and within 15 years it became the second largest trade union in the country. “In 1984 Central Government after membership verification of all major Central Labour Organisations declared BMS as second largest Central Trade Union Organisation with 12,11,355 members,” says BMS’ official records.
The next important moment came when during 1996, the labour ministry declared it as the largest trade union in the country with membership of 31,17,324. The reckoning date of the above verification was 31 December 1989. In the subsequent verification held by the Government of India for the year 2002, BMS retained its position as the largest labour organisation in the country.
According to the BMS officials, “Of the 44 industries classified by the Ministry of Labour, Government of India for the purpose of membership verification, BMS has affiliated unions in all industries. BMS has membership of almost 1 crore in all States comprising more than 5000 affiliate unions.”
Philosophy of BMS
According to BMS, “ ….(it) is productivity oriented non-political Central Trade Union Organisation. It… stands firmly for the principle of public accountability of each industry and consequent enunciation of public discipline. It tries to bring consumers as the third and the most important party to industrial relations. For the furtherance and realization of its aims and objects BMS applies all legitimate means consistent with the spirit of nationalism and patriotism.”
Today BMS is significantly represented in most of the bipartite/tripartite labour and industrial committees/Boards constituted by the Central Government including Indian Labour Conference (ILC), Standing Labour Committee, Central Board for Workers Education, ESI, EPF, National Productivity Council, National Safety Council, Negotiation Committees of Public Sector Undertakings like BHEL, NTPC, NHPC, BEL, Coal, Industrial Committees of Jute, Textiles, Engineering, Chemical-Fertilizers, Sugar, Electricity, Transport and the consultative machinery of Government employees and various other committees/boards. BMS also leads the delegation of Indian workforce in the conferences of International Labour Organization (ILO).
Why Vishwakarma Jayanti, not May Day
Writing for the RSS-backed English weekly Organiser, BMS President C.K. Saji Narayan explained in an article published in 2017 and then republished in 2019, “Vishwakarma symbolises the paradigm shift in the present day thought process. Work is considered as a Yajna. Indian Industrial relations are traditionally based on family like relationship. BMS has accepted family as a model for industrial relations and put forward the great concept of ‘Industrial family’. This is in contrast with the master-servant relationship of the west or the class enemy concept of the Communists. We have imbibed the slogans “Tyag-Tapasya-Balidan”, “work is worship”, “Nationalise the Labour” etc. from the life of great personalities like Vishwakarma.
To bring uniformity, Vishwakarma Jayanti is celebrated on September 17 every year, since in many places it is celebrated both on Bhadrapada Shukla Panchami as well as on Magha Shukla Thrayodasi. May Day, imported from the west, fails to motivate labour positively where as Vishwakarma Jayanti can.”
BMS on measures for workers during Covid-19
The BMS has been batting for the livelihoods of the workers during the time of the coronavirus pandemic. In its latest missive, the BMS general secretary Binoy Kumar Sinha wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 17 April urging him to, “take a quick call to stop (reverse) migration and provide work for these migrants in places of their stay.”
He further added, “With One Nation One Ration Card, it won’t be tough for the government to identify such workers and help them out in the crisis like situation.”
The BMS urged PM Modi “to kindly get into the dialogue with the state governments and direct them to ensure that (reverse) migration is halted for the upkeep of the faith of workers, life of industries and growth of the nation as per forecast.”
The writer is research director with Delhi-based think-tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra. He has authored two books on RSS. Views expressed are personal.
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