The recent communal hostilities, followed by an illegal demolition drive in Jahangirpuri, Delhi, have meant that the grammar of the Indian constitutional and labour law jurisprudence is under immense threat.
ON April 16, Jahangirpuri, a locality in north-west Delhi, witnessed, it has been well documented by now, communal hostilities during a shobha yatra that was organised to celebrate Hanuman Jayanti. It was reported that there was stone pelting from both sides and the recorded videos revealed that the Muslim community was attacked with communal slurs and emphatic slogans of Jai shri Ram, much like a war cry to validate communal violence. Photographs captured rioters with guns and swords. The situation remained tense as about 10-12 people were injured. and some police officers were hospitalised too.
Yet, while the situation remained tense, a strange letter was written to the North Delhi Municipal Corporation [NDMC] by the Bharatiya Janta Party [BJP] Delhi Chief with a request to demolish the illegal constructions of the rioters. As this letter reeked of another divisive agenda in itself, the NDMC wasted no time to bulldoze homes, shops, and settlements of workers in Jahangirpuri till a Supreme Court stay order against the demolition was issued and communicated.
As the world celebrated the May Day victory of workers recently, the happenings in Jahangirpuri compel us to rethink the situation of labour rights and dignity in India. Indeed, in today’s India, we regularly witness these systematic attacks on the poor, especially Muslims and Bahujans. Yet, the events in Jahangirpuri stand out as another reminder about how the very thrust of and spirit of labour movements and rights remain under threat in contemporary India.
Jahangirpuri is essentially an area inhabited by some of the poorest workers (especially women) in the city. Their occupations include rag picking, separation of garbage wastes, purchase and sale of these wastes (at kabaadi shops), selling at meat shops, grocery stores, fruit and vegetable carts, among other things. Most of the workers are migrants. The locality is divided in blocks that house Muslims (mostly from West Bengal), members of the Bahujan Valmiki community, Gujarati Hindus and Punjabi Hindus.
Most of these workers are from marginalised Dalit Bahujan castes and the Muslim community. In fact, it is rare that savarna Hindus engage in dirty jobs such as rag picking and garbage cleaning. Much like everywhere else, there is a sort of ghettoisation of these Bahujan and Muslim informal migrant workers within the communities. With an unprecedented scale of unemployment, the workers’ crises throughout the pandemic, fears of lockdowns, and very few protections and social security schemes, these informal migrant workers are more marginalised today than ever before.
The different communities in Jahangirpuri have lived together like families for years, sharing their lives, struggles and joys with one another. Such unity amongst workers not only builds their courage but also enforces a power that is the thrust of all labour and constitutional rights movements. It is under this context that one must understand that labour rights encapsulate in essence the social, political and economic rights of workers that emerge from the Constitution.
The events in Jahangirpuri stand out as another reminder about how the very thrust of and spirit of labour movements and rights remain under threat in contemporary India.
However, unfortunately, this reality is also observed by the BJP government that is hell-bent on destroying the unity within the workers in India and disempowering them. While speaking to the victims of the communal attack and demolition last week for a ground report from Jahagirpuri, The Leaflet team had been informed by a crying mother had informed that her son was taken away by the police a few days back and she did not know where he was and what were the charges against him. As she spoke, several other women and men from the locality also gathered to narrate the same story.
Yet, they were afraid of taking any collective action to seek justice. One woman said “We are Muslims. They must have put NRC.” She seemed to confuse the terms ‘NRC’ [National Register of Citizens] with the NSA [National Security Act] law. They also said that the communal attacks were routinely carried out by those who came from outside the locality, solely with the agenda to create tension. And then the blame for these hostilities is imposed on the communities, portraying them as criminals and troublemakers. If the community is Muslim, they are asked to go to Pakistan; if they are Bengalis, they are called ‘Bangladeshis’and ‘Rohingyas’.
The Rohingya refugee community is internationally recognised as the most persecuted minority in the world. Yet, they have been labelled by the BJP and the AAP as species from a sub human category. Much like the Jews were portrayed as blood-sucking vampires in Nazi propaganda, workers from the Muslim and Bahujan communities are potrayed as animals encroaching upon all privileges of the Hindu savarna classes. The clear intention is to solely break the solidarity and power of the workers to come together and collectively assert their rights. These are part of a well-planned, concerted effort to strip workers of their dignity, confidence and identity, to cripple the power of any worker’s movement in demand of their self-respect and freedom.
The demolition of the homes and livelihoods of workers in Jahangirpuri strikes at the heart of the fundamental Constitutional right to housing and livelihoods, which are fundamental rights under Article 21. In Olga Tellis versus Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that not only are workers entitled to a right to housing and livelihood, it is also a constitutional right to receive notice and a hearing prior to any evictions, as well as a chance to access rehabilitation and any other schemes. Further, in the case of Sudama Singh & Ors. versus Government of Delhi (2010), a division bench of the High Court of Delhi held before any evictions, it is the duty of the State to conduct surveys in order to check the eligibility for rehabilitation under existing schemes for those facing the evictions.
It was further held that the State must carry out rehabilitation in an open and participatory manner in consultation with the affected parties. In an appeal against this decision, the Supreme Court had ordered a full implementation of these directions as part of the State’s obligations towards the affected parties under Article 21 of the Constitution. This decision was reaffirmed by another division bench of the Delhi High Court in the case of Ajay Maken versus Union of India (2019).
Much like the Jews were portrayed as blood-sucking vampires in Nazi propaganda, workers from the Muslim and Bahujan communities are potrayed as animals encroaching upon all privileges of the Hindu savarna classes. The clear intention is to solely break the solidarity and power of the workers to come together and collectively assert their rights.
Clearly, the obvious intention of the demolitions and brutality was to destroy the livelihoods of the workers and create a hostile environment to not let them carry on their professions.
May Day is a celebration of the victory of the long drawn movement of the workers of the United States and across the world for an eight-hour working day, in spite of facing several obstacles, including brutal violence, through the late nineteenth century. Therefore, this day not only celebrates the victory of the demand for an eight-hour workday, but also commemorates the right to peaceful demonstrations and strikes by workers for demands for enhanced labour rights.
India was one of the founding members of the International Labour Organisation [ILO], which was founded in 1919. Through the ILO, workers demanded better working conditions, lesser working hours and fair wages. And these demands became aligned with the freedom for independence. Therefore, the roots of India’s labour struggle were at the very core of the freedom movement in India. In 1946, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, as a labour member in the Executive Council of the Viceroy, introduced a bill to amend the Factories Act, 1934 to reduce working hours to eight hours in India.
Seventy-five years after India gained Independence, the labour reforms being proposed include extension of the working day to 12 hours. Strikes and unions are on the verge of being diminished along with the worker’s right to unionise and protest. The discussions on labour rights should have emancipated to higher questions of women-friendly work environments, higher minimum and living wages, enhanced social security and protection of workers in the unorganised sector.
Yet, the laws of labour are not just being bent back to the primitive colonial era, but also the power and solidarity of labourers are being diminished. Labour rights to equal wages or against exploitation of refugees (who are also forcibly displaced workers) are neither codified nor practised, making it all the more easier to alienate them. In fact, the very term ‘Rohingya’ has become a pejorative, and such discrimination is becoming further normalised each day, making Rohingya refugee workers, as well as those assumed to be them, more and more vulnerable. India, it must be noted, has the maximum number of modern day slaves in the world.
Labour rights to equal wages or against exploitation of refugees (who are also forcibly displaced workers) are neither codified nor practised, making it all the more easier to alienate them.
The unity of the working classes is the thrust of every democratic and peaceful society. We remember the kind of impact that workers created in the Shaheen Bagh movement and the farmers’ protest. Unfortunately, the State also understands the strength behind these movements and hence, it is very important for them to break the working class pride, and to diminish Bahujans and Muslims to mere slaves.
As Muslim street vendors in Jahangirpuri continue to be intimidated, assaulted and detained under false charges, the entire community remains in fear. And fear is what weakens the power of the marginalised classes. Therefore, under the circumstances, it is now the duty of every stakeholder of the civil society to come together and stand in support of the working class unity to break the jinx of othering and communalism in India.
(The writer is a lawyer. She wishes to remain anonymous.)