Angayum Ingayum Yethana Manthiri Paaren Sarvesa, Neeyum Paaren Sarvesa, Athula Yaaraachum Yokkiyama Kooren Sarvesa (Here and there how many ministers, Oh God, Are there any good ministers, will you tell me please God!)
These are the lines from a song, which plays in the background whenever a Left party candidate is out on the road today campaigning in Tamil Nadu. The song is from the newly released Tamil film Sangathalaivan and has become the canvassing song for Communist party candidates in this 2021 Assembly election. Other parties have their own version of election campaign songs.
Director-cum-actor Samuthirakani, who is known for using progressive, Left-leaning dialogues in his films, has played the lead role in the film. Directed by Manimaran, who formerly assisted award-winning filmmaker Vetrimaaran in his films like Visaranai and Asuran, revolves around textile workers’ struggle for justice and how a trade union in Salem helps them to get their rights.
The film is based on the Tamil novel Thariyudan, authored by Bharathinathan, a former member of a Naxalbari movement and a weaver himself from Salem district. Sangathalaivan, which initially released on February 26, drew attention all over again when Asuran was chosen as Best Film for the National Award. Manimaran shared the limelight with Vetrimaaran for the award and incidentally, the latter has produced Sangathalaivan.
The CPI and CPM are contesting in six seats each in this Assembly election but it is pertinent to note that trade unions, who once helped Left parties to consolidate votes, have now lost their sheen. Notably, CPI which contests in six seats has three constituencies namely Bhavani Sagar, Tiruppur North, Valparai in western Tamil Nadu. Incidentally, it is in these areas that the garment industry thrives.
According to Bharathinathan, these constituencies have a large number of weaving units and weavers face a lot of problems. “They have issues such as lack of labourers and improper distribution of wages by cooperative societies. But they are not addressed by the Communists as well,” said Bharathinathan.
He added that weaving units do not have workforce because weavers have set up their own weaving machines in their houses. “They have sold their small farmland units and invested the money into buying weaving machines,” he said.
How trade unions broke down
Post-globalisation, old textile factories too split up their major operations like spinning, weaving, dyeing into separate units and upgraded their machines with new technologies. These developments destabilised the base of trade unions, said R Murugavel, an advocate and political observer based in Coimbatore.
Explaining the reasons for the slow death of the trade unions, he said, “Bigger factories with 4,000 to 5,000 workers started to cut down their large-scale operations by dividing them into smaller units as a way to reduce costs. In places like Detroit in USA such methods were followed to break the trade unions. But here, this was adopted to avert losses stemming from using outdated machineries. In the past, in Coimbatore alone about 40 mills were shut down and that meant the end of 40 trade unions.”
The 90s was also the time, India entered into competition with China and Bangladesh, to grab market share in the global textile industry. To gain an edge over its competitors, the industry started to embrace measures like bringing forced labour from villages and creating new schemes like ‘Sumangali Thittam’ (where a girl had to work for a fixed number of years and her salary would be paid in lumpsum at the time of her marriage). The governments too turned a blind eye towards these inhuman practices, said Murugavel.
Earlier the trade unions, mostly under the Left parties organised many demonstrations to fight for labour rights. These trade unions helped in consolidating the garment industry workers’ votes for the Left. Over a period, the Dravidian majors founded their own trade unions and the unions aligned with Left, started losing their sheen.
This in turn impacted the Left in elections. For instance, in Tiruppur (North), which was a newly created constituency in 2008, the AIADMK won twice in 2011 and 2016. In Bhavani Sagar, the AIADMK has won in seven elections and the CPI had won just once in 2011. In Valparai, the AIADMK has won in four elections and CPI in two. Except Tiruppur (North), in the other two constituencies, the DMK has won three times each.
Moreover, according to Bharathinathan, unorganised sector workers who are a substantial lot do not have trade unions. “So they are not consolidated and vote for any party they want. The existing trade unions linked to big mills and factories just concentrate on fighting for salary hikes and bonus. They have not taken up issues such as the farmer’s laws,” he pointed out.
A gap between trade unions and politics
Samsudeen Heera, an author and a CPI member in Tiruppur meanwhile believed that the power of the trade unions has diminished because workers are not concentrated in one area.
“Today, the workers are not dependent on only one factory or mill. They have an option to change from one factory to other. There are many small business units that have flourished in the recent past. And, that has changed the basic feature of a workforce. Workers do not stick in one company till their retirement. Hence, the trade unions are unable to retain them,” he said.
The Communist party candidates have earned goodwill in the region by building up their individual reputation through good conduct and not notching up any criminal or corruption cases. “But they lose elections only because it has become a ‘money for vote’ culture,” said Heera sadly.
Interestingly, Bharathinathan’s novel criticises the Communist parties for choosing to participate in electoral politics.
Bharathinathan was once a member of ‘Makkal Yudham’, a Naxalbari movement. In its heydays, the movement spread across Salem, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri. Bharathinathan said, “In those days we believed that a revolution can happen only through weapons. So we chose to reject electoral politics. We pressured trade unions too to fall in line with us. But after many years, I now realise that there is no other better way of revolt against the government than the elections. So, I am happy to see now that the film’s song is being used as a campaigning tool by the Communist parties.”
But he wanted Communist parties to focus not only in participating in elections but also prepare people for a great revolution. “But sadly, they focus only on the former,” he added.
Lack of documentation by Left
Set in the 1980s, the novel, while talking about the class struggle also touches on caste discrimination issues. The majority of the labour force found in the story is from the Vanniyar community, subservient to other intermediary caste groups such as Naickers, Naidus and Chettiars. However, it is interesting to note that after 40 years, the Vanniyars have started to oppress Dalits. How did this change unfold?
Dalit oppression by Vanniyars and from the other castes existed even in the 80s. But atrocities were rare since the Naxals had an upper hand. When the movement broke down after they were hunted down by the police force and by ideological differences, they lost their influence and in the absence of class struggle, caste atrocities have started dominate the landscape.
“The Naxals then encouraged inter-caste marriages. For instance, Seeraalan, one of our members in Vellore district, used to arrange a feast in Vanniyar houses whenever anything good happened at Dalit houses and vice-versa,” he said.
Why then are Left parties not focussed on fighting caste atrocities? However, Bharathinathan disagrees and believed that this claim was made only by the Dalit movements.
Unfortunately, Communists in the state have not documented their struggles. “Communist leaders like Srinivasa Rao, Vattakudi Iraniyan fought against caste atrocities. But their struggles have not been not recorded properly,” he added. This is yet another disadvantage, the odds are indeed stacked against them.