Was May 1, 2020, the worst Labour Day for workers around the world? That might be debatable. But there is no doubt that it was the worst for the workers of India. It is 134 years since the Haymarket Uprising in Chicago put labour on the way to securing an eight-hour work day, and giving themselves one day a year to remember and celebrate solidarity, struggle and change. This year, even the space for displaying solidarity has disappeared.

Workers in India have been singled out for the worst and most callous treatment by a ruling elite that has shown scant concern for the consequences to millions of workers of losing employment, wages, security of food and living, and even the right to go home. On May 1, 2020, even the platform of May Divas faced lockouts and Section 144 orders prohibiting gatherings.

The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan had been formed on Labour Day 30 years ago. It was not in the realm of anyone’s collective imagination that workers and farmers would not gather together for the “Mazdoor Mela”, the festival they had created and built up over three decades.

A celebration in Bhim

The importance of events and celebrations needs no argument for most Indians. For a rural people who live in a world of rituals and festivals, May Day in Bhim has settled into a familiar niche of comfort. From the scrawled invitation on the mud walls of many villages, some as old as 1990, to the dog-eared pamphlet some of us carry around crumpled and worn with reading and thumbing, “Mai Divas” has been the same and different the past 29 years. The comfort of expectation brings thousands of small farmers and peasants with a majority of women every May 1 to the mela grounds in a panchayat township called Bhim in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand District.

They come together, as 1,000 of their comrades did 30 years ago, to form the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan – in the same dusty maidan called “Patia ka Chowda” in Bhim, en route to Udaipur. The annual event spawned and endorsed many ideas and campaigns that pushed MKSS to struggle and shape many significant progressive legislations and policy in India.

May Day, 2017.

Most of the workers who assemble in Bhim have no idea about the Haymarket Uprising. But they do know that May Day signals the struggle of workers for an eight-hour working day, for minimum wages, better working conditions, the right to work and indeed for many other things that have helped shape a better world. Every year since the MKSS was formed, thousands of people have come together in the same mela ground to celebrate the struggles of International Labour Day, in a way that is uniquely Rajasthani, and yet connected with the dreams and desires of working people across the world.

Controlled by a low budget and crowd funding, the mela represents participatory democracy at its best. Workers appear ordinary but behind this lies the strong determination of collective human endeavour, determined to extract the most possible from constitutional guarantees and labour rights won in hostile conditions over many years.

This year, for the first time in 30 years, the mela grounds were silent on May Day. The colourful flags, women’s bright clothes and men’s turbans were not visible. The town of Bhim and the thousands who come looking forward to a day of fun, solidarity and sharing of their despair and hopes, missed this day – and said so.

The mela made space for everyone. Every year, there are the culinary specials priced low, the affordable clothes and unusual books, as well as the energy of a busy stage, which is easy to access and almost anyone has place on it. The sardonic humour of anecdotes and plays, of impassioned speeches, songs, skits, interspersed with sharp political analysis of issues relevant to the working people of the area, the country and even the world. The significance of the human connection with work and workers, their solidarity across boundaries, and their relevance to the state, society and the market has always made its mark, through this collective expression, even in a place that is less than one minuscule dot on the globe.

One of the first resolutions passed on May 1, 1990, was to start an agitation against the non-payment of minimum wages. The demand led to investigations behind the denial and its wall of secrecy. It led the people to see the intrinsic connection with the right to know and the value of information. The demand to get copies of the muster rolls of establishments began to emerge during two hunger strikes for minimum wages. This led the MKSS to understand the value of information as a means to secure justice. The dogged resistance and refusal to even show the muster rolls, shaped the powerful slogan, “Hamara paisa, hamara hisaab.” Our money, our accounts.

By 1995, the failed attempts to obtain copies of muster rolls, had grown into a clearly formulated demand for a comprehensive law, encapsulating the People’s Right to Information. It is also a day to remember, that the determined struggle of workers and their vision constituted the seeds that grew over the years into a robust, inclusive, and universally owned Right to Information movement in India.

The people of the area are also proud of their contribution to the passage of the Employment Guarantee Act. Every worker’s primary concern is work. The narrative of work and employment, brought together local struggles and state and national campaigns that culminated in the passage of the celebrated Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which guaranteed rural families a minimum of 100 days of work a year. It has been a powerful expression of people’s development rights and a step towards the people’s “right to work.”

As the women’s articulation at the mela shows, the MGNREGA has also become a platform for vast numbers of women to gain recognition in the workforce: to organise, to unionise, to build local leadership, to have their wages come into their bank accounts, and to withdraw that money and fill the local markets with the driving energy and common sense of their purchases.

Despite problems in implementation, it still remains an important tool to fight poverty and vulnerability. In coronavirus times, it has become a potential lifeline to prevent starvation. At the mela, many women and men speak of, and celebrate their role in fighting for these rights and legislations, and many more talk of the challenges of implementation in India’s untidy and chaotic democracy. The importance of “democratic governance” and the people’s role in it has been a constant refrain.

Our money , our accounts.

But if the virus made any collective gathering inadvisable, the lockdown made it illegal. This year, the only way to meet was to change the mode into a “virtual mela” and that is not really suitable for an event of the masses. Nevertheless, with many people joining workers from the MKSS from all over the country and even other parts of the world, the mood of the virtual mela was like any other – celebrating workers solidarity, and collective struggles that have produced unimaginable results, of value to all. In the four-hour virtual interactions, there was general agreement that Covid-19 and the lockdown crisis will have to be faced with the creative imagination of workers struggles.

The unanswered questions haunting the collective future of workers were taken up and discussed. “Can we, will we, how will we, mobilise in post-Covid times?” Any workers collective needs to find ways of democratic mobilisation. How does one protect democracy from new forms of autocracy and centralised control taking over, easily justified by the purported compulsions when fighting a virus?

Already the lockdown has caused untold misery and distress to millions of workers who have lost their employment and been unable to come home during this crisis. Will they be able to use the Right to Information to demand answers for the dual standards with which they were treated? Will the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act come to their rescue as they face a bleak future of unemployment and poverty? How will workers unity survive when people are being deliberately divided, using fear to spread hate?

The MKSS 'virtual mela'.

The MKSS and people of the area have been fighting for an accountability law for over a decade. All power centres from the local to the state and national governments shy away from accountability. Uncontrolled and unlimited power spells doom to democracy, which is after all about sharing power. These issues and more will continue to occupy the MKSS, despite Covid-19 and the isolation that has followed. It has been an opportune moment for unaccountable power to assert itself, to exploit the opportunities to control the people.

For the vulnerable and the marginalised to even have their voice and grievances heard, democracy and the Constitution will continue to be the guiding principles. As we said to ourselves 30 years ago: Nyay samant ho aadhaar, aise rachenge hum sansaar. (We will work to build a world based on justice and equality.)

Like Labour Day itself, these outcomes of collective struggle will outlive any kind of virus. They might even have effective answers for at least the pernicious viruses being deliberately propagated to serve narrow political ends.