When the Shiv Sena Tried to Ensure Only Maharashtrians Were Given Jobs in the State

As multiple state governments contemplate reserving jobs for 'locals', this sliver of history is worth remembering.

The state governments of Haryana and Jharkhand have recently declared that their state would reserve 75% of their employment for `locals’. For Jharkhand these reservations are for jobs paying up to Rs 30,000 a month and in Haryana, it is jobs earning less than Rs 50,000 a month in the private sector. The decision in Jharkhand was apparently taken looking at the large number of migrant youths coming back to their homes during the lockdown. The state’s unemployment rate gradually fell down to 11.3% in January 2021 after rising up to 59.2% at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, revealed the Economic Survey. In January 2020, the unemployment rate was 10.6%.

Earlier in the year 2020, in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress government and then the BJP government had announced 70% reservations for locals. At present in Madhya Pradesh, barely 5% of employment in the state  goes to ‘non-locals’. However, the unemployment rate has risen over the years; it has risen by 15.1 percentage points in May 2020 to 27.5%, and was higher than the national average of 23.1%. Andhra Pradesh had made a similar announcement and so had Karnataka. Karnataka had declared 100% reservations in mainly blue-collar jobs in the private sector except in Infotech and Biotech, but gave up on that idea. In 2008, Maharashtra had announced 80% reservations to locals for industries seeking state incentives and tax subsidies. In most of these cases, as yet, nothing seems to have come out of it, partly because there seems to be no mechanism to take these announcements to fruition.

Migration from one country to another, from one state to another or from the rural to the urban areas or any other geographies, depends on an entire gamut of various very complicated factors. One important factor is the uneven development within geographies and often this uneven development is the result of historical and political factors. Another is a question of deliberate policy of keeping some areas underdeveloped so that they provide cheap migrant labour to the more industrialised and `developed’ regions. Some analysts say, for instance, that huge regions within Marathwada in Maharashtra have not seen any `development’ so that the people are forced to resort to distress migration and go, for example, to the sugarcane fields as cheap labour as sugarcane-cutters.

While looking at migration, one also needs to consider the differing locations of the migrants, especially those who resort to distress migration. It is often the case that migrants from less industrialised areas or states leave their villages or small towns where they have lived in relatively spacious houses amidst the greenery of their farms or villages. The air they breathe, the water they bathe in or drink is of better quality and less polluted. But given the fragmentation of land, where about 86% of farm holdings are below two acres, the land they work on is just not enough to feed the entire household. And there isn’t other employment or livelihood options closer to home.

Also read: To Whom Does Mumbai Belong? Nobody – and Everybody

In fact, one of the objectives of the MNREGA when it was enacted was precisely that – that people would find work suitable to their skill levels and closer to their homes, and would not have to resort to distress migration, which makes life extremely insecure, often without any dignity. Most urban employment in the informal economy is just that – work with hardly any security or dignity at all. There has been a relative scarcity of employment opportunities over several decades now.

Besides, over the years, due to technological developments, the manner of integration of economies into the global capitalist system and certain priorities and policies of governments, there has been what has been called `jobless growth’. In fact in the last few years, there has been mainly joblessness without growth. It is well-known now that due to the above reasons, over the years, each unit of capital employs less and less labour. Hence the prospects of the creation of a larger pool of employment seem remote. This is the environment in which these policies regarding migration play out. There is a huge amount of work and scholarship on this entire issue. And one cannot zero in on a single one-point analysis of the policies or strategies regarding the reasons for migration in specific situations or policies or demands opposing migration.

However, there was one such `policy’ or rather `strategy’ that did bring about drastic changes in the lives of millions of people. Here we dive a little into the history of one such attempt at controlling employment opportunities by ramming through the `sons of the soil’ policy in a specific political context in the state of Maharashtra.

Some time before the Shiv Sena was launched as a political party, my father used to get a Marathi weekly called Marmik.`Marmik’, as often used in colloquial Marathi, would mean `straight to the point’. According to Wikipedia however, it mean `straight from the heart’ or `a silent word that goes directly to the heart’. Bal Thackeray and his brother used to bring out this weekly. Bal Thackeray was a brilliant cartoonist who used to work for the Free Press Journal.

I was in school then and I remember my family members, especially my father, being very excited by the weekly. He used to read it from cover to cover and explain the cartoons to me. These cartoons were very politically sharp and entirely timely. Apart from cartoons there were other articles, most of them appeals or even exhortations. I remember one in particular. This was a sort of table with a long list of enterprises and companies, many of them public sector companies like Air India, BPCL, HPCL, etc. Some were private sector companies. Besides the names of the companies were the names of the top executives of those companies. These were all `South Indian’ names. Then there was a very short exhortation: `Marathi people (manus), read this and sit tight!’ “This is like a slap on our face,” I remember my father saying. This was around the mid-1960s. The Shiv Sena was formed on June 19, 1966.

The 1960s was the period of a great deal of organising and industrial action in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai). This was mainly under the leadership of the Left. The Girni Kamgar Union (GKU) was led by the Communist Party of India (CPI), which also led many large and small unions in the city and other parts of the state as well. The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), under the party leadership of the CPI, was the first trade union federation in the country, formed over a hundred years ago in October 1920.

The 1960s-1970s was also a period when the employment situation especially among the newly educated workforce was difficult. As is mostly the case, when there is scarcity of any resource, it is easier to point a finger at an immediate `plausible cause’ of the scarce situation and create an ‘other’ who seems to be taking away the resource, rather than look beyond this `othering’ at the policies of the state or the nature of the state or the system that has caused this scarcity in the first place.

Also read: As Migrants Depart, Sena Sees Opportunity for ‘Manoos’. Is That Feasible?

It was in this atmosphere that Shiv Sena gave birth to the Sthanik Lokadhikar Samiti (SLS) that may be translated as Association for the Rights of Local People. Its aim is to protect and promote the right to employment of Maharashtrian youth, even if at the expense of communities from other states.

The SLS over the years very effectively pushed this strategy of demanding that 80% of all jobs in the government and semi-government sector, and later in the private sector too, be reserved for Maharashtrians. This included banks and corporate offices all over Maharashtra, though the main thrust remained Bombay.

SLS began as a unit in the Reserve Bank of India in 1968 and by the mid-1990s had spread to over 300 units all across the state. This was achieved through a multi-pronged strategy, including strong-arm tactics like walking into offices and demanding that employment be given to `our boys’, as one of the unionists in Mahindra Tractors Limited said. After a period of time, the SLS also demanded that the interview panels have a Marathi-speaking interviewer, that the interview candidates be tested for their knowledge of Marathi, that the jobs be advertised in Marathi dailies and that certain types of jobs be given exclusively to Maharashtrians.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, gradually almost all major banks, Air India, Indian Airlines, public and private sector companies etc. had SLS units. In this process, the nature and composition of the workforce of Bombay changed drastically. The textile mill workers unions had begun to decline due to the policies of the textile mill owners of hiving off textile production, siphoning off revenues as well as diversifying into other industries. By this time women workers in the mills who constituted over 20% at one time had declined to less than 2%.

Young Maharashtrian workers had been recruited due to the insistence of the SLS and had been able to get decent jobs because of the SLS/Shiv Sena, felt obligated to the Sena. The SLS and the Shiv Sena also deployed violence on a massive scale to intimidate and terrorise workers and activists who were part of the left unions or movement. This included the ransacking of the trade union offices of AITUC as well as the brutal murder of CPI unionist and MLA Comrade Krishna Desai on June 5, 1970.

Besides, the militant mood of the red flag unions had irked the employers as a class as well as the Congress government especially in Maharashtra. This lent an atmosphere of impunity to the Sena. All these factors gradually worked towards a change in the mood, affiliation and commitment of the workers, especially in Bombay. The red flags at company gates slowly gave way to other flags.

SLS was not and is not a trade union. The trade union affiliated to the Shiv Sena is the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena. For various reasons though, including the fact that several of the active workers did not trust the loyalty of the BKS leaders towards the interests of workers, not all workers with allegiance to the Shiv Sena preferred the BKS, the Shiv Sena affiliated trade union.

The nature of unionism had changed too. ‘Professional’ union leaders had come on to the scene. Trade union leaders like Datta Samant, Khanolkar and R.J. Mehta began to dominate the scene. This was also the time when real estate rates in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) were soaring. Also, globally and nationally, the tide had turned and employers had begun to be on the offensive. In India, the employers as a whole had geographically spread out into other states that had offered them tax and other concessions.

Whether this experience of the working class in Bombay has any direct and immediate lessons for workers elsewhere is not certain, as the times have changed enormously and so has the economy, the political arena and the nature of the working class as well. But it is an experience worth remembering as an important moment in the life and movement of the working class in Bombay, then one of the most vibrant centres of trade union and working class struggles.

Sujata Gothoskar has been researching and organising on the issues of gender, work and organisational processes for over 30 years.