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Portrait of an Indian labour activist

From anti-imperial activism in the United States to garment sector organising in India, Anannya Bhattacharjee has spent a lot of time on the front lines.

Anannya Bhattacharjee (center), helping the garment workers' children's theatre group celebrate after a successful performance. Photo by Garment and Allied Workers Union. All rights reserved.

This narrative is excerpted from an interview conducted by Beyond Trafficking and Slavery with Anannya Bhattacharjee in Bangalore, India, in August 2017.

My name is Anannya Bhattacharjee and I am a local labour organiser and trade unionist in the northwest part of India, which is a very difficult area of India. I mainly work in the National Capital Region, which is a confluence of five or six states, and I work in Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. I am also the international coordinator of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which is an international alliance led by Asian trade unions to fight for living wages for Asian garment workers, who are primarily women, and who produce most of the world’s clothing.

I was born in what is now Jharkhand, but used to be Bihar, into a low-middle class family. My father was the first of his family to go to college, and we moved to Kolkata in West Bengal. He got a job and had to support his entire family, since he was the first one to graduate and get a salaried job. So I grew up under those circumstances. There was also a lot of violence against women and girls in my family. I was helped by my brother, who got a merit scholarship to go to the United States, and who somehow found some money to take me as well. I owe a lot to my brother, since he helped me to go the United States and go to college there.

I was on campus at a time when the US invaded Central America, so I got very involved in anti-imperialist struggles. I realised there that when you are fighting a struggle, it is very important to be grounded in the community that you're working in. I felt that the anti-imperialist struggle is more about what's ‘out there’ where the US is invading, so I wanted to start organising within the United States. I kind of dropped out of college at some point, and I went into community organising and immigrant organising, because the US has a large immigrant population.

I began my work around domestic violence, because I had seen violence myself. I then noticed that domestic workers started calling us. I realised that it’s very difficult for women to be beyond violence, unless they're economically independent, so labour became very important in my work. I began to see that within domestic violence you have middle-class women and you have domestic workers, and that there were class differences between the two populations even though both were facing violence. So then I decided that it was really the labour movement where I should be.

At that time in the United States, the mainstream labour federations were openly anti-immigrant. I was part of new formations in the United States called workers’ centres, which are not trade unions but work with unorganised sectors. I was involved in organising domestic workers, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, so on and so forth.

Anannya Bhattacharjee training workers on global supply chains. Photo by Garment and Allied Workers Union. All rights reserved.

I reached a ceiling of politics in the United States; I would always travel back to India, and finally I just wanted to return. I came back to India and went into what was around me at that time. I was in Delhi, and I realised that Gurgaon, which is one of the largest industrial hubs in the world, was mostly unorganised. There were a few scattered unions, but it was largely bereft of any movement. That's where I got into garment worker organising. Now we are organising in the garment, domestic, auto parts industries, as well as in the shoe and leather industries in Uttar Pradesh.

What really struck me when I came back to India is that we need to build connections between movements in the Global South and movements among disenfranchised and marginalised communities in the Global North. That linkage with the United States is very weak because the anti-imperialist stance of Indian activists sees the United States only through in terms of the US government and not its people. The people who travel are usually white people and have money. Even activists are that way. So to bring activists of colour, you need money.

You may be too young to remember the World Social Forum (WSF), but that was a really wonderful movement process that began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2000. I was associated with the WSF throughout Mumbai; I helped the Indian organisers to organise it. I also brought a delegation of 100 activists from North America, Mexico and the Central American region. These were activists from communities of colour who were working in the international forum. In the WSF there was a way to raise money to bring people, and that was an incredibly eye-opening experience for both sides.

Anannya Bhattacharjee visiting a worker's 'home' – a tiny crowded room in the slums where workers co-habit – on Eid, a Muslim holiday. Photo by Garment and Allied Workers Union. All rights reserved.

That began the process of intersectional work that I feel is very important. So even though I do trade union work, I am also a founder of a labour rights NGO in Delhi called Society for Labour and Development (SLD). The reason I co-founded it with another colleague, who is also a trade unionist, is because we felt that we need different vehicles to organise the working class.

We don't believe in a monolithic working class. There are social dimensions in the working class that we need to address. We need to do research, which Indian trade unionists frankly don't have the money to do. We need to do campaigns, which is not the job of trade unions, who are mostly concerned with bargaining. Through the NGO, there's been a lot of work that has come about regarding organising women workers, working on discrimination, and working on issues of exclusionary urbanisation – which is a real disease in India right now.

Intersectionality continues to be a part of my work, but does not operate only through the trade union vehicle. It is satisfied with my openness to working with NGOs, unregistered mass organisations, researchers and students, and Global North activists who are genuinely trying to change the world. I have realised that you really can't put these things in boxes. You need to have a worldview, you need to have a perspective through which you work. And it is better not to adopt other people’s perspectives. Surely we must educate ourselves on the history of perspectives and philosophies, but at the end one has to build one's own perspective from the ground up. Instead of imposing philosophy on reality, one must build philosophy while working.


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