Notes on the history of YCW India

Here we present notes taken from a short talk on the history of the YCW in Indian given by Fr Mathias at a 1999 workshop for the YCW History Project.

The Indian YCW began in 1947-48. The first action was carried out in Madurai by a French priest who organised the kitchen staff of the bishop's house because they were underpaid. So the priest asked the staff not to cook and when the bishop came to lunch there was no food! The priest was transferred back to France but the YCW took root in Madurai City.

I started with the YCW in 1966. It was a Church YCW depending on the Church platform. I started as a local chaplain, even though I didn't know much about it. It was the time of expanding of factories with the help of the Russians. A heavy electrical factory was founded in Trichy employing 20,000 workers. The first action was to help a boy who had an accident. A YCW member helped him to go to hospital. Then we read the Gospel of the Good Samaritan and everybody and we all went away happy. Next week, the same boy came back reporting that another boy had lost 4 fingers and we asked what did he do? 'I bought him apples and oranges'.

We read the gospel again. One guy got up and said 'If this is the YCW, I am not coming any more. Go and find out what is happening there'. As chaplain, I was shocked. The fact was that it was the apprentices who were losing hands. The skilled workers were not there. From there we started a campaign of mobilisation. We achieved a new policy in the factory of ensuring that apprentices were accompanied by skilled workers. This was the start of trying to analyse the causes before doing charities, but our action was still Church based.

At a certain moment in the 1970s, there was a national seminar and it was said that there must be justice in Church institutions. A big demonstration was organised by the YCW against one bishop, calling the bishop to come and negotiate with the workers. The YCW was accused of being communist. The movement was doing nicely until 1969 but the moment it started questioning injustice within Church institutions, the YCW started to be pushed out of the Church compound. Of course, leaders formed in the YCW were starting to take their place in the trade unions, etc. There was a tension: people suspected that the former YCWs were coming to convert them (even though they never talked about it). At the same time, the Church said 'you are a worker, but you are first a Christian'. So they were feeling jammed between the Church and the trade union. But the leaders were very strong at that time. We concentrated more on formation of leaders. This question of the bishops workshop that it was discussed in the bishops conference and the official Church took a stand to de-recognise the YCW. It was a hard time for me at that time to go and meet people to see how to go about things. The bishops said that you could have asked in a humble manner to do some justice. We said that all that was done but you did nothing and therefore workers were mobilised.

Another important factor was that, as Maria Meersman said, the YCW was seen as an alternative solution to fight the socialist force coming into the country. The Russians and Czechs were coming in to build factories and the Church was afraid. The Church tried to make use of the movement but fortunately because there were quite a number of enlightened leaders, it was OK.

But the whole tension started in the YCW in 1974 over the orientation. The earlier orientation was to be faithful to the Church and to the worker reality. Most leaders were more docile than militant. From 1974, there were more militant leaders who were questioning the Church or questioning a number of things in society. Therefore, there was a clash with Bombay YCW and after 3 decades there is still no structural rapport between the National YCW and Bombay YCW. When I meet national leaders now, I say things have changed and encourage leaders to take contact. Within the Labor Commission, I take all efforts to encourage leaders to enter into the new dynamics of the movement. The Church has again openly recognised the movement from 1992. We took a stand in India that the Indian YCW will stay with the IYCW and the movement is now slowly regaining its force with a good strategy of maintaining a Church platform but also engaging in social, cultural and worker issues.

Fr R.V. Mathias