Luminaries of labour

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 24, 2011 19:50 hrs

Today, Sonu Gujjar has become the poster-boy for the labour movement by leading the agitations at the Maruti Suzuki plants in Haryana. However, he is dwarfed by the giants of activism who paved the way for the Gujjars of today.

SCC Anthony Pillai

Sonu Gujjar probably has more in common with Sebastian Cyril Constan Anthony Pillai (or simply Tony) than he realises. Sonu may be the modern face of labour’s struggle against industry, but Pillai was the godfather of them all—and, more importantly for Gujjar and his cadre, also the founder-member of the trade union, Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) which presently enjoys considerable support amongst the workers in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt.

As president, Pillai actually presided over a staggering 200 unions in his lifetime. Born in a Tamil Christian family in Jaffna, Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), Tony dipped his feet into the turbulent but thriving waters of activism by helping found the Lanka Sama Samaja Party—an organisations largely put together by ex-Trotskyites who became deeply influenced by Harold Laski’s ideas. He also married Caroline, who many have called the real luminary of the leftist movement.

Like many good labour leaders of the day, Tony left Ceylon for King’s College, London as well as the London School of Economics and then returned to South Asia—but this time to India (Madurai, specifically) where he went on to join the Bolshevik Leninist party of India.

Pillai was deeply influenced by veteran trade union leader Kalyansundram. On his initiation, Pillai joined the Madras Labour Union (MLU), whose workers were drawn from the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills. Immediately after his joining the MLU, the trade union went on a strike, which lasted 45 days.

Pillai must have been a skilled negotiator—during his terms as the president of the union, MLU workers earned the reputation of being the highest paid textile workers in India. However, Pillai remained most active in Madras Ports and Docks.

Datta Samant

A towering and divisive personality, Datta Samant was born on November 22, 1932, in Sindhugarh district of Maharashra. After completing his MBBS from Mumbai’s GS Medical College, Samant opened a dispensary in Ghatkopar—hence his nickname ‘Doctor Saab’—where he got involved in workers’ rights.

Samant’s formal entry into the trade union movement began in 1965 when he launched the Maharashtra Khan Kamgaar Union to fight for labour rights of mine workers.

Datta’s moment of reckoning arrived in 1982 when he was appointed to lead a large group of mill workers against the Bombay Millowners Association. He told them to be patient but the workers were already swept up by the agitations and ultimately hundreds and thousands walked out on the industry, bringing it to a standstill. Samant was after better pay and working conditions but was also jockeying for power. Eventually, he became more uncompromising in his demands and the government—wary of his growing influence—refused to cede ground.

Ultimately, Samant and the workers failed to win any of their demands, the strike collapsed and many of the companies moved out of Mumbai.

Meanwhile Samant won a Lok Sabha seat on an anti-Congress ticket. In 1997, he was killed outside his home in Mumbai after four gunmen shot him down. His death sparked widespread protests across the city.

Shankar Guha Niyogi

Shankar Guha Niyogi was the most active trade union leader in the mines of Chhattisgarh during the 70s and 80s and campaigned throughout his life for fair treatment for the tribals in his adopted state. He shares a few similarities with both George Fernandes and Datta Samant in the way that he lived and died.

Niyogi, who was born in Asansol, West Bengal on February 19, 1943, grew up in Upper Assam and received his schooling in Calcutta. In the early sixties, after being active in student-union politics in Calcutta, Niyogi shifted base to Bhilai in Chhattisgarh to join the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP). At BSP, Niyogi became active at the workers union. In 1967, he formed Blast Furnace Action Committee to push for rights of workers employed in the steel industry. Later, Niyogi was dismissed from his job at BSP for being involved in union activities. During the emergency, Niyogi was arrested in Bastar and remained in prison for 13 months.

After being released from prison, Niyogi launched the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) in 1977. In 1982, CMSS formed its political party Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. As the president of CMSS, Niyogi led three historic strikes for mine workers in 1977, 1981 and 1989.

On September 28, 1991, Niyogi was shot and killed while asleep in a house in Durg-Bhillai area.

George Fernandes

Who knows what would have happened to the Catholic priesthood if George Fernandes stuck to the profession for which he left his native Mangalore. He fled his seminary in Bangalore after two years, disgusted apparently by the rectors who ate better than his fellow seminaries, and ended up becoming, for a brief period, India’s closest approximation to Che Guevara.

Controversy—or at least notoriety—seems to have had no problem in finding Fernandes. During his long political career, he is best known for ‘ejecting’ Coca Cola from the country in the 70s, for being allegedly involved in ‘irregularities’ in the purchase of the Barak missile system from Israel and for his role in the Tehelka scandal where reporters masquerading as arms procurers appeared to bribe Jaya Jaitley, his companion and General Secretary of the Samata Party (which George founded). Fernandes was later cleared of all charges by independent commissions.

But all of these are just distractions considering the real legacy of Fernandes, which was as a legendary trade activist who brought the nation, literally to a grinding halt, when he, as president of the All India Railwaymen's Federation, organised the All India Railway Strike of 1974, on the back of pent up grievances of railway workers who had not received a real wage increase in decades. Legions of workers all around India—from taxi drivers in Bombay, to workers at the Coach factory in Madras—rallied behind the strike. Almost 30,000 trade unionists were thrown in jail and so rattled was Indira Gandhi by the Fernandes-inspired agitation that it was one of the catalysts for her ‘Emergency’ a year later. A warrant was also issued for George’s arrest. The police, didn’t find him, but tortured his brother.

Fernandes, undeterred, was in Baroda looking for some dynamite so he could blow up government toilets as well as a dais, triggered to explode a few hours before Mrs. Gandhi was going to speak there (famously known as the Baroda Dynamite Case). Another plan was to rob a train carrying arms. When Fernandes was finally arrested in Calcutta, he was saved from a worse fate than jail time simply because a few world leaders who were his fans warned Mrs. Gandhi not to harm him. When emergency was finally lifted and George won the Muzzafarpur, Bihar seat (from jail), he was given the portfolio of Industries Minister, which is when he strictly enforced Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA), thereby forcing Coke and IBM to leave India.

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