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The Rediff Special



The Rediff Special / Javed Anand

In the experience of blue-collared men, he remained the only trade union leader who put workers before politics

His charisma, his union and political following had been steadily on the decline for over a decade. In the intervening period, the city's political complexion has altered beyond recognition. So, not many may now recall that not so long ago, the man who fell to a hail of bullets in Bombay on Thursday morning, and the struggle that he found himself leading in India's industrial capital in 1982 -- the year-long strike of over 200,000 mill workers-- had the potential of adding a radical chapter in the history of the working class movement in India.

For better, and worse, the doctor-turned-trade union leader, was the 'natural' choice of workers when, 14 years ago, labour in India last engaged in a big battle against capital and, unwittingly, the state itself.

Through the '60s and the '70s, the Bombay-Thane industrial belt witnessed successive waves of militant working class agitations, led for brief spells by different leaders and trade unions -- George Fernandes, R J Mehta, Shiv Sena, CITU (Centre for Indian Trade Unions, the CPI-M's trade union wing) The Samant phenomenon, the last in this ebb and flow of worker assertion, proved to be the most impressive both in its sweep and duration.

During the Emergency regime in the mid-'70s, while the firebrand Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, thought it prudent to sing hosannas to Indira Gandhi, Samant was jailed for his militant espousal of the workers's cause. And this despite his being a Congressman and a part of the Congress-affiliated INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress). During the brief Janata Party rule that followed, Union minister George Fernandes and the CITU got identified with the establishment while Samant was politically unencumbered.

In the experience of blue-collared men then, he remained the only trade union leader who put workers before politics. This combined with the fact that many of the agitations led by him resulted in wage hikes that were unheard of at the time accounted in large measure to the doctor's growing popularity through the '70s.

Samant could not be bothered to look at company balancesheets offered by managements as proof of the organisation's inability to pay. He was convinced, like workers, that all balancesheets are dressed to lie. The fact that many companies which initially pleaded inability later agreed to pay more added to Samant's and workers's resolve not to let the balancesheet come in the way of their 'exorbitant' demands.

Of course, not every strike or lockout ended in wage hikes because, among other things, not all balancesheet lie to the same degree. But for hundreds of workers who this writer spoke to at the end of failed agitations in the '70s and early '80s what mattered was that "unlike other leaders, Doctorsaheb never sells out by agreeing to meagre increments. He is an honest leader."

Many captains of industry hated Samant for promoting militancy and making 'outrageous demands'. But he was not without his supporters from the other side sitting of the bargaining table. At seminars on industrial relations, some of them publicly proclaimed that by insisting on decent wages for labour, Samant was in effect forcing industry towards greater rationalisation and efficiency.

With tales of Samant's achievements in the engineering and other sectors of industry travelling from one corner of the Bombay-Thane belt to the other through the '70s, his following grew by leaps and bounds. In the latter half of 1981, mill workers from Bombay, who for four decades had suffered the imposition of the particularly docile INTUC affiliated Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh, decided that the leader who had worked wonders for workers elsewhere was the right choice for them too. Enter Dr Datta Samant.

It is unlikely that when he announced the commencement of the strike in mid-January 1982, either Samant or the workers realised that they were pitting themselves against not only the powerful Bombay Millowners Association but also the government of the day.

The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was concerned that if Samant had his way in the textile industry, port and dock workers from Bombay would come under his sway next and there would be no stopping him thereafter. So, no concessions.

Months after the commencement of the strike, the dominant sentiment among workers was that they would happily resume work without any increase in wages if only one condition was met -- the scrapping of the Bombay Industrial Act, 1947 or the de-recognition of the RMMS as the only officially recognised union of mill workers thanks to the BIR Act. Indira Gandhi willed otherwise.

Unfortunately, Samant's single-pronged approach -- war of attrition -- and his image among workers made any tactical workers solidarity impossible and the unprecedented determination ended in defeat for the workers.

The collapse of the historic strike caused countrywide demoralisation among workers from which they are yet to recover, marked the beginning of the decline of Samant's clout and, very important, the political rebirth of Thackeray who at the height of the struggle was reduced to a virtual non-entity even in erstwhile Shiv Sena strongholds.

In subsequent years, Samant's earlier strategies proved no match to the growing pressures of liberalisation of the economy or the communalisation of politics. In a tragic reversal of roles, Samant was to candidly admit at a meeting of trade union leaders in January 1993 that he was helpless in fighting communal politics since some of his own union activists were among the kar sevaks who demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

Javed Anand covered the textile strike extensively as the special correspondent (labour) for The Daily. He now edits Communalism Combat.

The Rediff Special

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