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.