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The Rediff Special



The Rediff Special / Chander Uday Singh

Samant had lousy timing. He uncannily chose times of recession to take the workers on a strike.

As a correspondent for India Today in the early eighties, Chander Uday Singh investigated the life and strikes of Datta Samant for a cover story in the national newsmagazine. Singh, who later left journalism for a career as a labour lawyer, has also seen Samant from the other side of the fence. This is how he assesses the militant messiah's legacy:

Datta Samant's killing is quite mystifying to me. Ever since he entered politics and became a member of Parliament he had become tame on the industrial front. In the last three or four years he completely lost the militant image he once had. On the whole he had been on the wane as a trade union leader. He didn't appear to be a threat to any power bloc.

Even when he was most militant he was never a criminal type, never a goonda. There was violence associated with some of his activities, like the stabbing of N P Godrej, but he was never directly involved and none of it was orchestrated violence by Samant. I don't believe that he ever orchestrated violence. He was never a goonda. He was not like Ramesh More or Khim Bahadur Thapa. And he was not a criminal masquerading as a trade union leader. Samant was never like that. He was a militant labour leader -- often misguided, especially in the way he went about organising strikes.

Samant was a medical doctor. He began his career as a labour leader when he was moved by the plight of quarry workers at Chandivli and took up their cause. They were workers who were completely exploited and he organised them at a grassroot level, got them basic rights and better wages.

By the late '70s he had gained a big name and he was in the plastic industry, the engineering industry and many others. At that time he was just fighting for a piece of the cake. By the '80s he had stopped organising any new group of workers. He was merely in the race for a bigger slab of the cake.

Samant was misguided because he never looked at the financial health of an organisation or inquired after the balancesheets or the financial details of a company. And above all he had a lousy sense of timing. He uncannily chose times of recession and when an industry was in the doldrums to take the workers on a strike and he would have a major debacle on his hands. He just never looked at the ground realities.

Take the famous textile strike of 1982. At that time he actually had the complete support of mill workers and he could have asked them to do anything and they would have done it. And he decided to take them on a strike! I mean here was an industry that was completely in the doldrums... a sunset industry. They were still using World War I machinery. They were being grossly mismanaged. And he decided to take these workers on a strike. It was like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone.

And what did he achieve? Many of the mills were nationalised, some went to BIFR and other mills are still selling their land. He hastened the death of an industry that would have died anyway. He gave the managers of the mills a plausible excuse to shut down.

When I did a cover story on him for India Today in 1981, I discovered him to be a scrupulously honest man, despite what industrialists would say and he had an absolutely committed and loyal following of workers from the engineering industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the textile industry and others. I mean he straddled the trade unions in Bombay.

I followed him for three days from 7.30 in the morning to 11.30 at night, at breakfast, to all his meetings, to gate meetings, to Mahindra Spicer, to Hindustan Lever, to Bayer, to get my story and at many meetings the management objected but he would say, "I am sorry he is my shadow. I can't get rid of him." And it was then I discovered that he received absolutely blind loyalty from his workers.

But then somewhere in the mid '80s all this crumbled. His image as an honest leader deserted him. It was said that he paid huge capitation fees to get his son into medical college in Karnataka. He was seen driving around in a Honda Accord. His life style changed. And it was obvious that there was more than met the eye in his operations.

His workers started getting disillusioned. He led strike after strike but still the workers didn't get much benefits although they were not entirely wiped out. He was not involved with organising any new set of workers and there are so many groups that need help in Bombay like domestic workers or the security personnel in co-operative building societies. Take the case of these security guards. Most of them are paid Rs 400 or Rs 600 or at the very maximum Rs 1,500 and they work for societies that have Rs 30 million or Rs 40 million flats.

But none of these trade union leaders are bothered with their plight. Samant too was not bothered with such groups, but was involved with the same high wage workers, the same cake. He was going for the same high profile companies, the same big bucks ( I am not talking about the corrupt big bucks). These unions clean up 10 to 20 per cent of a settlement or Rs 1 million -- even up to Rs 6 million or Rs 7 million in a settlement.

Having seen him earlier as a very brilliant, very committed trade union leader in the '70s I feel he had lost sight of his vision by the '80s. He began to have one standard approach formula for each dispute regardless of the factors involved or the industry involved. He never sized up the management and took a different approach for different types of management or looked to see how the company was being run or put in allowances for a management that did not have deep pockets or took into account what phase a company was in.

Take the case of PAL. Here was a company that was just beginning to get on its feet again, that just barely missed being wiped out. It was a company that had just come out of being down in the doldrums and was still tottering on its feet and had just brought out two new cars, the Uno and the Peugeot. And then he decided to go in. They had to fight back, because if they didn't, they would not have survived. First the plant in Kurla was locked out and then the one at Kalyan. And finally they brought him to his knees.

As a labour lawyer I have had an opportunity to watch him closely and he was ultimately starting to decline. Therefore, there seemed to be no obvious reason for anybody to take his life.

The conventional wisdom in the business is that once a trade union leader enters politics he loses his bite. It was the same case with George Fernandes and S A Dange. At one time George Fernandes could have got together in one afternoon a crowd of 300,000 people. Today he would be lucky to gather together 300. And it was the same with Samant.

Although I don't like to speak ill of the dead I am not for eulogising somebody just because he is dead. In his heyday Samant was a very dedicated, extremely good labour leader with a lot of vision. But then he lost it. So at the end of the day he really did not contribute anything to society.

As told to Vaihayasi Pande-Daniel

The Rediff Special

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