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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 41 New Delhi September 29, 2018

Remembering Shankar Guha Niyogi on his Death Anniversary

The Labour Leader Who Became A Legend In His Lifetime

Saturday 29 September 2018, by Bharat Dogra

Shankar Guha Niyogi was assassinated on September 28, 1991 when he was just 48, but even at this young age he had become a legendary figure. While he was adored as brother and son by the iron ore miners and other workers of Chhattisgarh to whom he devoted his entire life, at a wider level he became perhaps the most talked about example of someone who could link trade union struggles to wider issues like struggles of surrounding peasantry, social reform, workers’ own health programme, environment protection and broad-based mobilisation for democratic change.

Born at Jalpaiguri on February 14, 1943, Niyogi came to the town of Bhilai steel township as a young man and soon became involved in the stuggles of steel workers. He then took to wandering in the nearby villages of the Chhattisgarh region which at that time was a part of Madhya Pradesh State. It was during this stage that he realised that the workers who were suffering the most, much more than the regular workers of the steel plant, were mostly local rural workers (many of them tribals) employed under the contract system for mining of iron ore in the mines of Dalli-Rajhara. But before he could take forward the efforts to mobilise them, the Emergency was clamped and 32-year-old Niyogi, who by then had married a local rural girl, Asha, was arrested.

However 13 months later when Niyogi was released from jail, workers welcomed him enthusiastically to form a new union, Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS), as their exploitation had increased further during the Emergency months. The new union succeeded in winning several gains for workers. This alarmed the established power structure who conspired to inflict a heavy blow on the new initiative. At the time of the next struggle the police opened fire on workers who were resisting the re-arrest of workers. Eleven workers were killed. Niyogi was arrested. But workers were determined now and prepared for a long struggle. The post-Emergency situation at the national level was also favourable and support poured in from several places. After some time an agreement was signed with workers conceding most of their demands and Niyogi was also released.

Niyogi became known as a public figure only at the age of 34 in 1977. Thus he had an active public life of only 14 years from 1977 to 1991. During almost this entire period he was endlessly harassed in the form of periodic jail sentences, multiplicity of legal cases against him and his close colleagues, threats, retrenchments, attacks on workers and in other ways. It speaks volumes not only for his dedication but also for his careful planning and broad vision that he nevertheless found time to initiate highly successful actions not only on the trade union front but also in many highly creative initiatives in health, social reform and other areas.

The first three or four years were like a formative period when some of the most important programmes were initiated. To prevent the wage gains from being lost in liquor, Niyogi initiated one of the most successful anti-liquor efforts of the country in Chhattisgarh. This was initiated not just as a fringe activity but was given so much importance that workers regarded it as a matter of honour for their union to give no liquor. Families were also involved so that women and children could take up the work at the family level. Cultural and music groups were set up for more creative use of evening hours, but what eventually attracted many workers even more was the initiation of the workers’ own health programme and the construction of their own hospital—the Shaheed Hospital—built in memory of workers who had sacrificed their life earlier in police firing.

The health effort owed its success to the enthusiastic participation of workers as volunteers for the construction and maintenance of the hospital as well as the dedicated work of senior and highly accomplished doctors like Dr Saibal Jana and Dr Binayak Sen. After all these years Dr Saibal Jana is still there to guide the Shaheed Hospital and this year his arrest in a very old case had led to angry protests all over the country. Other doctors of this workers’ hospital like Dr Punyabrata Gun and Dr Binayak Sen later started other highly regarded health initiatives for the weaker sections. One great contribution of the Shaheed Hospital has been the building up of a hospital and a wider health programme related to it as a self-reliant effort of workers without outside funding, something which could be possible because of the commitment of Niyogi and the CMSS to such initiatives and the willingness of workers to donate regularly for several years in the form of cash as well as volunteer services.

As a result of a clear policy to have an alliance with the surrounding peasantry, the workers got involved in several rural issues such as resisting the eviction of sharecroppers and opposing the replacement of natural forests with commercial plantations. A separate organisation, the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, was formed to take up such issues on a more continuing basis. At a later stage this effort supported the rehabilitation of bonded workers in many villages as per the orders of the Supreme Court.

The deep commitment of the CMSS to many- sided welfare of workers attracted the attention of workers in other parts of Chhattisgarh and even Maharashtra and the union was called upon by workers to take up mobilisation work in their areas. The CMSS responded as well as it could leading to several successful efforts, but it had to cope with increasing difficulties in its home ground as the management of the steel plant came up with large scale mechanisation proposals which would have led to the retrenchment of most workers. At this stage Niyogi showed great foresight in contacting sympathetic mining engineers so that an alternative proposal of semi-mechanisation could be prepared which could increase production while retaining the existing jobs of miners.

However, at some of the new places where Niyogi was invited to work, his opponents were much more ruthless compared to the public sector management of the steel plant and he was threatened time and again with violence. Several of his colleagues were attacked and finally he was assassinated on September 28, 1991.

While affection and respect for Niyogi have only increased with the passage of time, without his inspiring presence the unions and movements led by him got fragmented and hence weakened. However, on the occasion of his death anniversary, the need for unity is being increasingly felt.

The authors are freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.

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