Experiments with Revolutionary Trade Unionism

The Experience of CMSS and Shankar Guha Niyogi

Anil Sadgopal and Shyam Bahadur 'Namr' Editors: 'Sangharsh Aur Nirman' (in Hindi), Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi.
Hard cover: Rs. 250/- Paperback Rs. 125/-

Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi was one of the most extraordinary and creative trade unionists of the country. He was killed by an assassin hired by the capitalists of Chattisgarh on the night of 3rd June 1992. The book under review is a compilation of Niyogi's writings, speeches, interviews, as well as reminiscences of him by his comrades and friends.

In an era in which trade unionism is drawn more and more into the mire of economism, Niyogi and his Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) stand out for their political commitment to the revolutionary transformation of every conceivable aspect of life.

As the title of the book indicates he held that struggle against exploitation and oppression should go hand in hand with the constructive work of building an alternative. The struggle against capitalists should go hand in hand with the struggle against decadent aspects of the working class culture: alcoholism, wife beating, illiteracy, faith in magic rather than in modem medicine etc. The straggle for better wages and working conditions should go hand in hand with the struggle for democratization of the trade unions. He introduced the working people of Chattisgarh not only to the methods of militant trade union struggle but also to the very complex questions of agrarian change, Chattisgarh nationalism, feminism, environment, health and education for the masses etc.

The book under review contains several articles and pamphlets written by Niyogi, as also speeches and interviews given by him. Most of these were situated in the context of political and trade union action and straggle and addressed to the struggling workers of the region. Niyogi did not belong to any political party and as such his writings were not addressed to Party workers: hence it may not be proper to look for theoretical rigour in them. Niyogi was not a theoretician but a practical trade unionist and purists can find fault with many of his theoretical formulations. But his strengths and significance lay elsewhere: in his combining a successful trade union struggle which effectively improved the wages and working conditions of its members with the political goals of the democratic movement. His style was direct and simple and yet remarkably fresh: for example be did not go into complex theoretical arguments over the nature of Soviet society: instead he discussed the exploitation and oppression practiced by the management of the Bhilai Steel Plant set up with Soviet capital and managed with the help of Soviet experts to conclude that the workers were not confronting the outpost of socialist power but of an exploitative imperialist power (see page 208-212).

Niyogi was primarily interested in organizing the contract workers employed in the coal and iron ore mines. These mainly belonged to Chattisgarh or were tribal people from neighbouring regions. The lands on which the mines were situated belonged to their forefathers who hunted, gathered and practiced mobile agriculture on them. They had been driven away from these lands where modern mines and industries were set up. These in no way helped in generating employment for the local people or providing benefits of urbanization to the region: Niyogi time and again pointed out that villages in the immediate vicinity of the industrial centres did not have safe potable water or electricity, most of the regular workers came from outside the region, most of the service sector set up as ancillaries to the factories was controlled by petty capitalists from outside the region who sent out their savings. The local people themselves were employed in low paid manual labour like loading. They did not enjoy any regular employment and were subject to the whims of contractors. They were constantly under threat of unemployment due to mechanization. Most of the struggles launched by the CMMS and CMM (Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha) sought to address these problems. The struggle against the contract labour system, the struggle for developing a national identity among the people of Chattisgarh, the struggle for agrarian reform, struggle for improving the education and health of the workers, the struggle against irrational mechanization, which actually replaced the unskilled local labour with skilled outside (and usually upper caste) labour. He argued quite forcefully that most of the schemes for mechanization and he called the alternative semi-mechanization combining a degree of mechanization with retention of manual labour. He argued that in a country like India which had such a large force of unemployed labour it was uneconomical to mechanize beyond a point. The fact remains that Niyogi sought to address the issue of industrial sickness and sought its roots in the nexus between bureaucrats and imperialists, to the detriment of the interests of both production and labour.

The write-ups in the collection are a record of the growing struggle of the workers of the region. Several articles sum up admirably the conditions of the working class, their struggle for their legitimate demands, the terror unleashed on them and the betrayal of the 'official' trade unions and the Communist Parties. A moving account of the struggle of the workers of National Mineral Development Corporation, Bastar, MP, may be recommended to all readers (pp. 100-15). This article was written in order to inform the members of CMMS about the struggle of the workers of a distant region. The miners of Bastar were actually fighting under the banner of AITUC, the trade union wing of the CPI. The write-up traces the history of the establishment of the mines in Bastar, the origins of the workers, their conditions, proposal for mechanization and the threat of retrenchment, the collaborationist policies of the revisionist union, the attempt of the local leadership of the union to hoist the flag of struggle, the terror unleashed by the police - firing, gang rape of women, burning down of hutments, looting etc. In the course of the article he outlines the mistakes of the honest local leadership in trusting the state leadership of AITUC, the collaboration between Soviet imperialism, the local capitalists and the Union. The Soviet Union was trying to sell off some labour-saving mining equipment through an Indian private trading agency and was pressurizing the Government of India (which owned the Corporation) to buy and deploy these machines in the mines of Bastar. As such the AITUC leadership had decided to side with the management to ensure the mechanization and retrenchment of thousands of workers. Niyogi in this article calls upon the workers of Chattisgarh to support the just struggles of the workers of Bastar, discusses in detail how the former workers had been able to gain from their organized struggles and how mechanization and retrenchment could be avoided through a policy of rational mechanization. This article sums up admirably the issues before the working class movement of India with reference to a concrete situation.

Despite the fact that Niyogi built a trade union movement which sought revolutionary transformation of the society, it is intriguing to note that he either never sought to build a revolutionary Party or be associated with one. He seems to have consciously subordinated the political movement and tasks to the requirement of the trade union movement. He was certainly for a loose federation of trade unionists and activist groups to coordinate and exchange experiences (hence his initial interest in IPF and subsequent disillusionment see pp. 334-5). In an interview in September 1991 in response to a question regarding the collapse of the USSR he mentioned in passing that he was against the claim of Communists to be an 'international centre' and rather saw Marxism as a method whose application and interpretation depended on local and specific conditions (p. 336). Probably such a position eventually gave rise to several theoretical confusions in his thinking, like his blurring of the distinction between the industrial proletariat and other working people. This aspect of Niyogi remains to be investigated and understood better if one were to learn from the spectacular movement of workers that he led.

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