Relevance of Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi’s Work and Politics for the Working Class Today
For anyone associated with the working class movement in the state of Chhattisgarh, one cannot but feel a great nostalgia for the militant and creative movement led by the charismatic leader Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi from 1977 onwards till his assassination in Bhilai on 28th September 1991, at the young age of 48. Comrade Niyogi’s journey is associated with the glorious history of Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS), Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) and movement of the contractual workers in Bhilai. It has been well reflected in the most comprehensive work on his life and politics - “Sangharsh aur Nirman”
In the present article, I shall concentrate on limited aspects of the movement which I feel have important lessons for the working class today, and hope that I will arouse enough interest for the reader to delve deeper.
1. A Centre for People’s Power, A Worker-Peasant Alliance: The Creation of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha
The movement Com Niyogi led, arose from the crucible of a militant revolt by around 15,000 contractual mine workers in the captive iron ore mines of the Bhilai Steel Plant at Dalli Rajhara. These workers had enmasse revolted against the unions of permanent workers led by the INTUC and AITUC and were squatting on strike in the lal maidan for 56 days, and finally their leaders went to approach Com Niyogi - just then released from detention under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) after the lifting of the Emergency. Their very first struggle for “bans balli” (bamboos for repairing huts after the rains) ended in severe repression and police firing martyring 11 workers in the intervening night of 2nd and 3rd June 1977. The newly formed Union - Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh waged relentless struggles from then onwards till, by the late 1980s, the workers became the highest paid contractual iron ore miners in the country, mostly organised into Co-operative Societies.
But more importantly, the new Union had a Red-Green Flag symbolising the Worker-Peasant alliance. Right from its inception, the union and its organisers would respond to the issues of hundreds of adivasi dominated villages of the Dondi-Lohara Tehsil surrounding Dalli Rajhara. These struggles were mostly against the atrocities of the Forest and Revenue Departments. While this concrete solidarity arose from the organic links between the workers in the mines and their peasant families in the surrounding rural areas, it was theorised and built upon. Union organisers would lead peasant movements, and in turn, peasants would flock to Dalli to attend the Shaheed Divas programmes. It was the mass political consciousness that this spawned that became the basis for the formation of the umbrella organisation called the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM).
Comrade Niyogi often used to say that history has had two major engines - class struggle and national liberation movements, and combining both would create a powerful vehicle for change. He conceived of a movement of the Chhattisgarhi nationality in the leadership of the working class. He was aware of the pitfalls of a nationality movement led by the middle class force like the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena which became a chauvinist movement targeting the poor of other nationalities. On the other hand the purpose of the struggle by the CMM was to build a New Democratic Chhattisgarh - a New Chattisgarh for a New India - which was to be a real federation. The agenda of the working-class-led movement for Chhattisgarh would be to best utilise the rich resources of Chhattisgarh for the betterment of its toiling people, to balance investment in industry with the need for irrigation in agriculture, to forge a solidarity of all toiling people in Chhattisgarh against the most hated nouveau-riche crony capitalists, to strengthen the positive and democratic aspects of Chhattisgarhi culture while yet promoting a scientific temper and opposing old and regressive traditions of ‘witchcraft’, caste discrimination, alcoholism and patriarchal practices. The movement tried to popularise the glorious history of struggles of the adivasis, dalits, peasants and workers. It envisioned the need to preserve the immense biodiversity of Chhattisgarh, while adopting scientific methods in agriculture. Com Niyogi defined a Chhattisgarhi as “one who toils in this land and struggles for its future”. Thus the question of treating other migrant workers of UP, Bihar etc who were in large numbers in the industrial areas, or the rickshaw pullers, who are mainly Odiyas, as “outsiders” never arose during the movement. In fact, in the Bhilai firing of 1992, of the 17 workers who were martyred in the movement of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha - Keshav Gupta hailed originally from Uttar Pradesh, Aseem Das from Bengal, Lallan Chaudhari from Bihar and Pradeep Kutty from Kerala.
The dream of Naya Chhattisgarh, as articulated in a poem in a CMM poster was “Where all will get drinking water/ Where every field will be irrigated/ Where every hand will get work/ Where the peasant will get a proper price for his crop/ Where every village will have a hospital/ Where there will be a school for every child to study/ Where each one will get land and a house/ Where there will be no poverty, exploitation and capitalism/ When will such a Chhattisgarh be made? When there will be the “Raj”of the workers and peasants in Chhattisgarh/ It is to create such a Chhattisgarh that the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha is struggling!”. The dream of this Naya Chhattisgarh - located somewhere between today’s pure economic struggles and tomorrow’s abstract aim of revolution - something which was already historically and culturally familiar and dear to the people - was the secret of the mass politicisation, and we know regionalism/ federalism is a bulwark against fascism.
The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha office at Dalli Rajhara - centre of a militant working class movement having deep and wide links with the peasantry and embedded in the context of a broader “sub national” movement for a New Democratic Chhattisgarh - became a centre of people’s power, from where solidarity would flow to Bailadila in Bastar, Abhanpur, Baloda Bazar, Rajnandgaon, Hirri (Bilaspur) and Bhilai.
2. Inverting the Pyramid: The Struggle of the Contractual Miners against Mechanisation
When the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh came into existence, the contractual miners were at the bottom of the pyramid of power in Dalli Rajhara. The contractual workers were doubly burdened by exploitative collusion of the district administration, public sector management and contractors on the one hand, and subordination by permanent workers unions on the other. When the Bailadila Mines of the NMDC in Bastar were forcibly mechanised, retrenching and repressing thousands of miners, not only did the CMSS reach out in solidarity sending a truckful of rice to the beleaguered workers and adivasis of Bailadila, but it simultaneously started a vigorous campaign against the proposed mechanisation of the Dalli Rajhara mines. Unions are not permitted to negotiate issues of the method of production used by an employer. Yet Comrade Niyogi took the help of progressive engineers like AK Roy (Dunu) to work out a plan of “Semi-Mechanisation” and showed this to be a superior alternative in terms of cost and quality efficacy, with no need of retrenchment and great saving of precious foreign exchange. Not only did the Union claim the moral high ground in this manner, it mobilised the truck owners and operators, shop-keepers and traders who would lose their business if transportation was to be carried out by conveyor belt, and if the retrenchment of manual miners was allowed to turn this thriving mining town into a ghost city. Comrade Niyogi made calculations to show how it was the wages of miners which, as purchasing power, was not only circulating in the town’s economy but, more importantly, generating investment in agriculture in the surrounding villages. The united struggle of the residents of Dalli Rajhara and people of the surrounding villages led by the contractual miners resulted in the delay of mechanisation of the mines of Dalli Rajhara by a generation. This “inversion of the pyramid” required the maturity of the working class union to ally with small and medium businesses to resist massive displacement of livelihood. This is a lesson to learn for today’s “underdogs” to lead alliances against the all encompassing profit mongering of big capital.
3. Creating an Alternate Hegemonic Culture of the Working Class, Resisting Communal Politics:
Comrade Niyogi used to say, our Union is not an 8 hour union but a 24 hour union which touches every aspect of a worker’s life. He would often talk about the dichotomy between the economic life of the worker and her social/ cultural/ political life. Once the CMSS was formed, 17 departments were formed under it - some thrived and flourished, others withered away. Kisan Vibhag became the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha; Mahila Vibhag after leading a highly successful anti-alcoholism movement became Mahila Mukti Morcha; Swasthya Vibhag was epitomised by first the Shaheed Dispensary run by progressive doctors which has later developed into a unique pro-people hospital with all modern facilities; Bachat Vibhag - whereby miners were taught to save, particularly what they gained from enhanced wages by giving up alcohol and predatory borrowing, resulting in the State Bank of India Branch of Dalli Rajhara receiving a prize for the maximum number of fixed deposits in a rural town; The Shiksha Vibhag set up 11 Schools of which 9 were finally taken over by the Government; Khel Vibhag organised the Shaheed Sudama Football Club which, coached by an enthusiast from Kolkata, won many prestigious tournaments. The Nava Anjor cultural team helmed by miner Phaguram Yadav - a people’s bard - would use traditional Chhattisgarhi folk theatre to depict the history of Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh - an adivasi leader of 1857 who fought a guerilla war against the British and was finally hung in public in Raipur. 3rd June Shaheed Divas and Veer Narayan Singh Shaheed Divas became as important to the miners of Dalli Rajhara as any religious festival - the Shaheeds were their “Gods”. Families visiting Dalli Rajhara, would inevitably be taken on a tour by the proud miner couple and be shown “our (union) office”, “our hospital”, and “our Shaheed Stambh” (Memorial to the 3rd June Martyrs). To end the separate over-spending of workers’ families during the Durga festival - the Union would organise a collective “Sarvajanik Durga Utsav” - a huge cultural affair with the best fireworks of Dalli Rajhara town. It was thus that Comrade Niyogi instilled pride in the working class that those workers who “create every object in the world through their labour” could also “build a new society of their own.”
But the most amazing action of the Union was in 1984 during the Sikh riots. Just after the news of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi broke out, Comrade Niyogi realised what could follow. The Union made announcements all over the Dondi-Lohara Tehsil in Dalli Rajhara inviting all Sikh families to the Union Office. Dozens of families came from all over Chhattisgarh and camped for days and weeks. The most remarkable aspect of this was, that at the time, some prominent liquor contractors against whom the Union had waged a massive anti-alcohol struggle and who were widely believed to be behind assassination attempts on Niyogi, and a prominent mine contractor against whom a struggle for “fall-back wages” was going on - were all Sikhs. Shunning opportunist politics, the Union took a principled stand that the struggle of the workers could never be used to inflame communal frenzy. Even after Comrade Niyogi’s martyrdom in 1992, the Bhilai movement used its influence in Bhilai, in the midst of a life-and-death struggle, to take out peace marches after the Babri Masjid demolition, defying the phoney curfews of the then BJP Government, to maintain communal harmony in the cosmopolitan city. Anti-communalism in action and not just in words became deeply embedded in the psyche of the Union. The slogan coined by Comrade Niyogi in 1991 - “Mandir-Masjid to ek bahana hai, Mehangai- Berozgari se dhyan hatana hai '' is sadly still too relevant. Thus the CMM movement, which became the go-to place for poor people in all situations, developed a mass political, cultural and social consciousness which was powerful enough to dominate reactionary and communal discourse in its area of influence.
The historic Farmers Movement of 2020-21 also had many of the above elements and taught us all precious lessons. The staying power of the rich farmers of Punjab, the rallying of the entire Punjab society from dalit landless to NRIs behind them; the remarkable maturity shown by 28 farmers organisations of widely differing ideologies to stand united in their year-long struggle, the reaching out to the farmers of Haryana despite long standing water disputes; the efforts that the movement made to assert greater solidarities - with Rakesh Tikait admitting that the movement in UP had earlier made mistakes in alienating Muslim brethren during the Muzaffarnagar riots; the assertion of women farmers by driving tractors down to the borders and observing Women Farmers Day; and this despite all the repressive tactics used by the Government - these were all pieces of a most remarkable mosaic of struggle.
Today it is the turn of the working class to fight against the 4 labour codes. It is true that within one week of the lockdown, even by official figures, 1.14 crore workers started walking home. Yet, I feel that in various regions, the organisations of the working class are strong and mature enough to forge solidarities, to come together and force state governments, state labour departments, and local politicians to listen to them, and to ensure that these pro-corporate laws are not enforced.
- Sangharsh Aur Nirman, Anil Sadgopal and Shyam Bahadur ‘Namra’, Rajkamal Prakashan