Organized Labour

More Than Murder
The Making of the Indian Working Class

More Than Murder

by Praful Bidwai

The 1982 textile strike failed, but it was a Great Failure, an historic event. Those who condemn Samant for it without understanding its true character do not understand history....

Dr Datta Samant's assassination will go down as one of the horrifying events of our times. Together with the murder of Chhatisgarh's unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi and Jamshedpur's V.G.Gopal, it marks a trend that bodes ill for the labour movement, human rights, indeed for Indian democracy itself.

Samant was individually India's most important trade unionist, with the largest numerical following among workers.

Who killed him in such a grotesque manner? Interunion rivalry and personal animosity are unlikely to have been the motives. In recent years, Samant was not involved in intense union rivalry. A disgruntled worker would not have committed an act of such ruthlessness.

His gunning down was clearly the work of professionals -- a "supari" (contract) killing a la (notorious gangster) Chhota Rajan.

Trade unions are not known to pay the kind of money that Chhota Rajan demands -- which can go up to Rs 10 million -- especially in a period of union decline and labour retreat in the face of aggressive employers. The spontaneous reactions of Samant's rivals such as Vasantrao Hoshing, of the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS), only confirm this.

The likeliest explanation is that Samant was assassinated at the behest of crooked industrialists and builders, involved in our biggest land scam so far.

Land in Central Mumbai can command up to Rs 10,000 per square foot. The city's 60 textile mills are sitting on 190 acres or 20 million sq. ft. worth an astronomical Rs 20,000 crores.

But much of the land is not freehold. It was leased under numerous conditions and cannot be legally sold. But mill owners are illegally transferring it under dubious "development" agreements to property sharks. Posh apartments and commercial complexes are coming up in violation of the city's master plan -- a sure recipe for turning Mumbai into a monstrosity.

This illicit operation requires forcible eviction of workers and complicity of unions and the government. Samant was the biggest obstacle here. He opposed the scam staunchly. He had to be eliminated. The climate of deregulation promoted by neo-liberalism encouraged the industrialist-builder mafia to do so.

Many in the media have tried to underplay the conspiracy. Some have pontificated on how "those who live by the sword die by the sword". This justified an eye-for-an-eye retribution, and mocks all principles of civilised conduct.

The assumption is that Samant routinely practiced violence. One right- wing writer went so far as to say that Samant commanded an army of thugs. This is a slanderous lie. If Samant had bodyguards, not to speak of an army, he would not have been gunned down in broad daylight. But he refused to hire bodyguards.

Samant was a tough negotiator, a maverick who did not respect balance sheets. But this is a far cry from asserting without substantiation, that he used strong-arm methods.

Such irresponsible charges reflect elitist suspicion of trade unionism. They are time and again disproved: in 1972, 1982-83 or 1994. It is ludicrous to believe that Samant won the admiration of tens of thousands of worker through violence, rather than through skillful bargaining and an understanding of shop floor realities which enabled him to secure high wag increases.

Others have berated Samant for betraying Mumbai's textile workers by engineering the Great Strike of 1982-83, which admittedly extracted a heavy toll. Most critics of this school will find it hard to answer what the strike was all about.

In reality, the strike was forced upon Samant. He was literally gheraoed into leading what developed into a conflagration over fundamental issues. These were the repugnant badli system (which creates a permanent army of ultra-low-paid part-time workers) rigged, unfair wage fixation unique to the textile industry, and repeal of the Bombay Industrial Relations Act of 1946.

This Act is virulently undemocratic. It imposes a favoured union upon workers and then perpetuates its monopoly, while virtually outlawing strikes. The "representative" union (always pro-mill-owner RMMS) can deduct subscription directly from the worker's wages. It alone can negotiate with the mean-spirited Mill owners' Association. Thanks to this system, workers' real wages have remained frozen for 50 years!

The 1982 strike challenged these practices. It is probably the greatest strike in the world, involving 200,000 workers and lasting 20 months. It happened when the workers' bargaining power was low and employers were looking for ways to close down mills.

But it was a powerful movement, a do-or-die resolve on the workers' part to change their conditions of labour and life. It was not a strike, but a rebellion for social transformation. Samant became the embodiment of the workers' hopes. His actions were no longer in his own hands.

As H.Van Wersch in his Bombay Textile Strike 1982-83 (Oxford University Press) and Rajni Bakshi in The Long Haul (BUILD) show, Samant tried to restrain the workers, but failed.

Great mass struggles such as these shape history. If they succeed, they produce qualitative change and paradigm shifts. If they fail, the consequences can be epochally painful. The textile strike failed, but it was a Great Failure, an historic event. Those who condemn Samant for it without understanding it true character do not understand history.

History is not made by pompous pontificators or unsuccessful builders. It is made by people, flesh and blood human beings, fighting for freedom and justice. Throughout the modern epoch, workers and peasants, unions and peoples' organisations have made and reshaped history. Their contribution to democracy is irreplaceable. The world would never have had human rights without their exemplary, courageous, great struggles.

Without unions, capitalism would have remained as rapacious and inhuman as it was when described by Charles Dickens. The status of unions is an excellent measure of the quality of democracy in a country.

By that standard, China is an abiding disgrace. South Korea comes a close second. It is hypocritical to condemn the Tiananmen massacre while condoning the assassination of Indian trade unionists. Societies that vilify labour unionists are doomed to decay, not prosper and progress.

[Reproduced from MID-DAY, Mumbai, Jan 27, 1997]

Back to top of page

Back to Economy Page