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Three Wise-men of Jamshedpur: They Passed Away Unsung, Unwept | Vidyarthy Chatterjee

7 February 2014

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Red Star February 2014

Three Wise-men of Jamshedpur: They Passed Away Unsung, Unwept

In the present globalised scheme of things, even the best of workers, meaning those with a keen awareness of both their responsibilities and their rights and who hold store by the need for struggle and solidarity if any amount of social justice is to be wrested, appear confused and even lost. Simultaneously, cabals and cartels are beaming with confidence, bolstered all the while by the role of a growing middle-class that cannot or refuses to see beyond the tip of its nose.

In such a scenario, the impression that things can be made to happen even without the participation of the working class is being sought to be furthered by employers and managements. What to speak of marginalization, it is the vaporisation of the worker from public consciousness that is being attempted. In better days, the practice was that from time to time, as conditions on the ground dictated, workers would, through their recognized Union or Unions, place their demands before the management after which the process of negotiation, of give and take, would begin. But, as things stand today, the idea of negotiation looks like ancient history. Conditions have so deteriorated that a charter of demands is arbitrarily drawn by a management and given to the Union to abide by. Unions, where they still exist, have been rendered redundant for the most part and workers are often practically at the mercy of employers. If this is the situation in the so-called organized sector, one can well imagine the fate of millions of working women and men in the unorganized sector. While there is a virtual loot of human and other resources by private companies, aided by solicitous governments at the Centre and in the States, elected representatives of the people look on with detachment when they are not actively engaged in the outrage.

Ironically, many workers’ Unions, even large ones, have disappeared or are disappearing while employers’ unions like CII, FICCI and the different Chambers of Commerce are gaining in strength each day. Workers, driven to the corner, appear to have lost the strength to even flail their arms in self-defence. What even the alley cat routinely does, they cannot.
In this essay, I have tried, among other things, to resurrect the character, teachings and deeds of a great labour leader named Professor Abdul Bari who, decades ago, had the gumption to take on the might of the Tatas and has, consequently, for many decades now been the target of a malicious campaign mounted by successive managements of Tata Iron and Steel Company (Tisco) in Jamshedpur. The belief appears to exist in certain quarters that the morale of the working class can be dented if a consistent campaign is carried out against its most revered leaders. There are many instances of capitalists and their cronies trying to marginalize the working class by marginalizing the memory and example of its best leaders. Yet, Professor Abdul Bari has not ceased to be a part of the history or the folklore of Jamshedpur, one of the capitals of Indian capitalism.

Professor Bari’s work as a labour leader at a time of political tension and industrial strife, meaning the 1930s and 1940s, took him to steel plants in Burnpur and Kulti in West Bengal as well as to nearby coalfields in Jharia and Raniganj. Though he originally belonged to Patna where he was a teacher, which explains for the honorific before his name, it was to the toiling masses of Jamshedpur (read the workers of Tisco and The Tinplate Company of India) that he gave his best years. Successive managements of Tisco have tried their desperate best to erase him from the memory of the people of Jamshedpur. Sadly, one cannot say corporate exertions towards that end have entirely failed.

“Curiously, in the Professor’s house in a narrow Patna lane, there was only one rupee (after his death). The manwho had negotiated for crores of rupees for the working class, was in fact poorer than even the poorest factory or mine worker. No wonder, he is still remembered as the greatest champion of the working class even by those who never saw him. No labour rally, including those of his opponents (when he was alive) began without the loud shouting of the slogan, Professor Abdul Bari zindabad!” wrote RL Verma, seasoned trade-union activist, in a souvenir published by Bihar Association, Jamshedpur.

A diametrically different impression about the man is put forth by another chronicler. “In 1937, Professor Abdul Bari, a man with a volatile temper, was sent by the Congress to organize labour in Jamshedpur. He revelled in rousing labour in a language which he felt they could understand. But when it came to responsible negotiations he made life very difficult for the management. After Professor Bari’s death, Michael John took over and under his responsible leadership labour received many benefits and the company enjoyed an era of industrial peace.” – From The Creation of Wealth by Russi M Lala, Director for 18 years of the Tatas’ premier trust, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust.

If the testimony of such an experienced trade-union activist as RL Verma is to be believed, the trouble with Professor Bari lay not in his ‘temper’ or in his ‘language’ but in his steadfast refusal to be a management creature. His was a one-point agenda doggedly pursued, and that point was to ensure that the workers got their legitimate rights, be it wages, bonus, housing, medical and other allowances or working conditions on the shop floor and in the offices. His universe had no room for self-interest in any form whatsoever; his universe was peopled by the workers who had reposed their complete trust in him before, during and after the ‘Quit India’ movement.

On the other hand, the universe inhabited by an increasingly ailing Michael John had room for compromise with the management. The more sick John got in the 1950s and the 1960s (Professor Bari died in 1947), the more tenaciously he clung to power, making himself vulnerable, a fact that did not miss the watchful eyes of the Tisco management. Another thing that happened in the meanwhile was the appearance of groupism within the Tata Workers’ Union – something unheard of in the days of Professor Bari. This was a development on which the management began to work to its own advantage. Very soon the culture of signing on the dotted line became an accepted fact of union-management relations. The practice of ‘negotiated’ settlement which saw the light of day under Michael John and later VG Gopal, who had once rebelled against John and came to be murdered many years later in the wake of intra-union rivalries, began as a tragedy and soon turned to farce.

This then, in brief, explains for the condemnatory tone of Lala’s words about Professor Bari and the enthusiasm he expresses for Michael John. In other words, the universe of rightful assertion is bound to collide with the universe of abject surrender. At the moment of writing, that surrender has taken on such pusillanimous colours that no one in Jamshedpur takes the Tata Workers’ Union seriously any more. For a mess of pottage, the leaders of the union are known to climb down to any level, so what if the rights of the workers are sacrificed at the altar of management demands. It goes without saying that this suits the management perfectly.

Gandhiji called Professor Abdul Bari ‘a king amongst men’ and ‘a prince among patriots’. Professor Bari never compromised on his principles and would brook no opposition when it came to securing the legitimate rights of the working class. So, it was a grave travesty that nothing was heard about Professor Bari’s exemplary life as a nationalist and labour leader when, in early 2004, the former President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, visited Jamshedpur to participate in what the Tisco management wrongly touted as “75 years of industrial harmony” in the company. Apart from the conspiratorial silence regarding Professor Bari, one could question the authenticity of the claim about 75 years of industrial harmony when as recently as 1958 there was a massive strike by the Tisco workers which was brutally suppressed with the complicity of the State terror machine.
No account of Professor Bari’s life and legacy would be complete without mentioning the fate of a piece of consecrated ground named after him in Jamshedpur. Bari Maidan, as it was called, was a part of the folklore of the city till some years ago when the Tisco management decided – as many old-time Jamshedpurians believe – to strike at the memory of the great man. Now, the significance of the place should be kept in mind. For almost half a century, all important public meetings, workers’ rallies, gatherings of activists would be held at Bari Maidan. Dissidents representing different causes would descend on the place from time to time and in general give a fillip to the steel and engineering workers to think for themselves. Apart from paying homage to the man who did the most for Jamshedpur’s toiling masses, speakers would dwell on issues and ask questions that caused acute embarrassment to the Tatas in general and Tisco in particular. So, one fine day, the Tisco management simply gobbled up the Bari Maidan, bringing it within the premises of the factory. A high boundary wall was created around Bari Maidan — all in the name of factory expansion and modernization. A classic case of corporate chicanery – Na rahega saap, na bajega basuri! (No irritant left, so no need to contain it.) Perhaps the most outrageous part of the incident is that neither the local administration (meaning the Deputy Commissioner and down the line), nor the Indian National Trade Union Congress – the INTUC, to which Professor Bari belonged, nor the people at large put up any resistance against what can be truthfully described as a dastardly act of misappropriation of history.

Soon after the “blocking out” of Bari Maidan from public view, Tisco resorted to a piece of Machiavellianism that added insult to injury. It created a ‘new’ Bari Maidan in a neglected nook away from public view to take the sting out of public criticism, muted but not the less effective for that. No meetings are held there, children play games amidst weeds and bushes, and steps leading to the locked space gather animal excreta. It stands to reason that in course of time, the new Bari Maidan will also come to be conveniently ‘consumed’ by the cannibalistic appetite of the factory. Lo and behold, there will be no public space named after the fighter and visionary. And the company that habitually claims to be India’s most enlightened enterprise will have had its way, in this as in every other instance in the steel city where not a leaf stirs, not a bird sings without the company’s consent.

The Asian Wall Street Journal of October10, 1988, carried an article by its staff reporter, Sudeep Chakravarti, titled ‘Indian city is run the Tata Iron way – pampered Indian city has its drawbacks’. Although the article makes no mention of Abdul Bari, it does refer to the 1958 strike by Tisco workers which was put down ruthlessly. The article says: “According to local labour leaders there is good reason to fear the company. They cite a 1958 labour demonstration in which hundreds of protesting labour unionists were shot by the State police and allege that the police were prompted to take such drastic action by Tata Iron.”

If there is one thing that the company is not prepared to put up with, it is criticism of its policies and practices in any form whatsoever. Its endless vilification campaign against Professor Bari flows from its fascist mindset that never ceases to dictate the terms of existence to one and all in and around Jamshedpur. So used has the steel behemoth got to the settlement’s culture of sycophancy that it is beyond its imagination that anyone could speak out against it. Chakravarti’s article says: “…the company is as liberal with its ire as it is with its funds. Tata pressures local newspapers and makes life difficult for employees and bureaucrats regarded as being insufficiently loyal. The dilemma for the people of Jamshedpur is whether Tata’s civic generosity makes up for its oppressive rule. Residents say it does – but not those who have been on the receiving end of the company’s wrath… Jamshedpur residents also talk of how officials in company-controlled clubs and charities are pressured to toe the Tata line.” To survive in Jamshedpur, one has to be a sycophant and the sycophancy “springs from a fear psychosis”, to quote Russi Mody, the former chairman of Tisco whose ignominious exit from the company is a matter of public talk in the city even two decades after it happened.

Talking of being ‘generous’ to friends and inimical to real or perceived enemies, it is necessary to mention the contrasting attitudes of the Tisco management to the memory of two former presidents of Tata Workers’ Union. On the one hand is the sheer vindictiveness with which the Bari Maidan was misappropriated, so that the younger generations may, presumably, be ‘spared’ acquaintance with the saga of an austere, honest and courageous Gandhian nationalist; and, on the other, is the telling spectacle of the Regal Maidan, a large space in the heart of Jamshedpur, being renamed after VG Gopal, a staunch friend of the Tatas who outdid even Michael John in his efforts to remain in the good books of the employer. But whatever designs the company may invent, there is no taking at least a section of the people of Jamshedpur for a ride; they know what is what. While they sneer at the mention of Gopal for whom they have invectives normally not used in parliamentary debate, they have nothing but heartfelt gratitude for the one who came poor from Patna and left this world even poorer after long years of selfless struggle on their behalf.

The broad outlines of the 1958 strike by Tisco workers are still there in my memory; I was all of ten years of age at the time. The strike was a spontaneous uprising under the banner of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the labour arm of the still undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). The incumbent union – affiliated to the INTUC, which owed allegiance to the Indian National Congress – gave out that the strike was a Communist conspiracy to take control of things. The strike was mercilessly put down by a ruthless State machinery which was in the hands of the Congress in both Patna and New Delhi. Many lives were lost as the police fired on a peaceful gathering of striking workers; many times more lost their jobs.

The working class movement in Jamshedpur never regained its former glory. The workers lost their independent voice and, henceforth, the captive INTUC union that the Tisco management had left no stone unturned to save, gave an even more servile account of itself than before. One remembers that the management was quick to claim that the strike resulted from differences within the workers and had nothing to do with it. However, facts on the ground told a different story; a story that has not been sufficiently pursued but has nonetheless become an inseparable part of the oral history of Jamshedpur. If scholars and researchers in the area of labour and industrial relations had done their bit, perhaps the nation would have been better informed about the strike in the unforgettable summer of 1958 and its brutal suppression.

The striking workers could not have asked for abler leadership than that provided by Kedar Lal Das and his associates, notably Barin De, Ali Amjad and Dr. Udayakar Mishra. An ascetic in the old Communist mould, Kedar Lal Das or Kedar Babu, as he was generally addressed by people, dressed simply and ate little. He also spoke little but when he spoke, people listened to him intently because they knew they were in the presence not of rhetoric, common to most leaders regardless of their affiliation, but of wisdom realized in the heat of making the people’s cause his own. I remember my journalist father saying, “Kedar Babu is fire within, ice without.”

When Kedar Das died many years after the 1958 eruption, at least a lakh of people, not all of whom agreed with him on everything, accompanied him on his last march with full-throated cries of “Comrade Kedar Das, zindabad! Comrade Kedar Das amar rahey!” The last time the people of Jamshedpur had seen such a scene and heard such a chorus was when Professor Abdul Bari had died. With Kedar Das’ death, the Left was left with no one at the top who commanded the kind of prestige and popularity that he did. In the resultant vacuum, Rightist elements entered the Jamshedpur scene with an agenda that held no good for workers and their families.

Scores of journalists from all corners of the country descended on Jamshedpur during the strike. They were taken care of handsomely by the public relations department of Tisco, then headed by one Dilip Mukherji who in course of time joined The Statesman in Calcutta, only to leave it for The Times of India. The well-oiled publicity wing of the company worked overtime to feed the visiting scribes with its version of events. Half-truths competed with utter falsehoods to paint the strikers in demonic colours.
Any worthwhile chronicle of the strike must necessarily mention some incidents that have so long been restricted to the realm of oral history. Here I shall mention two such incidents. The first deals with Barin De, Kedar Das’ foremost lieutenant in the strike, as indeed in many battles preceding and succeeding it. Even as many a captive journalist was being wined and dined at Tisco Hotel in the elite Northern Town area of the town, Barin-kaku (Barin Uncle), who used to write for Swadhinata (Liberation) – the Bengali organ of the CPI published from Calcutta, now defunct – was organizing the strikers on an almost empty stomach. A big, heavily-built man in wide-legged pyjamas, full-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and leather chappals that had seen many an extra summer, Barin De was sacrifice personified. Like his mentor, Kedar Das, Barin De, too, never married and counted as his family those for whom he struggled. He was a frequent visitor to our house, and lived with another Chatterjee family in the same locality as ours. The head of that household was a fellow-traveller who admired Barin-kaku’s almost suicidal exertions on behalf of the workers. I don’t know how far it is true but local gossip had it that in return for free food and lodging, Barin-kaku used to do the family’s washing along with his own and other household chores. It was also said that the man once claimed that a Communist never takes anything for free from anyone.

On a merciless summer day at the height of the strike, it so happened that Barin-kaku and father came face-to-face in the vicinity of Tisco Hotel. Plain clothed police informers were trailing the strike leaders who, in their turn, were trying their desperate best to keep a step or two ahead of their pursuers. When Barin-kaku told father that he had had nothing to eat for more than twenty-four hours and asked whether some food could be got somehow, father thought up a plan. It was decided that Barin-kaku would wait at a certain relatively safe place nearby while father went in search of food. He entered Tisco Hotel where everybody knew him since he was a local patrakaar (journalist), took one of the cooks aside, and asked for two plates of chicken sandwiches to be readied and packed. Since journalists had a free run of the place, the order did not cause any suspicion. Leaving the hotel hurriedly with the food packet in his briefcase, father headed for the spot where he was supposed to meet Barin-kaku. I still remember father’s words about what happened next: “The big famished man practically snatched the packet from my hand and began to wolf down the sandwiches without a pause. I had known hunger in my boyhood and youth for the family never seemed to have enough, but that day seeing Barin eat without looking to his left or right, I learnt a fresh lesson in what hunger means.” Both father and Barin-kakuare now long dead, but the fact of their comradeship will never die in my mind.

The strike attracted leaders from all directions. Name any Left leader of national eminence of the day, and he was there in Jamshedpur to pitch in his effort. Indrajit Gupta, who was to be seen in the role of Union Home Minister some decades later, gave an exemplary account of himself during the strike. Soon after he had reached Jamshedpur clandestinely, Bihar Police and Tisco informers led by one Gour Mohanty, who came to be handsomely rewarded for his pains after the strike was scuttled, got wind of Gupta’s arrival. They lost no time in getting into the act of trying to nab the ‘mischief-maker’, one of the politer terms that the authorities freely used to describe the strike leaders. Soon there came a time when Gupta was running literally from pillar to pillar, post to post, in the company of one or two local escorts. According to Shanti Mukherjee, the owner of a small eating place in the Kadma market of the township named ‘Ramesh Cabin’, one night Gupta was brought to the eatery with the urgent request to find a ‘refuge’ for the leader for at least a couple of days since the police were hot on his heels.

Shanti Mukherjee took Gupta to the dark, dirty recesses of a place that people of the locality knew as ‘Mamoor Koylar Taal’ (Maternal Uncle’s Coal Depot) and asked him to change from his trousers and shirt-sleeves to singlet and underpants, which were then liberally smeared with handfuls of coal dust. His face and limbs were also similarly blackened. He was then told to stay put for two or three days. Food and water was reached to him from time to time by trusted party workers. The air inside the coal depot was damp, foul and suffocating. How the man must have suffered all alone in the dark! When Mukherjee felt sure that the pressure to catch Gupta had somewhat lessened, it was arranged for the latter to take a night train out of Tatanagar station. Even in that state Gupta had been advising the strikers about what to do and what not to.

Kedar Das breathed his last in 1981. Despite ill-health, he was leading an agitation by workers in the employ of rapacious Tisco contractors when his end came. Most of these workers were of Adivasi stock who had been made to slog like slaves for years together; facilities were non-existent and wages were beggarly. The agitation was meant to bring pressure on the Tisco management to convert their status from ‘bonded labourers’ to ‘permanent employees’. It is widely believed in Jamshedpur that Kedar Das fell to a blow on his chest by the Tisco security staff whilst leading a march by the aggrieved labourers.

Paritosh Bhattacharya, an ardent follower of Kedar Das, wrote in Motif, an avant-garde weekly paper owned and edited by my late father : “To be with the people during the storms is an immortal bequest ever renewed by selfless people like Kedar Das for ushering in a happier and nobler life for everyone, everywhere on earth.” In that article, Bhattacharya quoted Nikolai Vuptsarov, a young Bulgarian poet who was shot by a Nazi firing squad during World War II. The night before he was shot, Vuptsarov wrote a short poem which Bhattacharya resurrected in his homage to his much-loved and much-missed Kedar-da: After the firing squad, the worms,/ Thus does the simple logic go,/ But in the storm I will be with you,/ My people, because I loved you so.

The 1958 steel workers’ strike failed to achieve its high objectives, so did the 1981 agitation by contractors’ labour. Yet, more than one-eighth of Jamshedpur’s population turned up at the cremation of Kedar Lal Das. That one-eighth meant a little more than a lakh of people.

If the Indian nation has not heard of the unique individual who was ‘Kedar Babu’ to some, ‘Kedar-da’ to some others, and ‘Comrade Kedar Das’ to everyone around him in Jamshedpur, the misfortune is not the dead man’s. And the same holds true for Professor Abdul Bari, separated from Kedar Das in terms of political allegiance but united by a common resolve never to leave the working class in the lurch, come what may.


The above article from Red Star is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use