Shankar Guha Niyogi was a leader with immense integrity and political purpose-fulness in life. And I am aware that I am not the right person to write about him. But since certain memories haunt me, I feel it may be good to relieve myself by writing about him.
The time was 1979-80. My mind was filled with Marxian politics and I was drawing cartoons for mainstream news papers and magazines while I was still a hang-around as a student at the school of German Studies in JNU. While my mind was struggling to deal with the expectations on me from all three areas and conflicts within myself, I must say the preoccupation was more on political thinking. Occasional activism was a source of energy and relief. That was the time when Jogin, a friend with whom I used to discuss with on common political dreams, took me to Shankar Guha Nyogi, for which I am grateful to Jogin throughout my life. For he exposed me to a great personality which made me reflect on my own strengths and weaknesses. Most of us rarely get an occasion to have a clear understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses, especially at a young age.
Nyogi was not a well known figure in Delhi at that time. But I had known about him as a great political leader who organized the mine workers of Dalli Rajhara in Chattisgarh. For those youngster who were searching for revolution and kept feeling that traditional left would not be a source for such a hope, there was always a need to look for outside symbols. The image of Nyogi shared this hope for us for a working class revolution. Before me, my very good close friend Paul Kurien was already in touch with him and did some sharing with me about Nyogi’s work in Chattisgarh. Paul was also planning to do some research on some of the issues related to the issues of miners in Chattisgarh, connecting with Neogi. I am forced to pause for a minute here, because both Paul Kurien, who had an extra ordinary mind and Shankar Guha Nyogi, an extra ordinary activist leader are not with us any more. But I am sure, those who knew these people will know exactly the meaning of my words, because certain realities and memories are beyond the language of words.
I walked into a small room in Green Park Extension with Jogin, where Nyogi and his friend Amit Sen Gupta, a trade unionist from HMS were seated. Nyogi surprised me by his simplicity and we sat down to talk. During those days, like most of the JNUites, discussions meant sharing of our differences of ideas. And I was stupid enough to do exactly that with Nyogi, since I noticed his leanings on Stalin. In no time, the debate on Stalin became very heated. Unfortunately, because of the time and energy we spent in our group in JNU, I had a superior edge. I was horrified to note how a person like Shankar Guha Niyogi could defend a person like Joseph Stalin, who was responsible for many murders including the leaders who built the Russian revolution as well as their families and comrades. The other difference of mine with Niyogi was on the characterization of Indian State as semi feudal and semi colonial, similar to the analysis of CPI(ML). Though Niyogi had spent his time with underground politics before I met him, he was already out of all such politics and he had no faith on the concept of `annihilation of class enemy’ which advocated violence. If he believed in such strategies, he could have easily killed his own murderers much before they shot him. But he knew that any such act of violence would bring massive violence on his own people.
Today, I still hold my dissent on Stalin, but I am beginning to understand that there is a strong element of truth on the analysis of Indian State. The feudal characteristics determine even in the mobilization of mass political events in India and nobody in the US, UK, France or Germany can ever imagine a linear power hierarchy of Nehru to Indira to Rajiv to Sonia and Rahul. The relationships in India may not have much to do with the feudal norms of the European history, but it is a strange mixture of feudal, family name, caste power and other mixtures of traditions apart from class politics. It is not use value or economic value as per the capitalist norms which dominate all the time here, but there are other norms which dictate relationships. Whether I was right or wrong at that moment of argument with Niyogi is immaterial. What made me realize was that the power of understanding can cripple any of us as arrogant beings if we do not know the purpose of understanding, especially in political thinking. While Amit was getting furious about my arguments with Nyogi, Nyogi knew exactly what he wanted. He said: `Look here, comrade. It is true that we have some differences on our understanding. We can keep our differences. But are there any common areas where we can work together?’
His question brought me down shamefully to earth. I said: `You tell me. You are the leader. I am no leader.’
Immediately he put forward his agenda on me. He said: `I know that you are a good cartoonist and a politically committed person. So why don’t you do a cartoon for our struggle?’
`Ok, but when?’ I asked.
`Right now,’ said the leader. I said I don’t have the materials and I have to discuss more on the issues with him in order to think about a good idea. Nyogi did not leave me at that. He asked me what materials I needed to do a poster and sent Amit to bring them. We finished the poster at night and when I was returning I kept reflecting on Niyogi. Here is a leader who can make use of even opponents for his movement in no time. This meeting with Nyogi was certainly a great experience for me to understand my own strengths and weaknesses as a person, if not with political ideas. Therefore, despite my differences, I joined his fan-club.
What attracted me most about Niyogi was that his search was that of an `organic intellectual’ as per a term used by Gramsci. His life had a bit of a sufi existence on his past. Niyogi might have been around 15 years older than me. But by the time I met him he had explored a vast area of political life and it was this enormous experience which forced me to recognize that I was a child in front of him.
His experiences could be many. Childhood in Bengal and Assam. A local leader of the All India Students Federation, later with CPI (ML) and after that with diverse explorations. During the sixties, he worked as a skilled worker at the Bhilai Steel Plant and while working, he studied and obtained his BSC. Niyogi and his colleagues also organized one of the first strikes there for better working conditions. He was thrown out soon after. He moved around in different parts of Chattisgarch including Durg, Bastar, Bilaspur, Raigarh, Rajnandgaon, Sarguja, Raipur and other places. This period could be his sufi existence in his political life, where he was involved with many occupations and local struggles. During Emergency, he was arrested under the draconian law Maintainance of Internal Security Act (MISA). After he came out of Jail, he was approached by the contract workers of Dalli Rajhara, who were just planning a struggle for raising their yearly bonus. In no time, Niyogi became their accepted leader forming an organization, Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh. When he began his trade union work in the region, the workers were getting three and a half rupees per day. By the time I met him, the workers were getting thirty four rupees per day. But he did not limit his work with usual trade union work for wages and bonuses. He set up a workers’ hospital in memory of the martyrs and this hospital was funded by the workers. It was here that Dr. Binayak Sen stepped in.
I met Dr. Binayak Sen for the first time in during the mid eighties in Dalli Rajhara, along with my dear friend and colleague and film maker P. Baburaj. Binayak was a calm doctor who treated the workers with a deep empathy in political issues. I used to think that this was a rare person, somebody who is a qualified pediatrician working for five hundred rupees a month for this workers’ hospital. Even the adivasi workers might have been earning more money at that time than Dr. Binayak Sen. To my surprise, he told us about the poster I did during the first confrontation with Niyogi. Niyogi had printed ten thousand posters and used it all over. A copy was found at the hospital.
While we were chatting, the news came that Niyogi was arrested. For Niyogi, his life meant more than Dalli Rajhara. He was involved with other struggles also. Just within half an hour, we could see adivasi miners from distant hills joining for a protest. In no time, there was a huge protest against the arrest of Niyogi. What Niyogi meant to people was clear for us in these events.
After organizing the the trade union for the mine workers, Nyogi continued with Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), which was formed to take up broader issues of the region and Chattisgarh Gramin Shramik Sangh (CGSS). During Niyogi’s time, all organizations worked together.
I had experienced Niyogi’s capcity to tolerate dissent. But I knew even when I was arguing with him that he could articulate his politics strongly wherever needed. He was a charismatic leader. His charisma was due to his diverse experiences and his thinking. He did forest work in Bastar, caught and sold fish in Durg, worked as agricultural labourer in Keri Jungata, shepherding work on goats in Rajnandgaon and many other diverse experiences. All along he maintained his search for politics and involvement in action. I can only think of a similar character whom I have not met. Che Guevara also had similar diverse involvements. Che was a doctor, banker, economist, poet, writer, minister, guerilla, bookseller and a romantic lover. But he was from a different class altogether.
Niyogi was not an ordinary trade unionist. I was always skeptical of the term `declassification’ in Marxian terms. It is not easy for anybody to delete the experiences, memories and relationships of a class in which you are brought up with, though there are rare cases. But most of the trade union leaders in this country came from the middle class and I rarely see any possibility of their declassification. Their class power, perhaps was useful to negotiate between the working class and the capitalist effectively more than the workers themselves. But perhaps, it is this class power which refrain them from any revolution. Why Niyogi was different was not just because he lived with the adivasi workers and married an adivasi woman. He also came from different experiences of being a worker. But intellectually, he could relate with the middle class intellectuals and possessed better skills in negotiation than his upper middle class counter parts. While preserving his revolutionary charm till his death there was a deep exploration for a new politics within his mind.
When I began my film work with a frame work of making films on people’s movements and for people’s movement during the early eighties, I approached Niyogi for a film on Veer Narayan Singh, a local adivasi leader who fought the British. Niyogi had popularized his image and later Veer Narayan Singh became a mainstream symbol in Chattisgarh. I told him that if every worker contributes one rupee each, I can make a black and white film on Veer Narayan Singh. Niyogi was interested. But when it came to the discussion within the union, unfortunately there were more pressing needs within the workers themselves, even if such a collection had occurred. But what made me realize that at a time when other people’s movements did not realize the possibility of a film in politics, Niyogi had a vision for that. He used Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times in the struggle of the workers against mechanization of the mines. Interestingly, he proposed a model of semi-mechanisation which neither displaced nor affected productivity. Paul Kurien had contributed a great deal on these discussions. Paul along with Amrita Chachi had done some wonderful research work on this issue at that time.
Shankar Guha Niyogi was shot dead in his sleep on September 28, 1991 in a house in Durg-Bhilai area. Niyogi knew very well that he would be killed and he could have saved his life. But his own political search did not allow him. I did not cry when I heard that Niyogi was killed, though I was deeply disturbed. But soon I heard about an audio tape in which he recorded his own voice one week before his death. I do not remember the exact words, but the tape said:
I know that I will be killed if I continue this path of politics. If I change my path now, they will spare me. But if I change of my path due to fear, I will lose respect on myself. Therefore, if I am killed I would like to share these words…….’ On what continued are these exact words :…”This world is beautiful and I certainly love this beautiful world, but my work and my duty are important to me. I’ve to fulfill the responsibility that I’ve taken up. These people will kill me, but I know that by killing me none can finish our movement.”
For my horror, I found myself crying loudly after I heard about the content of the tape. I had to ask myself that if I am posed with a question of life and death due to my own politics, where will my commitment be? It is here that people like Shankar Guha Niyogi make people like me shrink. The other occasion when I cried similarly was when Safdar Hashmi was killed. Safdar and his team was working with the Hindi translation of our documentary called
In the Name of Medicine’ on the commercialization and exploitation of the pharmaceutical industry. The work went on till four o’clock in the morning at CENDIT studio and since Safdar had a good language and voice it became better than the original English version. He came out of the studio and told me:Your film is extremely relevant, but I have some differences with you on your notion of industrialization and development. I suddenly jumped up to discuss it with him, but he said he had to prepare for a play in the afternoon and he requested for a meeting later for a proper discussion. Twelve hours later I heard he was killed. Like Niyogi, Safdar could also have saved himself. He gave up his life by protecting others. When I heard about this, I went to a tomb in Green Park in Delhi and cried with roaring tears. I did not want others to hear me. However, my discussion with Safdar was incomplete.
Crying is the art of touching the earth. I would prescribe this occasional great medicine to all human beings. Anger and arrogance are the urges to reach the sky. Unfortunately, since the human beings can not fly like birds, all anger and arrogance will have to collapse at one stage or the other. They also make us suffer more than tears. However, I am still trying to deal with my own anger and arrogance within myself. But I feel myself lucky to be able to produce tears for the memory of people like Niyogi.
Nyogi was aware of the environmental effects of mining. But there was a trap. Here was a community of thousands of workers predominantly migrated adivasis who work for peanuts for survival and their lives were too important for him. This was the same catch for Gro Vasu, a similar committed leader of the trade union in Birla’s Mavoor Rayon Factory. Nyogi and Gro Vasu had similar political orientations. Both came out of more or less CPI(ML) oriented politics. Stalin inspired both. Recently, when I went to interview Gro Vasu, he gave us a very inspiring interview. Later, when I was taking shots of the environment, I noticed the photographs on the wall and I asked my camera person Neethu to take a pan shot of the wall. When she was preparing the shot, I told her to take all the photographs of Marx, Engels and Lenin and drop Stalin. Gro Vasu heard that and appeared to be a bit upset. Luckily, I avoided any debate on Stalin with Gro Vasu. For here is a person who spent seven and a half years in jail on a fabricated case and faced police brutalities for his political convictions and went on to be socially relevant even at his old age. And he is still surviving by making umbrellas all by himself and selling them. When people’s movements invite him to speak, he does not even take his travel reimbursement, since he genuinely believes in such movements. These are still some relics for me, remnants of the past history of passionate social commitment. So how does it matter if he is a Stalinist? He is far better than a Trotskyite who does not do anything.
The images of Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, Marx,Engels, Lenin, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Budha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed Nabi and many others are still a matter of wonder for me. While my curiosity is still retained on their insights, these images are no longer a matter of deep conflict within me now. I may have very strong opinions on any of them, but in the final outcome, how does it matter? These people are dead and gone. It is our job to make best use of our lives along with the rest of humanity with or without them. Ultimately, your political relevance is determined by what you do in history. Your ideas can be a boost of your own ego by sharing them with some. But even ideas have a social, personal , practical and political process to make it move. And unless they move people, your ideas are only a waste of energy in thinking and reading. Ideas and action can only be supplementary and interdependent categories. Anybody who takes the pursuit of one of these by ignoring the other will have the same conflict between body and mind in their lives. To avoid such a conflict, the precondition is the deep necessity to understand many great souls like Shankar Guha Nyogi. Whether we like it or not, most of the adivasi miners in Chattisgarh still may not have read any of the above prophets. But Nyogi is still a moving inspiration for the lives of many. Because he led a life to move others. And they still remain moved with his memories.
K.P Sasi is a film maker, writer, activist and cartoonist. He can be reached at [email protected]
Hindi Translation of the article by Natashaa Khan