September 28 is the 113th birth anniversary of the most loved and remembered freedom fighter of India Shahid Bhagat Singh. It is also the 30th death anniversary of Shahid Shankar Guha Niyogi.
Subhash Chandra Bose while broadcasting his message to people of India from his Azad Hind Fauz camps had referred to Mahatma Gandhi as the Father of Nation ( whose birth anniversary too we will we will be observing very soon on October 2 ). This title struck to Mahatma Gandhi not only because it was offered by our beloved Subhash Babu but also because of the great respect the people of India have for Mahatma Gandhi.
In a similar vein if there is to be a title of Son of India or Son of Nation then there would be no more deserving person for this than Shahid Bhagat Singh who has has won such great and enduring love and affection from people all over India extending over several generations. Of couse just as the title Father of India belongs not just to Mahatma Gandhi but also to his other elder colleagues who contributed in important ways side by side with him, similarly the title of Son of India is shared by various brave young comrades of Bhagat Singh.
Just two weeks back on September 13 we observed also the martyrdom day of one of the bravest and most committed of these comrades Shahid Jatindra Nath Das who breathed his last after a 69 day fast in jail for the rights of political prisoners. It is sad that the demand for which he sacrificed his life still has to be raised 74 years after the independence of Iindia.
Not just Jatindra Nath Das but all close comrades of Bhagat Singh were at their best and bravest during the jail days of 1929-31. The few who had escaped arrest, like Chandra Shekhar Azad, also continued to work very bravely even in the middle of increasing difficulties.
The struggle in jail was struggle of prolonged fasts, hunger, torture and atrocities. But Bhagat Singh and his comrades faced everything with such inspiring courage that they succeeded in lighting the spark of freedom struggle in millions of hearts of India. A handful of them with their great courage achieved in jail what would have been difficult to achieve by an army.
The acceptance of a leadership role of Bhagat Singh was spontaneous both because of the great learning he had acquired by constant study even before the age of 23 ( when he was hanged to death in 1931) and his consistent ,unwavering recoord of great commitment and courage.
The vision of ending poverty and exploitation , inequalities and injustice, achieving national unity and harmony, continuing the struggles against imperialism and neo-colonialism, which had guided these great freedom fighters continues to be highly relevant even today for people, particularly as the government is moving away so much from this vision. A very important challenge is to combine the learnings of various streams of the freedom movement .
There is much to learn from the streams represented by both both Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi . Several social movements in India try to incorporate and combine the ideals of both streams. One such effort was made by a very courageous and thoughtful labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi. Septemer 28 also happens to be the martyrdom day of Shahid Shankar Guha Niyogi.
Shankar Guha Niyogi was assassinated on September 28, 1991 when he was just 48, but even at this young age he had become a legendary figure. While he was adored as brother and son by the iron ore miners and other workers of Chattisgarh to whom he devoted his entire life, at a wider level he became perhaps the most talked about example of someone who could link trade union struggles to wider issues like struggles of surrounding peasantry, social reform, workers’ own health programme, environment protection and broad-based mobilization for democratic change.
Born at Jalpaiguri on February 14 1943, Niyogi came to the town of Bhilai steel township as a young man and soon became involved in stuggles of steel workers. He then took to wandering in nearby villages of Chattisgarh region which at that time was a part of Madhya Pradesh state. It was during this stage that he realized that the workers who were suffering the most, much more than the regular workers of steel plant, were the mostly local rural workers ( many of them tribals) employed under the contract system for mining of iron ore in the mines of Dalli-Rajhara. But before he could take forward the efforts to mobilize them, emergency was clamped and 32 year old Niyogi, who by then had married a local rural girl Asha , was arrested.
However 13 months later when Niyogi was released from jail, workers welcomed him enthusiastically to form a new union Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS ) as their exploitation had increased further during the emergency months. The new union succeeded in winning several gains for workers . This alarmed the established power structure who conspired to inflict a heavy blow on the new initiative. At the time of the next struggle the police opened fire on workers who were resisting the re-arrest of workers. 11 workers were killed. Niyogi was arrested. But workers were determined now and prepared for a long struggle . The post- emergency situation at the national level was also favourable and support poured in from several places. After some time an agreement was signed with workers conceding most of their demands and Niyogi was also released.
Niyogi became known as a public figure at the age of 34 in 1977. Thus he had an active public life of only 14 years from 1977 to 1991. During almost this entire period he was endlessly harassed in the form of periodic jail sentences, multiplicity of legal cases against him and his close colleagues, threats , retrenchments, attacks on workers and in other ways. It speaks volumes not only for his dedication but also for his careful planning and broad vision that he nevertheless found time to initiate highly successful actions not only on the trade union front but also in many highly creative initiatives in health, social reform and other areas.
The first three or four years were like a formative period when some of the most important programmes were initiated. To prevent wage gains from being lost in liquor, Niyogi initiated one of the most successful anti-liquor efforts of the country in Chattisgarh. This was initiated not just as a fringe activity but was given so much importance that workers regarded it as a matter of honour for their union to give uo liquor. Families were also involved so that women and children could take up the work at the family level. Cultural and music groups were set up for more creative use of evening hours, but what eventually attracted many workers even more was the initiation of the workers’ own health programme and the construction of their own hospital—the Shaheed Hospital built in memory of workers who had sacrificed their life earlier in police firing.
The health effort owed its success to the enthusiastic participation of workers as volunteers for the construction and maintenance of the hospital as well as the dedicated work of senior and highly accomplished doctors like Dr. Saibal Jana and Dr. Binayak Sen. The great contribution of several highly committed nurses and health workers should also be remembered. After all these years Dr. Saibal Jana is still there to guide the Shaheed Hospital, working tirelessly with amazing dedication. Other doctors of this workers’ hospital like Dr. Punyabrata Gun and Dr. Binayak Sen later started other highly regarded health initiatives for weaker sections. One great contribution of Shaheed Hospital has been the building up of a hospital and a wider health programme related to it as a self reliant effort of workers without outside funding, something which could be possible because of the commitment of Niyogi and the CMSS to such initiatives and the willingness of workers to donate regularly for several years in the form of cash as well as volunteer services.
As a result of a clear policy to have an alliance with the surrounding peasantry, the workers got involved in several rural issues such as resisting the eviction of sharecroppers and opposing the replacement of natural forests with commercial plantations. A separate organization the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha was formed to take up such issues on a more continuing basis. At a later stage this effort supported the rehabilitation of bonded workers in many villages as per the orders of the Supreme Court.
The deep commitment of the CMSS to many sided welfare of workers attracted the attention of workers in other parts of Chattisgarh and even Maharashtra and the union was called upon by workers to take up mobilization work in their areas. The CMSS responded as well as it could leading to several successful efforts, but it had to cope with increasing difficulties in its home ground as the management of the steel plant came up with large scale mechanization proposals which would have led to the retrenchment of most workers. At this stage Niyogi showed great foresight in contacting sympathetic mining engineers so that an alternative proposal of semi- mechanization could be prepared which could increase production while retaining the existing jobs of miners.
However at some of the new places where Niyogi was invited to work, his opponents were much more ruthless compared to the public sector management of the steel plant and he was threatened time and again with violence. Several of his colleagues were attacked and finally he was assassinated on September 28 1991.
While affection and respect for Niyogi have only increased with the passage of time, without his inspiring presence the unions and movements led by him got fragmented and hence weakened. However as his 30th death anniversary is observed , the need for unity is being increasingly realized.
Bharat Dogra has written for 49 years with perspective of peace and justice. His recent books include When the Two Streams Met ( Freedom Movement) and Protecting Earth for Children.