After so many years, I have forgotten his first name, but can readily recall in my mind’s eye the pint-sized lawyer with a clean, shaven face and a shining bald to match. Mr. Dasan – that is the way I used to address him. In the mid-eighties, Mr. Dasan had a fairly good practice at the Calcutta High Court, but would also be seen at the Industrial Tribunal, arguing for dismissed workers and on behalf of Unions seeking justice on this or that issue. Anyone meeting the man for the first time would be instantly impressed by the nonchalance of his movements coupled with the confidence of his utterances, whether in the courtroom or outside of it. Mr. Dasan’s roots were in Kerala, but he lived with his family in Howrah, across the river Hooghly, once famed for its factories. Clearly, he was a man of Left sympathies, but not one to take everything the ruling party said or did lying down. He had a mind of his own – up to a point.
I can never forget the course of events that threw the two of us together. In those days – the mid-eighties – the Left Front government led by the CPI (M), having won elections to the State Assembly twice at a trot and greedily eyeing a third term in office, had begun losing its way in the labyrinth of hypocrisy and humbug. As for my humble self, I had been sacked from my job as a so-called ‘information officer’ in one of the country’s largest and most prosperous steel and engineering consultancy firms for having been unwise enough to ask the lowest-category workers of the firm to form a Union if they wished to negotiate with the employer regarding a fair deal for themselves. Along with me, four other workers were given the marching orders. They belonged to different parts of the country – Madan Yadav was from Uttar Pradesh; Raju Sharma was Nepali-speaking; Gadadhar Beuria and Upendra Jena were from what used to be known as Orissa in those days.
We went to court, the five of us, asking to be reinstated with full back wages and other facilities. But, first, I had to go to the Industrial Tribunal and prove that the nature of my work was such that I could hardly be described as an ‘officer’ and, hence, it was well within my rights to organise and participate in Union activities. The employer, flush with funds, engaged the services of one of Calcutta’s foremost solicitor firms, Orr Dignam & Co., to fight the case. Three leading barristers, one Ginwala, one Roychoudhury, and one Sinha, argued the case for the employer. At each hearing, Mr. Dasan, arguing for me, faced the combined verbal onslaughts of the three eminences with such debating skills that left even the judge visibly impressed.
The case dragged on for months. The company made it a prestige issue spending literally lakhs on each hearing; for us, the workers, it was a do-or-die matter, and died we would have of shame if not hunger, but for the exertions of Mr. Dasan whom we could hardly pay because the fledgling Union had no money. There were occasions when the man would lose his cool and pour scorn on us for our inability to give him even a fraction of his fees, but such was the quality of his being that he continued to argue for us till the last day of the case. He once asked me in a tone of light-hearted banter, “Mr. Jooornalist (that is how he would pronounce the word, extending it all the way from the law court to the Howrah station!), do you expect me and my family to survive on thin air?”
It did not take us long to discover that Mr. Dasan only pretended to be angry. He never deserted us, the Union people. If, on certain days, we were able to collect a few hundred rupees from members and sympathisers of the Union, we would hand it over to him with profuse apologies for our lapses. He would accept the money happily, but dismiss our apologies with a comradely wave of the hand. We could feel how much he felt for us.
If, at the end of a long and an occasionally acrimonious struggle, the Tribunal dismissed the company’s plea that I was an ‘officer’ and, as such, ineligible to have anything to do with Union activities, it was possible only because of Mr. Dasan. But, as we were to discover very soon, our victory at the Tribunal was but the beginning of a seemingly endless battle embracing many courts and a time-span of seventeen years. Perhaps, it needs to be recalled that if the tug-of-war conducted on non-violent Gandhian lines for the most part as far as the Union was concerned, did not finally succeed in getting back our jobs, it had much to do with the unfortunate manipulations by our advocate in the Calcutta High Court, a well-known CPI (M) worthy. And therein hangs a tale, common enough in many a legal corridor, of betrayal of innocents by a past master in the art of hiding one’s actual intentions behind a smokescreen of wordy promises. The Messiah in question made suckers of us all in the Union, but none more successfully than yours truly.
Briefly, the betrayal came about thus. On the day the advocates of the two contesting parties – the Union and the management – were to sum up their arguments before the High Court judge hearing the case, our man was conspicuous by his absence. It was only later that I realised that our advocate’s absence at the most crucial of all hearings was part of a well-calculated scheme. Days before the final hearing which he chose to give the go-by, our advocate had, in fact, summoned me to his chamber, only to tell me that the prospect of our winning the case looked bleak and, as such, it would be advisable to go for an out-of-court settlement. His dark words still ring in my ears: “From the look of things, the Union is likely to lose the case, in which case you and your friends will be left with nothing. My advice to you is to agree to settle the matter out of court while there is still time. I think a cheque of Rs. 5 lakhs could be arranged for you and Rs. 2 lakhs each for the other four. If you are willing, I could speak to the lawyers representing the company …”
As I was listening to him with a sinking heart, I could feel a contempt for the Judas rising from the pit of my stomach. A contempt, not so much of fiery anger as of tearful disappointment, engulfed my being. I reacted as only a victim of helpless fury could: “For seventeen years, we have been fighting a desperate battle for justice and honour, and all that you can offer us at this moment is a charity package! I cannot say how my comrades are going to react, but as far as I am concerned, I refuse to have anything to do with the proposed settlement”. Having said what I felt needed to be said, I walked out of the fellow’s chamber. As it turned out, unlike me, my friends thought it wise to take the cheques. The glib-tongued shyster had succeeded in fooling the poor fellows. The same man who had stabbed us in the back currently adorns a seat in the Rajya Sabha. Whenever he comes on the TV, my wife or I put it off.
Sometimes, I wonder how Mr. Dasan, our friend in need, is keeping these days. Could it be that he has ceased to be, after all it has been ages since I saw him fighting like a tiger to save us from defeat. I try to banish the thought from my mind, but like a dark devil, it keeps returning. I soothe myself with the thought that the profession of the lawyer, impoverished as it is by the presence of countless khotey sikkas, is badly in need of a good advertisement like Mr. Dasan.
Vidyarthy Chgatterjee is a film critic