2: The Martyrdom of a Working Class Hero: Sankar Guha Niyogi, by Vijoy T. Oommen

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

2: The Martyrdom of a Working Class Hero: Sankar Guha Niyogi, by Vijoy T. Oommen

A Life Sketch

Sankar Guha Niyogi was born in the year 1943. But later he moved from his native Bengal to Bhilai in 1961. He sought employment in the Bhilai Steel Plant. He studied for and obtained a B.Sc. Degree while working as a skilled worker in the Bhilai Steel Plant. By 1964-65, he had become a Union Organizer and was the Secretary of the Black Furnace Action Committee. In the next few years, Niyogi was associated with the Co-ordination Committee of the Communist Revolutionaries, the Precursor of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). (Sankar Guha Niyogi: His Work and Thinking, published by Jan Vikas Andolan, p.2.) The growing intensity of his political activity caused him to lose his job. He then left Bhilai and moved to the far-flung areas of Chattisgarh -- the vast cultural entity which includes the districts of Bastar, Bilaspur, Durg, Raipur, Rajnandgaon and Sangujei. (Ibid., p. 3.) After a brief period of his working with the C.P.I. (M-L), he left the party on his own.

Niyogi started the work on his own in the year 1962. It was during this time that his whole life took the shape of an activist. His nomadic existence took him to many occupations and struggles, all within the Chattisgarh region. He worked as a Forest worker in Bastar, catching and selling fish, as an agricultural laborer and shepherding goats. Every where he was involved in local struggles. The struggle of Adivasis in Baster against Mongra Reservoir and the Daihard people's struggle for water were some of the struggles from which he learnt his early lessons in mass organization. Gradually, he had become a part and a parcel of that community and started working in mines where his long interaction with mining and mines began.

It was in 1975, he found his life-partner, Asha, and married her. By 1975, his activities as an organizer of the mines were sufficiently irksome to the establishment which led to his arrest during the emergency. He spent 13 months in jail under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). On returning from the jail, he shifted to Dalli Rajhara and soon founded the Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS). (Ibid.) Later he formed the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) to take up the wider problems of the region, especially those of the Adivasis. A subsequent struggle to free bonded laborers in the region led to the formation of the Chattisgarh Gamin Shramik Sangh (CGSS). Over the years, these three had worked in tandem.

Since 1991 his activities had shifted to organizing workers in the Industries of Bhilai. The earlier struggles had been primarily in interior areas. Now the movement came into direct, sharp and sustained conflict with the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists in that area.

Niyogi was not just a leader of the workers in Chattisgarh, but he had also become a synonym for the search for alternate politics. He was a trade Union Leader, not of the variety that one is used to. His concerns reached far beyond economic demands, enveloping all aspects of the People's lives -- their health, education, and the enhancement of women's status in the family through their empowerment. He had built up a status in the family through their empowerment. He had built up a powerful movement in Chattisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh with great enthusiasm. This struggle was not just against private industrialists but all those forces who joined hard to keep the down-trodden.

Historical Context: Socio-Economic and Political

The exploitative nature of the industrialists, the upper class, the Government and the politicians were the factors that motivated Niyogi to take part in the struggles of the oppressed. The origin of CMSS had to do very much with exploitation. The Chattisgarh iron-ore mines had become the captive mines of the Bhilai Steel Plant. At that time, the workers slogged in these mines for Rs.3/-a day with no job security and other facilities, (Deccan Herald, Oct. 6, 1991.) in violation of several labor laws. There was not a single labor law that was being honored in these industries. Instead of the statutory eight hours work, here the work stretched up to twelve hours without minimum wages prescribed for an eight hour per day Women were made to do night shifts. Industrialists did not seem to have heard of maternity benefits. Women had to take unpaid leave precisely when they needed more money. In some hazardous industries, the safety precautions were unheard of, placing the workers' lives and limbs at risk.

For about nine months, thousands of workers in about 104 industrial units of the Chattisgarh region had been engaged in a heroic struggle under the leadership of Mukti Morcha. (Update Collective, Aug. 16, 1991.) Because, flouting all labor laws, these industrial units were exploiting the workers to the hilt. Majority of the workers were kept temporary and contractual. In one of the companies, out of the 2000 workers, only 105 were permanent. Workers were made to do long hours of work while the wages were kept very low. In another company the contract workers had to work twelve hours a day for a paltry monthly wage of Rs. 300 - 500.

In the entire Durg-Bhilai Industrial Belt, on an average not more than 10% of the worker force was employed on a permanent basis and the rest were all contract workers. A recent study in major Industrial units showed the proportion of permanent workers to range between 6 and 8 per cent of the total work force. The wages of an average contract worker was not more than 12/- per day. (Economic and Political Weekly, Oct. 5, 1991, p. 2272.)

The nexus of the Industrialists and the Government paved the way for massive arrests and attacks by hired goondas. Once the workers of the Chattisgarh district were heavily lathi-charged by the police, because one day the workers went to the nearby city to attend a rally. When they resumed duty on the next day, the management and the police physically prevented them from entering the factory A recently published People's Union reports that the police then resorted to a lathi charge on 150 workers which was totally unprovoked as the workers were completely peaceful. It also reported that the lathi-charge was carried out at the insistence of the Excise Officer, who proclaimed that "they want to make a union, we will teach them a lesson, hit them". (Update Collective, Aug. 8, 1991, p. 3.) Another day, some of the CMSS workers were not allowed to work. They protested against this and staged a demonstration in front of the factory gate. But later they were invited for discussion by the management. But when the workers entered the factory premises, they were lathicharged by the police, tear-gas shells were hurdled on them, and fired. The police followed them to their houses, dragged them out and beat them up. Many were wounded and several others were arrested.

The worst brutality happened in June 1991. After a peaceful Dharna at the factory gate, the retrenched workers were returning to the trade union office. When the procession was passing beside the nearby police station, the Inspector crossed the procession in his motorbike and kicked a woman worker. But the people were very quiet. Suddenly, without any provocation, some police men pounced on the workers, beating and kicking them mercilessly. They pulled down the union flag and had beaten many. Many were arrested and kept in jail. But the Government in Madhya Pradesh did nothing to assuage the feelings of the workers. On the contrary, they had openly sided with the industrialists. The Government allowed its police and the administrative machinery to be bought over by the industrialists.

Niyogi was not only concerned about the exploitation of human resources, but he was also concerned about the environmental issues. The rivers nearby the factories turned blood red in color due to the high iron-ore content in the water. Effluents from the distillery, the steel factory and the fertilizer plants had poisoned the waters of the Kharon and Shivanath rivers. The Chattisgarh mines are an example of the worst havoc wreaked by destruction on the environment. The forests were cut down. One day one lakh of trees were cut and carted away in the name of modernization. In those places sprang up scores of saw mills. Finally, a day came when no trace of the green canopy was left. Instead of that, grand palaces of the sawmill owners and traders came up. Then the cement plant was installed and the powder dust shower of cement which spread over the fields destroyed the agriculture of lakhs of farmers. Meanwhile the putrifying molasses at the newly opened distillery created an all pervasive odor. Eventually all the rivers were polluted. A vile itching spread among the people who lived beside these rivers. The mortality rate of cattle became unnaturally high.

This was the historical context of Chattisgarh region during the time of Niyogi.

The Witness of Niyogi

The above factors forced Niyogi to work for the upliftment of the exploited and to protect the environment. Under the leadership of Niyogi, CMSS fought for statutory minimum wages and eradication of contract labor. The Chattisgarh movement led by Niyogi transcended the question whether industrial workers and peasants or agricultural laborers have the major political or historical precedence in terms of political organization. By organizing labor in iron ore and other mines drawing largely upon Adivasis from the surrounding districts, Niyogi had struck at the center of the economic process. They could make a better life for the miners and their families. It spearheaded a successful anti-alcohol campaign which closely involved women and led them to their growing participation in the functioning of the CMSS. The union began running a dispensary with modern facilities. They built a hospital with the savings and labors of the Union members. They also built schools.

The Martyrdom of Niyogi

Niyogi formed the Prajati Steel Engineering Shramik Sangh to fight for the workers rights. The industrialists retaliated by throwing out 700 workers. The police came down heavily on the workers. Scores of workers were injured and Niyogi was arrested. The Administration had decided that he was the root cause of the continuing law and order problem in Bhilai. He was a thorn in the flesh of some of the industrialists because he was campaigning against the labor laws. So, they influenced officials in a bid to bar him from the area. The B.J.P. Government issued an exilement notice on Sankar Guha Niyogi, the militant and widely respected leader of Chattisgarh. In a twenty-page show-cause notice, the collector of the District brought ninety one charges against Niyogi. These charges were related to labor struggles which stated that he was to be externed from the five districts for a period of one year.

Later he was arrested but it was during the time of elections and some of his dedicated comrades, along with the workers, ran a campaign for his release. And he was released from the jail about a fortnight before his murder. He visited Delhi and met both the President and the Prime Minister to appraise them of the conditions in Bhilai. He was leading a perfectly legal and constitutional struggle for workers rights, he pointed out. In the early hours of September 20th, 1991, an assassin reached in through an open window of the CMSS Office in Bhilai and fired six bullets into Niyogi, who was perfectly asleep then.

The B.J.P. Government had condemned the murder of Niyogi. But the same Government treated him as though he were a major don when he was alive. The administration was trying to throw him out of the area where he lived and worked with such zeal. As tensions mounted and when physical attacks on union workers increased, Niyogi himself anticipated his death. Before he died, he spoke on how the industrialists of the Bhilai area would make their final assault on the movement in the form of a conspiracy to kill him.

Reflection and Conclusion

"This is not just the murder of an individual, it is an assault on a Movement". These were the words of one of his close associates. It is very interesting to see that till the very end of his life, Niyogi remained steadfast in using non-violent struggle, exploiting every legal avenue for redressal of workers' and people's demands. In one of the reports by the Citizen's Committee, it is stated that:

"Niyogi was killed because he was an odd man out in an area where none had dared to challenge the network that some industrialists operated to deny their workers even basic amenities and living wages ... Niyogi's murder assumes sinister proportions when seen in the context of the rapidly changing industrial scenario in the country under pressure from World Bank and the IMF. A person like Niyogi, with a vision of self-reliance and alternative development of the Indian society, will then be missed more than ever before."

Niyogi's politics was a politics of struggle and creativity. Struggle for creation and creation for struggle. In one of his last speeches. he says: "This world is beautiful and I certainly love this beautiful world, but my work and my duty are important to me. I have to fulfil the responsibility that I have taken up. These people will kill me, but I know that by killing me none can finish our movement". Niyogi stressed very much that struggle against injustice and exploitation is our basic task. It has to be combined as much as possible with constructive work.

Some may ask whether we can consider Niyogi as a Christian martyr. For me whoever gave their life like Niyogi, for the poor and the oppressed, is a Christian martyr. Because the concern was to uplift the people. It is for their sake, he gave his life. He was the one who searched for new developmental paths and a new society based on justice, equality and human values. He struggled relentlessly in this direction till the end of his life. In Niyogi we see a magnificent gift of God. He died for our sake and for the sake of the coming generation. Bishop Romero said: "If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador ... A bishop may die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never die."

The issue posed by Niyogi will cast its shadows on further struggles in the remaining part of this and in the next century. Niyogi's is one of the more prominent images that will cast shadow over India's struggle in the next century Niyogi has started something that is quite unstoppable to work for the poor and the downtrodden. Let us also dedicate ourselves anew to the struggle for the liberation of these people.




Update from Delhi: Industrial Workers brave the terror unleashed by the Industrialist -- State Nexus.

Sankar Guha Niyogi: His work and thinking, pub. by Jan Vikas Andolan. Vichara-Niyoji Rashtnya Atniryathakkum Uyiru Nilkiyoranwesharamu (Malayalam) by K.M. Thomas.

Economic and Political Weekly, Oct. 5, 1991, Nov. 30, 1991, Oct. 26, 1991.

Mainstream, Oct. 5, 1992 "Trade Unionist of different Morals"

Deccan Herald, Oct. 5th, 1991.

Deccan Herald, Oct. 4th, 1991.

Times of India, Oct. 4, 1991 -- "Was Industrial Mafia Behind Niyogi Murder ?"