Remembering Y.V. Chavan, a Strong Advocate of Working Class Unity

The veteran trade unionist passed away in Pune on January 23, 2018.

Y.V. Chavan. Credit: Author provided

With the death of Y.V. Chavan, one of the seniormost trade unionists of Maharashtra, a link with Mumbai’s and Maharashtra’s working class history has ended. He was also the founding president of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI).

Yashwantrao was born in Kolhapur, a princely state, on August 28, 1920. His father was a judge. As a teenager itself, the young Y.V. Chavan was active in the independence and communist movement. He studied at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. He met Vimal Hemmady, his future wife, at a friend’s house while evading arrest during this period. A freedom fighter, who was active in the school teachers’ union and in the women’s movement, she passed away in 2009. . Madhav, their only child, is the CEO of Pratham, an NGO that works in the field of education.

Chavan was part of the Lal Nishan group within the Communist Party of India and like many others struggled to reconcile himself to the party’s changed line on the Second World War after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. When the Quit India movement was launched in 1942, his view was that the working class aspiration for Indian independence had to be paramount. Although there could be no compromise with the fascism, he and his comrades felt that CPI’s support for the Soviet – and by extension Allied and British – war efforts against the Axis power would weaken the freedom struggle. With the CPI opposing the Quit India movement, Chavan and others formed the Lal Nishan Party in January 1943. In August 2017, the LNP announced its decision to merge back the CPI. In its heyday, the party played a key role in the movement for the formation of Maharashtra state and advocated the line that culture and language were more important than caste and religious identities.

This understanding, including of the need for democracy within the party, was to remain with Chavan throughout his life, and influenced his work on democracy within trade unions. He was baptised into the trade union movement in 1940 when one lakh Bombay textile mill workers struck work for 40 days, demanding higher dearness allowance to compensate for the rising prices of essential articles during the war. Despite his departure from the CPI, he remained a member of the undivided All India Trade Union Congress until it was split in 1970 to form the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. At this point, the vast majority of trade unions he was associated with became ‘independent’ of both AITUC and CITU. Yet, he remained a strong advocate of working class unity, irrespective of party political affiliation.

He became president of the Kamani Employees’ Union (KEU) in 1960, which “marked a turn of the tide of sorts with both a new generation of leadership emerging as also more direct participation of workers in the leadership of trade unions in the Mumbai industrial belt,” the NTUI said in a statement after his death.

At the time, trade unions were still very strong in Bombay, which had a large blue collar workforce. The communists, led by the likes of S.A. Dange, were the dominant force in the city’s textile mills and manufacturing units and Chavan by then also emerged as a significant force.

A year later,  he helped found the Sarva Shramik Sangh, a broad workers union that would quickly emerge as one of Mumbai’s largest. He remained active in the organisation until into his 70s. The unions he was associated with as president or in other capacities – the KEU, the Blue Star Workers’ Union and others – eventually joined hands with like-minded unions elsewhere in the country to form the National Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) in 2006.

Chavan was part of the growth of the Left flag unions in the textile mills movement in Bombay in the 1980s which represented a unity of the peasantry and working class in the Maharashtrian context. He recognised that it was important to sustain an ideological battle for secularism in the working class and in Maharashtra politics.

In the presidential address at the founding conference of the NTUI in 2006, reflecting on the challenges before the trade union movement, he emphasised that “traditional forms of unionisation and collective bargaining are inadequate to face the widespread onslaught of capital. As capital spreads its tentacles of influence, the working class also has to broaden its resistance” and the“new alliance of workers has to include within it concerns of different employment categories and social groups. It has to address issues of social and gender discrimination in an organic manner, both within its own organisations, and as forms of alliance building. This is the only way forward for building an inclusive alliance of all workers and affected communities and fight for a democratic and equitable society.”

Under his leadership, even the formation of the NTUI was viewed as a catalyst to reverse the process of division and fragmentation of the Left unions and a move towards the original conception of AITUC. One of his last decisions was to merge the Lal Nishan Party with the CPI.

Rakhi Sehgal is member of the National Executive Committee, NTUI.
This obituary is based on the NTUI statement issued after Chavan’s death
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