Shankar Guha Niyogi was assassinated on September 28, 1991, when he was just 48. But even at that young age he had become a legendary figure. While he was adored like a brother and son by the iron ore miners and other workers of Chhattisgarh to whom he devoted his entire life, he also became perhaps the most talked about example of someone who could link trade union struggles to wider issues like peasant struggles, social reform, environmental protection and broad-based mobilisation for democratic change.
Born in Jalpaiguri on February 14, 1943, Niyogi came to the steel town of Bhilai as a young man and soon became involved in the struggles of steel workers. He then began travelling to nearby villages in Chhattisgarh (then a part of Madhya Pradesh). It was then that he realised that the workers who were suffering the most, much more than regular workers at the steel plant, were the mostly local rural workers (many of them tribals) employed under the contract system for mining iron ore from the mines in Dalli-Rajhara. But before he could take forward the efforts to mobilise them, Emergency was announced and 32-year-old Niyogi, who by then had married Asha, a woman from a village in the region, was arrested.
Thirteen months later when Niyogi was released from jail, workers welcomed him enthusiastically to form a new union – Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS). The exploitation they faced had only increased during the months of Emergency. The new union succeeded in winning several battles for the workers. This alarmed those in power, who decided to take action against the new initiative. When the workers held their next struggle, the police opened fire on protestors who were resisting the re-arrest of workers. Eleven workers were killed. Niyogi was arrested. But this incident only added to the workers’ determination. The post-Emergency situation at the national level was also favourable and support poured in from several places. Soon after, an agreement was signed that conceded to most of the workers’ demand and Niyogi was released.
Niyogi became known as a public figure outside of the region at the age of 34, in 1977. From then to his assassination in 1991, he was harassed endlessly – periodic jail sentences, multiple legal cases against him and his close colleagues, threats, attacks on the workers he worked with and more. It speaks volumes not only for his dedication but also for his careful planning and broad vision that he still found the time to start successful movements 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 in 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 up liquor. Families were also involved so women and children would support the effort inside the home. Cultural and music groups were set up for more creative use of the evenings, but what eventually attracted many workers 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 died in police firing.
The health programme 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 Saibal Jana and Binayak Sen. After all these years Jana still guides the Shaheed Hospital. His arrest this year in a very old case led to angry protests all over the country. Other doctors at the hospital like Punyabrata Gun and Sen later started other highly regarded health initiatives for marginalised sections of society.
Shaheed Hospital and the wider health programme around it was built as an independent effort from 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.
Alliance with farmers
As a result of the 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 organisation, the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, was formed to take up such issues. 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 the welfare of workers attracted the attention of workers in other parts of Chattisgarh and even Maharashtra. The union was called upon by workers to start mobilising in their areas as well. The CMSS did what it could, leading to several successful efforts, but had to cope with increasing difficulties on their home turf. The management of the steel plant came up with large-scale mechanisation proposals which would have led to massive job loss. At this stage, Niyogi showed great foresight in contacting sympathetic mining engineers so that an alternative proposal of semi- mechanisation could be prepared which could increase production while retaining the existing jobs of miners.
However, in some of the new places where Niyogi was invited to work, his opponents were much more ruthless than the public sector management of the steel plant he was more familiar with. He was threatened with violence multiple times. Several of his colleagues were attacked. 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 were fragmented and lost their strength. However, on his 25th death anniversary, the need for unity is stronger than ever.