Remembering Arun Kumar Roy, a True Leader of Workers and Peasants

Former Lok Sabha MP and founder of Marxist Coordination Committee, A.K. Roy was well-known for his simplicity and humility, and for consistently fighting for his staunchly socialist ideals.

Arun Roy, who passed away on July 20, 2019, was the noblest person among all my contemporary friends in India and abroad. He was born on June 15, 1935, in Rajshahi district. Both his parents were involved in the independence movement. Arun was my classmate in the Intermediate Science class in Belur Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira during 1951-52. I had heard that he had gone home in February 1952 and had been jailed for a few days for taking part in the Language Movement.

We came to know each other better when we both took part in the strike against the raising of seat rents in college hostels. After that, I was more or less forced to leave college. I returned to Presidency College but Arun stayed on. Later, I heard that he had passed MSc in Applied Chemistry –the equivalent of chemical engineering – and joined the Planning and Development (P&D) division of the Fertiliser Corporation of India at Sindhri.

I learnt from two sources that he had become involved in the trade union movement. One was a newspaper report, and the other was from Kshitish Ranjan Chakrabarty, the former director of P&D division who had become my colleague in the State Planning Board of West Bengal government. The latter told me that Arun was a good scientist and a sincere worker. However, when Arun became highly involved in the trade union movement, Chakrabarty advised him to leave his job and take up politics full time – which he did.

The next time I saw Arun was when I went to give a talk at the Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research in Dhanbad. When I went to meet Arun in his small office through a narrow lane, I found the entire lane watching me and my guide – because the people of the locality knew that Arun was a target of the coal mafia, whom he had partly neutralised.

The next time I met him was at the Kolkata Book Fair at the beginning of 1992 for a memorial meeting for Shankar Guha Niyogi, who had been assassinated by the mining and liquor mafia of the Dhalli Rajhara region on September 28, 1991. During the meeting, it began to rain. Somebody gave me an umbrella, but every time I tried to hold it on Arun’s head, he pushed it away. After the meeting, I took him home for a talk. He then said that he had told his comrades in the Marxist Coordination Committee – which he founded after being expelled from the CPI (M), mainly for writing in Samar Sen’s Frontier – that the people they worked for had to work under the sun and in the rain without an umbrella. He also complained that the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, of which he was a co-founder, had turned into an utterly corrupt party under Shibu Soren.

I met him again in the early 2000s in his brother’s house in Kasba, Kolkata for medical treatment because his blood sugar had climbed to 800. He complained that the CPI (M), in alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, had opposed the candidature of Guru Das Chatterjee, who, in spite of that, was elected to the Bihar Vidhan Sabha, but was murdered by the coal mafia soon after.

His 90-year-old mother and I pleaded with him that as a scientist, he should regard his body to be properly looked after. Arun thus lived until this year, although he had been suffering from ill health for the last two years.

The next time I heard about him was in January 2014, when I saw a report in Hindustan Times saying that the three-time MP from Dhanbad, A. K. Roy, who was living in the house of a comrade, had been rendered a pauper, because he was robbed of his only possession, an HMT watch and his savings of Rs 2,600. When asked by the HT reporter about Arun’s reaction, he said with a grin: ‘They [the robbers] were perhaps more needy”.

When my wife, Jasodhara read the report, she asked me to send him some money. My reply was: “How dare I send money to somebody who always sends his MP pension – his only income – to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund”.

I now turn to the evidence of three others who have written about or interviewed him. One is Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay, who interviewed Arun when he was already an MP. She had expected him to alight from a car, instead, Arun got down from a rickshaw. Mukhopadhyay described him as a catalyst, not a commander.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta interviewed him and included the interview in a video of the Dhanbad Coal belt, perhaps in the 1990s. What I remember from that video is his relentless fight for the rights of the coal miners and the Adivasis of that area, and the fact that he lived in a thatched cottage without a fan – because the people he worked for did not have fans.

Now, I turn to the evidence of Ajit Roy, a Marxist who was an employee of the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta:

“…if at all there is any evolving overall presence of the Marxist or leftist traditions here in this district, the subsequent chapter of this after the conclusion of the previous chapter in Purulia in the fifties, must have taken shape in Dhanbad in the mid-sixties, through the sole enterprise of the patriarchal, diligent, virtuous, fearless and dauntless leader of Marxist Coordination Committee Arun Kumar Roy.

Roy Babu’s endeavours in and around the rural and mining belts of Dhanbad was largely peaceful but he was not averse to armed struggles when needed, to organize the peasants and the serf, empowering these have-nots with the owner ship of farmland and cattles and to fulfil the rightful demands of the workers. His popularity and influence kept swelling in the villages, agricultural farms, factories and mills and coalfields because of his honesty, uprightness, undying efforts, organisational skill and indominable spirit.

A true leader of workers and peasants was emerging fast which roiled the collective psyche of Dusadhs, Chamars, Telis, Kurmis, Rajwars, Ghatwals, Santhals, Mundas, tribals, even the Bengalis of Hirapur. Dhanbad had never had a leader of such stature. One by one rising leaders like Binod Bihari Mahato, Anand Mahato, Shibu Soren, Nirmal Mahato, Kripa Shankar Chatterjee, Gurudas Chatterjee etc. assembled under his banner, most of whom later on left their signature amongst people as acclaimed leaders. Spectre of the huge popularity of communism and the growing stature of A K Roy haunted even Indira Gandhi into desperation. Her ‘line’ was unmistakably defined.

She had directed Chief Minister Gafur in a confidential memo to imprison the rioting communists and anti-Congress elements enmesh but leave alone the tribal or Jharkhandi activists of the mining areas. A U Sharma, the then DC of Dhanbad was a personal friend of Roy Babu, he read Indira’s letter to him and alerted him that he was under constant surveillance. During Emergency, Roy Babu was jailed very often and for about 6 years he was relegated into inaction. Shibu Soren also was imprisoned during the period but was released shortly.

He went into an alliance with Congress. However, the alliance proved to be a red herring, neither Shibu, nor Congress could reap any benefit from it. Roy Babu won the Parliamentary Election of 1977 with a huge margin with the support of Jai Prakash Narayan and the Janata Party. He won the election of 1980 also. Uptil now, Roy Babu had commanded the support of different Jharkhandi, left and Janata alliance in the electoral frays. He continually won three Assembly and two Parliamentary elections.”

Finally, I will try to provide some idea of Arun’s perspective on the world, with the help of two articles in Frontier. The first was published on December 18, 1969, and is titled ‘Communists – simple, Marxist and revolutionary’. It is a clinical analysis of the views of the CPI, CPI(M) and the newly-formed CPI (ML). To quote Arun:

“According to the CPI, the State power in India is essentially concentrated in the hands of the national bourgeoisie – may be represented by Indira Gandhi – who are under increasing pressure from the big bourgeoisi – may be represented so far by Morarji Desai – who are in turn progressively collaborating with foreign imperialists. So the CPI advocates ‘National Democracy’ in which it would share power with the ‘first’ by displacing the ‘second’.So yesterday, there was the Gandhi-Desai government, next would come a Dange-Gandhi government, and then a pure Dange government…. As the national bourgeoisie have the State power, there is bourgeois democratic freedom in the country, and the scope of parliamentary politics negates any need for extra-parliamentary methods and underground activities.

The CPI(M) holds that the State power essentially rests with the big bourgeoisie and their junior partner – landlords – who are in the process of surrendering to the imperialists. The national bourgeoisie, if any, are only of subsidiary importance.. That means that Desai and Gandhi are only the two containers of the same content. So the struggle will be not for sharing power but for wresting power but for wresting power from the present ruling class and for putting the workers not as a partner but at the leadership as conceived in ‘People’s Democracy’…. So the obvious course of action would be a cautious mixture of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary methods with the latter steadily increasing.

The CPI (ML) differs with the CPI(M) intensely, but only in tense. There can be no two opinions that the big bourgeoisie are firmly saddled in the country but the process of surrendering has reached its end and they have in essence a comprador bourgeoisie. There is no independent bourgeoisie: so there is no bourgeois democratic freedom. And so election is treason: parliament a farce. …The line of action should be only extra-parliamentary. The organisation should be built only underground….”

Arun concludes:

“Apart from possibilities of mutual adjustment in the communist movement , which may come because of the sharp political polarisation, the correctness of individual lines can only be tested with the coming events. If the bourgeoisie will have the power to yield concessions, the present show of limping democracy will continue, the CPI(M) will come close to CPI in its actions. If the owning class does not have the means, it would steadily start disintegrating and the political crisis would deepen, taking a fascist turn with all its consequences.The CPI would be caught napping, the CPI(M) will have to underground and the difference with the Naxalites would be lessened. But if the country is already in the neo-colonial stage, then at any time the present balance would go and the CPI completely and the major part of the CPI (M) would be eliminated and only the underground Naxalites would surface to direct the communist movement in India”.

What is interesting about this analysis is its undogmatic and contingent nature. He only considers the possibilities of political development and draws out the consequences. In his other piece in Frontier, titled ‘Vote and Revolution’ published on March 6, 1971, Arun makes clear his stance on the subject of elections. He opens with the statement:

“Universal suffrage, supposed to be no mean achievement for a newly independent country like India, has become answerable, as is clear from the weariness writ large on the faces of the people during the election campaign. Increased percentage of polling does not indicate the victory of the politics of polling but only greater consciousness narrowing the zone of the non=political. The vote means no revolution: this is the bomb Naxalites have thrown in the politics of India.”

Arun concludes by writing:

“The only slogan that can put this vote to the cause of revolution is the call to the people to reject the Constitution based on the right to property as the fundamental right and to substitute it by one based the right to work as the fundamental right. This will bring forth a revolutionary polarisation: on the one side people with property, and on the other people without work. … As the Naxalites have divided Indian politics into two – Vote or Revolution – the issue of private property would divide the political parties into two – Vote for Revolution or Vote for Reform – and turn the election into referendum.”

In fact, Arun went to jail several times in pursuit of his staunchly socialist ideals, and at the same time, fighting elections successfully several times.

Amiya Kumar Bagchi is a distinguished economist whose books include The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, Private Investment in India 1900-1939 and Colonialism and the Indian Economy.