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A different Gandhian legacy: Shankar Guha Niyogi

It is worth remembering Shankar Guha Niyogi who embodied Gandhi?s spirit, even though he was a Marxist himself Photograph: (Others)

Bengaluru, Karnataka, India Oct 02, 2017, 05.56 AM (IST) Amit Basole

October 2nd calls for the usual reflections on Mahatma Gandhi and his legacy. But in times when the remembrance of Gandhi has become largely ritualistic and empty of meaning, and our path diverges even more from his vision of a just, non-violent economy, it is worth remembering another person, Shankar Guha Niyogi,  who embodied Gandhi’s spirit, even though he was a Marxist himself. 

Last week marked the 26th death anniversary of Shankar Guha Niyogi. On September 28, 1991, Niyogi, leader of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) and the Chhatisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) was shot dead in his sleep. With the recent assassination of Kannada journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru, the public discourse around political assassinations has once again come alive. And the spate of recent murders, including those of Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Narendra Dabholkar clearly shows the threat that such committed vernacular intellectuals and activists pose to those who want to forcibly impose their own idea of India on everyone else. Remembering Niyogi then also serves to remember our long history of assassinations.

It is worth remembering another person, Shankar Guha Niyogi,  who embodied Gandhi’s spirit, even though he was a Marxist himself. 
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Coming from a working-class background, Niyogi moved from his native Bengal to work in the Bhilai Steel Plant in the late 1960s, but his union organising activities soon got him fired. After spending a few years working underground, organising Adivasis, and traveling all over the state of Chhattisgarh, Niyogi finally made the Bhilai region his home. He led the mine workers and other industrial workers of the Bhilai region for nearly 14 years until his death at the age of 48. In the process, he along with the workers built a unique trade union movement that went far beyond the usual scope of union politics. 

While it was widely suspected that some major industrialists of Bhilai were behind his murder, the case resulted in only one conviction, that of the hired assassin. And this too fourteen years after the murder, in 2005. Those behind the murder got away.

Ramchandra Guha once remarked that every thinking Indian had a Gandhian and a Marxist inside, struggling for supremacy. This certainly seems true of Shankar Guha Niyogi. Niyogi did not describe himself as a Gandhian, and remained close to communist politics all his life. But his practice reveals a creative mind at work that Gandhi would have been proud of. Satyagraha and Sarvodaya found their echoes in Niyogi’s 'sangharsh' and 'nirman', the struggle for the creation and the creation for struggle, as he called it.

Satyagraha and Sarvodaya found their echoes in Niyogi’s 'sangharsh' and 'nirman', the struggle for the creation and the creation for struggle, as he called it.
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Even as he fought for the mine workers’ rights, wages, working conditions, and other bread-and-butter trade union issues, Niyogi wrote with great feeling about the degradation and despoilation of the air, the water and the forests in the mining areas. Under his leadership, the CMM and the CMSS treated environmental issues as central to their programme and not as an afterthought. The rights of forest dwellers over their own produce, for example, formed an important part of the movement. This is an early example of what later came to be called a “red-green” movement. 

Niyogi embraced the ethos of Sunderlal Bahuguna’s Chipko movement and called it a 'revolutionary movement'. He invoked the spirit of the American Indians in his writings on the environment. CMSS also supported the movement against the Narmada dams and showed the hypocrisy of officials who treated Adivasis as the principal threat to forest ecosystems while selling the forest to saw-mill owners. The union fought against monoculture planting of Eucalyptus and Pine trees for wood, and for the conservation of biodiversity. 

Let us take a moment here to realise the significance of an environmental conservation movement that is not based on the urban upper-middle class but, rather, operates with workers, peasants, and Adivasis, who constitute the majority of society.

The movement was born from the recognition that the communities which lived close to nature could be trusted to use it sustainably and had a lot to teach everyone on sustainable use. A centrepiece of the struggle was the 'Know Your Jungle' campaign that was built on the understanding that intimacy with the forest created a love for it. This type of thinking is what we find in Gandhi and in other creative Gandhians, such as J.C. Kumarappa, who were proponents of the local economy. 

India’s modern environmental movement owes a lot to Gandhi, and Niyogi is a prominent thinker in this tradition.
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India’s modern environmental movement owes a lot to Gandhi, and Niyogi is a prominent thinker in this tradition. But Niyogi combines it very effectively with a consciousness of the environment born out of daily struggles of not only Adivasis and peasants but also industrial workers.

Environmental, social, and economic concerns are thoroughly interwoven in Gandhi and so they were in Niyogi also. A particularly novel idea one finds in Niyogi’s writing is that of an 'environment station' (pariyavaran thana). “Just as there are police stations (thanas) everywhere, there should be ‘environment stations,’ he wrote. These would employ local people who are well-versed about the local ecology and its problems. Thus, in one go, such a step helps in creating employment as well as a new consciousness about nature. Sadly, this idea has received hardly any attention, even in social movements.

The Chhattisgarh movement took an all-round approach to workers’ lives, intervening as frequently in areas of health, education, alcoholism, and gambling as in areas of regularisation of contract labour and minimum wages. For example, Shaheed Hospital set up by the CMSS still operates in the region and the noted activist Dr. Binayak Sen, who came to Chhattisgarh inspired by Niyogi, used to practice there. And it is worth noting, at the time when the contract labour system has become the norm across all industries, one of Niyogi’s key struggles was against the contract labour system in the industrial plants of Durg-Bhilai. 

Another, particularly interesting aspect of the CMM was its engagement with local history. For example, the celebration of local martyrs whom the predominantly Adivasi workforce could relate to and, thereby, find their own histories of struggle. Tribal freedom fighters, such as Vir Nayaran Singh who was executed by the British in 1857 became focal points of the new struggle.

The demand for preferential employment to people from the Lohar community in the steel plant is an excellent example of thinking that updates Gandhian ideas.
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The charter of demands from a large peasant-workers rally from October 1980 illustrates the innovative thinking behind the CMM. These included diversion of waters going to Bhilai Steel Plant to farmers during the drought year, higher prices of output for farmers and lower prices for consumers, a halt to mechanisation of iron ore mines, jute mills and cotton mills of the area, construction of small dams and repair of ponds, making local languages, such as Gondi and Chhatisgahi the medium of instruction in primary schools, a ban on commercial sawmills in the vicinity of forests, preferential employment for people from the Lohar (ironsmith) community in the Bhilai Steel Plant, expansion of cottage and handicraft industries, and one Industrial Training Institute in each kasbah.

Notice how a Gandhian spirit suffuses many of the demands; preference to farmers over the industry, fight against mechanisation intended purely for profit, appropriate technology such as small dams, emphasis on local languages, and support for handicraft industries. The demand for preferential employment to people from the Lohar community in the steel plant is an excellent example of thinking that updates Gandhian ideas. In it is the recognition, that was Gandhi’s main insight, that India’s artisanal communities have nurtured a vast store of useful knowledge that can be harnessed for everyone’s welfare.

All this is not to say that Niyogi was a 'Gandhian'. Indeed, like most creative thinkers he easily transcended such labels.
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All this is not to say that Niyogi was a 'Gandhian'. Indeed, like most creative thinkers he easily transcended such labels, taking whatever was useful from wherever he could and discarding the rest. The point is to remember a committed, patriotic Indian who lived Gandhi’s spirit and tried to create a new vision for India. Even now, in the new neoliberal India, most of what Niyogi fought for remains relevant, perhaps is even more relevant. Ever faster rates of economic growth are creating an increasing rate of stress on our natural ecosystem. To make matters worse, the fruits of this destructive growth are very unevenly distributed. A dangerous cocktail of jobless growth and degrading ecosystems brews in our society.

While the immediate reasons for his assassination may have been different from those of Gauri Lankesh, Kalburgi, Pansare, Dabholkar, or even Gandhi, all these murders demonstrate the danger that dedicated, committed individuals who speak, write and act truth to power in the languages of the common people pose to our ever more entrenched power structures. It is imperative that their memories be kept alive. 

Given Shankar Guha Niyogi’s stature and influence (hundreds and thousands of workers struck work and showed up at his funeral), it is noteworthy that there is not a single authoritative book from a major publishing house on his life and work. Some of his writings and essay on him are available here. And Ilina Sen’s memoir, Inside Chhattisgarh, talks about the activities of CMM and CMSS. An account of his life and work is highly desirable in these times.

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