A convention was held in Bangalore on September 5, 2018 as a tribute to Gauri Lankesh who, as per the ongoing investigation, was targeted and shot dead by members of the Right-wing Sanathan Sanstha on that evening a year ago.
Girish Karnad, one of the principal initiators of the gathering of about a thousand persons, invited me as one of the five persons who had filed a petition in the Supreme Court, protesting the arbitrary arrests of Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves. Our petition asked for a Special Investigation Team to be set up to investigate the case since the circumstances strongly indicated that highly regarded lawyers, journalists and activists were being targeted for their work, which often involved challenging the state and large corporations.
The news of the arrests of the five had not only travelled fast, but had already mobilised protests, meetings, identification with those arrested by a viral twitter trend “#Metoo Urban Naxal”. At the gathering Girish carried a placard, #MeToo Urban Naxal,hung around his neck. Many others did the same.
The mood in the gathering was not only to mourn the loss of a champion for justice and human rights, Gauri, but to mobilise opinion in response to the arrests of the five as Urban Naxals. There was sincere and deep interest and appreciation for the petition, that some of us had filed on behalf of these “victims”.
I cannot but recall how at one time Chhattis-garh, now torn apart with militia, land-owning thugs, industries, who want access to the minerals in the forests, a “militant” State,—had become a model for peaceful negotiations between the tribes that “owned” the resources and the industries that wanted to exploit them,—as well as for affirming the citizenhood of the local people. Chhattisgarh was also famous for developing a model trade union. This was due to the extraordinary work of a young man called Shankar Guha Niyogi. He was perhaps the most effective and popular leader of the State’s Adivasi people. As a young man he went to Bhilai and found gross exploitation of the Adivasi people by the industries that were coming up there. He soon became involved in the struggles of steel workers. He then began travelling to nearby villages in Chhattisgarh (then a part of Madhya Pradesh). His slogan was Sangharsh aur Nirmaan.
Niyogi had conceptualised and built a unique model of trade unionism, of combining class struggle with welfarism. In 1977, he founded the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) celebrated all over India for its innovative and peaceful ways. Niyogi wanted the union to be integrated in the life of the worker, not be restricted to factories. Later, a political arm of the CMSS was floated called the Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), which even contested elections.
Niyogi held that a trade union’s activity should not be confined to eight hours’ work-time issues; it has to deal with twenty-four hour issues. With this idea, the new union launched many new experiments in Dalli-Rajhara, where the issue of semi mechanisation was taken up for the first time. Mohalla Committees were set up in order to improve the housing conditions of the workers. In the schools run by the municipality there was no provision for education of the children of contract labourers. Six primary schools were set up for these children under the leadership of the union, and an adult education programme for illiterate workers was undertaken. The pressure of the movement for education compelled the manage-ment to set up a number of primary, secondary and higher secondary schools. He also set up the Shaheed hospital, which provides low-cost and good-quality medical care to workers even today.
I had the good fortune of meeting Shankar in 1971 and being accepted as a friend. He was greatly admired by others in the voluntary agency fraternity, so would visit the Gandhi Peace Foundation, GPF. Our office was across the street. If I remember correctly, Susheela Nayar, the then President of the All India Prohibition Council, had invited him to become a member of their Executive Council, as despite the many challenges with his overall programmes, he had introduced prohibition in the villages under the union.
I was overwhelmed by Shankar’s modesty, his sincerity of purpose and his warmth, and openness to ideas and knowledge. We discussed the importance of labour unions, the courage of women and the struggles he was having in enabling the people in Chhattisgarh to lead a better life. Better wages and more organisation. The CMSS, its style of working, its achievements attracted admiration and publicity across the country. It epitomised non-violent solutions to conflict of interest. It taught what role trade unions could play. Shankar was a role model. His prominence invited the wrath of the owners, employers and other unions, shuffling for power and a mass base. He was ultimately murdered in his sleep in 1981, at the age of 48 years..
But his work, the hospital and schools and the ethic he built did not die. He attracted those who had some idealism, some interest in bringing justice to bear on the exploited, such as Sudha Bharadwaj—one of the recently arrested “Urban Naxals”. She joined theCMM despite pressures from her mother and others to pursue her academic career. Niyogi’s non-confrontational, and social service-minded approach to building labour unions attracted her. She continues to work there. It seems bizarre, if not outrageous, that a worker in the CMM should be accused of being a terrorist, which is how I guess the state interprets the Urban Naxals. All these decades and the story has not changed—exploitation of natural resources by the corporates, and the use of the Army, the police to overwhelm, kill or silence the real owners of those resources continues. Discontent and anger have deepened and the resistance movements are divided and adopting the tools of the enemy, armed warfare. Persons who are trying to use the pen and the rights framework for healing the oppression are jailed as terrorists—with a new name Urban Naxal.
In my view the term, Urban Naxal, is silly, ludicrous—taking away the seriousness of the struggles of the Adivasi people for their rights, and threatening those who are trying to enable peaceful resolution of these conflicts, through the rights framework, that is, law, as well as literature and public debate.
The arrests have not just criminalised these five people but is attempting to criminalise the kind of work they are doing. This is bound to have a chilling effect on anybody who is engaging in perfectly legitimate lawyering, activism, writing etc.—and the dying out of social work/human rights activists will be an unconscionable loss for the country.
So, when Girish used the tag #Metoo Urban Naxal, and we all joined him, it was to say, that we are not letting the term stigmatise those who stand for the rights of the oppressed, oppressed by the state. By supporting them on a nationwide scale, through our various citizen’s groups we will hold back this terrorising of voice and action, in support of justice—or in resistance to state terrorism. These arrests are a signal for that kind of policy and approach—we will oppose this trend en masse. All of us will claim to be Urban Naxals.
The author, a noted development economist, is a former Member of the South Commission.