For nearly seven decades, Jyoti Basu consistently fought for the rights of the down trodden. His upbringing in an upper strata family did not come in his way of devoting his entire life for the working people of India. The ideology of Marxism developed a scientific world outlook in him. His father sent him to UK with the idea of making him an ICS officer but ultimately he studied law. The fond hope of his father that he would become a well known advocate and lead comfortable life failed to materialise. Jyoti Basu’s study of Marxian Philosophy converted him into a rebel against the unjust society based on exploitation of the vast toiling masses by handful but powerful rich.
On reaching India, Jyoti Basu joined the CPI in 1940 and started working in the railway trade union movement. Soon he became a prominent activist in Bengal by leading several struggles during the forties and fifties of the 20th century.
ADVOCATE OF UNITY
When I joined the central office of the AITUC in 1958, I had several occasions to meet him during AITUC meetings. He was critical of Dange’s pro-Nehru policies and individual style of functioning . In Mumbai conference of the AITUC in 1966, he was elected as the general council member of AITUC and attended meetings regularly despite his other pressing commitments. He did not frequently speak in these meetings but whenever he spoke he was forthright in expressing views. Jyoti Basu could make an impact on the organisation since his views were greatly respected.
When it was found impossible to remain in the AITUC due to undemocratic style of Dange’s functioning, it was decided to hold a national convention in Goa in March 1970 to decide future course of action. Jyoti Basu played a crucial role in deciding to hold a national convention at Kolkata with a view to form a new trade union centre. Time was short but enthusiasm among the ranks was supreme which could make it possible to hold a successful convention in Kolkata in May 1970.
On the eve of the founding convention of the CITU at Kolkata, Jyoti Basu was elected as chairman of the reception committee and made an inspiring speech before over 4000 delegates. In the convention he was elected as vice-president of the CITU, a post he held till his death. He visited almost all the states in connection with CITU state conferences and general council meetings and popularised the policies of the CITU .
Even after he became chief minister of West Bengal, he could find time to visit different states to attend trade union meetings. Before making speeches, he used to collect the details about the local situation and refer them during his speeches. He could effectively speak in a language which could be understood by the ordinary workers.
In one of his public meetings in Delhi, he was requested by the workers to speak in Hindi. He made an attempt to speak in broken Hindi using some Bengali words. Workers enjoyed his speaking in Hindi and repeatedly clapped seeing his attempt to speak in Hindi.
During the semi-fascist terror in West Bengal, despite risks, he addressed meetings of workers and exhorted them to fight against attempts to destroy the CITU through creation of terror.
During the Emergency period, Jyoti was denied guest house accommodation by the Bhilai Steel Plant management. He willingly stayed in the quarters of an employee in the Steel Plant.
When Jyoti Basu became chief minister and visited Bhilai for a rally, Bhilai Steel Plant Management offered him guest house facilities. He however refused to accept the hospitality and stayed in the retiring room of the railway station. A large number of workers assembled at Durg railway station to see the chief minister staying in railway retiring room. The local press wrote against Bhilai Steel Plant management for their treatment to him in the past.
The chief executive of the plant came to meet Jyoti Basu and profusely apologised for the past behavior of the management. He told them that next time he would accept their hospitality but not that time. When CITU working committee meeting was held at Bhilai next time, Jyoti stayed in the BSP Guest House. The management learnt the lesson by his behavior on the issue.
CHAMPION OF DEMOCRATIC FUNCTIONING
During his speeches in the trade union meetings, Jyoti Basu laid special emphasis on the democratic functioning of trade unions. He used to sharply criticise the bossism in trade union movement and point out how such tendency stifled the growth of trade union movement itself.
He always encouraged workers taking higher and higher positions in the unions. “ If the workers cannot function their own union, then how can they lead the struggle for social revolution” he used to ask.
When he read the CITU document on Organisation passed at Bhubaneswar, Jyoti Basu heartily appreciated the efforts made by the CITU to self-critically examine the weaknesses of the organisation. Referring to the question of democratic functioning of trade unions, he noted that the bureaucrats in the organisation may not like it, but the CITU should go ahead in implementing it, which alone can lead to building of CITU as a revolutionary trade union in the country.
As chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu addressed the meetings of striking workers and supported the legitimate demands of the workers. In these meetings, he appealed to the employers to concede the demands of the workers and settle the disputes through negotiations. There is no instance of any Congress or the BJP chief minister openly coming out in favour of the workers in such a forthright manner.
On a number of issues when the central government were involved in disputes, Jyoti Basu wrote several letters to the central government in support of the demands of the workers and advocating settlement of the dispute.
As the chief minister, Jyoti Basu was invited by the chambers of commerce and employers’ organisations. He always advised the employers to implement the labour laws and take steps to improve the working and living conditions of the workers. He never criticised trade unions in the gatherings of employers.
Jyoti Basu’s categorical assurance that police would not interfere in industrial disputes had immensely helped the trade unions in achieving success in their struggles. However, he always emphasised the need to implement the agreed norms of production by the trade unions. In several meetings, he stressed the need to ensure discipline in industry in view of the Left Front government adopting a pro-worker policy.
There were some instances of unjust gheraos by the workers when Jyoti Basu as a chief minister intervened and called upon the workers to lift the gherao and he later intervened to arrive at an amicable settlement.
RECOGNITION OF TUs BY SECRET BALLOT
In India for the first time a bill was introduced in West Bengal providing recognition of trade unions based on secret ballot of all the workers. Due to the hostile attitude of the Congress government at the centre for about seven years, the president did not give assent to the bill. There was an all India movement demanding giving consent to the bill which prevailed upon the central government to approve the bill by the president of India.
It was in Jyoti Basu’s tenure that policemen were given the right to form a union. No where in India this right has been granted to policemen till now by any Congress or BJP led government in the country.
Consultation with trade unions was a hallmark of his labour policy. Even on some specific issues, he was consulting INTUC unions. Such process of consultations was conducive to improve the labour relations in the state.
When Jyoti Basu found that during some years the total number of man-days lost due to lock-outs were more than the man-days lost due to strike in West Bangal, he called upon the employers not to resort to lockouts arbitrarily in industrial undertakings. When he saw that some industrial houses were not depositing the provident fund contribution with the authorities, he called upon the employers’ organisations to ensure that all their members regularly deposit with the authorities the outstanding PF dues.
Jyoti Basu continued to be president of some unions in West Bengal even after becoming the chief minister. He was a founder of the union in Indian Oxygen and was its president even after he became the chief minister.
EASY ACCESS FOR TUs
He was easily accessible to trade unions in the Writers Building. I remember some unions wanted his intervention in a dispute but they did not conduct any struggle. Jyoti Basu asked the unions to conduct struggle and then alone he would intervene. “Workers must earn their rights through struggles and not through outside efforts” he used to tell the unions. He never discouraged workers from conducting struggles but was emphasising on adequate preparations.
The new generation of trade union activists have much to learn from Jyoti Basu’s illustrious life. The message his life has given to the younger generation will continue to inspire lakhs of trade union activists in their forthcoming struggles.
On the eve of his last days, Jyoti Basu saw a remarkable unity of the trade union movement to fight class battles to protect their legitimate interests. As a strong advocate of working class unity, Jyoti Basu must have been happy to note these developments.
Let us learn from his valuable life's mission and carry forward the struggle till we achieve the objective of ending exploitation of man by man!
Long Live Jyoti Basu!!