Calcutta, Dec. 28: The day Delhi made a new beginning, a death in Calcutta rekindled memories of an era that Bengal is still trying to live down.
Kali Ghosh, a Citu veteran who soldiered on to uphold the legacy of strikes he inherited from a pantheon of predecessors, died this morning because of old-age related complications. He was 83.
Chroniclers of trade union history will acknowledge his contributions to the cause of underprivileged workers but a generation of educated migrants from Bengal will hold accountable the tactics he championed for their departure from home.
“With the death of Kalida, we have lost the last of the Citu hardliners. It seems, the era of militant trade unionism with threats of strike and ceasework will come to an end,” said a CPM leader.
The CPM leader was not making an oblique reference to the anti-bandh policy of the Mamata Banerjee government alone. A rethink against such disruptive and intimidatory tactics, which are largely blamed for the flight of capital and jobs from Bengal, had set in within the CPM itself before Mamata snatched the initiative from the party.
Little illustrates the churn within the Left establishment than what went on inside two buildings in Calcutta in the first decade of this millennium.
The first-floor room of Shramik Bhaban, off AJC Bose Road, was the base of Ghosh, the general secretary of Citu in Bengal between 2003 and 2012.
A few hundred metres away stands the CPM headquarters on Alimuddin Street, from where Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who was chief minister till 2011, once waged a battle to reform the party. The distance between the politics of Ghosh and that of Bhattacharjee, whom the state party was backing to the hilt then, was nothing less than a few light years.
Bhattacharjee was trying to build Brand Bengal while Ghosh was occasionally accused of bludgeoning it with the age-old hammer of strikes.
Ghosh was fighting a battle to protect the legacy he inherited from his Citu elders such as M.K. Pandhe and Chittabrata Majumdar. Both were known for calling strikes.
Such was the unchallenged power of a bandh called by Citu then that a red plastic chair with a union flag draped across it and placed in the middle of the road was sufficient to ensure none ventured out.
That ignominious image of Bengal has lingered outside the state, although bandhs are infrequent now.
Needless to say, industry ran scared of Ghosh in the heyday of the Left regime.
But Ghosh achieved something unique: the fear he struck was not confined to capitalists alone; his party, too, was scared of him.
Ghosh’s tactics grated on the minds of Alimuddin Street leaders who were supporting Bhattacharjee’s initiative to woo capital in Bengal by presenting a pro-industry face. But Ghosh did not allow Bhattacharjee’s priorities to stand in his way and defended workers’ right to protest by refusing to work.
The differences between the two schools of thought had tumbled out in the open several times.
When Bhattacharjee said his government would make sure information technology companies work normally on December 14, 2006 — the day Citu and other trade unions had called a bandh — Ghosh had demurred. “Our objective is to involve all sectors in the strike,” Ghosh had said.
As a true communist, Ghosh fulfilled the objective. Sector V — home to many IT companies — wore a deserted look despite assurances to the contrary from the then chief minister.
Although a majority in the CPM had rallied around Bhattacharjee’s industrialisation drive, Ghosh remained his fierce critic in party fora and his tough stand did hold him up on the organisational ladder.
“Kalida was the only Citu state general secretary who was not inducted into the party state secretariat. Although his successor Deepak Dasgupta and Citu state president Shyamal Chakraborty were made central committee members, Kalida always remained a state committee member,” said a Citu source.
Ideologically, Ghosh was close to Chittabrata Majumdar — that was the main reason behind his reservations towards the pro-industry stand of Bhattacharjee.
CPM sources said that Bhattacharjee was aware that Majumdar could come in the way of industrialisation. The then chief minister ensured Majumdar’s shift to Delhi by facilitating his elevation to the post of national general secretary of Citu in 2003.
The former chief minister also managed to induct Chakraborty into Citu as its state president in an attempt to reform the party’s trade union front.
Following resentment from a section of Citu, Anil Biswas, who was the party secretary then, had to strike a balance. Ghosh was thus made the labour arm’s state general secretary.
“Kalida was a militant trade union leader but he was reasonable,” Chakraborty told The Telegraph.
As the Citu flag was dipped in memory of Ghosh today, several comrades fondly remembered his skills at driving a hard bargain on labour rights on matters ranging from ESI dues to gratuity to pension.
Ghosh’s last article for Citu’s monthly mouthpiece, Shromik Andolon, was on the rights of migrant labourers. While migration of labour in itself is not an undesirable socio-economic activity, many such labourers in Bengal are forced to leave the state not because of better prospects alone but for subsistence.
Those who paid tribute to Ghosh included some from rival unions. “His aggressive trade unionism often helped workers…. I remember the 70-day strike in jute mills that he had led and finally the owners had to give in to the demands of the workers,” said Subrata Mukherjee, who was Intuc president for 30 years and is now a minister in the Mamata government.