CPI(M) stalwart Shyamal Chakraborty dies of COVID

Published : August 06, 2020 21:59 IST

Shyamal Chakraborty addressing a rally in Kolkata in protest against the labour reforms proposed by the Central and State governments, in 2015. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

Shyamal Chakraborty, one of the tallest and most influential leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a towering figure in the trade union movement, passed away on August 6, after contracting coronavirus while undergoing treatment in a private hospital. He was 77 and is survived by his daughter Ushashi Chakraborty, a popular Bengali actress.

Shyamal Chakraborty, a Central Committee member of the CPI(M), joined the Communist movement as a student and became a member of the undivided Communist Party of India in 1959. In his long and distinguished political career that spanned six decades, Chakraborty served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), a Cabinet Minister in the CPI(M)-led Left Front government, and a Rajya Sabha MP; but it was as a trade unionist that he was most widely acclaimed. During his tenure as the president of the West Bengal unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), he was responsible for strengthening, organising and consolidating the labour movement in the State. He gave leadership to several nationwide trade union movements particularly in the power and transport sectors.

Even as his health grew frail in the 1990s, he continued to work tirelessly, foraying into new areas and sectors, trying to organise the labour force there. In November 2006, under his leadership, the CITU attempted something hitherto considered impossible – launch a union in the Information Technology (IT) industry. On November 14 that year, the West Bengal Information Technology Services Association (ITSA) was established by the CITU. Although the trade union movement failed to take off, Chakraborty did not lose heart. Years later, in 2018, talking about it to Frontline, he said, "It is true we did not get much response from the IT industry. But at that time there was a boom in the IT industry; now the scenario is changing. Thousands are losing their jobs and not finding other employment. Today, there is a demand from a section of the people in the IT industry to set up unions, and we have already established an all-India union affiliated to the CITU, called the All India IT and ITeS Union."

In 2018, Chakraborty once again led the CITU into another unchartered territory, the e-commerce sector. Armed with the slogan "To Reach the Unreached Worker" Chakraborty reached out to a whole new generation of the labour force. "With the spread of the neoliberal economy, innumerable new kinds of jobs have come into being. We see people engaged in delivering things purchased online, food ordered over the phone, etc.; they constitute a huge army of workers. But this is a highly exploited army. Most of them do not get any appointment letters, nor do they receive any compensation when they lose their jobs. We learnt from some of them that they are interested in forming unions if they have someone they can trust to stand by them," he told Frontline at that time. He believed in constructive trade unionism aimed at giving as much protection as possible to the workforce from exploitation. "Union does not mean only strike," he had once remarked wryly.

Born on February 22, 1943, Chakraborty faced poverty from early childhood. While still in school he got involved with the Left students’ movement. Following his graduation in 1966 from Vidyasagar College, he quickly rose to prominence as a student leader. He was among the main leaders from West Bengal when the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) was established in 1970, and in 1973 he was elected president of the West Bengal unit of the organisation. In 1978 he was elected to the CPI(M) State Committee, in 1985 to the Party State Secretariat, and in 2002 to the Central Committee. In 1981 he won the byelection to the State Assembly from the Maniktala seat in Kolkata. He retained the seat the following year and became Transport minister. Charkraborty would win this seat till 1996. In 2008, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

The CPI(M) Polit Bureau in its condolence message said, "The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) expresses its deep sorrow and anguish at the death of Comrade Shyamal Chakraborty, member of Central Committee of the Party." Reserved, yet articulate and with a keen political mind, Chakraborty’s pragmatic approach stood the party in very good stead during elections. He was an excellent organiser, a wonderful speaker and a role model when it came to deportment on the political stage. Even his most staunch political enemies agree that he was a thorough gentleman in his behaviour and outlook.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called his death a "major loss to the politics of West Bengal". Trinamool Congress secretary general and State Education and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Partha Chatterjee remembers Chakraborty as an "extremely civilised person". "Whenever we would meet, he would smile and say, ‘How are you, brother?’. Now he is not there to say it…. It is a big loss from many quarters. The working class lost a very dear and pre-eminent leader and we lost a distinguished politician and a gentleman. There were a lot of political differences between us but that did not affect our personal relationship," said Partha Chatterjee.

Rahul Sinha, National Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said, "Even if our paths, ideologies and parties were opposed, personally I had very good relations with him. He was a very friendly man. He was very committed to his ideology and his party."

For Chakraborty’s own party, his passing is an irreparable loss, which will be felt even more acutely as the State heads towards elections in less than 10 months’ time; for Shyamal Chakraborty remained politically active till the very end. Veteran CPI(M) leader Rabin Deb said, "At a time when the country is in a crisis, our State is in a crisis, and indeed, human civilisation is in a crisis, Shyamal Chakraborty’s death is a huge loss. For us, it is also a personal loss as it is he who always showed us the path."

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