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Gurudas Dasgupta: Working-class warrior

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Gurudas Dasgupta. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Gurudas Dasgupta (1936-2019), doyen of the trade union movement, eminent parliamentarian, fiery orator and an affable gentleman, dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of the poor and the oppressed.

The Communist movement in India lost one of its most dedicated and well-loved figures when Gurudas Dasgupta, a towering leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), breathed his last on October 31 after a prolonged illness. He was 83. Not only was Gurudas Dasgupta one of the most eminent parliamentarians of his time, he was also a doyen of the trade union movement in the country and a pioneer in bringing together different trade unions on a single platform to put up a united front against a common enemy. Under his pragmatic leadership and untiring efforts, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the labour wing of the CPI, emerged as one of the most powerful trade unions in India. Gurudas Dasgupta is survived by his wife, Jayasri, and a daughter.

Born on November 3, 1936, to Durga Prosanna Dasgupta and Nihar Devi in Barisal (now in Bangladesh), Gurudas Dasgupta embarked upon his political career at a young age through the students’ movement. He became a member of the undivided CPI as early as 1952. While studying at Asutosh College in Kolkata, he had become the general secretary of the Asutosh College Students’ Union and, soon after, was the president and general secretary of the Undivided Bengal Provincial Students’ Federation (1958 to 1960). Later, he was also the general secretary of the West Bengal Committee of the All India Youth Federation from 1967 until 1977.

The veteran CPI leader Manju Kumar Majumdar, reminiscing about his old comrade, said Gurudas Dasgupta dedicated his whole life to the struggle for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. “I first met Gurudas da on the battlefield itself, when I was still a student taking part in the historic Food Movement in 1959. At that time, I had only heard of Gurudas da but had never met him. After that, I got to know him closely, fighting by his side. Whether it was at the helm of the trade union movement or conveying the message of the people on the floor of Parliament, he set an example for us. So many memories come flooding back. With his death, a chapter in the communist struggle is over, but the path of struggle on which he had set us going continues,” Majumdar told Frontline. According to him, Gurudas Dasgupta’s legacy lies in his untiring struggle to bring about a change in society.

In 1965, he was detained under the Defence of India Rules and on many occasions had to go underground. From a youth leader, he turned his focus on trade union activities in the 1970s and began to work among the labour force in the organised and unorganised sectors. Both as a youth leader and a trade union organiser, Gurudas Dasgupta distinguished himself as a fiery orator. In 2001, he was elected general secretary of the AITUC.

Importance of unity

He was among the most influential trade union leaders of India, who realised the importance of a unified working-class movement. It was at his initiative that all the central trade unions came together in 2009 to stage an all-India strike, the first of its kind in the country. “Trying to unify the trade union movement was one of Gurudas Dasgupta’s biggest achievements. He set in motion a process that will continue even though he himself is gone,” senior CPI leader Pallab Sengupta told Frontline. It is poignant that the man who single-handedly took the AITUC to its highest stature, died on the day the trade union body was celebrating its 100th year.

Articulate, outspoken and persuasive in his speech and manners, Gurudas Dasgupta became a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1985. He soon established himself as a formidable parliamentarian and was known for his incisive speeches and observations, both in the Rajya Sabha and, later, in the Lok Sabha. He served three terms in the Rajya Sabha—1985, 1988 and 1994—during which he was a part of many important committees and commissions, including the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) for the Harshad Mehta stock market scam (1992).

He was the enfant terrible of Indian politics who never tired of bringing to the notice of Parliament issues related to corruption, malpractices of the government and anti-people policies. One recalls in 1995, when the Government of India decided to privatise one of the richest iron ore mines in Bailadila (then a part of Madhya Pradesh) for a fraction of its real value, Gurudas Dasgupta not only raised a massive hue and cry over it on the floor of Parliament but also played a leading role in organising agitations to prevent such a deal from taking place.

In 2004, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Panskura. In 2009, he returned to the Lok Sabha, this time contesting from Ghatal. The same year he was also elected leader of the CPI Parliamentary Party in the Lok Sabha. His second term in the Lok Sabha was marked by his role in the JPC on the 2G spectrum case (2011). Lashing out at the JPC chairman (P.C. Chacko of the Congress) for giving a clean chit to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, he said: “The report is a cover-up operation. A fraud has been played, facts have been suppressed and it is biased to favour them [Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram]. Parliament’s mandate has also been violated.”

His rebellious voice was unsparing of his own party as well. “When our party allied with the Congress and supported the Emergency, Gurudas Dasgupta played a leading role in opposing the party line. His voice was crucial in changing the line of the party,” said Pallab Sengupta.

However outspoken and formidable he may have been inside Parliament or leading protests on the streets, Gurudas Dasgupta was one of the most affable and approachable political figures in private life who was never known to turn his back on anyone seeking his help. At the AITUC office in New Delhi, he could be seen having endless meetings with trade union and political representatives and also making time to meet non-political individuals who would come to him with their personal problems.

His serious and sometimes forbidding exterior could do little to conceal his kind heart and humane disposition. He was an instantly recognisable figure with his tall, solemn gait and the famous red cardigan that he would wear throughout the winter months. “The colour red is ingrained deep in me,” he would say.

Even at the height of his power, he led an unostentatious life, staying in relatively modest quarters and never allowing himself to get alienated from the masses. He never gave any importance to his own appearance or the clothes he wore and was often seen wearing the same shirt for several days.

Although steadfast in his ideology, Gurudas Dasgupta was respected and admired across party lines. “Differences in ideology do not mean personal enmity. Even if one does not agree with the opinions of members of other parties, one must not allow one’s personal relations to get affected by it,” he had once said. At a time when political attacks quickly degenerate into personal barbs, politicians could well learn a lesson or two from the words of this departed comrade. Upon his death, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Gurudas Dasgupta Ji was one of the most committed and articulate proponents of his ideology. He was a strong voice in Parliament, whose interventions were keenly heard across the political spectrum.”

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