Class activist

Print edition : September 23, 2011

M.K. Pandhe, as CITU president, addressing the 12th all-India CITU conference in Bangalore in January 2007. - V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

M.K. Pandhe (1925-2011) was a towering leader of the Indian trade union movement.

ON August 20, M.K. Pandhe, one of the tallest leaders of the Indian trade union movement, breathed his last following a massive heart attack. He was 86 years old. He was suffering from lung cancer, an affliction he quietly and bravely endured.

Pandhe began his political life as a student activist and joined the Communist Party of India in 1943. He remained an active member of the CPI and later the Communist Party of India (Marxist) until the last hours of his life, planning and strategising with his trade union colleagues at the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which he had steered successfully as its general secretary and president. At a condolence meeting in New Delhi organised by the CPI(M) and the CITU, the veteran trade unionist and working class leader was fondly remembered for his firm commitment to working class ideology and his anti-imperialist stand. His contribution to uniting trade unions for joint struggles and the initiative he took to launch the National Platform of Mass Organisation in the early 1990s were acknowledged at the meeting.

Pandhe was a very simple man and had a great sense of commitment for the welfare of the working class. It was no surprise then that apart from the workers and leaders of the Left, a good number of journalists also turned up at his funeral. He would always offer tea and ensure that we had it before we left, said one senior Hindi journalist who covered labour issues. His soft-spoken nature, simplicity, warmth and sophisticated thinking endeared him to people who knew him. He would generously share literature and documents, sometimes his own personal copies, with others. He had a deep knowledge of the functioning of industries. As a trade union luminary, he organised and led workers in the strategic sector of industries. He also emphasised the role of working women in the trade union movement and the need to organise workers in the unorganised sector.

Pandhe understood the problems of the foundry worker as well as the white-collared executive and studied in depth the nature and functioning of various industries. Tapan Sen, general secretary, CITU, recalls that Pandhe had a thorough knowledge of the shipping, steel, coal and mining industries. He never hesitated to speak his mind and could disagree with a smile on his face. He was a democrat in the true sense. The commonest worker could interact with him any time, said Tapan Sen.

His negotiation skills with managements were legendary. There was no thumping of tables or staging of walk-outs to pressure managements, which won him admirers among industrial managements as well. However, he never compromised on the interests of the working class. A former chairman of the Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), who knew Pandhe for four decades, said, in a condolence message, that knowing the trade unionist had been a learning experience for him.

Concerned about his failing health, especially after he was diagnosed with cancer, his colleagues at the CITU dissuaded him from undertaking long journeys and strenuous work. But he would not give up. His itinerary, colleagues recalled, was packed until his death. He was to go to Mumbai on August 30.

Excellent debater

The son of teacher parents from Pune, Maharashtra, Pandhe was a brilliant student. S. Ramachandran Pillai, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, said that Pandhe was a voracious reader and an excellent debater. Early in, his student life, he was attracted to the freedom movement, the students' movement and to Marxist literature. At 18, he became a member of the Communist Party. He went on to become one of the national secretaries of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in the early 1960s. One of the founder leaders of the CITU, he was its general secretary from 1991 to 2003 and president from 2003 to 2010. He was inducted into the CPI(M) Central Committee in 1978 and the Polit Bureau in 1998.

He was very intelligent. He did his doctorate and had a great command over statistics and economics, said CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan. Bardhan, younger to Pandhe by four months, recalled their long association dating back to 1947. I used to tease him about heading so many federations. I used to tell him to share his burden with the AITUC, he said. Their comradeship remained intact even after the split of the CPI in 1964.

In the late 1970s, Pandhe's colleagues recall, he strove hard for a unified, national platform for trade unions of all political affiliations. He was also known and respected in the international trade union movement. He was the co-president of the International Energy and Mines' Organisation (IEMO), which was a joint international platform of energy and mining workers of all affiliations.

It would be wrong to describe him as a trade union leader alone, said Prakash Karat, CPI(M) general secretary, at the condolence meeting. Pandhe was a true leader of the working class, who represented the working class and strove to create leaders from the working class. He played a major role, said Karat, in creating political consciousness among the working class. He said that after the undivided Communist Party was declared illegal in 1948, Pandhe had gone underground but his ideological moorings never wavered. He was a leader who wanted to be in the field wherever there was a working class struggle or issue involved. He lived like a true communist. It is a big loss to the party, said Karat. The post-liberalisation period was a challenging one for trade unions and the working class. Struggles had to be intensified against all odds. There were 13 strikes from the early 1990s to 2010, said Karat. In each one of them, Pandhe played a crucial role.

Pandhe was a prolific writer as well. He authored several pamphlets on issues confronting the trade union movement and on economic policy. His hugely popular booklet titled Policies of liberalisation - Attack on economic sovereignty, published in 1991, was translated into all Indian languages, and several lakh copies were circulated throughout the country. The treatise exposed the disastrous government policy and the adverse impact of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. His pamphlets on Fraudulent price index, Global economic crisis and Employees' pension scheme, and his regular articles in trade union journals on almost all issues facing the working class, helped not only workers and trade unionists but were an important source for those writing on labour issues.

His wife and fellow comrade, Pramila Pandhe, an equally warm and affectionate person, has been associated with the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) since its inception.

Pandhe lived through seven decades, witnessing the highs and lows of the trade union movement and surviving its most turbulent periods, including the post-liberalisation phase in which the state started withdrawing from the crucial sectors of the economy and increasingly resorted to repression.

It is not without reason that working class representatives feel that Pandhe's demise has created an unbridgeable void.

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