From worker to leader

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Sukomal Sen , 2013 picture. Photo: K.K. NAJEEB

Sukomal Sen (1934-2017), a stalwart leader of the working class movement, a scholar and a visionary, spent his whole life in the social and political struggle against capitalist exploitation and for social justice.

ON November 22, the trade union movement lost one of its leaders of international repute. Sukomal Sen, a two-term member of the Rajya Sabha and a vice president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), breathed his last at 83 in Kolkata. Sukomal “da”, as his comrades fondly called him, was specially known for organising State government employees in the country. He was one of the founder-leaders of the All India State Government Employees’ Federation (AISGEF). At the time of his death, he held office as an ex officio member of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and was the chairperson of the control commission that dealt with organisational issues.

Describing Sen’s demise as an “irreparable loss” in the context of the “ideological and physical offensive” on the working class, Tapan Sen, general secretary of the CITU, said that the “country had lost a stalwart leader of the working class movement as well as a scholar, a visionary and a great teacher”. Paying homage to Sen, the Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) stated that he was “the organiser and builder of the State government employees’ movement in the country” and was a “committed Marxist-Leninist and an outstanding trade union leader”.

Sen cut his teeth in trade unionism as a government employee in West Bengal where he began his career in 1955. In 1960, the AISGEF was formed, with him as one of its founder-leaders. Himanshu Sarkar, former office secretary of the AISGEF, told Frontline from Kolkata that Sen attended night classes to do his master’s in English literature from Kolkata University. With a government job and trade union work, that was the only time he could spare for his academic pursuit. In 1971, the Congress government in the State dismissed him from service. He was reinstated six years later when the Left Front came to power in the State with Jyoti Basu as Chief Minister.

Sarkar remembers Sen as “fearless like a true communist” and being close to Jyoti Basu. The former West Bengal Chief Minister, who organised railway workers before plunging into parliamentary politics, was an ally of the State government employees. Sen reciprocated his loyalty and friendship with a two-page note on Jyoti Basu in the book documenting the history of the AISGEF. In 1979, Sen took charge of Employees Forum, the monthly organ of AISGEF and was its editor until his death.

In 1982, on being elected general secretary of the AISGEF, he took voluntary retirement from government service and became a “whole-timer” devoting all his energies to strengthening the Left and democratic trade union movement among State government employees. His tenure as general secretary continued until 2009. Sen was also a member of the Rajya Sabha for two terms (1982-1994).

In 1996, he was elected the secretary general of the Trade Union International of Public and Allied Employees and continued in office until 2009. In 2011, he documented 65 years of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in the article “International Working Class Movement: Dynamics of Class Struggle vs Class-Collaboration and Birth of World Federation of Trade Unions”.

Beyond sectional interests

Apart from his organisational skills, it was his ideological clarity on working class issues that made him stand apart. Trade unions, he believed, had a larger role—that is, going beyond the struggle for the economic interests of the workers and changing the social framework and establishing socialism, which would result in their complete emancipation. “The working class becomes the first victim of an all-capitalist offensive,” wrote Sen somewhat perspicaciously in the work outlining WFTU history and called upon the organised sections of the working class to mobilise other sections of the working class too.

Sen recognised the fact that organising workers in the unorganised sector was “difficult” and to “conduct any ideological work among them” was “tortuous”. Organising them, he believed, was a “critical ideological task facing the revolutionary trade unions” which “the working class has to accept with utmost tenacity”. Writing the prologue of the volume on WFTU, George Mavrikos, general secretary of the WFTU and a deputy in the Greek Parliament of the Communist Party of Greece, described Sen as one of the “great trade unionists”. He said when he was asked to write a prologue, he felt he had “no right to refuse”.

Explaining why such a book on the class-oriented trade union movement needed to be documented, Mavrikos wrote: “The imperialists target the minds of the workers in order to shape their consciousness according to their needs…. This is why it is necessary for this kind of book to be written, books written by men of struggle, simple men, honest men who sacrificed their whole lives in the social and political struggle against capitalist exploitation and social justice.” The reference was to leaders such as Sukomal Sen.

Sen’s painstaking documenting of the history of the working class of India set him apart. Translated in many languages, including Bengali and Hindi, Working Class of India : History of Emergence and M ovement , 1830 1970 remains one of the seminal works on trade union history in India and one of the most authoritative accounts of the history of the working class in India. He dedicated the book, aptly, to the “suffering but fighting millions of India”. His other works include May Day and Eight Hours Struggle in India : A Political History , dedicated to the “immortal martyrs of Haymarket episode” and coinciding with the centenary year of May Day; History of the All India State Government Employees’ Federation; Communist Manifesto and Theory of Revolution , Its Relevance to Contemporary Communist Movement, which was written and published in 1998 in honour of the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.

In the book documenting the history of May Day observations in India, he speaks about The Hindu ’s coverage of the May Day celebration in Madras in 1923, reporting that “there was an enthusiastic gathering of labourers”. The newspaper gave in great detail the speech made by M. Singaravelu, who is credited with organising the first-ever May Day celebration in India. Those were certainly the halcyon days when trade union struggles occupied prime news space.

Prolific writer

He wrote on subjects like culture too. The Question of Culture and Social Revolution in Indian Society; Caste, Religion and Indian Society; and Fascism are among several of his books.

A voracious reader and an excellent orator, he had a deep interest in cultural issues. Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, said Sen had an inordinate capacity to communicate with younger comrades and would initiate discussions on topics ranging from politics to brewing the best cup of tea. “He was regretful of how age had caught up with him but was ever ready to emphasise the importance of reading,” recalled Vijoo Krishnan. Sen used to say that “mediocrity is incompatible with a revolutionary,” reminisced Vijoo Krishnan.

One of the areas that Sen wanted to work on was the “exaggerated notion” of the clampdown on artistic freedom during the years when Stalin led the Soviet Union. He was apparently engaged in a debate with a prominent comrade-in-arms from West Bengal over the issue of artistic freedom and had persuaded Vijoo Krishnan to get a copy of Sergei Eisenstein’s memoirs Beyond the Stars to bolster his view that artistic freedom existed in the Soviet Union. Sen wanted to “settle” the issue with facts and was hugely pleased after reading Eisenstein’s memoirs. Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917 to Capitalist Counter Revolution in 1991 was his last major work.

Versatile person

Former CITU president A.K. Padmanabhan said: “He was a unifier. He unified State government employees which was a huge challenge given the diversity of their backgrounds in every sense. He was dismissed from service without an inquiry. He knew the problems State government employees faced. He was a versatile character; a very good teacher, a historian. He always took a class-based approach to issues confronting the working class movement.”

Padmanabhan recalled two occasions when Sen stood by State government employees when they went on strike in Tamil Nadu, once during M.G. Ramachandran’s tenure and the other during Jayalalithaa’s chief ministership in 2003. On both occasions, there were severe reprisals on employees; Sen made it a point to address them and build their confidence. He believed that the Indian state, despite being a sovereign entity, treated its employees with the same kind of disdain that the colonial government reserved for its employees. Employees were seen as “an adjunct of the colonial machinery to exploit and rule over the Indian people”.