Mohammad Amin

Labour’s loss

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Mohammad Amin. His sole concern lay with the toiling masses. Photo: Courtesy Ganashakti

Amin at a trade union meeting in Bilaspur (now in Chhattisgarh) in 1980. Photo: Courtesy Ganashakti

Mohammad Amin (1928–2018), a leader who inspired love in the hearts of all those who came in touch with him, was instrumental in bringing about path-breaking reforms for workers in the unorganised sector.

ON February 12, the communist movement in India lost one its most beloved and inspirational leaders. The life of Mohammad Amin, former Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is the stuff novels are made of. From abject poverty that forced him into the pitiless world of hard labour in a jute mill in childhood, he became one of the most towering figures in the country’s labour movement. He was, in fact, among the last of the great communist leaders who came from the most downtrodden and exploited sections of society and rose to the highest levels in the party and in politics.

But even at the height of his power—as Polit Bureau member of the party, as an influential Cabinet Minister in West Bengal, and as a Rajya Sabha member—his sole concern lay with the toiling, deprived labourers. His contributions towards the uplift of those working in the labour sector have been immense. It was on his initiative that certain path-breaking reforms for the working class, particularly in the unorganised sector, took place; an example of this is the setting up of the Building & Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board.

Born on April 15, 1928, in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to an indigent working-class family, Amin did not get any formal education. His parents, Abdul Haque and Bashiran Bibi, originally hailed from a village in Varanasi district, Uttar Pradesh. Though his family could not afford to send him to school, young Amin was taught Urdu by his paternal grandfather; it was a language in which he would attain a high level of scholarship. He translated many books and various Marxist literature into Urdu, brought out a popular volume of poetry in Urdu called Sadai Bedari, was the author of a Bengali-Urdu dictionary, and from 1968 to 1986 was the editor of the Marxist Urdu periodical Kishan Mazdoor. Informally he also learnt Bengali and English.

When he was just 14, Amin and his elder brother had to start working as labourers in a jute mill to support their family. Around this time he was introduced to communism by a frequent guest in their house, Hafiz Jalaluddin. Jalaluddin, a soldier who fought in the Second World War, had spent some time abroad, where he became a communist. While staying with Amin’s family, he used to teach the children of the house, and thus young Amin came in contact with Marxist thought.

Amin had already joined the trade union movement while still a boy when he became a member of the Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union (BCMU). In 1946, he left the jute mill and became a member of the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). He quickly proved himself to be an able organiser, and in 1950 the party sent him to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to strengthen its organisational base in Saidpur. The following year he was arrested during a public meeting at Rangpur. After spending six months in Rangpur jail, Amin was transferred to the prison in Rajshahi where he remained for the next two years.

An incident during his imprisonment in East Pakistan provides insight into his gentle yet firmly persuasive style of leadership that was to become his hallmark in the days to come. A retired Pakistan Army man, who took over as the superintendent of the Rajshahi jail from his British predecessor, was taking a tour of the prison when Amin, addressing him in Urdu, sought permission to speak to him. The new jailer gave his assent, but Amin pointed out that it was not possible to really have a talk with bars between them. The next day Amin was escorted to the superintendent’s office, and in the course of the conversation it came to light that the new officer was a student of the famous leftist Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. “He treated me with extreme courtesy and expressed surprise at my knowledge of politics and literature,” Amin later wrote. He apprised the officer of the problems faced by the prisoners, and his initiative helped solve many of them.

Return to India

After his release from prison in 1953, Amin returned to West Bengal and threw himself wholeheartedly into the labour movement. His first major assignment was giving leadership to the labour movement in Titagarh. When the CPI split in 1964, Amin threw his lot in with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In 1969, he was elected to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from Titagarh, and in 1970, towards the end of the second brief tenure of the United Front government, he was made Transport Minister.

In 1977, when the CPI(M)-led Left Front came to power, he was again given the Transport portfolio. After a stint in the Rajya Sabha, Amin came back to serve as Minister for the newly created Minority Affairs Ministry from 1996 to 2001. In the Left Front government from 2001 to 2006, he was put in charge of the Labour Ministry. It was during his tenure as Labour Minister that The Building & Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board was set up, in September 2005.

The Board provides the following benefits to workers in the unorganised construction labour sector: Rs.10,000 for treatment in case of accidents and Rs.50,000 in case the victim is rendered disabled; monthly pension of Rs.750 for the beneficiary and Rs.375 for the family of a victim; Rs.50,000 to the family in case of death by a natural cause and Rs.1,50,000 for accidental death; Rs.2,000 for purchase of tools; Rs.500 for spectacles; and Rs.3,000 for the purchase of bicycle, warm clothes or equipment.

Thanks to Amin, the largely ignored construction workers had finally something to safeguard their interest.

In 1985, Amin became a member of the Central Committee of the CPI(M) and in 2008 was elected to its Polit Bureau. Since 2015, he had been a special invitee at the Central Committee. He was the all-India general secretary of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) from 2007 to 2010 and general secretary of the BCMU from 1982 to 1991.

For all his contributions to the communist movement and the prestige and accolades that came his way, Amin’s greatest achievement was the love that he inspired in the hearts of all those he came in touch with. He lived a spartan life that was dedicated to caring for everyone around him. “Look after your health, comrade,” he would inevitably say to his fellow workers, “otherwise how will you look after the health of the organisation?”

Power and office could not elbow out his innate humility and genuine concern for those around him. During the first term of the Left Front government, when Amin was Transport Minister, his personal assistant was a party worker by the name of Dinen Munshi. On one occasion Amin had to attend an official meeting including a lunch. The Minister was in a quandary: what to do with the tiffin he had brought from home. When he found out that Dinen had not had his lunch, Amin insisted that he partake of his tiffin. After Amin had left for his appointment, Dinen opened the tiffin box to find out what kind of food a powerful Minister might bring to office—it was just two chapattis and a vegetable fried with potato. This, incidentally, was Amin’s favourite food—chapatti, dal (lentils) and potato fry.

“One singular aspect of his personality was that he had in-built human values; that is something rare. It is very hard to come by such a good man. He was a leader of such high stature, yet he would always inquire after the health and family of even the most humble party worker. It was a genuine love for his fellow human beings,” said Debanjan Chakraborty, veteran trade union leader and member of the all-India Working Committee of the CITU.

Nobody remembers Amin as ever losing his temper or even speaking harshly to anyone; and no matter how busy, he never arrived late for any occasion or appointment, however insignificant it may have been. “He was the last of his kind. There is no one like him in the current generation of leaders. He was truly an inspiration to all succeeding generations of communists,” said Surjya Kanta Mishra, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and secretary of the West Bengal unit of the party.

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