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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 33

A Defiant Rebel

Wednesday 8 August 2007, by D. Bandyopadhyay


To write about a politician, one runs the risk of being either a self-seeker trying to get some material advantage if one spoke good of him, or a run-of-the mill faultfinder who failed to get his desired benefits if one wrote against him. But being neither, I do not hesitate to record an incident of great moral magnitude regarding the late Subodh Banerjee.

Subodh Banjerjee was a firebrand labour leader with such incendiary oratorical skill that both his friends and detractors used to say that he could set fire to the sluggish currents of the river Hooghly. Unlike many of his ilk, he was not a purchasable commodity available to the highest bidder. Employers used to be afraid of him so much that they would always prop up another trade union with a pliable leadership to subvert his union. They would concede more to the other union than come to any understanding with Banjerjee’s union. He would fight hard to get his demands met. But once an agreement was made, he would ensure that it was strictly implemented both by his followers and the employer. He would not allow any under-the-table adjustment which would be personally beneficial to the union leaders and, of course, to the management leaving the workers high and dry. All his dealings in labour matters were open and above board leaving no scope for future manipulation by the twist of a phrase or turn of a punctuation. Employers always thought him to be an uncompromisingly obstinate and dangerous leader.

He belonged to the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI). Its leadership believed in the Brahminical tradition of pollution free purity of socialist thoughts and principles. In the rainbow spectrum of Socialist-Marxist parties of West Bengal, it represented an extreme position. Though small in size, it had the reputation of being aggressively combative which could make its followers suffer untold police torture without any demur.

The late sixties of the last century witnessed tumultuous political upheavals in West Bengal. In 1967 the ruling Congress party was unseated from power by a hotch-potch combination of Right and Left parties who made a post-electoral alliance. Subodh Banerjee became the PWD Minister. Being scrupulously honest, the Department—which even in the British days had earned the sobriquet “plunder without detection”—felt the sizzling heat of a firebrand honest Minister. His lasting contribution was the removal of all statutes of “guardians and rulers” of the Indian empire from public places in Kolkata. But he did not destroy them. He appreciated the artistic value of many of them and stored them in some other public places not in the public view. The first United Front Government only lasted for seven months. The Ministry was dismissed and President’s Rule was promulgated.

After the election in 1969, the UF again came to power. Subodh Banerjee got the portfolio of his choice, Labour. In little over a year that this government lasted, he left a permanent imprint on the industrial scene by introducing “gherao” as an instrument of industrial action by militant workers. So much was the intensity of this new method of labour action that the word “gherao” got inducted into the English languge. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, 2004, on page 598 has the following entry: “Gherao: n (pl. gheraos). Indian; a protest in which workers prevent employers leaving a place of work until demands are met. Origin: From Hindi.”

So the English language was enriched by his gherao policy. Though as an incidental side-effect, the investment climate in West Bengal collapsed and a long process of de-industrialisation started. The second UF Government imploded because of its own internal contradictions. After a spell of another President’s Rule during the Bangladesh war, the Congress came back to power in 1972.

UNDER the new government, I was posted as the Labour Secretary. Dr Gopal Das Nag, a well-known general physician, became the Labour Minister. He was an amiable person and had excellent relationship with all trade union leaders irrespective of their political colour. One day he sent for me and asked whether I knew Subodh Banerjee. I told him that though I did not directly work under him during the two UF governments, I had had interaction with him in land maters. Notwithstanding his notoriety in the corporate circle, I found him to be an extremely friendly and polite person.

Dr Nag then told me that Banerjee was very sick. He had been admitted to the School of Tropical Medicine. He said he would have himself gone there but for some reasons he was unable to go, so could I go and meet Banerjee and find out from his family members and attending physicians whether Dr Nag could render any help either as a Minister or otherwise.

I could easily appreciate Dr Nag’s predicament. As a gentleman he wanted to be by the side of his predecessor in office. On the other hand, during the period of “restoration” if he were seen publicly with the “gherao Minister” it might be misinterpreted both in the business and political circles. With alacrity, I agreed to be his personal emissary to visit Subodh Banjerjee in the hospital. I was also to find out from the Director of the School whether any special medicine would be required which Dr Nag could procure quickly avoiding the usual medical red tape.

During the visiting hour on the same day, I went and met Subodh Babu. He was in a small ordinary cabin on the ground floor. He was very happy to see me. His voice had become very feeble. His body was frail. I could see that it was a strain for him to talk to me. He thanked Dr Nag and then me for coming to see him. He inquired about many officers of the Labour Department. After the usual pleasantry when I inquired whether we could do anything for him, he gave a benign smile and told me that he was already in a government hospital so he had nothing more to ask of Dr Nag as a Minister of the government or as a person. It was very kind of him to make this gesture. When I was coming away, he dropped a hint he would not mind my coming again for a chit-chat.

Thereafter, I went to the Director’s office. Dr Nag had already informed him that I would be visiting him. I found a number of other physicians in his room, I was ushered in the midst of a medical conference. When I inquired about the prognosis, he told me it was bleak and he did not expect Subodh Banerjee to last more than a fortnight at the outside. He had a bad type of blood cancer for which there was no specific medicine available in India. But some of the physicians who were doing research on the subject were aware of a new drug just made available in the market in the UK which, according to some medical journals, may prolong the life for a while, though it could not cure the ailment. In fact, the conference was about the possibility of using that drug for Banerjee.

That drug was not available in India. By the usual procedure it would take months before it could be accessible here. I requested him to give me the full specifications about the drug. With that I returned to office.

Though it was late, Dr Nag was waiting for me. He had a talk with the Director so he knew about the drug. Those were the days of strict foreign exchange and import control. Even by extraordinary measure an indent from the Government of West Bengal to the Health Ministry at Delhi would take days if not weeks to get processed. When he were discussing about the matter, it struck me if some Kolkata managing agency houses, which were now owned by Indians and which still had their London offices, could be approached to procure the medicine in the UK and send it to India by hand. Dr Nag told me that he was also thinking on that line. He then rang up the chairman of a well known former sterling company which had an office in London and told him of this problem. The gentleman agreed to come to Writers’ Buildings at once to discuss about it.

The gentleman was told about the urgency of the problem because the physicians did not expect him to last beyond a couple of weeks. He went back to his office to call his London office. Next morning Dr Nag told me that the London office of that Indian company had been advised to procure the medicine. The prescription of the Tropical School of Medicine had to be faxed to London to enable them to buy it. As a humanitarian measure the company would buy the medicine on their own and would not accept any payment. The problem was how to send it quickly. Dr Nag was a Press-friendly person. So some of his friends in the Press came to know of the whole episode. The next morning two important dailies of Kolkata carried news about procurement of a rare medcine for Subodh Banerjee from London. Seeing the report the local manager of the British Overseas Airways Corporation came to the Minister and told him that if the medicine could be handed over to a particular officer of the BOAC in London, they would have it transported to Kolkata free of charge on humanitarian ground. The BOAC then had three flights a week from London to Kolkata. So by the fifth day from the day the prescription was received the medicine would arrive in Kolkata.

ON the morning of the sixth day, the manager of the BOAC Kolkata brought the packet himself and handed it over to the Minister. Dr Nag sent for me and gave the packet with the request to rush to the hospital to hand over the medicine to the Director. I went to the hospital, As I was going towards Subodh Banerjee’s cabin I met the attending physician who was coming out of the room. I told him that I had the medicine and I would like to hand it over to him. He suggested that I should keep it in the patient’s room for the time being till they start administering it.

I went to Banerjee’s cabin. His condition had visibly deteriorated in the last few days. His voice was so feeble that it was not audible. He had a slate and a piece of chalk. Looking at me his eyes sparkled and he broke into a pleasant smile. I kept the packet on a stool by his bedside. His wife and daughter were on the other side of the bed.

He spoke something to me. I could not hear. His wife told me that he wanted to know who had bought the medicine. I could understand the catch in his question. I replied that the BOAC brought the medicine free of charge from London. He again said something. It was not audible to me. His wife told me that he knew about it and that he was grateful to the British public sector corporation for taking this trouble but he did not get the answer to his query. I thought it would not be proper to parry his question any further. I told him at the request of Dr Nag the chairman of an old managing agency house procured the medicine in London on the basis of the prescription of the School of Tropical Medicine and that the company refused to accept any payment either from the government or from Dr Nag personally. The company donated the medicine for a humanitarian cause.

His face hardened. That pleasant smile vanished. For a fraction of a second his eyes blazed. I could perceive that something was boiling within him. Then he gradually calmed down. Again he resumed his pleasant self. Then I noticed a flicker of smile on his lips. He took the slate and the chalk. With his unsteady hand he wrote a few incomplete sentences and handed over the slate to me. There I found, he profusely thanked Dr Nag and the chairman of the managing agency house for their kind gesture.

Then came the bombshell. He wrote that he fought against this managing agency house for their unfair labour practices throughout his trade union career. He could not and would not accept the medicine from them. Then there was almost an appeal to me: “Please do not try to pollute me in the remaining hours of my life.”

I was stunned, I just could not react. I stood shell-shocked for a while. When I got control over myself, I thought his wife and daughter had the right to disagree with him so that the medicine could be administered. I gave the slate to his wife. She said nothing but nodded consent with her husband’s stand. I then gave it to his daughter with the faint hope that she might disagree. To my surprise, she also agreed with her father.

There was a patient who was to die in another 72 to 94 hours. There was the medicine procured from half the world away which was to prolong his life by three to six months. And here was that determined and dauntless non-conformist who would not accept the medicine donated by his class enemy. I did not know what to do: I looked at him directly in the eyes. I saw a naughty look of a child who had just outwitted his headmaster. There was again that pleasant smile indicating that he was totally in peace with himself and with the world outside.

I bowed and picked up the packet. I went to the Director’s office where he was conducting a meeting with his fellow physicians about that medicine. I kept the packet on his table and told the dumbfounded audience that Subodh Banerjee refused to accept the medicine given by a corporate house.

A couple of days later, while I was having tea I heard in the news of the All India Radio that Banerjee had passed away in the wee hours of that morning. I was alone in my room. I stood up and bowed to the indomitable spirit of a defiant rebel.

(Courtesy : The Statesman)

The author was the Secretary to the Government of India, Ministries of Finance (Revenue) and Rural Development, and the Executive Director, Asian Development Bank, Manila.

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