THE carriage gives a jolt as the train moves off again. Helen turns to Gangadevi.
‘I’m sorry for being so blunt.’ she says, hesitating slightly, ‘but isn’t it difficult for you to be a leader of village people? I mean, you don’t live in a village do you? Why should they accept you as a leader?’
‘But I am not a leader, as I was telling you just now. I hold no position in a people’s organisation. The people look to me for some guidance but not for leadership - that must come from the people themselves. And of course it is not easy to find really good leaders.’
‘Why’s that?’ asks Helen.
The older woman pauses and gazes at the green paddyfields in the half-light of dusk.
‘Leaders have such tremendous demands placed on them,’ she says. ‘They must have strong convictions, but they should not be dictatorial and dogmatic. They must have personal flair and be able to inspire others but they should also not be arrogant. To be a credible leader one has to ‘be almost superhuman. How many leaders in your country are like that’?’
‘Not many, I suppose!’
‘But in India,’ she smiles, ‘even if a leader has these qualities, we are still not satisfied. We demand that our leaders be martyrs as well as heroes. If a people’s leader is imprisoned, that adds enormously to his credibility. And in his personal life he should also be very self-sacrificial. If he decides not to marry in order to devote himself totally to the cause, so much the better. Of course the reality usually falls short of the ideal.
‘That’s hardly surprising - you’re talking about martyrs and saints, not ordinary mortals!’ Helen protests.
‘Yes, to a large extent that is true. And there are not enough martyrs or saints available,’ Gangadevi gives a wry smile and adds, ‘especially here in Bihar. Being a people’s leader here also demands a lot of physical courage. The landlords’ private armies as well as the police are likely to beat them up, burn their houses or even murder them in cold blood.’ she says, with a hint of bitterness in her voice. ‘But it also requires a wider vision of the organisation - not just as a tool for short-term economic gains but as a means of changing what is rotten and unjust in our society as a whole. In fact there is usually a little tension between the members and the leadership over these issues.’
Mr Mishra’s head waggles vigorously once more.
‘It is more than just a question of a little tension. Let us call a spade a spade. A peasant or a factory worker joins a trade union or some such organisation for particular benefits - maybe he wants ten rupees a day instead of just seven or eight. Right? But what the union leaders really want is a communist system of government! So they try to manipulate the masses for their own political purposes.’ He stares hard at Gangadevi, challenging her to contradict him. She returns his gaze and smiles gently.
‘Next week,’ she says. I am going to visit a people’s organisation in Monghyr district. Will you come with me and sit down with the people and talk with their leaders? You can ask them anything you want about their aims and objectives. They will be ready to answer. Will you come?’
‘Now look here,’ says Mr Mishra, a little exasperated now, ‘don’t think you can put me off like that ...‘
‘Oh look,’ Helen interrupts, ‘we’re coming into a station!’
‘Yes,’ says Mr Mishra, recovering his composure, this is Jehanabad. There will be a longish halt here and we can get some refreshment on the platform.’
‘Comrade Roy has come back,’ said one of the miners.
I looked out of the window, expecting to see an impressive person alighting from a car. Instead I saw an ordinary looking man with a scraggy beard getting out of a rickshaw. He was tallish, lean, wore spectacles and was dressed in white pyjama-type trousers and a long kurta shirt, like the coal miners waiting in his office. Was this really the famous A K Roy, Member of Parliament and President of the Bihar Colliery Kamgar (Workers’) Union?
‘Yes,’ I was assured, ‘that is Comrade Roy,’ He had just returned from inaugurating anew college building, one of his duties as the local MP. I had already been waiting two hours in the union’s office in one of the poorer localities of Dhanbad. Huge portraits of Marx, Lenin and Mao adorned the walls and a red flag hung conspicuously outside the entrance. Inside, miners were sitting around on mats spread on the floor.
It was another hour before I finally met Roy in his office, a poky, drab room furnished with a table, two chairs and a telephone (the latter, I supposed, one of his privileges as an MP). He peered at me through his spectacles and came straight to the point - what was the purpose of my visit? I explained and gave him some copies of New Internationalist to establish my credentials. He looked briefly at the magazines and, apparently satisfied, began talking in a shy, reticent way. I had to ask him to speak louder because my tape recorder was not picking up his soft voice but gradually he lost his reticence as we talked, frequently interrupted when miners came in to discuss their problems.
‘The union was the outcome,’ Roy explained, ‘of a movement of workers to gain self-respect and some control over their own lives by breaking the power of the local mafia.’ The workers campaigned for the democratic right to choose and control their own trade union. The mine managers responded by sacking 600 workers and suspending many others and the mafia launched a campaign of terror. Two union organisers were murdered and workers began coming to meetings armed with staves (lathis) and axes for self-protection.
But the movement survived the onslaught and the union was registered in 1974. Today it is the largest union in the Dhanbad coal belt. Because it grew spontaneously out of a people’s movement the union has never had a rigid organisational structure.
‘The cardinal principle,’ said Roy, ‘is decentralisation. So that even in the absence of the central leadership the union still functions.’
Later I spoke with Jumra Timiya, President of the Union Committee in Dubai colliery, who confirmed what Roy had said:
‘When we take decisions we call a meeting of the workers and ask for their opinions. It is only on very important matters that we approach Comrade Roy.’
Ten years after the establishment of the union, the mineworkers now have better wages and greater job security. But Roy is not satisfied. He deplores the growth of ‘economism’ among workers, and sees his role as giving political leadership rather than concentrating on purely industrial issues. ‘In the trade union movement today,’ he said. ‘there is more trade and less union. The working class is losing its role as an instrument of change in society and is becoming a junior partner of the employer.’
As far as his own role is concerned, however, Roy describes himself as a ‘catalyst and promoter, rather than a commander’. Why then, I asked, was the figure of A K Roy projected by the Indian media rather than the movement itself?
‘It is a feature of capitalism,’ he said after pausing for a moment, ‘to project and extol individuals rather than the movement ... On the other hand, I suppose that leaders like myself do have a role as symbols of the movement. Myths grow up around us.’
What does a leader such as A K Roy symbolise? Why do the union members respect him?
‘Comrade Roy,’ said Jumra Timiya, ‘taught us about our rights and our own leadership abilities. He gave us self-respect. Roy’s leadership has helped us raise our voices. Other unions do not allow the workers a voice.’
‘Roy is respected,’ said another miner, ‘because he is fearless and prepared to confront the workers’ enemies. He is also honest and selfless. He has given up everything for the union.’
Other mineworkers made similar comments, depicting Roy’s leadership qualities in terms very close to those of the traditional Indian concept of sainthood.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, the supreme example of the 20th century Indian saint, A K Roy embodies the qualities of krichata sadhan - or self-sacrifice and austerity - in his personal life. He was born in a middle-class family in Calcutta, is well educated and has the prestige of being a Member of Parliament. Yet he shares with his comrades a hut without running water or electricity in Dhanbad’s poorest locality. Apart from his books, he has no personal belongings to speak of. He has never married and has very little contact even with his own mother and other family members. He has also suffered for his political commitment, having been imprisoned during the Emergency of the mid-1970s.
But Roy’s krichata sadhan is not political expediency: he believes that any working class leader should live in the way he does. He consciously shuns the cult of the charismatic personality, not simply because of his innate shyness but because he thinks this is unfitting for a people’s leader. I wanted to photograph him before leaving his office but he refused.
It may seem a strange paradox that in India a Marxist leader such as A K Roy has to have saint-like qualities to fulfil the expectations of the people he leads. Yet that is the reality.
This is an edited version of a longer interview