By Achyut Kumar Sharma
The trade union movement in India helping leaders on the ladder of political success is glaringly obvious, no matter whether they are lovers of the working class at heart or not. Many Trade Unionists became ministers but did precious little to do away with the century-old unfair exploitation of working class. Most of the Indian Trade Union leaders can be pigeonholed in this category. However, a few dedicated themselves for the well-being of the working class and socio-economic development, leaving aside a lavish life that tried to lure them. Late Atul Chandra Saikia is one among these chosen few. Despite being a legislator in the Assam Assembly for the first and last time from 1972 to 1978, he was out-and-out a leader of the working class. And this is why, despite being a Congress legislator, he often landed the government in troubled waters by raising questions in the Assembly. This comes to the fore when we flick through the pages of the Assembly proceedings of that period (1972-1978). Atul Chandra Saikia was among the toppers list of 126 Members in his Assembly stint in raising queries in the House.
There was a bloodbath in Calcutta city. Noted poet Amulya Baruah and Anda Phukan of Assam lost their lives in the Hindu-Muslim commul flare-up there. They were gruesomely killed in the commul violence. It was when Atul Chandra Saikia was an assistant-editor with the Dainik Lok Sevak, Calcutta. While the Assamese students in Calcutta had to flee for safety, 22-year-old Atul Chandra Saikia had to engage himself for the rescue and rehabilitation of the affected people from Assam. He led the student-youth procession against British imperialism, demanding the release of I prisoners.
A trip down memory lane, noted Late artiste Kamal rayan Choudhury said: “It was August 16, 1946, a Friday. Calcutta was tense. Fratricidal killings made people fierce and demons. My communication with All India Radio Calcutta got spped. I just couldn’t come out of College Street. Time went by amid ill feeling and uncertainty. The situation was out to spell doom our hard-earned opportunity of announcing Assamese programmes in our beloved mother tongue. Assamese programme was aired in short wave from AIR Calcutta at 6.30 pm everyday, after a long struggle and demand by the people of Assam. What will happen today? Who will open the programme? Sharp at 6.30 pm the Assamese programme was aired in Assamese from AIR, Calcutta. An Assamese youth staying at Calcutta for education and in search of job did it all, at considerable risk to his own life. And the youth was none other than Atul Chandra Saikia.”
Saikia was a front-runner volunteer during India’s struggle for independence. It was 1942. Gandhiji’s call for Quit India movement spread like a wildfire in entire India. Nineteen-year-old Saikia was then a student of IA. It so happened one day that some picketers prevented some girls from going to Handique Girls’ College, Guwahati. With the police arresting the youths, the girls made a fresh attempt to go to the college. Young Atul was on his way to purchase some medicine for his ailing mother. Saikia who was witnessing the scene stopped the girls from walking to the College gate. In this patriotic fervour, Atul Saikia forgot to purchase the medicines for his bed-ridden mother. The police arrested him too, and he was sentenced to six-month Rigorous Imprisonment. Informed of it, his mother noted Freedom Fighter and the first feminist of Assam Late Chandraprabha Saikiani rushed to the jail. Finding his mother there, Atul Chandra Saikia told her: “I did send a message. Why should you come with your ailing health?”
“You did something good by challenging the police and the girls. The experience and knowledge of imprisonment is more educative than any University Degree,” his Gandhian mother, Chandraprabha Saikiani, said in a choked voice. Saikia learnt the language of movement in his mother’s knee. Graduated from Cotton College, he was elected as the General Secretary of the Postgraduate Students’ Union in Gauhati University. Infact he was the second General Secretary of PGSU. He also had a stint as the Sub editor with Dainik Asomiya, edited by Late Debakanta Baruah alongwith Late Kirtith Hazarika, Late Jogesh Das, Dr. Pramod Bhattacharya and others.
With the emergence of INTUC, in post independent era, Late Robin Kakati was made its Assam convener. The urge dormant in Saikia to do something good for the downtrodden picked up steam. Straight from the newspaper desk, he rushed to Robin Kakati. He was among the group comprising noted Trade Union leaders like Late Rajen Phukan, Late Arun Bhattacharya, Late Jaganth Singh, Late Badan Chandra Baruah, Late Mohitosh Purkayastha, Late Mohan Chandra Mahanta and others that left for Bombay for trade union training. Since then he embraced a life dedicated to the poor and downtrodden, leaving aside a lavish life that was not beyond his achievement.
Late Saikia was in the first batch of INTUC volunteers who were assigned to set up Trade Union among the most depressed and oppressed working class, the Tea Garden workers when Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha and Assam Chah Karmachari Sangha was established. But later on he was shifted to Guwahati and was advised by then INTUC leaders to set up Trade Unions in the industrial belt. A workaholic Saikia got very absorbed in the job. From 1956 till his death in 1st June 1982, he had been the General Secretary of State Transport Workers Association (STWA). After the birth of Assam State Transport Corporation in the early 1970s he became the member of Board of Directors of the Corporation. The STWA can be called the brainchild of Saikia. STWA was perhaps was among very few trade unions in the country where the representative of the worker was in the highest decision making body i.e. the Board of Directors, truly implementing the concept of Workers Participation in Magement. Even till now the STWA have a representative in the Board of Directors of ASTC. For decades, Late Saikia was the General Secretary of the tiol Federation of Transport Workers. Besides, he was also the Founder President of many Trade Unions of Assam like Refinery Workers Union, Guwahati, Assam Co-operative Apex Bank Employees Union, HPC Jagiroad Paper Mills Workers Union to me a few.
Besides representing the Indian Workers in the ILO and other intertiol fora in many countries, he was a Lecturer in the Intertiol Confederation of Free Trade Union, ICFTU, Asian Regiol College, which was at that time situated in India. But just for the love of working class he had to give up that lucrative job. His heart bled for the working class of Assam when he did not see the smile that glowed among the coal mine workers in Cada in the faces of their counterparts at Margherita and Ledo, and the smile that glowed Moscow farmers among their counterparts in Assam. He did suggest the Government of India for the uplift of the working class.
On January 22, 1980 he was the lone representative from India in an intertiol semir at Tokyo and read out his report ‘The Role of Trade Union in 1980’. Infact it was his last foreign tour. During his Trade Union life Late Saikia visited U.K., USSR, USA and many other countries representing the Indian workers including the ILO in Geneva.
Before the General Elections in 1977, in the General Council meeting of the INTUC at New Delhi took a decision to back the Congress party. However, Saikia made a stand against the decision. Late Biswath Upadhaya from Assam, Delhi INTUC leader, JS Dara, Late SW Dhabe from Maharashtra followed suit and said the decision was against the INTUC Constitution. His rigid stand cost Saikia of his membership of tiol Executive Committee and the General Council of All India INTUC. Even efforts were made to remove him as the general secretary of the Assam branch of INTUC. He, however, did not deviate from his stance till death, and remains a darling of working class forever.
Saikia is no longer with us. His ideals are distinctly passé among today’s power-centric trade unionists. According to Late Gandhian and trade union leader Bijay Chandra Bhagawati, the special achievement of Atul Chandra Saikia as a trade union leader is ‘he stood guard over the ideals of a trade union, without allowing its erosion of any sorts’.
During his time in seclusion for opposing the INTUCs decision to back the Congress in the 1977 election, the then INTUC Assam branch president Late Kamakhya Prasad Tripathy did caution him saying ‘the consequences of the opposition would be horrible’.
Saikia asked him back in a choked voice: “In the me of Trade Union movement, what are we on the trail of? Are we on the trail of an ideology or of some benefits from the government? What do we want? What’s our ideology?”
These few words, as though, came from the core of his heart, not from the pharynx.
(A tribute to noted Freedom Fighter and Trade Union leader Late Atul Chandra Saikia on his 33rd death Anniversary)
(Shri Achyut Kumar Sharma is the General Secretary of Assam State Rural Labour Federation and is a noted Trade Union leader. Mobile No 09678009891)