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How 2003 Mumbai suicide by Dalvi and Khan triggered struggle against contract labour

 By Harsh Thakor 
Last month, on October 3rd, 2023 we commemorated the 20th anniversary of Anant Dalvi and Akhtar Khan who martyred themselves by committing suicide in protest.
Their suicide manifested the struggle of the workers against the barbaric contract system. Today, thousands of workers are trapped by the tyranny of the contract system, worldwide. 
Khan and Dalvi symbolized the dreams of hundreds of workers in India and the world. Above all it was the bondage of a Hindu and a Muslim worker who were martyred together, so it also symbolised banner against Hindutva protagonists. 
I was privileged to be participant in many of the significant protests and campaigns which still shimmer in my memories, like an unfading light.
The nine-month long indefinite strike of the 70 retrenched project workers of the Tata Power Company (TPC) in Mumbai successfully ended when the management settled the workers’ dues. The TPC was forced to pay substantial compensation of Rs 2 crore to the workers and their families. 
In 1996, TPC retrenched its 70 project workers. Though the workers fought their case, justice was not provided. On 3 October 2003, the official union members of the factory, who had earlier supported the workers, decided to withdraw their support by signing an agreement with the management. Ignited by the betrayal, the very same day the project workers staged a demonstration at the Tata headquarters in Mumbai.
Two among them -- Anant Dalvi, the leader of the group, and Akhtar Khan, another active worker -- shocked the headquarters when they doused themselves with kerosene and sent them to flames before the Bombay House. Dalvi died the same day and Khan died eight days later in hospital. The management tried to sort things by taking into confidence the mother and wife of Anant Dalvi, who refused to give in. 
Indira Ganpat Dalvi, the 70-year-old mother of Anant Dalvi, showed tremendous courage when she let the top-level management know that they were not beggars. “We are here to ask for our rights, not alms. My son has given up his life for all 70 workers. And if the struggle succeeds Anjali Dalvi (Anant’s widow) will be the 70th person to accept the cheque from the company,” she said.
Mass protests ignited as a result of the self-burning of Khan and Dalvi. A huge chain and series of protests occurred at the Tata house in Mumbai. Slogans were raised opposing privatization, globalization, giving compensation to the victim’s familes, abolition of the contract labour system etc.Workers from all fields, youth and students participated. A significant contribution was made by the Railway workers Union. The Drivers Union also consistently participated.

Jagrut Kamgar Manch viewpoint

A most significant contribution was made by the Jagrut Kamgar Manch of Mumbai which unfolded the initiative in uniting the working class forces on this issue. The Manch educated the TPC project workers' union on the issue with great perseverance and patience, on class line. It was instrumental in the formation of a Kendra (centre) built as a memorial for the martyred workers in Vashi Naka.The Manch summarised the evils of the contract system, globalization and capitalism.
Manch's opinion was that this incident was distinct from the many other suicides of retrenched workers which have taken place in the city. Unlike many other retrenched workers over the last decade, these two workers did not commit suicide in the privacy of their homes but did so purposely in front of the mascot of the corporate sector, and did so in a manner as to expose and condemn their employers. The two who committed this act were not isolated, mentally unbalanced, or under the influence of alcohol.
They had been struggling for seven years in whatever ways they knew against the capitalists -- mostly by court cases, by becoming members of the official union, and by constant mutual association and keeping the workers in touch with each other. 

How the struggle was fought

The situation was bleak for the Manch. Its force was frugal, and even out of the 70 some 30 workers were not participating in the struggle for various reasons -- some had moved from Mumbai. The Tatas were powerful and could buy anyone -- judges, police, media, etc. To overpower them, the workers needed to strengthen their own forces and attack the Tatas' weak points.
It was decided not only to mobilise the 40 odd workers fully, but also their families -- including wives and children, and if possible parents. This greatly elevated the numbers, and infused life to the struggle. Further, the womenfolk actually turned out to be valiant fighters, often more so than the men. The participation of the entire families conveyed to the public the importance of the issue.
In order to ensure mobilisation for the programmes (which finally numbered 55), it was decided to stage a weekly general body meetings, participated not only by workers but also family members. News regarding different programmes was disseminated promptly. 
The Manch organised struggle at prominent spots -- just near the Stock Exchange, the Reserve Bank of India and the Flora Fountain. Never are demonstrations allowed here, but such was the spirit of the demonstrators that the Tatas and the police were helpless to prevent them. On each occasion homage was paid to the two martyrs, and their photos were garlanded.
It was an imperative task to carry out widespread exposure of the Tatas, to tarnish their image. First, of course, the workers took their issue directly to the masses, posting posters in the local trains on three occasions. The workers also held as many as 14 propaganda campaigns at VT and Churchgate railway stations, where lakhs of commuters pass at peak hours. At first these used to consist of merely holding placards and banners, but at a later stage a signature campaign was conducted.
Between October 2003 and June 2004, two rallies (of about 300 workers each) were held at Flora Fountain, two small placard-holding demonstrations between Flora Fountain and the Bombay House, and nine full-fledged ones at the Bombay House itself. Of these, five were held in just five weeks -- between May 3 and June 11. One of these included at a time when police intervention was expected. 
One of these was held at a time when police intervention was expected -- a special children's rally. In this rally the children of the workers carried special placards, circled the entire block and ended with a recitation of "hum honge kamnyaab". A rally was also held before the Bombay House on March 23, the martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, when apart from the photos of the two martyrs, Bhagat Singh’s photo was garlanded.  
The last rally before Bombay House, on June 2nd,  was the most significant and impactful of all, with 3,400 workers from a wide range of unions and industries, and in the face of a Tata court case asking for an injunction against any demonstration at the Bombay House.

Solidarity of fraternal forces

A powerful degree of moral support was given by the National Railway Workers' Union, which militantly participated in programmes at the Flora Fountain and the Bombay House, and organised solidarity meetings in various parts of Maharshtra. It initiated a campaign amongst all its workers, staging many gate meetings, and collected funds of around Rs 1.5 lakh.. Money was handed to the 2 widows, and to Ameena Khan who had been evicted from her hutment.
The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha gave favourable solidarity. The People's Art and Literary Association of Tamil Nadu produced a play narrating and projecting the message of the struggle, in a song and dance form, which was performed in Mumbai. The June 11th demonstration was attended by workers from wide spectrum of unions like the Mukund Iron and Steel workers, railways, docks, Tata consulting engineers, Hindustan Lever workers, Nerolac workers, Panvel transport workers, Sarva Shramak Sangathan, etc. Organisation s participating included Lok Shahi Hakk Sanghatana,youth organisation Yuva Bharat, Lok Raj Sanghatan etc. 
Agitations were also launched against the office-bearers of official union for "betrayal".
First, a criminal complaint was filed against Secretary Kailash Shinde for abetment to suicide, and mass pressure was brought on the police station, resulting in his arrest and detention, albeit for a very short time. Then, demonstrations were conducted at various TPC plants, persuading the permanent workers to support the retrenched workers' cause. Then there were repeated mass visits to the houses of the office-bearers of the official union, mainly by the workers' wives and children.
There the women, particularly the mother and the wife of Dalvi, berated and shamed the office-bearers, and threatened them that if their questions were not resolved the consequences would be dire. This was a severe embarrassment for these persons, and people all around came to know of what had happened. As a result of all these efforts, the official union put pressure on the management to negotiate.
The struggle illustrated that even without striking power, sheer mass pressure can send tremors in the camp of powerful managements and how workers can prolong a struggle relentlessly without depending on litigations. 
*Freelance journalist, who was an active participant in the struggle of the TPC workers against Khan-Dalvi suicide



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