January 04, 2015

Comrade P R Menon A Tribute to My Comrade of Five Decades

C Radhakrishnan

IN July 1960, a couple of days after the unsuccessful nationwide strike of railwaymen, I was waiting for an audience with the Divisional Superintendent who had summoned me. I never imagined that the wait on that verandah would bring me in contact with a man who would become my closest comrade, companion and soul mate for over five decades. When my turn arrived, I went in and came out holding my suspension order – the consequence of participating actively in the strike. The young man who had stood outside with me went in and came out holding a similar suspension order and that shared experience got us talking.

I was pleasantly surprised to know that he was assistant secretary of the Wadi Bunder branch of the National Railway Mazdoor Union (NRMU). That initial meeting turned into a saga over the years as I got drawn to the world of workers’ struggles. We had one thing in common - a great empathy for the plight of railway workers, especially in the lower categories such as gangmen, safai wallahs and casual labourers, who were victims of rampant exploitation by the system. At that time, none of us had any idea that P R Menon would grow up to become the beloved ‘Comrade PR’ to railwaymen across the country.

From assistant secretary of the Wadi Bunder depot to its secretary, PR rose rapidly due to his open, transparent way of conducting the union’s affairs and due to his ready response to the needs of the most vulnerable sections of the work force. The Wadi Bunder branch soon won reputation as a militant section of the NRMU, largely because of his uncompromising stance on issues that involved the cause of workers.

The next few years were years of innumerable agitations for the cause of justice for railway workers. Under Comrade PR’s leadership these were not just token registrations of protest but strident, decisive, result-oriented agitations that slowly but surely started giving results.

In 1968 the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) issued a call for a one day token strike. I remember Comrade PR and his militant group, including me, working tirelessly to make that strike a success. Unfortunately, the strike never materialised because the then general secretary of the union withdrew the strike call without consulting the working committee.

The railway management struck back instantly, singling out PR and me by issuing transfer orders to Nagpur, hoping that the physical distance between us and the scene of action in Mumbai would douse our passion for the cause of workers. I was especially singled out on that occasion - my transfer letter banished me to Junardev, a remote outpost in a mountainous region in the Nagpur Division, which was connected by a single train that passed through each day. We decided not to suffer the victimisation in silence and fought the decision tooth and nail, eventually emerging victorious when the orders were cancelled.

By then our work had caught the imagination of the workforce which rallied around us and the cause. In the subsequent election in the NRMU in 1969, Comrade PR was elected president of the union and continued in that post till 1973 when he agreed to step down for George Fernandes. After a series of discussions on the issue, a compromise was reached and PR became the working president of the union, a post that was created for him.

Even today I remember the hectic days of the movement. I was PR’s closest friend and associate in the union and together we spearheaded agitations that would impact and benefit not just workers in Central Railway, but railwaymen all over the country.

I remember how disturbing the plight of casual labourers in the railways was. Hundreds of them were engaged in doing the same functions that regular employees of the engineering department did, but they were deprived of the benefits that regular employees enjoyed. As per the then existing rules, a casual labourer had to have completed six months of continuous service to become a regular employee of the railways. The management cleverly worked around this system by discontinuing the casual labourer’s service just days before he completed the mandatory six months. After a few days break, he would be called back to work and would again commence service from scratch. This unjust system kept thousands of workers permanently in the ranks of the casual workforce with no benefits at all.

I remember the day when we mobilised some 5,000 casual labourers and organised a one-day sit-in dharna outside the general manager’s office in VT. It was a dharna like never before – the number of agitating casual workers was so large that they could not be contained in the compound of the building. Eventually they spread out to occupy every vacant spot in the building. Seeing the mood amongst the workers and the discomfort of the management at this show of strength, PR and I decided to convert the one-day dharna to an indefinite dharna. When the authorities got wind of our plan through their intelligence sources, they panicked and immediately informed us that they would meet us to discuss the issue the very next day. It was a memorable victory for us when the authorities relented the next day and agreed to regularise the entire casual labour force over the next few months. The celebrations in the NRMU and amongst the workers went on for the entire week!

One of the most difficult jobs in the railway workforce at that time belonged to the staff in the signal and telecommunications department. An acute shortage of staff combined with rapidly changing technology and increased rail traffic had resulted in tremendous pressure on the staff. Nearly 60 percent of them were facing disciplinary actions for various reasons, including delays in the rail service, and there was an air of despondency among them.

After much deliberation, we decided that we had to get the management to address the issue with priority and the only way to make that happen was by organising a 24-hour dharna of the S&T staff outside the GM’s office. When we announced the dharna, every single employee of the department without exception joined in. The management was quick to call us for negotiations and we managed to get all our demands met – the department got additional manpower to plug the shortfall, all cases against the staff were withdrawn and all technical problems were sorted out. It was celebration time all over again.

Our unceasing efforts to secure justice for railway workers had a telling effect on the nationwide railway strike that commenced on May 8, 1974. By then Comrade PR was a leader with thousands of followers; the numbers of whom swelled when he toured the length and breadth of Central Railway, galvanising workers into joining the strike. Not a single train moved on the tracks on May 8 (the first day of the strike) and railway workshops and commercial depots also remained closed.

Those were hectic days for us because we were driven by the need to bring about positive change. We were young and had fire in our bellies. Yes, we had young children and wives back home, but for us the cause came above all that. The government issued arrest warrants against both of us, but those only drove us underground from where we managed to keep the strike alive: going out in disguise, travelling in the dead of night to meet fellow strikers, keeping up their morale when they were arrested and removed from service.

The day after the strike was withdrawn after 20 days on May 27, 1974, PR and I went to meet the then DRM, and as we waited there we saw the police assembling. We knew we would be picked up but what we did not expect was the way they treated us. We were taken to the VT lock up and the next day we were paraded from the lock up to the VT police station, dragged on a rope like common criminals. When Comrade Ahilya Rangnekar came to know of this she arrived at the scene, ticked off the police and had them take off the ropes that bound us. PR was released the next day. I was kept in custody and sent to Arthur Road jail along with other under trials. I was released on bail only a month later.

After the 1974 strike was withdrawn two moods prevailed – one of a simmering anger against the government and the other a sense of helplessness because of the victimisation of thousands of striking workers. The immediate problem that faced us was the rehabilitation of the hundreds of employees who were suddenly facing joblessness and an uncertain future. The then leadership looked on helplessly.

Comrade PR was not the general secretary of the NRMU at that point, but he took up the responsibility of mobilising funds to help the victimised. The rank and file had confidence only in us and not in the top leadership. It was a gargantuan task to raise funds so that no family was left wanting, but thankfully for us we had a band of dedicated, selfless activists who helped us in raising funds. It was miraculous the way people chipped in - I still remember an old lady in the hutments of Dharavi who heard us out, went back inside her hut and came out holding a piggy bank . “This is all I have bete”, she said, “Keep this and I will pray that it is of some use to your workers.” It was wonderful how residents of Mumbai’s government and other residential colonies responded to our plea for help. All gave according to their means. But the flip side was chilling. In Ulhasnagar a businessman whom we approached turned us away saying, “Hartaal kiya to yeh bhi bhugat lo!”

We did many things to raise money including an orchestra by the then famous Babla group and made Rs 65,000 from it. That money was used to file writ petitions in the Mumbai High Court on behalf of the victimised railwaymen. Advocate Madan Phadnis, a CITU lawyer, fought all the cases gratis. He allowed us to use his office, dictating our petitions while we typed them out. We carried the petitions, each of them around 500 pages, five copies each on our shoulders, to serve to the government officials at VT as we had no money for taxis.

I still remember that Judge Gandhi heard our case and he said to the Railway’s advocate, Advani:  “In the land of Mahatma Gandhi, it is a travesty that these workers are victimised.” He was very sympathetic, we got a verdict in our favour in February 1977 and when the Railway management went in appeal, they lost. Striking workers including us got reinstated and as per the Court’s order we got our entire back wages as if we were in service for the entire period. So we got our service tenure plus our wages. In Mumbai area only 10 workers like us had refused to give mercy petitions to the government. The rest got back their jobs at half wages or no wages at all after their mercy petitions expressing regret for joining the strike. In Jabalpur Comrade Kumar and others got Sadhan Gupta, a blind lawyer to fight their cases and got a verdict in their favour.

I remember one case of the Kurla Carshed branch secretary of the union, Comrade P D Khandangle, who went into depression because he had lost his job after the strike and was worried sick about his daughter’s marriage. She was already of marriageable age but since he had no money he could not marry her off. When we got to know about his predicament we told him to go ahead and plan the marriage and that we would raise the funds for the event. We motivated people to collect money from individual railwaymen, telling them why it was needed. People had faith in us and the marriage was conducted in a grand manner.

Despite the outpouring of support from the public we found that the funds were short for the task at hand. But we managed to reach the family of every victimised worker, even if what we did was not enough. Looking back, I wonder how we could manage to do so much.  

One of the starkest memories from the 1974 railway strike is the virtual takeover by the police of the villages near Diva station near suburban Mumbai, where almost every house had men folk working in the Railways and who owed allegiance to the NRMU. When the strike commenced the men folk had gone underground. The police raided the villages on the pretext of investigating an alleged sabotage. They fanned out in the villages trying to locate the men and when they drew a blank, they terrorised families including women and children. They surrounded the wells in the villages, preventing women from drawing water, telling them they would be allowed to do so only when the men reported back on duty.

Comrades Nagu Bala Mhatre, Rajaram Ambu, Namdev Kamlia and Kisan Padoo Mhatre were charge sheeted under several sections of the IPC for alleged sabotage and their cases had to be fought in a court of law. We approached Shri Ovalekar, one of the best criminal lawyers of those days to fight the case and we were pleasantly surprised when he said he would fight the case for us at a fraction of the Rs 50,000 that he otherwise charged then. The problem was that he would not even open the case if we did not pay Rs 5,000 upfront. We did not have that money but decided to raise the funds in the next few days. We kept our word and he kept his – he fought the case and got our comrades acquitted of all charges.

It was as a result of all this work that our panel defeated all its reformist opponents in the NRMU elections in 1980 and Comrade PR was elected general secretary of the union – a post that he was to hold continuously with great credit for the next 33 years.

There is a general perception that workers unions are concerned merely with their own issues such as better pay and working conditions. At NRMU, under the leadership of Comrade PR, we undertook activities that were about much more than just serving the interests of our own members. He had a great humanitarian streak in him that made him push himself and union members to raise funds. When he took over, the union had just a few thousands in its kitty, but by the time he relinquished his post as general secretary last year, the kitty had grown to more than Rs 4 crore in the union headquarters alone and an equal total amount in different branches over Central Railway. This was done so that railwaymen would not have to face uncertainty in times of future challenges and struggles.

Over the years we raised crores of rupees from railwaymen, from the general public and from our own union funds, distributing them in disaster-affected areas like earthquake-hit Kutch and Latur, the flood-affected in Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar and the Tsunami-affected in South India. In Nandurbar, where children died from malnutrition, we purchased hybrid goats, gifting them to poor families so that their children could get good milk to drink. 

We travelled together carrying the message of justice for workers everywhere and learnt from each other. We had countless meals together in the beloved union office that was home to us for half a century. He ate like a bird, a Spartan meal while I ate from the lunch boxes of comrades, relishing every morsel. He would comment on my propensity to eat too much and we would laugh together over our eccentricities – mine is a fascination for old Hindi film music and his was a restlessness that drove us crazy.

Our families bonded and our children grew up together, mine benefiting from his great love. He was my comrade, my brother, my soul mate, my companion. It is hard to believe that the telephone will not ring anymore and his voice, crackling with vitality, will not come over it, talking about some pressing issue. He is gone and one half of me is gone with him.

Farewell, dearest Comrade Menon, my last Laal Salaam to you!