When Gandhi met Marx: A posthumous tribute to parliamentarian AK Roy     

A Marxist trade union leader and MP, late AK Roy was influenced by Gandhi in both his personal and political life

AK Roy played an important role in the Jharkhand movement (Photo courtesy: social media)
AK Roy played an important role in the Jharkhand movement (Photo courtesy: social media)

Sandeep Chatterjee

AK Roy, a prominent social activist, intellectual and political leader, passed away earlier this year on July 21, 2019.

He was elected thrice from Dhanbad as Member of the Lok Sabha and once to the Bihar Assembly. He was a Marxist whose personal and political life was greatly influenced by Gandhi and his ideals.

Professor Amiya Bagchi, a class mate of Roy at the intermediate level, recently recalled how once in Kolkata, Roy refused to use an umbrella during heavy rain, just because his fellow labourers could not afford the humble umbrella.

When I met Roy during my research work, he was confined to bed, devoid of any personal belongings and living with a labour family in a small colliery, Nunudih, near Jharia. The labour family was looking after him like their own father.

He was one of the pillars of the Jharkhand Movement, the others being Shibu Soren and Binod Bihari Mahato. Even though AK Roy, as a theoretician, emphasised on base/superstructure model, he offered its Indianised version.

At the same time, he imbibed Gandhian philosophy through his entire life. On April 15, 1992, at a meeting with party members in Gobindpur block of Dhanbad, Roy reflected on the blend of Marxism and Gandhi, and said “...Marxism includes revolutionary thoughts with Gandhian simplicity.” (published in newspaper Aaj).

During my PhD field work in Dhanbad, I met Roy frequently and we had discussions on a variety of issues. Of vital significance was AK Roy's emphasis on using vernacular languages, continuing from his active involvement in a language movement during his school days in Bangladesh.

He resisted and explicitly considered English as an imperial language and a device to create division in society. In this context, one can observe the influence of Gandhi and his idea of Nai Talim even during the early life of AK Roy.

Though he was a Bengali, in order to reach out to the society, he underlined the importance of language of the masses i.e. Hindi. For both Gandhi and Roy, English was a language of elites which failed to reach the masses.

At one of our meetings, he recalled how he joined Sindri Fertilisers Plant in the early 1960s as an engineer where he witnessed the vulnerable conditions of workers. He recalled how the establishment was compelling him to break an ongoing workers’ strike.

He considered the demands of labour just and the attitude of the establishment unfair and therefore refused to engage in any conspiracy against workers. Thereafter, he left the stable government job to become a full time socio-political activist. We may see this as a Gandhian impact where Gandhi also left his prosperous carreer as a barrister to get engaged in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

During his short tenure as an engineer in research and development department, he actively pursued the work of teaching in mazdurbastis of Sindri, reminiscent of what Gandhi calls constructive work for the larger good of the society.

After joining politics, he realised that political movement was not enough to eradicate various social and cultural evils of the labouring and backward classes and thus he also advocated the subsequent requirement of a broad social movement.

Like Gandhi, AK Roy emphasised on moral values and moral education and in doing so he made attempts to enlighten the labourers about the harms of alcoholism, rituals and dowry, as these were the most prevalent harmful practices among the labour class. Gandhi and AK Roy both understood the evils of capitalism as well as contaminated modus vivendi.

In 1970s, Dhanbad witnessed a powerful struggle between hitherto docile labour classes and the nexus of mafia-management-police.

In pre- and post-nationalisation era of coal mines, private owners of mines and management of nationalised mines in close association with moneylenders were behind the exploitation of the labouring classes. There were several struggles against this vicious situation.

However, it was AK Roy who initiated a strong labour movement against the ongoing exploitation and violence.

In 70s and 80s, AK Roy and his supporters mobilised labourers and used traditional weapons, bows and arrows, to counter firearms used by the coal mafia.

The use of such traditional weapons was also symbolic to generate courage among labourers so that they could fight against their exploitation.

The idea of symbolism was derived form Gandhian philosophy where he resisted against British imperialism through civil disobedience and non-cooperation and traditional use of the lathi against British gunpower.

Like Gandhi, Roy also underlined the importance of dignity of individuals. While Gandhi considered British power as the chief source of oppression; for Roy the source of such repression of labour was mafia-management alliance which he called ‘internal colonialism’.

In the core of this alliance, caste also played a crucial role as suggested by Roy.

He gave the slogan ‘Goondo ko bhagao’, while Gandhi also accorded the popular slogan ‘Angrezon bharat chhodo’. Miners began to resist extortion of money. Consequently, more repressive attempts were made to subjugate them though the miners and labourers continued their struggle.

Roy, even in his personal life, was a true Gandhian. He never used any quality market products and did not maintain any bank balance. He was the sole MP who spoke against the Pension Bill of MPs, although his solitary voice could not prevent passing of that Bill. Thus, as a mark of protest, he donated his entire pension to the PM’s Relief Fund after completing his tenure in Parliament.

Gandhi always stressed on the purity of sadhya and sadhan. It means if the aim is sacred then the approach to accomplish it should also be sacred. The balance between these two reflected in Roy’s life, both personal and political. The party office (public space) became his residence (private space) so that he could be available to the masses at any hour of need. His office, full of books, was open to all and people of Dhanbad still recall him at chai corners and talk of the gatherings of people at his office.

Like Gandhi, Roy also made a distinction between human need and greed. Roy always lived a life of simplicity. He was completely disinterested in materialistic life or in any exhibition of political glamour/power.

He overcame all notions of ‘class’. He always had a corner in his heart for empathy for human suffering. The empathy for others is also a major part of Gandhian spiritual practice.

Roy’s engagement in social services was to the extent that he became a mythical figure among the masses of Dhanbad. In the last decade, a story spread, even in some regional newspapers, that how a sharp shooter was ordered to assassinate Roy. However, after his encounter with him, his mind changed almost miraculously.

Although it is difficult to ascertain if the story is true, the significant aspect is that such stories demonstrate what kind of popular figure he was, and how the masses in their popular imagination perceived him.

Here, one could overtly compare Roy with Gandhi as ‘Mahatma’. In the later phase of his life, Roy has been considered as a saint/messiah by people, for he could even change the mind of a criminal, transform the oppressed, the exploited and the hapless people into courageous and

hopeful masses, conscious of the good and the evil.

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