by Ranjan Ghosh
Frontier | Vol. 52, No. 6, Aug 11 – 17, 2019
A K Roy, the legendary trade union leader of the coal miners of Dhanbad, has passed away. He was ill for the last several years—unable to speak due to partial paralysis but the smile in his toothless face remained unchanged. He would recognize everybody who came to visit him. He would squeeze the visitor’s hand in his own and his smile became bigger. That was his way of communicating the fact that he recognized the person before him. He had a sharp memory. He not only remembered the names of innumerable coal miners or villagers whom he met but could tell you the villages or collieries where they lived. He would even give you the direction—the roads, streets, lanes or by lanes of the particular house in some remote village of his constituency—Dhanbad. Obviously, he visited those insignificant hamlets or coolie quarters personally—not in cars—but on public transport, borrowed cycles, on the back of somebody’s motorcycle or simply on foot.
By look he was an ordinary man, clad in white kurta and payjama which were clean sometimes but never ironed. This attire never changed even when he went to parliament—he was three times MP. His attire and manners sometimes created funny situations. Once I accompanied him when he went to meet famous Jharkhand leader Binod Bihari Mahto who was imprisoned in Giridih district jail. It was the peak of Jharkhand movement just before Emergency. A large gathering of tribals was called by another famous Jharkhand leader Sibu Soren at the court compound of Giridih in protest against the imprisonment of Binod Babu. The district authorities had fortified the jail with wooden fence behind which hundreds of armed police were on high alert. The usually busy and crowded court compound was completely deserted—not a single soul, except the police could be seen anywhere. A tense and charged atmosphere—like the calm before the storm! When we two reached the jail gate, officers sitting on chairs some 10 feet away barked at us “who are you? Go away”. Roy answered with his characteristic smile and cool voice “my name is A K Roy”. The officers were bewildered. None of them had seen him before but they heard his name as a fire brand communist leader and they knew that he was one of the main speakers of the forthcoming gathering for which all the security arrangements were made. They perhaps expected him to have stormed the jail gate with thousands of his followers. Now this unobtrusive frail man wearing a rather dirty kurta payjama (after a long bus journey from Dhanbad to Giridih his white kurta had patches of sweat and dirt all over) and accompanied by a frailer and dirtier little fellow (me), was claiming to be A K Roy! By then one of the jail guards had recognized him and hurriedly informed other officers. Suddenly all of them jumped out of their chairs and bowed. With honour and respect he was ushered in and allowed to meet Binod Babu. Even I was given a chair to sit!
I sometimes wonder whether this ordinariness made him so near and dear to the ordinary people for whom he spent his whole life. He belonged to that time when simplicity in life was considered to be a virtue for the public figures irrespective of their political beliefs. He was a Marxist, a revolutionary in his political life but like many other left leaders of that bygone generation, a true Gandhite in his personal life. With his demise the extinction of that species is almost complete. I know only one still alive—Comrade Manik Sarkar of Tripura.
He was ordinary in his personal life but extra ordinary in his political life. He was the single voice in a house of 512 who opposed the bill for
the pension of the parliamentarians. He argued that “until the pension of every citizen is ensured we the servants of the people have no right to claim the same for ourselves”. And he stuck to his principle. Even though elected as MP three times he refused to accept pension till the end of his life.
He was extra ordinary in another sense. He was the only left leader of his time who not only supported the movement for the statehood of Jharkhand, but actually initiated the formation of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. When all other political parties, including CPM opposed the formation of Jharkhand tooth and nail (Lalu Yadav declared that Jharkhand could be formed only on his dead body), Roy championed the cause of Jharkhand not only in theory but in practice as well. He wrote books and articles emphasizing the justification of Jharkhand movement. He also mobilized the workers in support of that. The colliery workers whom he led in their fierce struggle against the combined force of mine owners, coal mafia and the state were not all Jharkhandis. A large number of them hailed from Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Yet Roy made them staunch supporters of Jharkhand Movement. Every year on 4th February, the foundation day of JMM, thousands and thousands of these coal miners from Bihar and UP could be seen carrying green flags (the symbol of Jharkhand) and shouting—”Jharkhand Raj Hamara Hai” (Jharkhand is ours). Similarly, on May Day the Santhal, Kurmi and other castes from the villages far and near, carrying bows and arrows along with red flag shouted “Duniya ke Mazdoor Ek Ho” (Workers of the World, Unite). This was truly extra ordinary! More so, because reactionary forces tried their best to implant seeds of provincialism among the Bihari workers. Congress and socialist trade union leaders of Jharia coalfield tried to mobilize Hindi speaking workers from Bihar and UP against Jharkhand. They did not succeed. The coal miners of Jharia remained loyal to Roy and his politics “Jharkhand and Lalkhand” for a long time.
Even though he was the brain and ideologue behind the formation of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha he was not a member of its governing body. He could easily have been the president or secretary. But he refused. He was a mentor and he wanted to remain so. Many of the future leaders of JMM—Jaleshwar Mahto, Mathura Mahto etc. who became ministers later on were mentored and taught by him. After being expelled from CPM when he contested from the Sindri assembly constituency as an independent candidate he chose Bow and Arrow as his election symbol and till 1977 when he won the parliamentary seat of Dhanbad that remained the identity of Roy’s political outfit MCC. Yet after the split between JMM and MCC when JMM leader Sibu Soren demanded that symbol from the election commission he did not oppose. He told many of his comrades who wanted the symbol, “bow and arrow is the identity of the tribals and Sibu is a tribal. I have no moral right to claim that”.
That morality, along with Roydada, has left us.