People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 35

August 28, 2011




An Extraordinary Leader of the Working Class


Prakash Karat


COMRADE M K Pandhe died just after midnight on the night of August 19. I was with him when the end came in the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital and it was a painful experience to see a beloved comrade slipping away forever. Comrade Pandhe died the way he would have liked to – active till the end, cheerful and optimistic that he would overcome all his health problems. On the morning of August 19 he had attended the meeting of the Polit Bureau members at the centre. From the Party office, as was his practice, he went to the CITU office to carry on his work there. It was later in the evening at 6.30 pm at his house that he suffered a heart attack that subsequently led to his collapse in the hospital.


Comrade Pandhe began his political life as a student activist. Given his prodigious talent and organisational capacities, he was offered Party membership at the age of 17 in 1943. Sholapur was the base of his activities till 1958. The years in Sholapur unveiled his multifaceted talents. From being a brilliant student, he became  an active organiser of the trade unions and the Party; secretary of the Sholapur city committee of the CPI at the age of 23, editing a Marathi paper and acting as the secretary of the Goa liberation committee. In between all these hectic activities, Comrade Pandhe managed to get his post-graduate degree and proceed to complete his doctorate under Professor D R Gadgil at the Gokhale Institute of Politics & Economics.


From Sholapur, Comrade Pandhe’s political journey brought him to Delhi and the national scene. From 1958, he was based in Delhi for his trade union work and his Party activities. Thus began a remarkable career as a Communist trade union leader – first in the AITUC and then in the CITU. Pandhe followed in the footsteps of B T Ranadive in providing leadership to the CITU. He assumed the general secretaryship of the CITU in 1991.


Comrade Pandhe’s coming to the helm of the CITU coincided with the ushering in of liberalisation and the full impact of imperialist globalisation on the working class in India. The last two decades saw him grappling with this challenge faced by the working class movement in the face of globalisation and liberalisation. He quickly recognised imperialist globalisation and how the neo-liberal policies would intensify exploitation of the working class and launch a new onslaught on the workers. Comrade Pandhe worked tenaciously to meet this offensive and to intensify the struggles of the working class. Between 1991 and 2010, there were 13 all India strikes against the policies of privatisation and the neo-liberal policies. Comrade Pandhe as the general secretary and later the president of the CITU made an important contribution to formulating the demands, the campaign and organising all these strike struggles. His role in providing leadership to the all India strike struggles and in developing the united struggles of the working class were notable.


Throughout his leadership of the trade unions, Comrade Pandhe strove to put in practice the CITU’s perspective of building unity of the working class in action. In the formation of the National Campaign Committee of Trade Unions in 1981, the constitution of the Committee of Public Sector Trade Unions which brought all the central trade unions in the public sector together, the setting up of the Sponsoring Committee of Trade Unions which in the 1990s led the various all India strike struggles to the formation of the Committee of Central Trade Unions in 2010, Comrade Pandhe worked consistently for building the unity of the central trade unions and independent federations. He was deeply satisfied with the last step of unity taken when all the central trade unions got together in 2010 and the united campaign which led to the one-day general strike on September 7.


Comrade Pandhe was a Communist trade union leader par excellence. Throughout, he stressed on the ideological work to raise the consciousness of the workers so that they are able to realise that it is necessary to the fight against the capitalist system and the working class can be emancipated only through socialism. As he put it, “Ideological development of the working class is of paramount importance if it has to be involved in the long drawn struggle not only against the effects of exploitation but against the causes of this exploitation.”


Comrade Pandhe was a trade unionist with remarkable skills and expertise. He made a major contribution to the development of the coal and steel federation of workers. His grasp and understanding of the public sector and various industries was unrivalled. This enabled him to become a skilled negotiator with the managements, always ensuring that the workers’ interests were protected. Comrade Pandhe effectively brought out how the consumer price index for industrial workers was fraudulent and an instrument for cheating the workers of their due. In fact I was educated on this subject only by reading the pamphlet he wrote on the matter years ago. It will be difficult to replace a leader like him who was such a rich repository of commitment and experience.


As a Marxist, Comrade Pandhe was deeply committed to develop the international solidarity of the working class movement. He worked tirelessly for the CITU to forge the bonds of solidarity with the trade unions committed to class struggle around the world.


He had a long standing affiliation with the Kotnis Memorial Committee. Dr Dwarakanth Kotnis was part of the medical mission which was sent to China to aid the Chinese people in the struggle against Japanese fascism in 1938. Dr Kotnis who died in China during the war, hailed from Sholapur. In the activities of the Kotnis Memorial Committee and developing friendship between the peoples of India and China, Comrade Pandhe played an active role. He was able to see the fruition of the project of converting Dr Kotnis’s ancestral home as a memorial for Dr Kotnis.


When the struggle against revisionism developed in the united Party, Comrade Pandhe took a firm stand along with those who formed the CPI(M). He was asked to help with the setting up of the Party Centre. Later he looked after the parliamentary office from 1964 to 1969. These were years when the CPI(M) MPs in parliament made their mark though they were fewer in number. Comrade Pandhe could provide the necessary information and intellectual support through the parliament office.


Comrade Pandhe became a member of the Central Committee at the tenth Congress in Jalandhar in 1978. He was elected to the Polit Bureau at the 16th Congress in Kolkata in 1998. He brought a consistent class position to discussions within the Party committees. He participated in the discussions in the Polit Bureau on the updating of the Party Programme and in all the Polit Bureau and Central Committee discussions he would be vigilant to see that there was no dilution of the class position when the Party had to take up various issues. He was frank and forthright in expressing his views and in turn was willing to listen to any criticism of his position or actions. He harboured no ill-will to anyone even if they totally disagreed with his own views.


Comrade Pandhe married Pramila in 1957. For more than five decades as a couple, they devotedly worked together in the Party. They lived a simple life. Comrade Pandhe was affable by temperament and he had a comradely approach to all those who worked with him irrespective of their status in the Party and the trade unions. He was a leader who was accessible to all the cadres working on the trade union front and the ordinary workers could meet him at all times to discuss their issues and problems. He was a leader who always wanted to be with the workers in the field. That is why he used to travel ceaselessly. In the last few years after he turned eighty, we found that there was no change in his extensive travels. He would be in Raniganj for a meeting of the Coal Workers Federation and the next day he would travel to Vishakapatanam for a meeting of the Steel Workers and then find his way to Ernakulam for a dock workers meeting.


Last year, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, we at the Party centre sought to restrict his travel and work load. This became an issue for discussion almost regularly at the Party centre. But Comrade Pandhe had made up his mind that he would go out with all guns blazing.


Comrade Pandhe was an extraordinary leader of the working class. His 68 years of public life was a unique record of service to the Communist Party and the trade union movement. At the end of this long and distinguished career, Comrade Pandhe could have been satisfied with what he had done and achieved but he wanted to do more. This will be a testament and inspiration for future generations of communists and working class activists.