People's Democracy

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


No. 35

August 28, 2011


Our Comrade Pandhe

                                                                             Tapan Sen


Comrade M K Pandhe, our most beloved leader who was at the same time one of the tallest leaders of the working class movement, passed away in the early hours on August 20, following a sudden and massive heart attack.


It happened so suddenly that as yet it is difficult to reconcile with it. On the 19th evening, maybe around 5.45, I talked to him over phone from Durgapur, while moving towards the railway station to get a train to Delhi after addressing a steel workers’ meeting. I enquired about his health as our Durgapur comrades wanted his presence at a meeting at Durgapur the following week. He told he was absolutely right and might be available on the 31st. Same evening he was admitted to a hospital for chest-pain and finally left us after a couple of hours.  


He was suffering from cancer. Naturally, we were concerned about his health. But it never daunted him. Whenever we enquired about his health, particularly when he remained a bit indisposed for a couple of days, he immediately responded that medicines were working and that he would recover soon. Immediately thereafter, he would start talking about his programme over the next few weeks. In fact, in his seven decades long public life, he remained fully active, agile and concerned, in the thick of the working class and the Left movement, till his last, undeterred by the problems of ageing and failing health. 




I am not here to make an evaluation of his eventful life and his contribution to the working class movement, nor am I capable of it. This is only my humble homage to the departed leader, exploring some of the memories of my more than three and a half decades long association with him. I came in contact with him some time in the late seventies, as a junior activist in the formative period of the Steel Workers Federation of India, affiliated to the CITU. Along with Comrade BTR, he used to regularly attend and guide the coordination of steel workers unions which led to the formation of this federation later. I could see how he could articulate with ease on the most intricate problems of steel industry, right from the problems of ore mining to the issues of production in massive integrated steel plants, of the marketing organisation and of the workers and employees. 


Subsequently, when I started working from the CITU centre from 1987 onwards and got exposure to other sectors, I saw him dealing with equal comfort with the problems of industries like coal, shipping, airlines, power, transport, engineering, construction et al, and their workers. His versatility and depth of knowledge about the economics, technology and operational aspects of the industries across sectors, about the workplace level issues facing the workers of these industries and his articulation of the demands and other matters with a clear class orientation made him the most acceptable leader of the movement even among the workers far beyond the confine of CITU. Many a time, we used to tell him in a lighter vein, “Comrade Pandhe, which sector you have not handled yet?” He would then respond with magical reflex, with a smile, “There are many as new sectors are coming up everyday; many things are left for you too.” 


He had been a voracious reader despite his busy schedule and always remained a repository of most updated knowledge and information on the developments in political and economic arenas and on the changes in industry and technology. He used to travel extensively through the country, visiting industries and workplaces, meeting and interacting with workers at shop-floor level and addressing and consulting unit level trade unions with great patience. While he would gather something from them, he would also to guide them ideologically and organisationally.


He always said, “Learn to hear the workers patiently, interact with them to know their mind, otherwise you will not be able to grasp the root of the problem.” He also said that without knowing an industry and its workers in depth, one cannot lead them effectively, nor can one confront the employers to defend the workers’ rights and interests. He used to frequently assert that having a command on the working of an industry from a trade union viewpoint is crucially important for exposing the employers’ game plan to sabotage the industry or make it sick for a short-term gain and dislodge the workers for some alien or political consideration (as in the case of public sector units) which is quite common a phenomenon under capitalist order.




Comrade Pandhe cannot be seen in isolation from the advancement of the CITU since its formation. In his own words, “CITU was born at a time when intense debate was going on in the trade union movement on the role of working class movement in the country’s socio-politico-economic scenario.” In the background of an intense economic crisis since the mid-sixties, and in the face of tremendous onslaughts unleashed on the working people throughout the country in the form of increasing closures, lockouts, layoffs, joblessness and attacks on labour rights, leaders of the mainstream trade union movement in the country preferred to pursue a class collaborationist path instead of uniting the workers in the struggle against oppression. CITU was born in this background with the clarion call of “Unity and Struggle,” at the initiative of stalwarts of the working class movement like Comrade B T Ranadive, Jyoti Basu and P Ramamurthy. Comrade Pandhe, who had been one of the national secretaries of the AITUC working from its centre, joined this noble mission of bringing back the country’s trade union movement to the path of class struggle through the CITU’s formation in 1970 which in turn set in motion a new process of unifying the trade unions of various affiliations on a joint platform of struggle on common issues. 


Since then it is a 42 years long history not only of the advancement of CITU as the frontline trade union centre in the country, but also of the trade unions of various affiliations unleashing a new era of united countrywide struggles --- on the economic demands of workers as well as on Comrade Pandhe’s pioneering role, untiring effort and able leadership is intrinsically woven in this entire process of development of a united movement of trade unions in the track of class struggle.  


Following the formation of CITU in 1970, Comrade Pandhe took charge of its centre, as one of its national secretaries. Under the leadership of Comrade BTR and P Ramamurthy, he steered and monitored the CITU centre’s activity to translate the line of unity and struggle into action.


In his own words, “Following the emergence of CITU, the united struggle of trade unions could be brought to the trajectory of struggle against the policies…. Presently, we are witnessing in the current phase a bigger all in unity involving the INTUC and BMS as well.” 




The struggle against the neo-liberal policy regime ushered a new phase of united struggle in which, under Comrade Pandhe’s able leadership as general secretary, the CITU played a crucial role in organising a joint countrywide strike against the neo-liberal policies on November 29, 1991. In this process was born the Sponsoring Committee of Trade Unions, with all the major central trade unions (except INTUC and BMS) and most of the major independent federations of employees in service establishments in the state and central governments, banks, insurance, defence establishments etc. During the initial phase, I and other comrades at the centre witnessed an intense debate within various central trade unions about the strike programme. But independent agitations by unions at the ground level and tremendous persuasion by CITU at the national level finally made the strike action possible. Comrade Pandhe played a frontline role in pursuing them for joint strike action in the background of rising independent workplace level agitations against liberalisation and privatisation. Thereafter it is a series of 12 countrywide general strikes by the Sponsoring Committee, along with numerous sectoral strike actions against the neo-liberal policy regime. These maintained the continuity of struggle against neo-liberalism. In this process the platform of unity got further broadened into an all-in unity of trade unions of all affiliations. The 13th general strike on September 7, 2010 was an all-in united strike by trade unions --- first ever in the post-independence period.


Comrade Pandhe steered the CITU as its general secretary during 1991-2002 and as its president from 2003 till March 2010. In this period, united movement of the working class against the economic policy regime got sharpened and broadened, reaching the height of all-in unity. His untiring effort in this direction and firmness on issues made him one of the tallest leaders of his time, commanding respect and acceptability in all the trade union circles irrespective of affiliation. Side by side, under his leadership, CITU unleashed a campaign against the ideological offensive of neo-liberalism. The literature published for the CITU conferences and committee meetings under his guidance is testimony to this campaign which stills remain relevant for the movement. 




Comrade Pandhe joined the communist movement in his early youth, in 1943, stressing upon the role of the working class in social transformation and emancipation of people from all kinds of exploitation. He was elected to the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1998 and continued in that position till his death.


He was widely known and respected in the international trade union movement. His initiative widened the international relations of CITU in a big way. He had been co-president of International Energy and Miners’ Organisation (IEMO) which is a joint international platform of energy and mining workers worldwide, irrespective of affiliations. 


His firm commitment to working class ideology and to anti-imperialism always guided the CITU in organising the united movements and exposing the capitalist order. During the interactions in the CITU secretariat meetings at the centre, he never failed to emphasise the urgency of elevating the workers’ consciousness through the process of struggle. He would often say, “Struggle cannot automatically raise the political and ideological consciousness without conscious effort in that direction. And for that we have to equip ourselves and also those leading cadres working at various tiers of the organisation.” He also used to stress the task of exposing the capitalist order which has become more atrocious and inhumane under the neo-liberal order. “This task is to be pursued consistently and with continuity in all our collective activities and in the process of struggle. And we must be clear ourselves first that between capitalism and socialism, there can be nothing in between and it is our bounden task, rather the constitutional direction to prepare the workers to fight for socialism.”


He was a prolific writer and wrote innumerable pamphlets on issues facing the trade union movement and on economic policy issues. His booklet titled Policies of Liberalisation: Attack on Economic Sovereignty, published in 1991, was translated into all Indian languages and circulated in several lakhs through the country. In the joint anti-LPG struggle, it provided to all trade union activists and organisers, irrespective of affiliation, the talking points on the disastrous effects of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. Also notable were his pamphlets on Fraudulent Price Index, Global Economic Crisis and On Employees Pension Scheme. He made regular contributions to trade union journals on almost all issues facing the working class.




Despite being a tall leader of the working class movement and a personality of highest stature, he was accessible to all including common grassroots workers no matter whichever union they belonged to. His simple life style, utmost simplicity and open-minded interaction with people or junior comrades made everybody approach him without hesitation. I rarely saw him annoyed, not to speak of being rude to anyone, which many in position unfortunately consider to be a quality. In the committee meetings at the CITU centre there were many occasions when we differed but we never felt any hesitation to open our mind. Rather he used to provoke debate, give patient hearing to dissenting opinion and, even more patiently, explained his points and tried to develop a consensus. Many a time he accepted other views in a free and frank discussion. This rare quality and simplicity made him the dearest leader of the entire rank.


While being a top leader of the organisation, he took initiative to bring the junior comrades to the frontline leadership. At the 13th conference of the CITU, he and Comrade Mohd Amin took the initiative to bring about a change in top positions and assured us of all help and guidance in discharging our responsibilities.     


His unflinching commitment to working class, indomitable zeal to work and organise, strong conviction on the urgency of developing class leadership, great intellectual capacity to penetrate and down-to-earth approach to communicate and interact with people made him one of the tallest leaders of India’s trade union movement.  


Comrade Pandhe is no more. His demise is a severe loss to the movement and to the CITU in particular. It has created a vacuum that is difficult to fill up. Yet we have to draw strength from the ideology, commitment and the organisational spirit which he sought to inculcate in us through his affectionate guidance till the last hours of his life.