An accountant with a centuries-old religious trust in Gujarat, Bharat Bhatt, then 33, graphically remembers the pleasant yet nippy winter evening in 1988 when he walked into a trade union office in Ahmedabad. A sister-in-law’s brother had brought him to meet the union’s leader, a soft-spoken lawyer named Mukul Sinha. That 15-minute encounter would change Bhatt’s life forever.
Wearing a half-sleeved bush-shirt and smoking a cigarette, Sinha heard Bhatt narrate the woes of the 600 employees of the unwieldily-named Seth Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi Akhil Bharatiya Jain Shwetambar Murtipujak Shree Sangh Pratinidhi. Most staff were priests in its five Jain temples in Gujarat and one each in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Sinha asked who ran the trust. When Bhatt named a billionaire industrialist, Sinha said: “Usko dekh lenge (We will take care of him).”
The tale is both funny and serious. While earning tens of millions annually in donations from the Jain faithful, many of them the typically rich flying over from domiciles in Europe and North America for a quick tête-à-tête with the gods, the trust paid its staff a piffling average of Rs 300 a month. Sackings abounded. Those ill or in other urgent circumstances had only the gods to turn to. Just weeks before Bhatt walked in Sinha’s door, a Congress party-linked trade union the employees had allied with had backstabbed them and sold out to the trustees. The sister-in-law’s brother had once worked with Sinha and knew of his tested prowess as a union negotiator and lawyer.
I heard this story in 2009 at Ahmedabad during a trip for TEHELKA for which I then worked. Mukulbhai, as I called him, guffawed and, pointing at Bhatt, said: “I told him we are incorrigibly atheist and asked if he really wanted us to work with them.” Everyone sitting around us at the office of Jan Sangharsh Manch, their civil resistance outfit, cackled as Bhatt grinned. The answer was yes, they wanted Sinha to get them a better deal from the miserly crorepati trustees. Two days after we lost Mukulbhai to cancer this week, I telephoned Bhatt and shared a laugh going over the very surreal victory that the very un-priestly Mukulbhai wrought for the struggle of the priests.
Founded in the 17th century by a businessman who had descended from Mughal emperor Akbar’s royal jeweller, the trust was chaired for half of the 20th century by the family’s patriarch, textile magnate Kasturbhai Lalbhai, who owned Arvind Mills. At the time Mukulbhai cudgelled up for the union, Lalbhai’s son, Shrenikbhai, had taken over as the trust’s chairman. Mukulbhai’s trade union work since the late 1970s had already led him to cross swords with Lalbhai’s businesses. The group’s lawyer was taken aback to see him arrive for negotiations with the management. “Come on, Mukul,” Bhatt remembers the lawyer say in exasperation, “at least spare our temples!”
Negotiations ate up an entire day and the night that followed. At 5 am, exhausted representatives of the management, who included not a few businessmen travelling from Mumbai, offered blank cheques. “We told them we don’t want their money,” Amrish Patel, a comrade who, too, was present, told me with a laugh when I asked him over the phone this week to recall that fairytale. “We told them they have to give the workers’ dues.” As the talks flopped, Mukulbhai called a strike.
Downing tools meant no showers or change of clothes for the gods. No lamps lit, no prayers made. No darshan, no blessings. The jet-set scrambling in for a flying encounter with the divine bristled. In six days, the union had won. “We have signed six agreements since,” says Bhatt. Wages now nearly match the Sixth Pay Commission’s recommendations. Dearness allowances, gratuity and increments are generous. Sackings are rare. Any time the management acts funny, the priests go slow. How on earth do priests go slow? “They take hours to bathe and clothe the gods,” Mukulbhai told me in 2009, grinning. “Before daily darshan can start, it is time to shutter down.”
Mukulbhai shot to national prominence only a decade ago as he filed court cases on behalf of the victims of the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 in which more than 2,000 Muslims were killed. He also began representing the families of the mostly Muslim men and two women who Gujarat Police shot dead in the mid-2000s in what came to be known as “fake encounters”. But inside Gujarat, his renown with the civil society and the working classes dates to his sacking from the State-run Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) after he had briefly worked there as a probationer and had quickly become a troublemaker for trying to unionise the employees.
In 1977, Mukulbhai, only 26 years old, started a union at PRL. Soon after, he helped found a workers’ union at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). There he met Narendra Patel, an older comrade, and the two stitched up a lifelong relationship. (Amrish is Narendra’s son.) In 1980, they started the Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha, which today boasts 25,000 members. In 1982, when the Centre tried to push a law to bar unions in governmentaided institutes, Mukulbhai fired up thousands as part of a national protest and forced the Bill to be abandoned.
Emerging thus as a formidable union leader, Mukulbhai, still only 33, launched an umbrella outfit in 1984: the Federation of Employees of Autonomous Research Development Education Training Institutes. Becoming popular by its tongue-in-cheek acronym ‘Feardeti’, which in Hindi would mean “strikes fear”, it included unions at the who’s who of the public sector: NDDB, National Textile Corporation, Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), Gujarat Cooperative Oilseeds Growers Federation Limited, National Institute of Design, and Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Sciences.
As his successes drew private sector unions, he launched the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions in 1989, quickly sweeping up most private and public sector unions such as of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport Service, the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, electronics giant Hitachi and textiles major Raymond. Increasingly aware of the everyday struggles of workers beyond the workplace, he and his comrades simultaneously launched the Jan Sangharsh Manch to take the fight to the heart of a class-based system.
Reporting in Gujarat connected me with him in 2008 and we began to interact often. In February, I phoned him for his views on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s claims of governance. Finding Mukulbhai a tad less ebullient, I asked him if he was unwell. He was surprised I did not know he was diagnosed with cancer in the lungs last year. “May be I forgot to tell you,” he said casually. I asked him for more information. Equally casually he said chemotherapy was taking care of him. But I have never seen you smoke, I said. “I stopped smoking long ago,” he said with his typical short laugh.
I wanted to join Mukulbhai’s funeral but there isn’t going to be one. Researchers at a cancer hospital he gave his body are splicing it up now. A lifelong Leftist, Mukulbhai had lately withdrawn from most union work. Except the Jain trust staff’s that wouldn’t let him go and so he stayed its president until his last. “I believed in god and Mukulbhai always made fun of me for it,” Bhatt told me with a chuckle. “He would tell me bhagwan nasha hai, isse chhod do (god is an intoxicant, forget him). He taught me so much, including atheism. I don’t anymore believe in the nasha of god.”