Saturday, 10 October 2020

Significance of Babu Tarapada Mukherjee’s Historic Lahore Speech - Centenary Lecture

 M.Krishnan

Ex-Secretary General, NFPE & Confederation.

Brief  Life  History  of  Babu Tarapada  Mukherjee:

                 Babu Tarapada Mukherjee, the pioneer of the Postal Employees movement in India was born in the year 1868 at a Village named Baikunthapur in the District of Burdwan in Bengal State.  He has completed his BA degree course and got married in the year 1891.  Tarapada started his service career firstly at Raj Treasury, Coochbehar and then as Headmaster of Jetkeen’s School prior to his appointment as a Postal Clerk in 1895.  He entered the service on 1st February 1895.

                 From the very beginning of his service career, he started his trade union activities amongst the Postal Employees.  In those days it was not easy to organise trade union activities and form unions in employees front.  British rulers were very much against such ideas.  But Tarapada found out a new device.  He contemplated to carry on the trade union work through Recreational Club.  Accordingly, the “Calcutta Postal Club” was formed in the month of May 1908.  British rules were ready to accept such recreational club with a view to engaging the employees in the recreational activities and divert their attention from trade union functions.  British Government was generous enough to allot a plot of land at 37, Ganesh Chandra Avenue at Calcutta for the purpose and a building was constructed there, which is now the Circle headquarters of National Federation of Postal Employees (NFPE) Postal and RMS Unions of West Bengal Circle.

                 Gradually this Postal Club became the nerve centre of trade union activities of the Postal as well as the Central Government employees movement.  Since formation of Postal Club numerous memoranda, petitions etc were submitted to the Postal Administration.  These organisers were often transferred to distant places, not only within Bengal but also Burma, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and even to Andaman Nicobar Islands as punitive measure.  But the employees could not be deterred from organising movement to realise their demands.  Babu Tarapada was always upright in giving them the leadership. The employees under the guidance of Babu Tarapada did not succumb to the vindictive measures of the administration but they finally succeeded in forming a trade union of Postal Employees viz; All India (including Burma) Post office and RMS Employees Union.

                 Under the auspices of this union, the Postal and RMS Employees 2nd Conference was held at Lahore on the 9th October 1921 of which Babu Tarapada was chosen to chair the occasion.  Babu Tarapada’s address as President of the Conference held two-way effect on the movement of the employees and on the outlook of the administration.  For the employees, the historic speech was a unique guidance as to how and which way the movement should be built and developed.  He roused in them the inherrent potentiality, capable of moving heaven and earth.  He taught the employees to organise themselves with a purpose which was bound to bring success to the movement.

                 On the other hand, the administration found on him the power of a tiger.  They were not ready to allow him to continue in service and remain a leader.  They, therefore, decided to remove him from service and brought charges against him.  In the memo, the administration said, “the Lahore speech was a public one.  It is calculated to bring Government and Postal Administration into contempt with their own employees.”  Babu Tarapada was asked to either make a public apology on their terms or submit resignation.  It means, in no way he can be retained in Government Service.  After his bold reply to the charges raised by the administration, while refusing to submit resignation, the administration’s axe fell on him and he was dismissed from service with effect from 20th November 1921.

                 It was a sad period in the life of Babu Tarapada.   His wife Smt. Sulakhanna Debi was in deathbed.  He was hesitating to go to Lahore to attend the Conference in such a condition of his wife.  But it was his wife who insisted that he must go.  After Tarapada’s return from Lahore, the condition of his wife became serious and the cruel hand of death snatched her on the 29th of November 1921, nine days after he was removed from service.  He has not informed her about his dismissal from service fearing that it may aggravate her health condition.

                 There is a saying, misfortune never comes alone.  This was true with Tarapada’s case.  He lost both his service and wife within one week.  He was a man who did not look into personal interest, courted sufferings for prosperity of others.  He remains as a guiding force of the movement of the Postal employees as well as the other Central Government employees.  Babu Tarapada breathed his last on the 29th September 1929.  Tarapada was a man of exceptional ability and energy, whatever work he undertook he crowned with success.

                 Tarapada was a studious man.  He studied many books on the Labour conditions of England and the method the British workers had adopted to improve their lot.  Once Postmaster General conducted surprise inspection of his Post Office quarters where he lived with wife.  The Postmaster General was rather surprised to see that a petty Sub Postmaster had a fairly large collection of books on literature, philosophy, History and Economics.  Postmaster General enquired whether those books belonged to Tarapada and whether he read them all.  Tarapad replied in the affirmative.

                 Like a comet he trailed the blaze for a brief period of service of about 26 years and disappeared.  The pioneering history of Postal Trade Union movement is compressed in this period of his life.  Controversies did not deflect him from his resolve to meet the challenges of the time.  He met the adversaries with forbearance and calm.

Humiliating Conditions of Postal employees in British india and the background of historic lahore speech:

                 Tarapada Mukherjee in his reminiscences explained as follows:

                 “In 1895, I entered the Postal Department as a Clerk.  The initial pay at that time was Rs.15/-.  The staff position as a rule was quite inadequate on account of which clerks had generally to work for 12 hours a day.  The miseries of the clerks did not end there.  They used  to be very badly treated by the officers, severely punished for petty faults and personally abused by the Superintendent and other officers.  It is hardly possible to believe it now, but it is well known, that corruption was rampant even in Calcutta.  None could get leave without spending some money.  To get promotion from one grade to another, although by virtue of seniority, would cost at least Rs.60/- to satisfy the Superintendent. Juniors would often get promotion before their turn by means of bribes.

                 There was no printed gradation list at that time and it was not supplied to all offices.  In Calcutta two kinds of gradation lists were kept, one for show and the another being real.  Both these copies were written in pencil, so that the position of men could be altered at anytime, by erasing.  A man who was very junior in the grade would have been able to stand as senior in the gradation list by spending some money.  The result was that honest and god-fearing man has very little chance to get promotion to higher grade and had to rot in a grade for several years to come.

                 Another incident quoted by him in his reminiscences is cited below -

                 “A clerk of the Dharamtola Post office in Calcutta while on duty had an  attack of high fever.  His condition was such that he could not leave the office, so he had to lie down on the floor of the office on some bags which were spread for the purpose.  Mr. H.A.Sans, ICS, the then Postmaster General happened to visit Dharamtola Post office at that time.  He was so enraged at the sight that clerk misused the Post office bag and he was so unsympathetic that he dismissed the clerk then and there”.

                 In para-26 of his reply to the charge-sheet, Tarapada narrated the following incident -

                 “I may mention only one instance that occurred in the Calcutta GPO to prove my contention.  An European lady came in the afternoon at the window of the Registration department and she asked the window clerk to accept a registered parcel.  The clerk explained to the lady that parcels were accepted in a different place and the one she had presented could not therefore be booked by him; and he requested her to go to the place where parcels were booked.  The lady got irritated and abused the clerk to her hearts content and came to the Asst. Postmaster in charge and complained against the window clerk.  The Asst. Postmaster called the widow clerk to know what had happened.  When the clerk was explaining to the Assistant Postmaster the real situation, the lady got more and more irritated and in the presence of the Assistant Postmaster slapped the clerk on the face.  What protection did the clerk get?  Absolutely none.  The Assistant Postmaster quietly told the clerk to go and work, and politely asked the European lady to go to the parcel window and gave his chaprasi to escort her to the proper place.”

                 The above instances, narrated by Tarapada Mukherjee will give an idea with what difficulty the postal workers had to work in those days.  There was no holiday to speak of, working hours were longer and above all, the treatment and behaviour of officers were inhuman.  Employees were naturally looking forward for a leader who could be able to remove their hardship.  Tarapada entered the Postal Department at such a juncture.

Historic Lahore Presidential Address:

                 Babu Tarapada Mukherjee delivered his historic speech at the Lahore Conference of All India (including Burma) Post office and RMS Employees Union on 09th October 1921 - as President of the 2nd All India Conference.  First Conference was held in Delhi in the year 1920.

                 When we recall the famous Lahore Speech of Tarapada Mukherjee and read it again and again we could delve deep into his outlook and character.  His speech is full of exhortation to be bold, courageous, self-sacrificing and hard working.  He organised the employees into a mighty force so as to challenge the might of arrogant British rulers.

About the recommendations of Postal Enquiry Committee:

                 In his speech he spoke at length about the recommendations of Hazeltine Committee (Postal Enquiry Committee of 1920).  Quoting the following recommendations of the committee he furiously rejected the theory as placing the workers in the category of  beggars.

                 “Postal Committee starts with the very curious and insulting proposition that “all concession is of the nature of gift and this being so, it is for the donor to decide about what the measure of the gift shall be”.  This tantamounts to saying that the employers are donors and the workers are beggars and they must, therefore, be satisfied with beggar’s doles.”

                 Pointing out this comment of the committee, Tarapada exhorted the delegates -

                 “Workers are not beggars, they are the salt of the earth, they are the only  people who produce wealth.  Wealth consists of the Labour imprinted on material substance and in the absence of workers where is the labour to come from which is necessary to create wealth?  Those who do not work are parasites sucking like vampire the life blood of the society and are battening on the wealth produced by the workers.”

                 He further cautions that if workers stop work, all the bloated rich cannot have their glittering apparel, their bungalows and mansions and delicious food on their table.

About Discrimination in Pay Scales:

                 Tarapada rejected the Government’s argument that it is due to the financial crisis, better pay scales are not recommended to the Postal employees.  He recalled how the same committee has recommended better pay and working conditions to Telegraphists who at that time were Anglo-Indians or whites.

                 “The consideration of economy is, however cast to the four winds when question of raising the pay of the upper strata arises.  You will be surprised to learn that in the course of twelve months, more than one revision has been sanctioned for those who are paid by thousands instead of by tens, but when the poor underpaid, over worked subordinate staff is concerned, that is another matter.”

                 “Man is something more than an animal.  He cannot afford to pass his days in mere animal existence.  He cannot live contended if only his physical needs are satisfied.  His moral nature will rise in rebellion if it is altogether neglected.”  He rejected the plea of want of funds to pay better wages to postal workers and said that Postal department in India gave surplus when in England wages of Postal Workers were enhanced despite deficit.  He treated it as discriminatory.

About Insulting treatment meted out to Postal Workers and the threat of punishments:

                 Tarapada cited insulting treatment meted out to Postal Workers, long hours of work they have to perform and said that in every Director General’s circular the postal workers were terrorized into submission by adding the words -

                 “Mistake or failure to carryout instructions will be severely punished”.

                 He recalled how for every minor or unintended lapses, penalties, fine, stoppage at efficiency bars and debarring selection grades were imposed with heavy hand.

                 Through his speech he exudes high sense of learning as he quotes from Shakespeare and also form Greek Lawyer Draco, who promulgated harsh laws called Draconian laws.  He gave graphic details of the hard working conditions and the oppressive officers regime.

                 He exhorted the postal workers to revolt against such injustices -

                 “Brothers, we cannot afford to continue as we are, unless we belie our nature.  We must, therefore, determine to have our pay increased and working hours reduced.  We must fight and fight strenuously to secure what alone can make life worth living.  We must make up our minds in this Conference whether we shall continue to live as human cattle or “take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them”.        

                 “We have fallen from our high pedestral and we have lost consciousness of our true self.  We have forgotten that we have a soul which is the essence of God.  Once our hypnotism is gone and once we succeed in overcoming mean terror and low selfishness and abject submission to fate, the soul will manifest in all its glory and it will triumph over whatever obstacles may stand in our way”.

About Importance of Organisation:

                 In his speech Tarapara made the following exhortations emphasizing the need to organize -

                 “If you are convinced in your heart that the recommendations of the Postal Committee are humiliating and unsatisfactory, if you feel you have been very shabbily treated and you deserved better, and if you are determined to obtain what you have a right to claim, only one course is open to you, and that is summed up in the one word "organise''.

Organise if you want real living wages,

Organise if you  want to have your working hours reduced,

Organise if you desire better treatment from your superior officers,

Organise if you want that the authorities should consult and consider  your opinion in all administrative measures affecting you.''

About the need that Memorandums should be backed up by the struggle of workers

                   Tarapada made it clear that mere submission of memorandum and petitions to the Government will not yield any positive result, unless we mobilise the workers and fight for the demands.

He said-

                   "Take it from me, brothers, that petitions and memorials and supplications will count for nothing so long as you do not organise yourselves in a manner to convince the Government that  you will no longer stand nonsense.''

About the feeling - We are for the Union and the Union is for us-

                   Through his speech Tarapada exhorted to be class consious and unite into a mighty centralised organisation  so as to free themselves from the shackles of slavish working conditions and low wages.

                   "Organisation to be effective must be centralised.  To make the All India Union a reality, demands a good deal from us.  We must rise superior to provincialism, we must broaden our outlook, we must cultivate a spirit of trust, we must be identified with the Union wherever it may be located, we  must fully develop class-conciousness, we must have implicit faith in the Union, in one word we must strongly feel that "we are for the Union and the Union is for us.'' so long as we cannot thus identify ourselves fully, the union will lack the full strength necessary for our salvation.''

About Six pre-requisites of an organisation-

                   For building a strong union he cited the five prescriptions presented by the Colonel Wedgwood, a labour leader of England, who visited and addressed meeting of Postal employees in Kolkata.

They included-

(i)      Feeling of class consciousness.  No organisation worth the name is possible, without class consciousness.

(ii)     Everyone should join the Union with heart and soul.

(iii)    Create substantive reserve fund for the functioning of the Union-without a strong financial backing union work cannot be conducted satisfactorily.

(iv)    Publicity of our grievances through media and journals.

(v)     Lobbying or influencing Parliamentarians to bring pressure on the Government.

                   To the above five prescriptions, Tarapada added a sixth one ie; (vi) "Discipline in the organisation.''

                   He said a decision taken by the Executive body of the Union after free expression of views and after hearing the opposing view, a majority decision on a particular proposition should be implemented by lower formations.

                   This is very much applicable today as there is a tendency to ignore or not implementing the decision of the apex body by the lower bodies.

                   He defined organisational discipline in one line as follows-

                   -"If my view does not find favour with the majority, I must subordinate my view to the views of the majority, and work loyally and whole heartedly for the common cause - This is discipline.''

About Maintaining Unity of organisation and to shun parochialism:

                   Tarapada in his speech gave call for steel-like unity in the organisation irrespective of province, language and exhorted to common brotherhood.  He said all workers are brothers and asked them to shun parochialism.

About Living wage for decent living:

                   Tarapada enlightened the audience on the question of living wage as follows:

                   The burning question of the day is question of bread and decent living.  Are we paid a living wage? 

                   Do we get sufficient wages to nourish our children with healthy and nutritious food, to clothe them decently, to house them in proper  and ventilated quarters with sufficient accommodation for purposes of decency and healthy moral development, to give them education, to pay for proper medical help, to meet their marriage expenses and various other social obligations, and provide for the rainy day?  Ah, brothers, we all know to what strait have we been reduced.  We do not live, but we merely exist, and drudge on to sustain life.”

About Four minimum requirements of Postal Workers:

                   Tarapada summed up the four  minimum demands of the Postal employees as below -

                   “We should consider what we actually want and determine what we should fight for.  To my mind four things are necessary to establish the subordinate service in the Postoffice on a correct basis.  The first thing we must have is adequate and decent wages; the second thing, curtailment of hours of duty, the third thing, good treatment from superior officers and moderation of punishment, and the last thing that we must have a voice in the administration in matters affecting the subordinate staff.”

Concluding the speech with an optimistic note

                   He concluded his speech saying, "Do try to make your Union strong and do not commit suicide folly of seeking recognition.  Recognition is bound to come from an unwilling Government as soon as you make your Union strong, he said.

                   Finally he gave the following clarion call on the workers-

                   "You are men and not dumb driven cattle; you have a soul which is the essence of God and which nothing can repress except your own folly, ignorance and supineness.  You have immense potentiality, capable of moving heaven and earth.  Organise this power, organise with a purpose, organise with determination and I promise you success will knock at your door.''

Historical importance of Lahore speech

                   It may be recalled that he lived in a period soon after 1917 world shaking Russion Revolution.  No doubt his views were very revolutionary for the period and his ideas robust and fresh.

                   The speech of Tarapada is a document worth reading again and again, Let us therefore treat his Lahore speech as a piece of permanent document acting as a beacon light to guide the path for trade union workers and leaders for all time to come.

The charge sheet and the reply

                   British Government took serious note of the contents of Lahore speech and they chargesheeted Tarapada Mukherjee.  The relevant portion of the chargesheet is reporduced below -

                   “There is no objection to reasonable criticism of any action, but public abuse of the Postal administration by a responsible officer belonging to it cannot be tolerated.  If you hold the views expressed in this address, you are disloyal to yourself by remaining in the Department.  Your whole speech is designed to stir up disaffection and disloyalty among the staff and it a matter for regret that any officer of this Department could be capable of such unseemly and disloyal conduct.

                   Ordinarily no officer who made a public address of this kind could be retained in Government service, but the Director General is willing to give you an opportunity of withdrawing your assertions and expressing regret.  I have been requested by the Director General to inform you that if you make a public apology on the terms set forth in the accompanying form he will ask the Government to overlook the matter upon this occasion, if you refuse to do so, you are given the option of resigning your appointment  or of being removed from Government service.  You are therefore, asked to submit your reply either in the form of apology sent herewith or to tender your resignation within one week from the date of 'issue of this letter''.

                   As soon  as the charge sheet was received, the leaders of the Postal club met together at a private meeting.  It was indeed a red letter day and the charge sheet may be regarded as an ephoc making document which forced the issue on the unionists.

                   Tarapada knew well that he could not depend on the possibility of union’s financial support, once he is dismissed from service.  Moreover Postal unions were not at all organised at that time and the idea of supporting Tarapada after his dismissal was not considered practical.  Tarapada would be doomed to lead a miserable life.  But then, he could not court dishonour.  The condition of his ailing wife was alarming and he was placed on the dangerous horns of dilemma.  Amongst all these worries, Tarapada maintained his spirit and decided ultimately to prefer self-respect to service.

                   Tarapada then submitted his detailed 40 paragraph reply denying all the allegations.  The concluding para of the reply statement is reproduced below

                   ''In these circumstances, I submit that I have done nothing unworthy of an officer of the Department, I would be false to myself if I were to apologise for doing what my conscience fully approves.  I would be false to myself and to the service, If I were to tender resignation for doing what I considered as the only honourable and sensible course conducive to the interest of both the Postal Administration and the workers in the subordinate service.''

                   Naturally, the British Government rejected the submissions made by Tarapada in his reply and dismissed him from service.

Long live Tarapada Mukherjee, Long live Lahore speech

                   Tarapada delivered the historic speech one hundered years back. He was dismissed from service one hundred years back.  He left this world almost 90 years back. But even now lakhs and lakhs of workers are remembering him and he will be living in our minds always and his historic Lahore speech will be reverberating in the minds of trade union leaders and activists in the years to come.

Long live Tarapada Mukherjee!

Long live historic Lahore speech!!

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