When I accepted the invitation to speak at a seminar in Chennai, I realised that an opportunity was presented on a platter to me – I wanted to interview Mr R Kuchelan, respectfully called Kuchelar in Tamil Nadu. My visit to Chennai would allow me enough time to meet him. Dr. EA Ramaswamy’s book ‘Worker Consciousness and Trade Union Response’ was published in 1988, the year in which I assumed responsibility for industrial relations at the corporate level in the organisation where I worked. This book covered industrial relations in Bombay, Madras, Bangalore and Calcutta (as these cities were called then). I had decided to survey industrial relations in the states where my employers had set up factories. So, the book was useful for me. My interest in the industrial relations at Madras grew because I had met a senior Personnel functionary of the Simpson group where much drama mentioned in the book had taken place. Kuchelar was frequently mentioned by some as ‘Datta Samant of Madras’ and coincidentally Ramaswamy too described him so in the book.
I called up Kuchelar’s office (in 1988) but could not get his appointment, and then the matter went into ‘cold storage.’ With Chennai visit I decided to complete this long pending desire to meet him.
Two messages asking for his office address were unanswered. It looked that I would not be able to meet him, so I decided to call him up. He picked up the phone, I spoke to him and he gave me office address; I was on my way immediately.
A small compound wall carried the signboard of Working People Trade Union Council. Its office is on the ground floor of a two-storey building with a good open space in the front. I was taken to meet Mr R Kuchelan. The layout was so typical of houses in Chennai. Kuchelar was sitting alone behind a table at the end of a rectangular room. A closed window behind him was covered by a large curtain. A garland adorned the large picture frame of Gandhiji on the wall to his right. It was quite in contrast to the image I carried of him. Kuchelar wore a simple white kurta, the kind we usually see old Gujarati men wear at home or in a shop. At first instance I could not guess his age correctly, he looked about seventy-five, but later discovered that he was eighty-three. Inquisitive eyes behind a small spectacle frame showed he was full of life. The Economic Times lying on table and also his mobile covered in a golden coloured cover. It was a large table. On his left was a book rack with few books and some papers.
I introduced myself, and mentioned my interest in industrial relations. “How do you see the present state of industrial relations?” I asked.
“The Government is following ‘no-intervention’ policy. Workers have stopped going to the Government to resolve their issues. It is best to settle the differences across the table. There was militancy before 1990, but things have changed. I feel we (trade unions) have to change the strategy. Direct conflict is a no-no. We must cooperate with the organisations, otherwise business will be lost and competitors will take over. That is not good.”
We spoke about the business in Tamil Nadu. “You see, the business was and is still run here in feudal way. You have TVS, Simpson, Chettiar, Rane and LMW (Lakshmi) groups here. Chettiars set up the first manufacturing company here, it was TI Cycles. Binny group was there but now sold to liquor barons with a sprawling real estate. WIMCO was taken over by ITC for a song, and again with large real estate. There are Auto companies, Hyundai and BMW are here, so also MRF tyre which has three units. Ford has a small presence. ” He looked away and paused. “In some of the new companies, they don’t recognise unions now. Take Hyundai, and Enfield for example.”
We discussed industrial relations in Tamil Nadu, actually in Madras as it was called, now Chennai. Kuchelar dived deep into the history.
“Madras Labour Union was the first trade union formed in 1918. It was formed within six months of the Russian Revolution. (Alumni of my alma mater LNMLMILS may object to this statement. Narayan Meghaji Lokhande had led textile workers. He is often taken as the one who formed the first Indian trade union. It is not clear which organisation he had formed. All evidence on the internet mentions Madras labour Union as the first union.)
Madras Labour Union took up cause of workers of Buckingham and Carnatic Mills (Binny). They called for strike to press their demand for increase in wages. Wadia and some people from Theosophist group took the lead. That strike lasted six months. The Government sided with the Mills. The Management filed a civil suit claiming damages, and the court awarded Rs. 50,000/- as damages which was a huge amount. It was impossible to pay. Ultimately, the leaders of the freedom movement intervened and a compromise was reached. As a part of the compromise the management insisted that the President of the union, BP Wadia must quit. He finally quit and went abroad. And the Trade Union Act was enacted.”(Note: ‘But with the exception of a few, most of the striking workers were not re-admitted.’ )
“That’s interesting. That ‘you must resign from the union of so-and-so’ is a demand of the management we hear of even today.”
“True. The Trade Union Act allowed union to be formed if you have seven members. This has created multiplicity of trade unions everywhere.” Kuchelar was clearly on the nostalgia trip. “Madras has always had leader-centred unions. Singarvel Chettiar was the first leader to celebrate the May-Day, later the Labour Day. He was the founder-leader of the communist party in India and was implicated in the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy case. He was an advocate.
(Kanpur Conspiracy Case was also against the newbie communists which were abhorred by the British Government. Some newly turned communists named M N Roy, Muzaffar Ahamed, S A Dange, Shaukat Usmani, Nalini Gupta, Singaravelu Chettiar , Ghulam Hussain were caught by the Government and were trailed for conspiring against the Government. The Charge on them was “to deprive the King Emperor of his sovereignty of British India, by complete separation of India from imperialistic Britain by a violent revolution.” But this case, brought the communists in the lime light. The newspapers covered the matter exhaustively and this was for the first time the people of India could know the communist doctrine in details. )
“The first generation of trade union leaders were Singaravelu Chettiar, Sakharai Chettiar….”
“Sorry, I could not get his name”
“Sakharai. Sugar! Haha!! He was the President of AITUC. The second generation of trade union leaders emerged in 1930s. They were Mohan Kumaramangalam… he was my senior….KTK Thangamai, Bar-at-Law, NK Krishnan and Parvati Krishnan. They were leading trade union leaders. Also, there were Antony Pillai who was founder-leader of HMS, R Venkataraman who was the founder-leader of the union of Simpson Group employees. You will recall that R Venkataraman later became the President of India. Then there was ASK Iyengar who was leader of Port Trust workers union and G Ramanujam who was the President of TVS Union.”
“That’s an impressive list. When did you enter the trade unions?”
“I entered in the sixties. At that juncture, workers were disillusioned with leadership, they wanted a change of leadership, but they were getting victimised everywhere. There was no democracy in the unions. President of unions had become demi-gods, and they had become dictators. Workers were also disillusioned with the legal system. It was taking decades, sometimes thirty years, to get justice!”
I understood the situation. Just before the globalisation the situation was no different.
“Workers were poorly paid in the 1950s. But new generation had started entering the industry. They were literates. Muscle men were used to silence the workers and criminal cases were lodged against them. I was taking criminal cases then as a lawyer. Mohan Kumaramangalam had joined Congress by then, and there was a vacuum in the trade union arena. I succeeded Kumaramangalam in some unions including the Dunlop union. I advised the workmen to demand election. Not only the Management but Labour Leaders also resisted it. So, I advised them to go on strike. It spread like wild fire. Employers, Leaders and the Government joined hands to suppress the democratic movement. I was jailed several times, and I was detained under MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act]. I became the first detainee under the MISA when I was jailed exactly four days after the MISA law was passed. On declaration of the infamous Emergency, I was again jailed in 1975. Over one hundred cases were registered against me. I was prosecuted for attempt to murder the Superintendent of Police.”
“Really? That must have been a difficult period.”
“Oh yes. In 1969, five contract killers were sent to kill me. They stabbed me and wanted to kill me, but I was rescued by Public Bazar. In January 1972, I was surrounded by fifty policemen and then lathi-charged me. I became unconscious and as I was lying on the ground, they thought I was dead. I regained consciousness after two days.”
“I do not know what to say, Mr Kuchelar.”
“I wanted to transfer my cases to any other state because I was certain of not getting justice here. But the Supreme Court judges said ‘You will find it difficult to conduct your cases in any other state. Session judges will be above biases and will be impartial. You select your judge if you wish!”
“What? Litigant, nay accused, selecting his judge? I can’t believe this! Can I quote you, Sir?”
Yes, he said. Kuchelar laughed aloud. Kuchelar laughs easily. He was not the serious man I imagined he would be. Here was a person who had seen such terrible violence, who has been a victim of violence – and reportedly he had instigated some violence; I was amused by his laughter. And he has a child-like laughter which signifies innocence. Can one attribute innocence to him? To me it was a sign that he was able to look at things dispassionately today.
“Yes, yes. Go ahead and quote me.” He laughed again. “We decided Chidambaram should handle my case. He is still living, though a very old man now. He acquitted me. A fine and honest judge. Chidambaram is perhaps more than a hundred years old today. Because he acquitted me, he was denied the chance of becoming a High court judge! That’s life.”
“I know, such biases ruin a career. When did you go to Simpson?”
“Oh, in Simpson workers demanded election. But the ruling party was DMK, and it imposed its own leader as the President of the Union. Workers revolted and struck work demanding his resignation and election. Political parties and leaders including Kamraj refused. Workers asked me to take up the cause. I was imprisoned, but I fought for one year. Then all of got united and called for a strike on Jan 10, 1972. Karunanidhi called for negotiations and agreed to hold elections. Workers wanted resignation of the Union President and they got it. Labour Department held elections and I was elected with 96% votes. Mind you there were ten thousand workers voting then!”
“Simpson group is the same as Amalgamation Group, I think”
“You are right.”
“When I came to Chennai in 1989 to meet you, I also met Mr Vishwanathan of Simpson Group.”
There was a long silence. “In 1972 I became the President of the Madras Labour Union. In 1996 Binny was inundated with floods. They closed down. They sold a part of the land property and paid compensation to employees. The part retained by them is worth one lakh crore rupees today.” He laughed again. It was a derisive laughter.
“There are captive unions in TVS. Same in Royal Enfield. We will select our own committee, they say. Some two hundred employees were transferred and victimised in Royal Enfield. But no union.”
“I thought you knew the Tafe owners well.”
“Yes. I know them well. But they do not want any external union. Because of my efforts, Tafe regularised 600 workers out of 700. That was a big achievement.”
“Looking back on your life, what will you say?”
“I have led two hundred strikes. I told workers do not go to the Court, you will get nothing because it takes too long for redressal. You see…. I was born in1936 and I come from a family which was self sufficient and led simple life. My father could only sign and my mother was illiterate. I had an elder sister who was widowed at the age of five!”
“Have I heard it right? Widowed at the age of five?”
“Yes. Child marriages were prevalent those days. She brought me up. She taught me that one must not accept anything from others but one should only give others. She said speak the truth always.”
He paused and continued. “Owners of various organisations became my friends because I always spoke the truth. I emphasised education. I always wanted to be independent. So, I became a lawyer. I had paid fees to appear for IAS examination. Because I was a rank holder in MA Economics, my Professor insisted that I appear for IAS. But I wanted to be independent. I did agriculture for one year. We had about 15 acres land. I wanted to be a Professor but could not become one. I went to Bangalore where I studied law. My law college classes would start early morning and would be over by ten in the morning. Then I used to attend office from 10.30 am.”
“In all those turbulent times when did you get married?”
“I married in 1963. I have a daughter who is in New Zealand. Her husband is in ANZ bank. Their son is an Oxford graduate and is settled in UK. The other daughter is a home maker, she is settled in Nashville, USA. Their son is a petroleum engineer. The third daughter has pursued dancing. She is MA in Mass communication and is in IT industry, in CISCO. She is in San Fransisco and her daughter has also taken to dancing; she is also a journalist! My son is in Sydney, he works for Vodafone there.”
Kuchelar appeared to have led a life which he is proud of. He is particularly proud of his well-educated children, and grandchildren.
I had seen Kuchelar delivering a speech in the conference of IndustriAll at Pune. I wanted to meet him but somehow could not manage it. The two hours spent with him gave me a glimpse of this firebrand trade union leader. He presented me a copy of his book. I could not read its title. I was told that it means ‘Its Kurukshetra again.” Like the personalities in Mahabharat, he remains a controversial figure. Dr EA Ramaswamy’s book suggests that Kuchelar was autocratic, and even mentions the allegations of corruption against him.
Yet I think it takes great leadership to win election at the age of eighty-three and lead the Ashok Leyland workers. See this news report published on Dec 3, 2018. (R Kuchelar team wins Ashok Leyland Employees Union elections in a close race).
Today he heads unions in not only Ashok Leyland [three units] but also in the Simpson Group, Rane Group, Ucal Fuel Systems – Kuchelar calls it ‘that company of Krishnamurthy of Maruti Suzuki, GE – formerly Alsthom, L&T Alcover, NCRCorporation (ATM Mfg Company), LMW Group, Amrutanjan Balm. His union ‘Working People Trade Union Council is affiliated to NTUI and IndustriAll, the latter is a global union.
When I look back at the life story of a leader who has made his foot print on the sands of time, I am amazed at the sheer will to create an impact, I feel surprised at the contradictions in their action and life. I think Mark Twain has summed it up well when he says, “There are those who would misteach us that to stick in a rut is consistency, and a virtue, and that to climb out of the rut is inconsistency, and a vice.” Well, climb out of rut Kuchelar did. And we can safely say that it is an extra-ordinary life.
Vivek S Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”