Datta Iswalkar in Twenty Thousand Homes

Datta Iswalkar in Twenty Thousand Homes

I had read about Datta Iswalkar. Every Mumbaikar following the textile strike must have read about him. Dr RC Datta, the then Dean of HR at TISS mentioned him to me often, so my desire to meet him grew stronger.

I decided to meet him, we met in his office at Dadar. The building was old with rickety stairs. Poorly lighted. Two cupboards stored the books. There were some old newspaper clippings pasted on the wall which had a photograph of Medha Patkar. He sat in a corner chair, a dark complexioned, frail person with silver hair and moustaches, wearing full sleeves shirt and a pair of dark trousers. He got up to receive me, and smiled as he said, “ya, ya” [Marathi for ‘come’ or welcome].

When you meet Iswalkar, his simplicity surprises you. It should not have surprised me because I had heard and read about him, and knew what to expect, yet it did. No airs. No assertive or aggressive language which you associate with leaders, particularly the activist leaders. Very low profile. It is easy not to notice Iswalkar!

I have always had difficulty in holding relaxed conversations with men of achievement. But Iswalkar was an exception. I invited him to the HR Meet I was holding in Kochi. He readily agreed to attend. Iswalkar’s addressed a group of about forty managers. His life story took everybody by surprise. A reluctant entrant to the ‘Band Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti’, later renamed as ‘Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti’ he was instrumental in organising their first agitation on Oct 2, 1989. In a video shared here, he talks about it.

Iswalkar remained in touch, occasionally calling me in the evening and discussing activities of his Sangharsh Samiti. He invited me to attend a function at Prabhadevi on May 1, 2013. [See an account here: ‘On Mill Workers’ Plight, Nikhil Wagle and Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti’]. Nikhil Wagle came down heavily on the Press, intellectuals and on activists in general for lack of adequate support in his speech which I will remember for a long time. He said ‘the history of GKSS is the history of insensitivity and insouciance of our Society and our Press.’

A call from Iswalkar reminded all this to me again. I decided to meet him in his office and record his videos. Kavi Arasu was eager to join. He had met Iswalkar in the HR Meet and wanted to know more of him.

‘Ram Nivas is the name of the building’ Iswalkar said, ‘It is opposite Parel Railway Workshop.’ This is another landmark which will soon fade in to the history. ‘On the ground floor of the building there is ‘Laxmi Bar’ he continued. I froze. Who would have thought of giving name of the goddess of wealth to a bar? The times have changed I told myself. Mills were the landmarks in Mumbai. Gold Mohur, Ruby, Phoenix, Shriram, Kamala, Spring mills, to name a few, were the landmarks, and you told your whereabouts mentioning them. Now the office of Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti had to be located using Laxmi Bar as a landmark!

As you enter Ram Nivas, you are in a ‘chowk’ which houses some families in the ground floor, and a trading house. You face a Sintex water tank which is placed on a raised platform – of about ten feet. Behind it and facing you is a garage like structure in which the office of Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti is situated.

This was the office of the right hand man of George Fernandes. He gifted it to Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti. There were two steel cupboards and two or three wooden cupboards which were full of books and files.

We started talking about his days of struggle. I never knew that the textile mill workers’ houses were designed by Hafeez Contractor! Datta Iswalkar and his Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti has given more than twenty thousand homes to textile workers. One lakh and twenty thousand more are to be handed over. Iswalkar is hopeful of completing the task soon. In the process Iswalkar has won twenty thousand hearts and twenty thousand homes too!

Kavi Arasu joined me. He helped me set up the video arrangements. Here are three videos. They tell his story. And the story of what seemed to be an impossible task. Perhaps HR guys can write a leadership case on Datta Iswalkar. It will be far more inspiring than the stories of some western leaders. At least it will be so for those of my generation, who knew this man.

Enjoy watching videos.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Vivek S Patwardhan