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India: The working class loses a friend - A tribute to Sharit Bhowmik

13 September 2016

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The Statesman - 13 September, 2016

The working class loses a friend

Kanchan Sarker

Around 18 years ago, taking time off from a seminar on street vendors at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Sharit Bhowmik took a student to a fishery co-operative near Mumbai. He had recently declined the position of director, TISS and the student asked him why. He said had he accepted the offer, he would not be able to do the kind of work that was important to him. The response typified Bhowmik, scholar, teacher, activist, advocate for the rights of working class, mentor, friend and amongst India’s most respected sociologists, whom I have the honour of calling my teacher.

It was probably his ancestry — he came from a tea estate owning family in the Dooars, in West Bengal — that exposed him to the struggles of the tea estate workers and he identified entirely with their struggle. One of his last lectures, in August 2016, was on the plight of tea estate workers — the second Gautam Ghosh Memorial Oration in Kolkata under the aegis of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights. The lecture was named: Obohelito, Nipirito, Cha-Bagan Shramik (The neglected, troubled, tea garden worker). He followed it up with a visit to the Dooars for a meeting on setting up a tea estate workers’ co-operative in a closed garden.

A card-holding member of the Communist Party of India till his last, Bhowmik was remarkable in that he was never dogmatic and always a strong defender of those who were for moving towards reunification of communist parties in India through open and friendly inner-party discussion on the past of the CPI, particularly its relationship with the CPI(M). His unflinching commitment to the cause of the working class was proved when he had set up a master’s degree course on globalization and labour, exclusively for trade union activists at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, where he was head of labour studies.

Bhowmik’s academic journey began at the University of North Bengal in 1980 and ended with his retirement in 2014 from TISS, via Indian Institute of Management (Kolkata), Delhi School of Economics and University of Mumbai. During this period, he served as a professor of sociology as well as dean of Labour Studies; became the National Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research; member of various academic bodies and research institutions as served on the editorial board of several journals. He wrote a dozen of books and nearly a hundred papers.

Internationally acclaimed scholar he may have been but Bhowmik was extremely down-to-earth and democratic. As his master’s students at the University of North Bengal, where he began his academic career, in the early eighties, we were encouraged to express our opinion and even challenge his ideas. He commanded respect, whether it was of a student, a slum dweller, a renowned academic, a high official or a street vendor and was equally at ease with everyone and in every circumstance. Probably this was because of the self-assurance his tremendous scholarship invested him with.

He had no hesitation in calling a spade a spade and did not worry about the consequences of such outspokenness and even adversaries ended up respecting him. It was, however, in the company of friends that he reveled. Sharit Bhowmik loved people. He cherished the Bengali institution of “adda” and when he visited me in Kelowna, BC, Canada, last summer, he was more interested in meeting people than seeing the “beautiful British Columbia”. Everyone had access to him as he engaged with one and all in a familial spirit; his immense scholarship soon winning him the sobriquet of “wikie”.

Was he careless about his health? Was 68 years too old? India’s life expectancy for men is 67.3 years. Sharit Bhowmik was, however, never “tired”. Close friends from the field of medicine say that too much travel, often overseas; irregular hours; inadequate sleep; lack of proper diet; stress and strain could have aggravated the state of his health because he never could refuse any call for the cause of working class.

Padma Shri Renana Jhabvala, (1990), renowned social activist, writer, and long-time associate of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) writes in a book: “The street vendors need champions who will promote a positive view of them ...[O]ne such champion is Sharit Bhowmik ... [T]he combined efforts of these ‘champions’ of street vendors have led to two new perceptions internationally”.

His own organization LEARN (Labour Education And Research Network), of the most vulnerable informal female workers, of which he was founder-chairperson, won the Hindustan Times award for Mumbai in 2013, given to organizations contributing significantly to the life of the people of Mumbai. Once he set up LEARN, he did not interfere in its everyday activities for he believed in and practiced developing organic leadership.

Sharit Bhowmik passed away in Bangkok on September 8, where he was attending a seminar on street vendors. He fought for 14 days after having gone into a coma, following complications of undiagnosed pneumonia and a massive cardiac arrest. I lost my teacher, my mentor, my most trusted friend and my comrade. He is survived by his wife Meenakshi and son Abhik who live in Mumbai and, of course, hundreds of students, colleagues, followers, admirers, friends, and comrades.

The writer was a student of Sharit Bhowmik and teaches sociology at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan


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