In the afternoon of 28 September 1991, the then BJP Chief Minister of MP, Sunderlal Patwa, called a press conference at Vallabh Bhavan, the seat of power at Bhopal, to announce the sensational murder of Radical Left labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi.
Niyogi was sleeping at his union office that also doubled as his residence at Bhilai, now in Chhattisgarh, when assassins pumped bullets in him through an open window of the ground floor bedroom.
The sensational killing of the towering Marxist leader, renowned for his widespread influence and reformist ideas, sent shockwaves throughout the State.
At the time of his murder Niyogi was leading a nine-month old strike in many industrial units of Bhilai for proper implementation of the labour laws.
The prolonged agitation brought the Leftwing leader in sharp conflict with the industrialists who suffered losses amounting to billions of rupee.
The Rightwing Government of the day sided with the industry and tried to extern him from the area but the High Court came to Niyogi’s rescue.
As Niyogi had been constantly complaining about threat to his life – he had even given two letters to the police giving details of the conspiracy to kill him –the assassination put the Government in the dock.
Hence Patwa summoned the reporters to brief them and announce a reward on the killers. I was not at the press conference. I was in a train that I had boarded at Bhilai that afternoon to return to Bhopal.
I was with Niyogi just four hours before his murder. I had invited him for dinner to the hotel I was staying at Bhilai. It proved to be Niyogi’s last supper.
I met Niyogi first in 1977 when he was imprisonedafter a police firing on agitating miners of Dalli-Rajhara.
The newspapers described him as a fiery Naxalite who had dethroned the established trade unions of the Congress party as well as the Communist parties.
Journalists wrote about his amazing organising capacity. At his one call, ten thousand armed miners would appear out of nowhere on the streets.
People talked in awe about his miraculous capacity to be seen at many places at the same time.
So, I landed at the prison hoping to find a tough radical, foaming at the mouth. But the young man of 33, who appeared before me in the prison, turned out to be a shy, soft-spoken person, oozing humility.
His clothes were crumpled, but ideas were clear.
We became friends that day, a bond that lasted till his unfortunate, untimely death.
I wrote at length about him and his work in the prestigious Economic & Political Weekly. The series of articles brought him instant recognition in activist circles as well as the media all over the country.
What differentiated Niyogi from other communist leaders was the fact that he was among the handful of people who had actually declassified himself successfully.
He belonged to middle class. But he worked as a sharecropper in the fields while organising peasants.
He also worked as an ordinary labourer, breaking stones in a quarry, before organising their trade union. He lived in a shanty in a mazdoorbasti and married a fellow labourer.
The workers considered him as one amongst themselves.
His trade union was also different. It opened hospitals, schools, libraries and crèches. Women working under its umbrella enforced prohibition.
At times, his Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha looked more Gandhian reformist movement rather than a radical Marxist outfit.
Soon Niyogi became a force to reckon with in Chhattisgarh.
After organising the unorganised contract labourers working in Bhilai Steel Plant’s mines, he fought many a battle in the region, making both industrialists and government uncomfortable.
While returning from a trip to Bastar along with my photo journalist colleague Prashant Panjiar, I called on Niyogi at his union office at Bhilai on September 27, 1991. I wanted to write about his agitation there.
We were planning to spend the night in Bhilai as I had to catch a train for Bhopal the next day and Panjiar had to board a flight to Delhi.
In the night, I invited Niyogi and another common friend, activist Rajendra Sail, fordinner at the hotel we were staying.
There, again, Niyogi repeated what he had told me in the afternoon – that he faced a threat to his life from some industrialists who had hired assassins to kill him.
He also named them.
In the early hours next morning the shrill ring of hotel phone woke me up to inform me that Niyogi was killed in his office four hours after we parted company.
I eventually appeared as a witness for the CBI, that had been handed over the case as Niyogi’s supporters and family did not have faith in the BJP government that had earlier ignored reports about threat to his life.
I also named those industrialists who, according to Niyogi, were part of the conspiracy.
Although the hired assassin was punished by the court, most of the industrialists remained scot-free.
It remains only incident in my career when news gatherer becomes news himself.
First Print 23 December 2018