A pioneering labour leader

Promoting industry R. Venkataraman

Promoting industry R. Venkataraman   | Photo Credit: (FILE PHOTO)


All the pieces that appeared in the press recently, remembering the late R. Venkataraman, the former President of India, have focussed on his Delhi days. Tamil Nadu seems to have forgotten the signal contribution he made to his Province / State, first as a labour leader nurturing the labour movement, and then as the State’s go-getting Industries Minister.

In the early 1940s, when the Congress Party leadership of Madras Province was in jail, the Communists had succeeded in capturing the Madras trade unions. Kamaraj wanted to wrest back the movement. Congress decided to form a labour wing of the Provincial Congress Committee, and Venkataraman, an advocate and freedom fighter, was appointed member-in-charge in 1945. Before long, he and his team, which included K. Gurumurti of Simpson’s, had 125 trade unions under their umbrella. When the Indian National Trade Union Congress was formed in May 1948, there were differences over the Madras Congress unions joining the national federation. Eventually, the Madras unions joined the INTUC under a compromise formula, but Venkataraman, in November 1952, presided over a meeting that decided that the Madras Congress unions would withdraw from the federation.

Meanwhile, Venkataraman had, on July 19, 1948, become the President of the Simpson’s Staff Union after its founder K. Gurumurti found himself in the middle of a host of differences with and in the Union. Venkataraman’s election to the Simpson’s Union leadership had, it was said, “a soothing effect on the simmering Simpson’s scene”. Of his leadership, it has been stated, “A seasoned advocate who had studied well the labour movements in different parts of the world, he constantly urged that disputes should be argued and settled without production being affected.” He urged adjudication of all problems and demands, if agreement could not be reached. On one occasion, when agreement was reached in June 1951, he succeeded in getting a settlement which involved a scheme for the payment of gratuity — for the first time in the country. Venkataraman led the Simpson’s Union till he became Industries Minister in the Madras Government, on April 21, 1957. Gurumurti, his lieutenant, succeeded him. In a curious coincidence, reading the obituaries of Venkataraman on January 28, my eyes strayed to a familiar face; it was that of Gurumurti whose death on January 28, 2000 was being remembered in an ‘In Memoriam’ advertisement.

When Venkataraman became Industries Minister, the industrialisation of Madras, that was to become Tamil Nadu, really began. Truly, can it be said he was the ‘Father of Industry’ in the State? In 1958, the Thiru Vi Ka Industrial Estate was declared open, which, at its peak, was home to 400 industrial units with a turnover of a billion rupees a year on its 450-acre campus. It is depressing to see today the state this brainchild of Venkataraman’s is; can the State resurrect it and make it a memorial to the man who went from Madras labour leader to President of India by way of nurturing Industry?

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