OBITUARY: V.B. CHERIAN (1945-2013)

V. B. Cherian, Vice President of the NTUI and President of the NTUI Kerala State Council passed away after a long fight with ill-health in Kochi yesterday evening. He was 68 and is survived by his wife, a daughter and a son and several thousand comrades in Kerala and throughout the country.


VBC, like most of his generation, was active in the student movement as the undivided Communist Party was coming apart. Trained as an electrical engineer he joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPIM, under the leadership of Com. EMS Namboodiripad.


He was a long standing fighter for trade union democracy and a champion of the working class movement as the core of the communist party. Even as the trade union was being divided up by the two principal communist parties and the Centre for Indian Trade Union (CITU) had just been formed, in the early 1970s he led the organising of the Cochin Shipyard Employees Union as a union independent of both the CPIM and the CITU. The understanding he brought to the working-class movement was that when the left parties were divided, the trade union had to b autonomous of the parties, since every section of the working-class consists of multiple political tendencies and therefore cannot be tied to the politics of any one party. He was elected the first General Secretary of the Cochin Shipyard and remained its President until his end. The union is an upstanding example of militancy and democracy within the autonomous trade union movement.


At one time considered a young-turk within the CPIM he was Political Secretary to the Home Minister from 1980-81 when the position was considered the key link between the party and the Left Front Government. When the party went into opposition, VBC returned to trade union work, organising unions in the Kalmassery-Kochi industrial belt. In 1995 he was elected a National Secretary of the CITU.


He diverged strongly with the CPIM leadership on the question of autonomy of the trade union from the party. He pressed hard on the need for trade union democracy as the key to the building of a strong and militant working class movement. He strongly argued that the trade union had to occupy the opposition space in a capitalist society if the rights of the working class has to be defended and advanced. For this, he was charged with indulging in anti-party activity. He refused to deny his association with the ‘Save CPIM Forum’ in the second-half of the 1990s. He said ‘I cannot deny that I stand for democracy in the organisation’. He was expelled from the party in 1998. The expulsion dragged on until the Party Congress in 2003 and was in violation of the party’s own rules. Following this he formed the ‘EMS-AKG People’s Forum’ with over 2000 comrades and several unions that followed him out of the CPIM. The forum sought to bring together like minded members and former members of the CPIM. However this effort was less successful since others were more interested in electoral politics rather than the issue of lack of democracy in the party and trade union they had all built together.  In 2007 the forum merged with the Marxist Communist Party of India to form the Marxist Communist Party of India United (MCPIU) of which VBC became a member of its politburo. In the MCPIU, VBC successfully led the debate on the need for autonomy of the trade union. The MCPIU, acknowledging the position, took a decision to respect the democratic right of trade unions to decide on their affiliation.


In 2006, soon after the formation of the NTUI, the unions under the leadership of VBC joined the NTUI and rapidly guided the process of forming the NTUI Kerala State Council in January 2007 which was the first NTUI state council to be formed. For VBC the NTUI represented the crystallisation of a trade union organisation that brought together the militant, democratic and united spirit of the working class. For him the principle of ensuring the co-existence of multiple political tendencies and trade unions occupying the opposition space were central to ensuring democracy in the working class movement. As VBC guided and shaped the growth of the NTUI in Kerala he was guided by the understanding that unless both regular and irregular workers were united in struggle, the movement would always remain divided. In this he laid an enormous emphasis on bringing migrant workers into the union fold. The NTUI Kerala State Council was the participant in Asia One – the Asia to Gaza Caravan – of 2010. For him these were struggles not just about solidarity but important for building, within the working class, the capacity to fight regionalism, nationalism, discrimination and religious and other forms of bigotry within society all of which capital uses to divide the working class.


For these values, even in the advance of the just concluded General Strike, he continued his struggle not just to bring other autonomous unions in to the NTUI but strived to build unity with other unions including the AITUC and CITU.


For VBC everything was a fight against imperialism. He took his fight against ill-health with the same energy that he brought to the working-class movement. He sought seeking indigenous therapy over patented multinational medicines. For him this was as much a product of the dialectical materialism.


His passing away is a loss to us in the NTUI as also  to the working class movement and the communist and other progressive movements in the country.


(New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), New Delhi:

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