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TISCO Union Chief's Killing Shatters Industrial Peace

This article was written by Farzdand Ahmed and was on November 15, 1993 on India Today

V. G. Gopal

When Jamshed J. Irani took over the reins of the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) - the Tatas' Rs 3,300-crore flagship in Jamshedpur - in May last year as its managing director after a fierce battle between Russi Mody and the management, he did not realise that barely a year and a half into his tenure he would face a major crisis.

Last fortnight as V.G. Gopal, the highly-respected Tata Workers' Union (TWU) chief who enjoyed the management's confidence, was shot dead, Irani was justifiably perturbed: "It is an attempt to destabilise the company as well as the union."

The shooting shocked the labour world and horrified the company. Gopal, 76, was an INTUC warhorse and executive member of the ILO and held sway over the 78,000 workers of TISCO, enjoying power and status equal to the company's chairman.

In a replay of Hindi film-style gangster killings, four young men drove on motorbikes into the TWU office in the crowded Bistupur locality at noon on October 14. As Gopal, along with his unarmed security guard, came out, they pumped five bullets into him and fled. They had three gunmen covering them.

The police believe that the murder was caused by intra-union rivalry and was an attempt by outsiders to capture the TWU.

They have arrested five people, including Arvind Singh alias Malkhan Singh, general secretary of the West Singhbhum unit of the Congress(I) and a known don, and S.N. Singh, general secretary of the Tata Robbin's Frazer Workers' Union, both of whom were part of the TWU's Bihari lobby (Gopal was a south Indian), which included vice-president G.P. Sinha. The intra-union dispute related to TWU elections scheduled for November. Union elections till last year were held through voice votes as a result of which the management always had its way. However, the TWU constitution was amended in 1992 providing for elections through secret ballot.

But Gopal and the management wanted to retain the voice-vote method. The Bihari lobby moved the court against this and a hearing was slated for the day on which Gopal was murdered. Within hours of the killing, the union, backed by the management, elected S.K. Benjamin, a close ally of Gopal, as president.

According to Jamshedpur SP Parvez Heyat investigating the crime, the five arrested "belonged only to the second ring of conspirators". He is looking into a few "confidential" letters from some local politicians and TISCO employees to the management which may give a clearer picture, although there are wild allegations that it may have something to do with management rivalry.

But the killing looks more likely to be at the behest of some mafia leaders. They could have eliminated Gopal to clear their way for capturing the TWU. INTUC General Secretary Gopeshwar points out that it was the first time that guns had been used in trade union affairs in the city.

The murder spot, it seems, had been chosen with care by the killers to terrorise the local populace and announce their arrival on the scene.

The killing marks a new high in the past year's trend of the mafia trying to browbeat local industry. Beginning with the murder last year of T.L. Gobba. a TISCO official, the mafia gangs have stepped up killings and their rangdari (extortion) drive.

Consequently, many Tata projects, including the Rs 300-crore cement plant and the Rs 250-crore power plant, have been paralysed or delayed. Gopal's liquidation is more proof that the mafia is tightening its vicious grip over Jamshedpur.

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