Kanwaljeet Singh. (File)
An engineer by profession, Kanwaljeet Singh has been prominent in the city’s political movements and heads the Chandigarh wing of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions. He spoke to Chandigarh Newsline about the political consciousness in the city and the hope he harbours for current student-led protests in the country.
How did you transition from an engineer to a political activist and a union leader?
I came from a family that inculcated the habit of reading literature early on. Most of the literature I accessed happened to be Russian literature, including novels and books by the Soviet writer Leo Tolstoy. I moved on to read a lot of Charles Dickens as well.
All of these books were highly class conscious, they examined the lives of those living in the lowest strata of the society. So, since then, I was very conscious of the needs of society and of the things that afflicts the masses living around me.
I developed an attitude to look towards society with a critical lens. Later, as an Engineering student of the 1998 batch of Central Scientific Instruments Organisation, where I studied Robotics and Mechatronics, a few of my batch mates and I began a Marxist study group.
We even organised a team to perform street plays in the surrounding Industrial areas, which is how we started gaining a sense of the ground realities of the working class in our country.
In those times, there was a whole issue of Deep Complex in Hallomajra. In 1999-2000, there was news that the administration wanted to run down the colonies in the complex. The government said that the colonies there were illegal so they would demolish it.
We decided to resist the demolition and began doing street theatre there as well. Slowly, a lot of poor, destitute women started approaching us and said that they did not know how to save their homes and felt leaderless. We filled that vacuum and successfully led a resistance and till now the colony stands as it did at that time, even though the government had made many attempts to run it down.
That was the benchmark, I believe, which led to a complete dedication to the work. It encouraged us to resist more, made us feel confident in our efforts.
We started understanding about the significance of unionising. In 2005, when Honda workers were brutally oppressed in Manesar, we conducted a complete shutdown in the industrial area, and distributed pamphlets informing people on their rights.
Within six to seven days, we distributed thousands of pamphlets and it was remarkable that we were able to bring the whole industrial area to a halt. More than 5,000 workers were present at a protest march.
Following that, we formalised trade unions and eventually became a part of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, of which I am President for Chandigarh Area.
Do you still work as an engineer or have you dedicated all your time to political activism?
I work as a consultant and undertake freelance projects here and there. My specialisation is in Animatronics, which includes making robotic animals, infusing them with animalistic motor movements. I worked for a Disney show once, where I created a robotic lizard which was a pet for a character on the show.
I have created horror houses and have also worked as a consultant for museums which used moving sculptures. That is my professional life through which I earn my living. While doing this work, I have always continued my activism and union work.
In earlier days, we organised mess workers at Punjab Engineering College. We tried to do the same at Panjab University, but the administration cleverly evaded the attempt to unionise by continuously transferring staffers as and when required. We even began unionising people at PGIMER. I was able to continue working professionally alongside all this.
How politically conscious are the people of Chandigarh?
I feel like the city has been built to accommodate the luxurious lives of bureaucrats. This is a plan entrenched in the very creation of the city. However, these people forgot to take note of the fact that to serve these powerful and privileged people, there needs to be an infrastructure built around their vast green spaces and comfortable homes. This infrastructure consists of the working class, which works to enable these privileges and luxuries.
This by product of the residents’ lives exist, but they do not want to acknowledge or accommodate it. They want the working class people to come and work for them, drive their cars, prune their gardens, but at the end of the day, they want these people to go and live somewhere far away from them.
This is one big aspect of the city, which dehumanises the marginalised. They see slums as something ugly, an eye sore that needs to be removed, not as an alternate economy that they are all dependent on. Consumerism also pervades through the lives of the people in the city.
There are no big industries here. Most people are either government employees or their source of income is from somewhere outside the city, so they just spend their earnings here. A consumer driven society is always relatively aloof from political matters.
However, at the same time, even though there might be a sleepy indifference, people in the city can be quite tolerant and hospitable. I remember, when there was an India Pakistan match here in the late nineties, and our hotels were all filled with Pakistanis, the government sent out a circular asking people to accommodate some families in their houses. People were so welcoming, that soon all the hotels became empty and local families started hosting the Pakistanis.
I remember, my sister brought a family home and I brought another and at night we hired a guy to play the dhol because they wanted to do Bhangra. That is a part of what Chandigarh stands for as well and that we cannot forget. Communalism is not part of our social fabric.
In light of the anti CAA and NRC protests, how active is student politics in the city?
I think the students of Panjab University especially have become very active. We have had successful marches and protests since the whole anti-CAA uproar began. Earlier, there was a time when protests were held in certain pockets, and not everyone participated as actively.
Furthermore, people discussed ideas only in their own little pockets and it was always like preaching to the converts. But now, there is spontaneity in the movement. People who are otherwise aloof have begun joining the marches. They are angry and they are out on the streets. They feel like they have a stake in guarding our institutions.
Do you feel hopeful about the effectiveness of the protests?
This time, the more brutally people are oppressed, the more forcefully people have come out on the streets to extend their support and lend their voices to the movement. Look at Uttar Pradesh, which has been the most violently oppressed, and as a result people in Kanpur have been strongly protesting against the government.
Students from Jamia and JNU, even after being so violently oppressed, physically violated, have come out in even larger numbers to protest.
Furthermore, common people have come out to lend their support. The more uglier the government’s tactics get, the more disillusioned is its population. Thus, now, more than ever, I have hope in the efforts our people are making.