Dr. Dutta Samant (also Datta Samant, and popularly referred to as Doctorsaheb) was an Indian politician and trade union leader, who is most famous for leading an estimated 200–300,000 textile mill workers in the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) on a year-long strike in 1982, which led to the migration of the textile mills industry from the city.
Samant hailed from a middle-class Marathi background, living in the locality of Ghatkopar in Mumbai, in the state of Maharashtra. From the early 20th century, the city’s economy was characterized by major textile mills, the base of India’s thriving textile and garments industry. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over India were employed in working in the mills. Although a trained medical doctor, Samant hailed from a working-class background and was active in trade union activities amongst mill workers. Samant was deeply influenced by communism, but he joined the Indian National Congress and its affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress. Gaining popularity amongst city workers, Samant came was popularly known as Doctorsaheb.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Mumbai-Thane industrial belt witnessed successive working class strikes and protests, with multiple trade unions competing for the allegiance of workers and political control. These primarily included George Fernandes, the Centre for Indian Trade Unions and the Shiv Sena led by Bal Thackeray. Samant rose to become one of the most prominent INTUC leaders, and grew increasingly militant in his political convictions and activism. Samant enjoyed success in organizing strikes and winning substantial wage hikes from companies. He ignored the company’s statistics and business information, and consistently refused to settle on compromise concessions. He was elected to the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha, or legislative assembly on a Congress ticket, and served briefly as a legislator. Samant was arrested in 1975 during the Indian Emergency owing to his reputation as a militant unionist, despite belonging to the Congress party of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Samant’s popularity increased with his release in 1977 and the failure of the Janata Party coalition, with which many rival unions had been affiliated. This increased his popularity and widespread reputation for putting workers and their interests before politics.
In late 1981, Samant was chosen by a large group of Mumbai mill workers to lead them in a precarious conflict between the Bombay Millowners Association and the unions, thus rejecting the INTUC-affiliated Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh which had represented the mill workers for decades. Samant planned a massive strike, at the beginning of which an estimated 200,000–300,000 mill workers walked out, forcing the entire industry of the city to be shut down for over a year. Samant demanded that along with wage hikes, the government should scrap the Bombay Industrial Act, 1947 and de-recognize the RMMS as the only official union of the city industry. While fighting for greater pay and better conditions for workers, Samant and his allies also sought to capitalize and establish their power on the trade union scene in Mumbai.
Although Samant had links with the Congress and Maharashtra politician Abdul Rehman Antulay, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi considered him a serious political threat. Samant’s control of the mill workers made Gandhi and other Congress leaders fear that his influence would spread to the port and dock workers and make him the most powerful union leader in India’s commercial capital. Thus the government took a firm stance of rejecting Samant’s demands, and refusing to budge despite the severe economic losses suffered by the city and the industry.
As the strike progressed through the months, Samant’s militancy in the face of government obstinacy led to the failure of any attempts at negotiation and resolution. Disunity and dissatisfaction over the strike soon became apparent, and many textile millowners began moving their plants outside the city. After a prolonged and destabilizing confrontation, the strike collapsed with Samant and his allies not having obtained any concessions. The closure of textile mills across the city left tens of thousands of mill workers unemployed, and in the succeeding years the most of the industry moved away from Mumbai, after decades of being plagued by rising costs and union militancy. Although Samant remained popular with a large block of union activists, his clout and control over Mumbai trade unions disappeared.
Samant was elected on an independent, anti-Congress ticket to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament in 1984; an election that was otherwise swept by the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi. He would organize the Kamgar Aghadi union, and the Lal Nishan Party, which brought him close to communism and Indian communist political parties. He remained active in trade unions and communist politics throughout India in the 1990s. He became a fierce opponent of the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, and remained aloof from the Congress. At the time of his death he was a still a member of parliament.
On the morning of January 16, 1997 Samant was gunned down and murdered outside his home in Mumbai by four gunmen, believed to be contract killers, who fled on motorcycles. Contract killings are not rare in Mumbai, due to the presence of the infamous Mumbai underworld aka the Indian mafia. His death sparked protests across the city, and a large procession of union activists gathered at his cremation. On April 10, 2005 police arrested 3 men and charged them for Samant’s murder. On October 30, 2007, his assassin, a thug working for underworld don Chotta Rajan, was himself gunned down by police in Kolhapur .
Samant’s brother, Dada Samant, is a leader of the Maharashtra General Kamgar Union