for building a democratic labour movement in India
Written by Rajesh Upadhyay, coordinator of National Alliance for Labour Rights
One year has passed since the unfortunate day of 18th July, 2012, when a reign of terror was unleashed by the company management on the workers of the Maruti Suzuki plant at Manesar, Gurgaon, Haryana, India. Under a well planned conspiracy by the management, workers were attacked and denied any room for dialogue and conciliation. Many workers were injured. A person from the management side died. Since that evening, hundreds were arrested, thousands terminated from the jobs, their families and friends harassed. 147 workers are still in Gurgaon jail and they have failed to get bail. More than 2300 workers, including 546 permanent workers, have been terminated from the job. The irony of injustice gets reflected in the latest judgment by the Chandigarh High court denying bail to the workers citing strange reasons such as this incident has lowered the prestige of India in the world and that the foreign investors will not invest in India. In spite of the repression of various kinds, the struggle for justice by the workers has continued and their resilience has motivated many intellectuals to speak against the injustice meted out to the workers.
The background: Simmering tensions between the management and the workers
To remind the readers, let us have a look on the background of the incident and how has the process unfolded. The management of the Maruti Suzuki Company has been notorious with regard to the denial of basic human rights to the workers. The company has a puppet union in the nearby plant in Gurgaon. It wanted that the same union should also work in the Manesar plant as it was completely under the management’s control. However, the workers at the Manesar plant realized that the old union was good for nothing as it was not able to protect the minimum dignity of the workers. They decided to form their own independent union which would not be affiliated to any political party. As they submitted the papers for registration of the new union to the government registrar, he promptly informed the company management which started harassing the workers who were taking lead in the registration of the union. Out of 2300 workers, only 546 were permanent. Rest were casual/contract workers and trainees. All were having different service conditions. The management has been breaking the unity of the workers by keeping them divided in these categories and emphasizing that all categories have different needs. However, the atmosphere and the working conditions in the plant were so inhuman that all these categories of workers got united under the banner of the new union, which was not yet registered. This was unprecedented. Besides the low payments of the workers, there were few minutes’ break for refreshments. The space available for the workers to relieve themselves was so less that within the limited break-time, not many were able to attend to even the nature’s calls. One day’s of absence was punished by many days of salary cuts. Humiliating behaviour of the supervisors towards the workers was much too common. The workers wanted their own voice. They wanted to exercise their own right to association, their own union to negotiate with the management on the working conditions. Getting their own union registered was their basic democratic right.
However, the company got frightened and it was in no mood to respect the workers’ right for association and independent union. During the entire year of 2011, the work has to be stopped on several occasions because of the unreasonable attitude of the management. Finally, after a long standoff in 2011, the company offered ‘voluntary retirement benefits’ to the leading group of workers and threw them out of company with some money.
But the company could not realize that getting rid of the leading workers was not going to suppress the aspiration of general workers for an independent voice. A second line of leadership emerged. The new leadership group was committed to take forward the cause of workers for a dignified workplace and independent union. It proceeded for registration. The company gave up its resistance after a while and the new union got registered in early 2012. It started negotiating with the management on the improvement of working conditions. However, the dialogue was not yielding any results and the management was not ready for any important concessions. On 13th July, 2012, the union distributed a detailed pamphlet among all workers on the entire dialogue with the management, its demands and the reaction of management on each of the demands. On one hand, the management was not willing to concede an inch; on the other hand the workers were totally disappointed with the attitude of the management. The company was feeling the heat of the strong unity of the workers behind the new union leadership and its resolve to not become a puppet union but to keep the flag of the workers’ dignity high. The company management decided to teach a lesson to the workers and the Haryana government joined hands with it to keep the workers of the entire industrial belt within their limits and life of a slave and bonded labour.
(Similar stories of repression have been reported from many other factories of this industrial belt. They have resulted in workers’ outbursts/strikes in some cases.)
It was under this background that the company and the state government hatched the conspiracy that got unearthed on 18th July, 2012.
What happened on 18th July, 2012?
During the break time, a supervisor demanded some work related discussion with a worker, Jia Lal. He responded by saying that he would discuss after the break time was over. The supervisor got angry and abused the worker with caste-specific abusive words. As a result, there was some physical exchange between the two. The supervisor reported the incident to the management which immediately suspended the worker. The worker complained to the union. The union told the management to give equal punishment to both the fellows till the inquiry gets completed as by that time it cannot be assumed as to who was the real guilty of the two. But the management would not listen. The news spread and when the first shift of work got over in the afternoon, the workers waited in the premises for a resolution of the dispute. In the meantime, workers for the second shift had also arrived for their duty. The workers noticed that there are many unknown faces in the workers’ gathering that were in the uniform, well built and were never seen working in the factory. When they asked the management about these people, they were informed that these are workers from the Gurgaon plant and have come to Manesar plant for training the workers. This was a blatant lie. Till then, it had never happened. These people were actually goons of the management in workers’ uniforms.
The intention of the management was clear. It wanted to use the day’s incident to create large scale violence, put the entire blame on the workers, get them arrested, terminated and clean the factory from these slaves who had started thinking to live a dignified life.
And that’s what it did.
The goons of the management started the violence. To show that they are workers they attacked the management and started fire in a section of the plant. Police also entered. Both sides got involved in the violence. People were injured on both the sides. A person, Avinash Dev, from the management died. The police and management accused all the workers of participating in the violence and terminated everybody. Arrests and manhunts started the same evening.
Soon, there were 147 workers in the jail accused of killing Avinash Dev and with other charges. All 2300 workers were terminated. The same situation continues, though one year has passed since then. They have been denied bail. The courts have not been allowing them to visit home on parole even in emergency family circumstances. Their families are on the verge of starvation but their resolve to fight continues.
There are many loopholes in the police and management side of the story. They have not shared the names of the witnesses so far. The recordings show that the witnesses have seen the workers in the alphabetical order of their names. They have not yet filed the charge sheet. But the workers are not granted bail. Avinash was the only person sympathetic to the workers in the management. Why would the workers kill a person sympathetic to them? But the company can. The plant supplies fire extinguishing vehicles to other factories in the area. But they were not available for their own company on that evening to control the fire immediately. One can only laugh at the efficiency of the company as their CCTV cameras did not work on that very day to capture the faces of the persons who started violence, fire and killed Avinash. When the whole room burnt along with the person, the police recovered a matchbox at the site. When thousands of workers were in the factory hell bent on burning and destroying it, there was fire only in a small controlled portion targeting the man sympathetic to workers.
The story of the management and the police is hard to believe for any sensible man, except the honourable judges in the courts and the media who kept propagating the news in a blatant one sided manner. They truly proved that they are on the side of the mighty, powerful and the rich.
Since the incident ……..the struggle continues…
At first, the workers were terrified and they were running for their lives as the police was picking up all active workers of the union and charging them with the murder. The entire leadership team of the union was arrested and is still languishing behind the bars. But there was widespread condemnation of the repression by the progressive intellectuals, social activists and people’s movements. There were demonstrations in Delhi at regular intervals. There was also a rally by all the trade unions in Gurgaon. However, the administration would not allow any protest demonstration in Manesar area. The democracy remains suspended there even after one year of the incident. Such is the fear of democracy in the minds of the company management and the administration. They only understand their autocratic powers.
Slowly, the terminated workers not arrested by the police started coming out to protests. They formed a new provisional committee of the union. They organised a rally at Delhi in December 2012. A call was given for a nationwide protest in February. In about one and half dozen states, rallies were organised by different unions and organisations in support of the Maruti Suzuki Workers. The workers organised demonstrations in Kaithal at the residence of Haryana industry minster. They organised cycle marches and rallies in different cities of Haryana. From March 2013 to May 2013, the workers and their families were on an indefinite protest demonstration at Kaithal mini-secretariat.
They announced for a big public rally for 19th May. On the evening of 18th May, about 100 workers and social activists present on the demonstration site were arrested. However, thousands of people from the villages of the workers arrived in the city for the rally on 19th May. The police resorted to tear gas, cane-charge and water cannons to disperse them. 9 activists and worker leaders were arrested on this day. This time the police booked them under serious charges. Slowly, the people arrested on 18th May got bail in the coming 2-3 weeks and another rally and March was organised on 11th June. Many social organisations participated. And though, the police threatened the demonstrators with its heavy presence and show of arms, the public meeting carried on and dispersed after the assurances from the administration for a sympathetic hearing. In the meantime, dialogue was also held with the Chief Minister of the state. But there was no progress on an impartial inquiry.
The year of injustice was about to complete. A common platform was created in Delhi which undertook the campaign to educate the masses and the workers in different industrial areas of Delhi National Capital Region on the plight and struggle of Maruti Suzuki Workers. On 13th July, 2013, a convention was organised in Delhi in support of the Maruti Suzuki Workers by a solidarity group called ‘Justice for Maruti Workers’. Eminent writers like Booker –prize winner Arundhati Roy, eminent advocates like Prashant Bhushan; intellectuals like Achin Vanaik expressed their solidarity to the movement. Workers and their families also shared their experiences, feelings and thoughts. The speakers at the convention strongly condemned the repressive measures of the management and the police administration, irrational functioning of the judiciary, one sided reporting of the corporate controlled media. It demanded justice for the workers, their acquittal and reinstatement and inquiry into the conspiracy of the management for the 18th July incident.
Exactly one year after the incident, the workers and their solidarity groups organised a demonstration in Gurgaon on 18th July, 2013. The police did not allow them to march towards Manesar nor allowed them to continue their demonstration beyond that day, though they promised that the workers would be given some place to continue their demonstration. On 24th July, the news came that the 9 workers’ leaders arrested in Kaithal on 19th May have been granted bail.
Lessons and Observations
On the first anniversary of that unfortunate incident of 18th July 2012, the working class movement in India and MSWU are staring at more questions than answers. However, there is no denying that this movement has enthused the independent unions and motivated the intellectuals in favour of the workers. Working Class Movement has once again arrived on the agenda of social and democratic organisations that so far have been busy only with other kinds of issues.