India Matters: No Way Out

Gurgaon:  At the district and sessions courts in Gurgaon, we hear a whistle. It's the signal for the side gates to open so that the police can take 147 Maruti Suzuki workers into the courtroom. 

A criminal trial is going on in the case related to the violence at the Manesar plant on July 18, 2012, in which General Manager Awanish Kumar Dev was killed and 90 were injured. 

The workers, who have been in jail for two years, have been denied bail. Today, a policeman will be giving his statement in court. All workers have to be present in court so that the witness can identify the accused.

For Kartar Singh, the court routine is an opportunity to get a glimpse of his son, to stay connected to the case. There are others like him.

At his residence in Bawal, 100 km from court, Kartar is persistent in the belief in his son's innocence. His son, 28-year-old, Manoj was arrested over 12 days after the incident.
Manoj's son Kunal was born on August 15, 2012, 15 days after his arrest.

"The legal process should be quickened," says Manoj's wife Priti, adding, "Innocent people are in jail while the guilty roam free."

She is overcome by emotion as she tells us how her husband cries when he sees his son.

"He says Kunal's future is ruined," she says. The family says they have no faith in the legal process as they keep getting one date after another for the hearing. Each time, their hopes about Manoj getting bail have been dashed to the ground.

They say the police took Manoj to the police station, saying they wanted to question him, and arrested him there.

"While his arrest took place at the police station, the police report falsely stated he was arrested from IMT Manesar," says Jitender Singh, Manoj's brother.

There's a similar despondency at the residence of Amit Sundariyal in south Delhi. The son of a central government employee, Amit was 21 when he joined Maruti Suzuki and 23 when he was arrested. He had six months to go before his training period would be over, and he was looking for a change.

Bina Sundariyal, Amit's mother, said, "When these strikes began last year, he started taking classes for a government job. He said he was looking at other options because the working environment at the company was not good.  On that day, his shift was supposed to end at 3 pm. I called him and asked him when he would return. He said something was going on there.

"Since morning, meetings are underway. All gates are closed and they are not letting us out. I don't know what time I will be back,' he said.  The same night, he was returning from the factory when he was arrested. The police arrested whoever was in their uniform. Cases have been lodged against people who joined one or two days before the incident."

On December 12 last year, Amit came home for a day after he got bail to attend his sister's wedding. But the 24 hours were soon over.

"I managed to speak to him for a few minutes at the mandap, after which his friends gathered around him and I didn't get a chance to talk to him. My eyes would follow him wherever he went. In the morning, we bid farewell to our daughter and then to our son," says his mother.

In West Delhi, we meet the family of 30-year-old Chiranjit Lal, who had worked for over six years with the company. His brother remembers him as someone who never took a holiday.

The police had visited their home when they were not present. They came back four days later and arrested him.

His mother Sharada said, "If he was guilty, wouldn't we have asked him to flee? At least give him bail so that we can see him. The criminal trial can go on.  We give him whatever money we can for his requirements in jail, sometimes Rs 500, sometimes Rs 1,000. There is only one breadwinner now and ten mouths to feed."

His brother Shyam Lal says angrily, "Without paying heed to labour laws, 550 to 700 workers have been suspended by the company. 150 workers have been herded into jail like sheep. What is going on in our country? What is the Haryana government doing about it? And today we have (Narendra) Modi as the Prime Minister of our country. We are expecting him to bring changes for the benefit of our people".

Chiranjit's two children have been told their father is away on work. Says five-year-old Prachi," I miss my father. He would have loved to see me in my new school uniform."

In east Delhi, we meet a child who does not know her father.  26-year-old Kamal was arrested on August 18, a month after the Manesar violence. His wife Asha was pregnant at the time. Deepti, who is a year-and-a-half old, thinks her uncle is her father.

Asha said, "We do not want either money or the job back. We just want Kamal to come back home. "

His brother Anil Singh, who is a senior engineer at Triveni Engineering and Industries, said, "He told us he had filled in the hourly sheet, which records the production. He filled this sheet before he left. This proves the machine was working till 7.15, the time the violence took place.
The police report states the police found a rod and bloodied shirt from our house. But the witness said he had been hit with a shocker".

"If my brother was guilty, why would he keep that shirt and rod with him for a month and wait for the police to discover them? The charge-sheet was filed in the court six months after the incident.  During the trial, the witness they presented could not identify him."

Dharampal Singh, Kamal's father, points out, "147 men cannot kill one man. The management says it was a conspiracy but it was nothing like that. The boys are being framed".

"These boys have been held responsible for manager Awanish Dev's death. But he had supported these boys during their struggle. He had drafted a letter saying a Union should be formed since there had been two or three strikes already. Look at me, I am a class four worker. I raised my children and educated them. But I never taught them to get into fights."

At the court, we meet Daya Ram. who works as a security guard at a school. His son - 30-year-old Narinder -- worked in the vehicle inspection department for nearly seven years. He was arrested 13 days after the incident. At the court, there was no eyewitness to depose in his case. Curiously, when the company resumed operations, he was sent a joining letter.

Says Daya Ram, "The company called us on the 30th, informing us that they had sent a joining letter. They asked why my son hadn't joined work. I told them the police had arrested him, how do you expect him to join?"

At a Gurgaon residence, we meet 27-year-old Sushma, whose husband Sohan Lal is in jail. Sohan Lal is 28-years-old.

Sushma said, "Let's assume for a minute that these men are guilty, but their arrest has been falsely reported. My husband was arrested from Himachal, while the records show he was arrested from Shivaji Nagar.  If the violence was pre-planned by the workers, why would they kill only one man? And that too the only man who was on leave that day. There are two cases against Gopal Kanda, one of Geetika and the other of her mother. The case happened after the Maruti case, but he is out on bail running for the elections. Are the people arrested in the Maruti case bigger criminals since even after two years they are not getting bail?"

Vinita speaks up for her friend from college, 27-year-old Rakesh-Kumar. He had spent only six months at the Manesar plant.

According to Vineeta, "Nobody will listen to us because we are not influential people. The workers keep saying that they are in jail because of the government's pressure and Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda doesn't want the workers to come out."

Twice a week, the families can meet the jailed men. The meeting usually lasts 20 minutes. Sushma has changed her job so that she can make these visits. She is running a fever today.
She says," I don't tell him much about what is going on outside from the past two years because I don't want him to worry about it."

All 147 men languishing in jail face 15 combined charges of murder, attempt to murder, and criminal conspiracy; some among them are casual workers and apprentices.

These families are raising questions about what they perceive as arbitrary arrests and miscarriage of justice at many levels. They say these questions go unheard.

Management and labour conflict is not an election issue. Political parties do not bother about workers' strikes. Also, the struggle at the Maruti Suzuki plant was not started by an established trade union.

Services of nearly 430 permanent Maruti Suzuki workers were terminated after the incident. The workers are contesting these orders in the labour court, saying no inquiry was conducted.
RC Bhargava, Chairman of Maruti Suzuki, responds, "What inquiry? There is a provision in the law which provides for termination of service. 90 people were admitted to hospital for fractures. Clearly, the managers were outnumbered. And there were 200 to 300 managers in the factory at that time, of whom 94 went to hospital. At least 700 workers were rioting, otherwise this can't happen."

Special Public Prosecutor KTS Tulsi has been appointed by the Haryana government, reportedly for a fee of Rs 1. 4 crore. He says the management is the victim as they were indiscriminately attacked by workers.

On his part, he accused the defence of delaying the trial.

"The trial is 90 per cent over; we hope to wind up the evidence in the next two to three hearings as far as the prosecution is concerned. And thereafter, there will be 13 statements which will take a few hearings, and then the defence evidence. All I can say is, the defence has tried every trick in the trade to prolong the trail. We are flexing our muscles to make sure the trial is expedited."

Mr Tulsi says bail for the accused will delay the trial process and postpone the possibility of an adverse verdict.

Like any conflict situation, two very different narratives are emerging from the criminal trial in the Manesar violence. Both the workers' narrative and the management's narrative are difficult to reconcile.

Haryana's developing industrial belt stretches from Gurgaon, Manesar, Dharuhera to Bawal.  After the violent incident at Maruti's Manesar factory, the management-worker dynamics in the region seemed to change for some time. No disputes were reported. However, this year, as many as 15 units in the belt have been hit by labour unrest.

On September 12, a worker died at the Posco IDPC factory at Bawal, Haryana -- an untold tragedy that made it to the files of the local police but no further. Bhupinder was 25-years-old and had worked for three months. His head got caught in the machine. 

Outside the gates of the Posco factory, nearly 100 workers have been on an over four-month-long strike against working conditions in the factory and the scuttling of the right to union formation.

They say there is a link between their strike and the death of the worker.
Sukhbir Singh, one of the striking workers, said, "They have recruited untrained workers in our place at a higher pay scale. If untrained workers work in the plant, such deaths are inevitable."

Adds Rakesh Kumar, another striking worker, "The management was successful in not letting us form a union. Our file was verified here but it has been lying with the Labour Commissioner in Chandigarh. We haven't got a registration number as yet. The labour department is bribed by managements to not allow union formation. If I could, I would have torn off this page from the Constitution. Had this concept of union not existed, we would have been working inside the plant today."

The state labour department says it holds conciliation meetings and does it best to ensure industrial peace.

Haryana's Labour Commissioner Anand Mohan Sharan, refutes the workers' allegations. He said, "The unions are registered under the Trade Union Act. In the last couple of years, I think more than 10 to 15 units have been registered. The law states various guidelines and eligibility conditions. In case the papers are not complete or the verification is bogus, then obviously they can't be registered. "

The management says it terminated the services of the striking workers because of illegal factory occupation. It denies it had anything to do with their attempt to form a union.

Manish Dwivedi, HR head of Posco IDPC, said, "The workers stopped the entire operations and encroached upon the company premises. From May 7 to May 19, we did not take any action against them. We lost around approximately Rs 60 crore of business. Because of these actions and the violence, we took the step of terminating the services of these people."

Nearby, at Minda Furukawa, nearly 300 workers have been on strike for nearly three months to protest alleged exploitation by the company.

A year ago, they formed a union and applied to the Labour Department for registration. But they are yet to get a response.

We asked Anju Gupta, one of the striking workers, why it was necessary to form a union. 

"Because the working conditions at our company are very bad. We had 12-hour-shifts. If someone couldn't work for such long hours, the supervisor would ask us to resign and not come to work the next day," she said. 

The Minda Furukawa management did not respond to our repeated attempts to get their version.

At the Talbros factory, workers had succeeded in getting their union registered last year. However, they found that the management did not want the Union to push for its demands for workers.

On August 16, 300 workers were not allowed to enter the premises and new workers were brought in.

Clearly, there is a resonance among the striking workers, who say their disputes stem from a demanding and difficult production process and from the anti-Union policies of their management. This poses a challenge to a state government that is positioning itself as Foreign Direct Investment or FDI friendly.

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