The sheer brutality of the violence unleashed by the Haryana police against the agitating workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter Limited (HMSL) has shocked the Indian public’s conscience in ways few other recent events have, barring perhaps the self-immolation a decade ago by a Delhi textile mill-worker driven to despair by prolonged unemployment.
The shock was further compounded by the police’s continuing savagery the following day, its attempt to humiliate trade unionists inquiring into its egregious conduct, and the insensitivity of state functionaries.
Grotesque as the Gurgaon episode is, it could prove a turning point and possibly trigger reform of the prevalent industrial relations (IR) paradigm—if its background, context and significance are properly grasped.
HMSL isn’t the sole case in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera belt of a bitter dispute caused by workers’ dismissal or attempts to break up legitimate trade unions. It’s part of a broader pattern, documented by the All-India Trade Union Congress and confirmed by independent fact-finding teams, which prevails in factories such as Omax Auto, Anchal Engineering, Speedomax, etc.
The pattern is marked by low wages (e.g. Rs 4,500-5,500), prevalence of casual labour and hiring of contract labour for regular jobs, arbitrary lockouts, coercive good-conduct undertakings, extreme insecurity of employment, absence of skill-improvement schemes, and authoritarian shopfloor practices—a recipe for discontent and unrest, especially amidst large-scale job losses.
Haryana’s culture of repression and anti-worker violence goes back a long time. This writer was personally witness to workers’ brutalisation in the Faridabad-Ballabgarh belt in the mid-seventies as part of an activists’ group which included Jairus Banaji, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Sumit Guha, Lajpat Jagga, Dilip Simeon, Rana Sen, R Bhaskar, Chitra Joshi and others who have attained distinction as social scientists and scholars in India and abroad.
Every fortnight or so, the Haryana police would routinely round up worker-activists, especially those trying to set up a trade union or demanding permanency, and badly thrash them and illegally detain them for days in incredibly filthy lock-ups, without producing them before a magistrate.
Such treatment was often extended to middle-class sympathisers who tried to help the workers draft petitions or contact other plant-based unions. I recall carrying blankets and food from Delhi for activists detained during a particularly bitter winter in 1974-75. They had only thin newspapers to sleep on and had to bribe guards to get food.
The state’s lower judiciary too bore a deep antipathy towards trade unionism. It was virtually impossible to obtain bail even where obviously trumped-up charges were filed, like attempt to murder, just to harass activists.
Any agitation, however peaceful, would be repressed with brute force. No demonstrations or rallies would end without broken bones. Sometimes, the police would chase workers into their bastis, and attack their wives and children. This is no exaggeration, but was carefully detailed in small independent magazines like Mazdoor Samachar and Fil-haal.
The Haryana police’s actions had a clear, unambiguous, well-understood purpose: to terrorise workers, intimidate activists, prevent formation of unions, and assure existing and prospective investors that there would be no industrial unrest in that flourishing enclave along the Delhi-Mathura Road. Chief Minister Bansi Lal, a senior bureaucrat later told me, had decided that the only way Haryana could get industrialised was by promising indefinite industrial peace to businessmen. This, besides proximity to the North’s markets, growing under the impact of the then-novel Green Revolution, would be the state’s USP just when capital was fleeing Eastern India, especially West Bengal.
Haryana indeed gained from the East’s deindustrialisation and Bansi Lal was proud of this. Things like workers’ rights, civil liberties and democracy didn’t matter: they are mere embellishments; what counts is “development”. The idea that all development must extract a price through human misery is more widespread among policy-makers than we like to acknowledge. The late Biju Patnaik, who wanted to be remembered as the Father of Modern Orissa (such as it might be today), voiced this publicly when he said no major development project could happen without people’s blood being spilled; that’s normal.
Haryana’s police, then, was blooded decades ago and its officialdom developed tolerance, if not a taste, for anti-labour violence early on. This culture of authoritarianism and repression, promoted from on top, was further strengthened by the absence of a social reform movement in Haryana , and the prevalence of oppressive systems of clans and khaps or gotras, which operate efficiently ruthless panchayats that regularly order the killing of young couples which marry against the khap’s norms.
All that’s new in Haryana is the growth of neoliberal ideas among the higher bureaucracy, especially the belief that trade unions are “unnatural” cartels/monopolies which “distort” the market; forming an association cannot be a fundamental right—the Constitution is probably mistaken to regard it as one. Regrettably, even India’s higher judiciary has legitimised, indeed enunciated, such ideas in judgments outlawing strikes. This has contributed to what might be called Shiv-Sena-isation—the practice of union-smashing and strike-breaking using goons, with disastrous consequences comparable to those seen in Maharashtra when employers created this undemocratic monster.
This unacceptable situation cannot be remedied without radical IR reform leading to a new paradigm. At Independence, we adopted a lot of protective legislation for labour, which has been systematically undermined or rendered ineffective. We have now slipped into adopting the current United States-dominated anti-union model: it’s as if most Indian employers regarded Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s opposition to unions as something normal.
This won’t do. Unions are a natural, spontaneous response to capital emdescriptioning the rights of association and collective bargaining. Their importance is especially high in our conditions, marked by virtually unlimited labour supply, persistent unemployment—job generation is down to half its level under the “Hindu” rate of growth—and labour’s ultra-low bargaining power.
We must adopt a paradigm where minimum wages are upgraded and enforced, working conditions are tightly regulated, and union-bashing is seriously criminalised and punished. We must also create an effective grievance-redressal system, revamp industrial courts, and mandate workers’ participation in decision-making. Or else, labour will have no stake in India’s growth.
(The article was first published in the Economic Times on August 5, 2005 )