•death in Maruti’s Manesar plant, of its HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev in July 2012, which led to a one-month lockout.
•66 workers on the run; in all, numerous cases have been filed against more than 200 workers at the Manesar plant
•147 workers lodged in Bhondsi jail, Gurgaon, for the past 9 months, named in up to 12 charges of murder
•550 permanent workers “suspended” by Maruti; 400 of them are agitating for jobs and an impartial probe.
•2100 sacked contract workers, many unemployed, have been forced to hide their connection to Maruti
The Hammer Strikes
•Hearings have just begun on the framing of charges in the Gurgaon session court
•Statement of officers recorded in charge sheet, but no versions of workers
•Two counter complaints from workers have named 17 officials of Maruti
•Maruti seeking to dismiss 550 suspended workers from the Labour tribunal
•New committee of disgruntled former workers in initial talks with Maruti
“Are you from Maruti, or the state police department?” asks a visibly frightened lady when we knock at the door of her house in Dhakal village, Jind district, Haryana. She’s Omi Devi, mother of Jiyalal, a 27-year-old ITI dipl¬oma-holder and employee at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant till the horrific incidents of July 18, 2012. That day, an argument Jiyalal had (over a caste slur) with his supervisor is said to have been the trigger for the cataclysmic events that followed—worker protests turned violent, leading to the death of an HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev, sending 100 workers and officials to hospital and enforcing a month-long lockout.
For nine months now, Jiyalal—and 146 former Maruti workers—have been lodged in Bhondsi Jail of Gurgaon. “The only mistake my son made was to speak out against the abusive language and casteist remarks. Tell me, is it wrong to stand up against such humiliation?” asks Ram Pal, his 50-year-old father. Jiyalal was supporting a family of eight—which is still in a state of shock. Aman, his 15-month-old son, has no memories of his father; his wife Sonia still looks scared, and Omi Devi keeps on crying. “Once my son is out from the jail, I will never ever let him go to work in such inhuman companies.”
That might take a while—the human cost of this labour incident has been staggering and disproportionate to the one death. After all, 12 charges of murder and more (rioting with weapons, attempt to murder, unlawful assembly, and so on) have been imposed on 147 workers. FIRs have been lodged against another 66, who are on the run. Some 400 terminated workers are protesting in Haryana, seeking their rights and entitlements from Maruti Suzuki. And over 2,000 former contract and apprentice workers at the plant are trying to rebuild their lives in fear and anonymity.
Through their relatives, the workers in jail insist that they are not being treated fairly and that the “real conspirators and culprits are blaming the innocents”. The stories from behind the bars are depressing—of pregnant wives, ailing parents, starving families, malnourished children, debts and loans. “All requests of bail plea or the parole custody plea have so far been rejected. The situations at our homes are worsening day by day. We knocked at many doors—from the prime minister’s to those of local politicians—but nodescription hears the pain of the poor,” an accused worker told Outlook.
All this matters now because the hearings in the case in the sessions court, Gurgaon, began on May 1 (Labour Day, incidentally). The chargesheet, exceeding 400 pages, has been filed but workers and their counsel have declared it incomplete. “The challans have been given to us, but there’s no list of witnesses. They’ve given the pretext that it’s unsafe to disclose the names. And workers’ acc¬o¬unts have not been taken into consideration at all. Only statements by Maruti officials have been taken,” says Rohtak-based senior advocate Randeep S. Huda, who is representing these workers. After an argument over the chargesheet, the sessions court ordered public prosecutor K.T.S. Tulsi to provide all documents to the workers’ counsel.
Despite repeated requests, Maruti did not respond to a questionnaire from Outlook. Recently, the company appointed two top Japanese managers to tackle the HR and production facilities at the Manesar plant. Since the incident, the company has also raised wages for contract workers at the Manesar plant—a key demand behind the workers’ initial agitation.
Also, of the 540 dismissed permanent workers of Maruti’s Manesar plant, 400 come from Haryana itself. Two districts—Jind (150 workers) and Kaithal (120 workers)—make up the maximum numbers. The terminated workers are sitting on an agitation at the district commissioner’s complex in Kaithal. Recently, they had a small victory: talks with the Maruti management in the last week of April, first since the incident in July 2012. Further talks had been sch¬eduled for the first week of May.
The terminated workers are dem¬anding an independent inquiry into the nine-month-old incident. When Outlook visited the district collector’s complex in Kaithal, it found a clutch of workers, most of them in their 20s, eating, reading newspapers and discussing strategy (some of them had gone back to the villages for harvesting). “We started our agitation in Kaithal because Randeep Singh Surjewala, the minister of commerce and industries in Haryana, is from this place. Moreover, we have a base and big public support in this area.
It has been more than a month and we have no money to go on with the protest. But villagers, people from the city and nearby areas are providing us food and other essential support,” says Katar Singh, member of the Provisional Committee of Sacked Maruti Workers.
It’s not easy: a new seven-member committee was formed in August last year. Two members of this committee are named in another FIR that has been lodged by the Maruti management; one of them has since been arrested, another is underground. Initially, the protest started in March outside the residence of Surjewala, but they were forced to leave. They then went to meet Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, who is from Hissar, in Haryana. But despite their meeting him 13 times, he didn’t speak a word for them. Now they are prepared to fight on their own. Sitting below a photo of Bhagat Singh and a next to a CD player belting out revolutionary songs, Bharat Kumar, one of the agitators, spews bitterness: “We always looked towards Maruti as a home but they (the management) never accepted the workers as family members.”
Yashvir Malik, 26, is one of the workers sitting in protest in Kaithal. He comes from Sudkain Khurd, a border village between Jind and Kaithal districts. His father, Ram Kumar, is a farmer with a landholding of some 1.25 acres and heavily in debt. “Yashvir is our only hope for all that we need at this age. I have no work; one leg is weak after a bad accident. My wife, too, suffers from age-related problems, anxiety. But now my only son is jobless—who will marry him? See what they have done to us,” says Ram Kumar.
Yashvir’s family—and other villagers—are firm on fighting for the rights of these youth from their area. Yashvir’s family comes from Malik khap—the biggest khap of Haryana. When asked about the Gurgaon khaps supporting Maruti’s management, Ram Kumar says, “Gurgaon is not Haryana. The politics of Haryana is decided more from our and nearby districts. The khaps there are looking to their own interests and they are speaking the same language as our chief minister, but this is not going to help them.” It’s evident that the workers are lobbying with khaps and other social, political forces to ensure pressure is put on the state government and the Maruti Suzuki management.
It’s also clear that the agitating workers are feeling let down by the lack of support for their cause. “Mainstream parties from the state and the nation have not even issued any statement on the issue. The chief minister of the state is continuously defending the Maruti management and blaming the workers. It seems that the representatives are sold out. Instead of ensuring fair and accountable governance in the state and implementation of labour rights, they are blaming the victims of the capitalism,” says Huda.
Even those who have managed to find jobs are not finding it easy to adjust to the fear around their past. Another worker Sanjay (name changed)—who was a contract worker in the Manesar plant and has no charges against him in this case—now works for a manufacturing unit in Gurgaon. “It was my first job at Maruti but I can’t tell anyone about it. If I had done so, it would have been impossible to get this job. I don’t want my new company to harass me, managers to distrust me and police to embarrass me without any reason,” says Sanjay, adding that “my present job is my first job now”. Not everyone among the 2,100 contract and apprentice workers is as lucky as Sanjay—many of them are still struggling to find jobs. The ones who have managed to do so are working for less than the minimum wages for unskilled labour.
The workers in jail have filed two counter cases against 17 Maruti Suzuki officials. The complaint by Jiyalal is pending in the court—if cleared, it might send some Maruti officials to jail under laws against inflicting atrocities upon SC/STs. In the first round of talks between workers and the management, Maruti officials insisted that workers should take back their counter complaints. In return, the workers asked the management to take them back, get innocent workers released and enforce a fair enquiry into the case. Both sides say that talks were “productive”—but it is starkly evident who is in control in this battle of unequals.
(First Published in The Outlook)