Mixed reactions to judgement on Maruti factory violence

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 15, 2017 14:21 hrs
2012 Maruti factory violence: Haryana court convicts 31 former employees

Thousands of workers in Gurgaon, Manesar and Nimrana boycotted lunch and dinner at their factories yesterday. They did so in solidarity with 148 workers of Maruti’s manufacturing plant in Manesar who were charged with murder, attempt to murder, rioting, arson, etc, and awaiting judgement following the violence in the factory in July 2012 which resulted in the death of HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev and injured several others. There have been mixed reactions to the verdict announced today by the sessions court in Gurgaon - 117 of workers were acquitted of all charges while 31 have been found guilty, including 13 who have been charged with serious crimes. According to Newslaundry 13 workers were charged with Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substances), which would amount to life imprisonment.

G.Sampath documented the trial that went on for more than four years in a series of articles in The Hindu. According to family members of the arrested workers, they were being unfairly targeted. Satbir Singh, the father in law of one of those accused wondered–

Can you please give me one other example — just one — of a case where 147 men are charged with one man’s murder?

Sampath points out that the management’s version of events has been used by the government in prosecuting the case. After the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union was formed, the management fired almost 546 permanent workers and 1800 contract workers.

It is a typical horror story of militant trade unionism gone wild, and is the basis for the prosecution. According to this version, disciplinary action taken by a supervisory staff against a worker provoked the unionised workers to retaliate. A large number of them armed themselves with rods and door beams and attacked management staff, burning one of them to death.

In their defense, the workers alleged that the management of the company had planned the attack and bouncers present inside company premises on that day beat up Awanish Dev, the HR manager, locked him up in a room and set fire to it.

Anumeha Yadav lists out various loopholes in the prosecution’s case against the workers in this article in Scroll. These include the failure of prosecution’s witnesses to identify the workers whom they claimed started the fire. While the original complaint stated that weapons used by the workers were mainly iron rods, it was later changed to car door frames and other materials as these could be shown to be available in the factory.

defence lawyers had pointed out that in case of 89 of the accused workers, the Haryana police had named four Maruti Suzuki contractors as the sole witnesses. What was odd was that each of these four contractors who allegedly saw the workers rioting listed workers’ names that fell neatly within four separate sections of the alphabet.

Thozhilalar Koodam spoke to a few of the jailed workers who are out on bail. According to C.S.R.Shankar, workers’ were tortured and coerced into writing confessions and their families were also targeted. Pradeep Gujjar, one of the workers who was arrested in July 2013 said –

For three days they didn’t tell anybody in my family that I was picked up and detained me illegally in the head office of the crime branch where I was tortured. They beat me repeatedly and hung me as well. They didn’t really have any questions and were beating me for no reason. To escape the beating I told them that I would sign anything they want me to say. But they didn’t make me sign anything and just kept beating me for the three days- 22nd, 23rd and 24th. On the 25th July they handed me over to the Haryana Police. They beat me and forced me to sign 12 blank pages. The next day they took me to court where fake confession was submitted.

Even the workers who were out on bail were constantly targeted. Before the General Strike on 2nd September called by trade unions last year, workers were detained. This, despite the fact that the union had intimated their intention to strike to the management as per law. The Scroll reported that police were asking contract workers who reside in colonies near the factory to report to work.

In 2014 a team comprising labour rights experts and lawyers from the International Commission on Labour Rights met with workers, police and industry associations. They unequivocally condemned the government’s handling of the issue and concluded that workers were victimised for exercising their right to form a union. President of ICLR, Jeanne Mirer said –

The government of India must ensure that the state of Haryana, as well as Maruti Suzuki, respect internationally-recognized labor and human rights. These include guarantees regarding the freedom of association and collective bargaining, under ILO Conventions 87 and 98 and core civil rights – of speech, of protest, of freedom from arbitrary detention and from torture – protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Ian Marlow and Upamanyu Trivedi article in Bloomberg illustrates how the violence in Maruti is symptomatic of the adverse effects of labour reforms. Experts say that despite the push for Make in India by the BJP led government in the centre, there has not been an increase in quality jobs.

The Maruti Suzuki case reveals the potential for violent unrest at one of the biggest success stories of foreign investment in Indian manufacturing.One of those caught up in the case, Amarjeet, who uses one name, said he was hired as an apprentice in 2007 and made only 3,500 rupees ($52) a month compared to a permanent worker’s 20,000 rupees ($300).Five years later, he was making 10,000 rupees a month but had not yet been made permanent when he was arrested along with more than 100 others in a broad security sweep.

Three days ago some of the workers were released on bail. But by then they had already spent more than 2 years in jail. Workers families who had spent the night outside the Bhondsi jail spoke to Business Standard and said that their loved ones were innocent. One worker Kumar, who joined the plant as a trainee had been working for 9 months when the incident occurred, earning Rs.6000 per month.

They allege they were arrested from locations far from the company's plant. The police identified them through their uniforms and took them into custody. "We were returning to our rented accommodations when the police waylaid and arrested us. We have been framed," said Kumar, tension palpable on his face."We are saddened because the police arrested us without a proper investigation. They (the prosecution) have failed to produce a single witness in the case for two and a half years"

Many of these workers are sole bread winners and their absence has meant that their families suffered when they were in jail. Although the verdict is not a complete victory, according to the workers’ legal team, given the fact that 117 of the workers were acquitted, proves their larger point. Advocate Vrinda Grover had this to say –

the judgement vindicates our stand that a very large number of workers were falsely implicated to prejudice the public opinion and project an exaggerated and alarming version of the incident

She also pointed out that all 13 who were found guilty of murder are union leaders which clearly shows that they are being targeted. The legal team is confident that the High Court will overturn the judgement.

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