One of India’s most acrimonious workers’ struggles in recent memory continues to reverberate following a court judgment which found more than a dozen workers guilty of murder.
On 18 March 2017, the Gurugram District and Sessions Court in the northern India state of Haryana sentenced 13 workers at the Maruti Suzuki India Limited plant in Manesar to life imprisonment for criminal conspiracy, destruction of evidence and murder for their alleged involvement in the deadly clashes that broke out at the car plant in July 2012.
In 2011, both permanent and contract workers at the plant sought to form an independent union in a bid to end the mass casualisation of jobs and improve working conditions, but they were denied registration by the Maruti Suzuki management, backed by the state government of Haryana. Although the workers eventually managed to form a union in 2012, the management refused to recognise it.
Tensions eventually escalated into violence on 18 July 2012. An accidental fire left the company’s HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev dead, and over 100 workers were injured by the police and security guards. Crucially, there is no proof that any of the condemned men were even present when the fire started; they were arrested on the basis of a list of names handed to the police by the management.
Once arrested, it is reported that the workers were tortured while in police custody. Campaigners across India are calling the case a miscarriage of justice.
Of the 148 workers arrested and jailed over the incident, 117 workers were acquitted on 10 March 2017. But four workers have been sentenced to five years in prison for trespassing, unlawful assembly, rioting and possession of deadly weapons, while another 14 workers were sentenced to three years on the same charges.
Kushiram, a provisional committee member of Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU), tells Equal Times: “Out of 13 workers sentenced for life imprisonment, 12 are Maruti union officials. 117 workers are declared innocent by the court, but without any reason they have served more than four years in jail without bail. Who will compensate them for their years in prison? Another 14 workers were sentenced to three years, and the irony is that they have already spent four years in prison. Now who will address their loss and grievances?”
The defence team representing the Maruti workers say that the union leaders are “paying the price of championing the cause of workers”. Since 16 March, solidarity action by various worker, student and human rights organisations have taken place in over 20 cities, as well as internationally, while over 100,000 workers across India have participated in work stoppages in support of the Maruti workers. On 4 and 5 April, an all-India and international day of solidarity and protest was also held. And while the MSWU is not affiliated to any central trade union, it has also won support from various trade unions.
“The workers have been convicted on the basis of concocted evidence manufactured by the state administration, police and employer nexuses by shamelessly misusing and abusing power,” says Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
“The current judgment too blindly acknowledges management’s position without even recognizing the events of the day as part of the persistent attack of the Maruti Suzuki management on the workers’ right to form a union of their own choice and its refusal to negotiate with the union, over fair and just workers’ demands,” states a press release by the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI).
“It is the failure of industrial relations and the management is equally responsible for what has happened”, says Virjesh Upadhayay, general secretary of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the union affiliated to the ruling government and the largest trade union centre in India. “The state government, eyeing foreign investments, were in full support of the Maruti management and had shut their eyes to the violation of the fundamental rights of workers,” he tells Equal Times.
A history of repression
The Maruti Suzuki case is widely considered an attack on the right of workers to freedom of association, and has become an unprecedented example of class solidarity in India. But it is also seen as a case study of the way in which employers work closely with the government and the judiciary to criminalise Indian workers and deny them their fundamental constitutional rights.
The exploitation and harassment of car sector workers – the bulk of whom come from poor rural villages – is nothing new. India’s automotive industry is one of the largest in the world, accounting for 7.1 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to statistics. The Indian government wants to make sure that foreign auto manufacturers feel that their investments are protected in India – even if this at the expense of auto workers who are faced with poverty wages, ever-increasing production targets and insecure work.
In 2005, for example, workers at the Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India in Gurugram, Haryana tried to organise around the issue of fair wages. A number of workers were sacked, leading to violent protests, which resulted in the injury of more than 100 workers at the hands of police and plant security. Similar unrest occurred in 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2016.
In 2008, a labour struggle at the Swiss-Italian automotive parts company Graziano Trasmissioni in the northern city of Greater Noida resulted in the death of its CEO/MD Lalit Kishore Chaudhary and the termination of more than 200 jobs. Unrest has also been reported at other plants in India including Hyundai, Bosch and Toyota.
“They expect the workers to continue working in any situation and do whatever the management demands,” says AD Nagpal, national secretary of the Indian trade union centre Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS). “But once they try to form union and raise their voices on their fundamental rights, the suppression and oppression begins.”
According to DL Sachdeva, national secretary of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the situation in Manesar provides a clear example of this. “The Maruti Suzuki management refused to recognise the union and negotiate with them. It’s quite obvious that the intensification of the [situation] on 18 July 2012 was a ploy of Maruti Suzuki management to get rid of the union and its leadership,” he tells Equal Times. “Besides the criminalisation of labour, large scale victimisation too happened. 546 permanent and 1800 contract workers were terminated from their jobs.”
Maruti Suzuki has not yet released a statement following the judgment and the press office failed to respond to our request for an interview.
While the defence team for the convicted workers plans to challenge the judgment at the High Court, Maruti workers have promised to increase the pressure on the management to free those convicted, reinstate victimised workers and improve working conditions at the plant.