The Struggle in Between the Events: Lives of the incarcerated Maruti Workers

By C.S.R Shankar

Workers from Maruti union and other unions in Manesar celebrate flag day on March 1st 2017(Source: Facebook)

The Maruti plant in Manesar is perhaps the largest car manufacturing plant in India. Close to six years ago the workers in the plant initiated a struggle to form a union to address issues in their work place. A unique struggle which saw the coming together of permanent and temporary workers, union activisits said that it was their everyday struggles in the factory which led them to form a union.. Pradeep Gujjar, an ex-permanent worker explained – “They wouldn’t let us drink water nor would they let us go to the toilet to refresh ourselves in the middle of work. Our official salary was Rs.17000 but if we took more than three chhuttis they would cut around Rs.8000. They wouldn’t even give us chhuttis for our own weddings and would constantly cut our salary for small issues. The contract workers then were more tired and upset than us. Their salary was Rs.7500-8000 and if they took more than 3 chhuttis they would cut close to Rs.3500 even though they did the same amount of work as us. It is because of all this that we decided that we should form a union.”  As part of the struggle for union recognition,  was a historic 13 day strike in June 2011 in which all the workers of the factory sat inside the factory campus without food for the first 5 days because the company had cut the supply. After several more strikes and ugly confrontations with the management, a union was registered. This, however, was just the beginning of the story.

As the management continued various actions to thwart union formation, on July 18th 2012 a fire broke out in the factory amidst chaos and Awanish Kumar Dev, Maruti’s General Manager (HR), died of severe burns. 148 workers were booked under different charges including murder. The court case has been going on for close to 5 years now and the judgment will be pronounced on the 10th March 2017. All that we have been able to hear and see of this unprecedented struggle of the Maruti workers are stray events.

Mainstream media reports snippets of struggles. We get to see visuals of some of the strikes, TV anchors calling up party spokespersons for their comments, details of court cases, charge sheets, news of police brutality, images of riots, public meetings and other such events or spectacles. We get timelines punctuated with these events. But the reality of a struggle isn’t just composed of these punctuations; in between them the struggles of real people and their families as they languished in jail. The difficulties faced, strategies they used to cope, as well as the new friendships formed are perhaps a larger part of the struggle, than the events we get to see in the media.

Police cardon at Maruti plant following July18th incident

Pradeep Gujjar, who was released recently on bail, recounts the evening of July 18th 2012 and how his life changed after the arrest “We were working on the shop floor and we saw that close to 250 meters from us a fire had broken out in the HR sector. So all of us who worked in the welding sector and the shop floor left the factory immediately. We didn’t know what had happened or even that Awanish had died. But we saw lots of police vans and uniform clad police officers at the gate. They had stationed themselves on all the roads in Manesar and were arresting anybody in a Maruti uniform. So we walked for 12 kilometers through fields to avoid the roads and reached a village where a friend of ours lived. The next morning we left to go home but before we could make to our home we heard that the police had already reached. So we left for a village near Ambala and stayed in another friend’s khet for 2-3 months. Our ATMs were blocked and we had no money. We didn’t even have phones. We had to rely on our friends.”

But soon it became clear to the workers that hiding was not an option for too long. Pradeep and others returned to Gurgaon to organize, meet with the unions, and build solidarity for the workers. They facilitated the formation of a team composed of many unions in the Manesar-Gurgaon belt and called for a large meeting and rally at the Kamla Nehru Park. Unfortunately for Pradeep, the information about the meeting and his involvement in organizing it was leaked and the police began to put pressure on him by targeting his family. He says, “They picked up my father and took him to a police chowki. There were four teams of police dedicated to catching the Maruti workers in Gurgaon. They would pick up family members and just keep them in the thanas. The told my father that they would let him go only if I surrendered. They took his phone away. My father was picked up twice, once for three days and then again for a day. So my friends advised me to leave Gurgaon because my family was being targeted. So I left again home again and went towards Lucknow. I knew some people from the company who helped out with money. I had the address of several co-workers in UP, Punjab and Haryana.” Another accused worker, Sumit, talked about the intimidation his family faced from the police after the July incident. While his family members were not detained, the police often visited their homes to intimidate them. He says, “Before they picked up any of my family members I turned myself in”.

Maruti Workers protest 2015 (courtesy WSC)

While Pradeep Gujjar was away in hiding chalans came out for him and other workers. He would come to Gurgaon and leave it again several times in the course of the next few months. As more of his saathis began to get picked up it was decided that it is far too unsafe for him to be in Gurgaon. He was told to help the struggle by travelling and collecting money for the Provisional Committee. “I spent one week in Noida talking to workers in the factories there, telling them about the situation in Manesar and collecting funds. Then I went to Rihana, Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jaipur and kept changing the route to avoid the police.” Workers from all over the area gave him money for the struggle; some gave Rs 100-200. while other contributed up to Rs.500 and Rs.1000.

As he became more and more involved with the struggle he became a target for the Crime Branch. His mobile phone was put under surveillance. He was finally caught in Pahadganj where he was meeting with activists from Kolkatta on 22nd July 2013 just as he was returning  from Chandigarh to Gurgaon.“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.They said that I beat Awanish and other people.”Sumit, another  accused worker was also detained and beaten up. He was made to sign 3-4 blank papers to obtain false testimonies.

Another worker, 33 year old Pradip, was picked up, in August of that year, from his house while he was eating  lunch. He was told that he would be released by the evening and that all they wanted was for him to identify some people in a video. He was slapped 3-4 times on the way to the police thana and constantly threatened and intimidated. While at the thana, the police officers told him that if he did not confess they would drown his face in a bucket of water and electrocute him. While this was just a threat at first they were quite quick to keep their promises. Pradip says, “Then they got that current waala thing, that thing that looked like a torch and electrocuted me.” After the intimidation and torture, he was made to sign blank documents and taken to the hospital for a check-up the next morning. On the way to the hospital the police officers warned him not to tell the doctors about the torture. When the doctor asked about the black-red mark left by the electric shock one of the sipahis standing next to Pradip told the doctor that the mark was from a red sheet on which Pradip was lying down the previous night.

For three years 148 workers were kept together in one barrack at Bhondsi Jail in Gurgoan. Every day at 7am there would be a call to see if all of the 148 are there, alive and well. Then they would be made to do saafsafai (clean) of the entire jail. On some days if it had rained the cleaning would be more work than usual. The food wasn’t very good because there weren’t enough staff to cook for 2200 prisoners. Pradeep and Ram Vilas were beaten in jail a few times for making statements against someone in the company. This particular person in the management had relatives in the Haryana Police and therefore wielded influence. The police, however, claimed that they were beat them for indulging in “illegal activities” inside the jail like using a phone. When I asked Pradeep if he was indeed using a phone, he said, “at that time I didn’t even know if one could use a phone in the jail”.

Pradeep was in jail for 3 years during which time members of the union and the provisional committee would visit often to update them on the case. Pradeep says that he wasn’t too worried about the case because “mentally we were strong for we knew that we had to fight this battle to its end” but at the same time his family was beginning to face serious problems. In the three years he spent in jail, 8 of his family members passed away including his grandmother, his father’s elder brother, two other uncles. “My family was also facing financial trouble. My elder brother got married and I was in jail during that point of time. Even mentally my family was breaking. While my parents and brother supported our struggle, other relatives were against what we did in Maruti. They thought that we did what the media and the company was saying. They thought we killed that man. So there was a lot of fighting within the family.” Summit also complained of the financial trouble the family faced when he was in jail. His child was born in December, soon after the incident but he was in Jail for the next four years. Prada, who was in jail for a little more than four years also had a daughter after he went to jail. With a young child and the absence of the main breadwinner of the family, his wife faced considerable financial trouble.

All three of them were released on bail in August 2016 after spending more than 3 years each in jail. What is surprising, however, is the strength and resolve which these workers showed despite the repeated and blatant violations of the law and the misuse of power by  Marti Suzuki  and the State. What we often miss when we hear about these so called conflicts in the news is how such periods of time affect the personal lives of those involved. The effects of the intimidation and torture were felt not just by the jailed workers but even their families and their friends. But a struggle such as this is also an opportunity for the workers to form new friendships and start new families. Pradeep Gujjar now lives in a house in Gurgaon with  other members of the provisional committee. They work together on labour issues in the Manesar-Gurgaon belt. He thinks of them as his family.

The 6th anniversary of the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU) or Jhanda Diwas was celebrated on 1st March this year. Union leaders from all over Manesar and Gurgaon came for the event. Almost all the speeches mentioned the sacrifices of the workers who had to go to jail. Those released on bail were told not to come to the event because it might be dangerous for them to be seen there. Messages of thanks from the families of the accused workers were read out. Many of the other workers had pooled in money for the court case. The meeting was a show of strength and unity as the workers made it quite clear to anybody listening that if their comrades are not acquitted, they will strike work all over Manesar.

(Judgment on the Maruti Workers case is to be pronounced today (March 10th 2017)after nearly 5 years, please await updates on our facebook page www.facebook.com/tnlabourblog))

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