Maruti Suzuki case: Violence or vendetta?
The sessions court in Gurgaon on 18 March 2017 sentenced 13 workers of Maruti Suzuki to life imprisonment for murder. Photograph: (DNA)
The sessions court in Gurgaon on 18 March 2017 sentenced 13 workers of Maruti Suzuki to life imprisonment for murder. Twelve of these are the erstwhile leading executive body of the Maruti Suzuki Workers' Union (MSWU). Eighteen others were sentenced from three to five years for rioting and causing grievous injury. The workers are victims of a monstrous frame-up mounted by the automaker, the police and judicial authorities, with the full complicity of India’s principal ruling parties.
The MSWU was established in 2011 by majority workers at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar car assembly plant, Haryana, in opposition to a stooge union that had connived with the company in their brutal exploitation. The Maruti-Suzuki management with active support of the state government of Haryana first denied them union registration. In 2011, under the leadership of MSWU, Manesar assembly plant workers mounted a series of struggles against the denial of their union registration and in opposition to low wages, brutal working conditions and the widespread use of contract and temporary labour.
Manesar assembly plant workers mounted a series of struggles against the denial of their union registration and in opposition to low wages, brutal working conditions and the widespread use of contract and temporary labour
Under the pressure of sustained struggles, the government finally acceded to union registration in early 2012. However, the Maruti-Suzuki management refused to either recognise the union or negotiate with them. The non-cooperation of the management did not deter the workers. In fact, the determined struggles of MSWU galvanised support from workers across the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt.
On 18 July 2012, a dispute broke out over a suspended worker. Evidently, one of the managers hurled a casteist remark on the same worker. There were altercations. A fire broke out in Manesar plant that resulted in the death of a company human resources manager. Cases against the workers were filed. To many, this looked like a vendetta against the most militant workers and an excuse to get rid of the union.
The company not only lodged a police complaint but also supplied a list of “suspects”. Based on the information, police arrested 148 militant workers, including all MSWU leaders. They charged them with conspiracy and killing of the company official.
Our objections stem from the observation that the prosecution failed to establish even circumstantial evidence to show that any of those convicted caused the violence that took place, leave alone the death.
After a four-and-a-half year trial, the court gave the ruling, which many, including me, think is based on flimsy evidence. Our objections stem from the observation that the prosecution failed to establish even circumstantial evidence to show that any of those convicted caused the violence that took place, leave alone the death. The ruling also goes against the forensic evidence and post-mortem report that was placed before the court. More importantly, officers of the company, who were produced before the court as prosecution witnesses denied they were present at the time of the incident. Some of them even admitted that they were acting under Maruti-Suzuki management direction.
Though the police filed a common charge against 148 workers, eventually, 117 of the arrested workers have been acquitted of all charges. The acquittal of eighty per cent of the accused workers shows that mass terrorisation of workers was one of the main motives of police action in this case. More importantly, it also shows that the courts were wrong in denying them bail. These workers were forced to spend 31 months in prison for no fault of their own. During that period, many of the workers were subjected to torture, in an attempt to extract forced confessions. Their fundamental right to life and liberty was attacked, yet no one is going to be punished for this mistake.
Plants in Pricol (Coimbatore), Graziano (Surajpur) and Regency Ceramics (Yanam) and the Maruti incident all share a common feature. In all these cases, workers who actively participated in union activities have been charged with murder. While governments, generally, show little interest in attending to violations of existing labour regulations by employers, retribution against workers has been severe and swift. It is an indication of the class nature of justice in the country.
In May 2013, the Punjab and Haryana High Court denied bail to Maruti workers with the argument that if bail is given, foreign investors are not likely to invest in India out of fear of labour unrest. It is unfortunate that citizens' right to justice were subservient to foreign investors' confidence. This is a clear example of the degradation of criminal justice system and its failure to stick to the first principles of justice.
It is unfortunate that citizens' right to justice were subservient to foreign investors' confidence
It should be a matter of grave concern for every Indian that while the leaders of some of the most henious pogroms in independent India have not been even touched by the criminal justice system, workers of Maruti Suzuki have been sentenced to life imprisonment on flimsy evidence. Another development is the use of private armed guards by employers to threaten workers. According to the workers of Honda scooter plant in Alwar, Rajasthan, their strike last year was broken by the management with the help of armed thugs, who had assaulted them inside the plant, and also in the city in full public view. Maruti Suzuki workers have also alleged that on the day of violence large number of hired bouncers were roaming inside the plant and threatening workers.
Working class movement is a great bulwark of democracy in any society. People without property could exercise various democratic rights, including voting rights, only after sustained campaigns by working class organisations. Working class politics tries to build solidarity among people across regional, linguistic, religious and caste divisions.
Maruti Suzuki workers have braved through sinister schemes of management, government, and police, and are standing firm in their commitment. Their commitment to people's democratic rights, secular culture and unity needs to be contrasted with the violence of communal forces.
It should be clear to everyone that the future of the workers is the future of democracy in India. And now that these young men have been sentenced to life, it is the democracy in India that stands on trial.