Bail to Maruti Suzuki Workers: A Big Small Victory

By Faiz Ullah,

In what could be considered a major breakthrough in the Maruti Suzuki India Limited workers’ protracted struggle, 77 more workers were granted bail on Tuesday by a Gurgaon district court. This closely follows a Supreme Court of India order last month when two of the total 147 workers were granted bail after languishing in Haryana’s Bhondsi Jail for more than 30 months. The workers have been charged with several counts of arson, rioting and murder among others. According to the defence lawyers, the prosecution has repeatedly failed to produce either any credible evidence or witnesses that could stand scrutiny during the trial process.

While the mainstream corporate media were quick to dub the death of HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev as murder, there is still neither any clarity on the chain of events that led to the violence in the company’s Manesar plant on 18 July 2012 – a clear aberration in the otherwise peaceful struggle – nor what caused Mr. Dev’s unfortunate death. In fact, one of the most vocal and key demands of the workers to the government has been to constitute an impartial and high level judicial inquiry to probe the incident.

Maruti Workers

What makes this development especially significant is the resilience of the workers in the face of an increasingly hostile and unyeilding State machinery and unflattering public discourse, perpetuated to a large extent by the corporate mainstream media, that has continuously reinforced the stereotype of ‘violent workers’ who are unmindful of ‘larger social interest’. Hearing the bail application of the MSIL workers in May 2014 the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, in an interim judgment echoing the dominant media narratives, ruled that the “incident is most unfortunate occurrence which has lowered the reputation of India in the estimation of the world. Foreign investors are not likely to invest out of fear of labour unrest”. This sufficiently points towards the ways in which the dominant discourse around labour struggles gets naturalized and tends to become a part of ‘common sense’.

After the 18 July 2012 incident, over 2000 workers were summarily dismissed and hundreds were indiscriminately arrested. Even their families were not spared and harassed by the police and company goons over a period of time. Several of those arrested claim that they were not present in the plant premises at the day and time of the incident. A few were arrested even when their names did not figure in the FIR.

The evidence allegedly recovered from several workers, especially the office bearers of the union, seems to betray a rather curious pattern. Several car door frames and iron rods, which police claimed were used by the rioting workers, were shown to be found at the homes of the arrested workers weeks after they had voluntarily surrendered before the police. It does seem a little incredible that hundreds of men would carry such conspicuous objects back to their homes, in many cases in neighbouring districts, while being pursued by the police.

Witnesses produced by the prosecution follow an even more curious pattern. The four witnesses, who also supplied contract workers to the company, seem to have seen the accused workers ganging up alphabetically before beginning to riot! While the first witness saw 25 workers whose names fell in the alphabetical range of A-G engaging in arson, other three saw rioting workers whose names were in G to P category, P to S and S to Y alphabet ranges respectively. Additionally, these witnesses failed to identify any of the 89 accused workers in the district court in July 2014. It is also worth remembering that at the time of filing the charge-sheet names of the witnesses were not mentioned at all.

The public pronouncements of several politicians and business leaders calling for ‘exemplary punishment’ and ‘ruthless action’ against the workers reflect the serious intent of the State-industry nexus to crush labour action. Government of Haryana, for illustration, has spent upwards of Rs 5 crore in the last two years to retain the services of Rajya Sabha MP and prosecution lawyer KTS Tulsi, who has reportedly charged the government Rs 11 lakh per appearance.

When courts take upon themselves to act as custodian of the fuzzy notion of country’s ‘reputation’ and start worrying about foreign investment one cannot help but wonder if the ideas of fairness and justice have been waylaid in a bid to appease the increasingly neo-liberal tendencies of the State. While systematically undermining the civil and political rights of the workers, the State-industry nexus is using the legal mechanisms and processes to inflict punishment on the workers for daring to resist their excesses. Vrinda Grover, one of the senior lawyers who have been representing the workers, in a brief statement issued online said that “criminal investigation, prosecution and incarceration are being used by the State to please private corporations, crush trade unions and repress workers”.

Even though the bail orders for the workers have come quite late in the day, this small victory should make us appreciate the vitality and tenacity of the struggle led by the workers even more. They have been waging the struggle together in extremely challenging circumstances with very little resources. While it would be easy to credit lawyers, activists and journalists for playing a significant role in the struggle it would probably be a bit disingenuous. All the while it was the workers who provoked and energized those on the periphery of the struggle. They employed a range of novel metaphors, rhetoric and public performances to project their concerns, mobilize support, capture the public space of debate and successfully confront the powers that be. They opened up new ways of understanding the changing circumstances and re-imagining ways to negotiate with them. They did not give up. They have not given up.

The writer is a researcher based in Mumbai.