ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

The Crisis is Upon Us

Ranjana Padhi (ranjanapadhi@yahoo.co.uk) is an activist and writer based in Delhi.

On 19 May in Kaithal, the Haryana police and government let loose brutal violence and repression against workers and their families led by the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union. The might of corporate India with the government as its agent was on full display even as the corporate media chose to ignore the entire episode. 

When workers rise up to demand their legitimate rights as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution  and protest against a corporate entity like Maruti Suzuki, they become criminals and cease to be bonafide citizens  in the eyes of the state; they even cease to be voters for the otherwise vote-hungry politicians.  It is no longer a matter of the state and its administration being in perpetual limbo; they wield their power to criminalise the working class to aid global capital. Workers and their struggles and the brutal repression by the state even cease to be a news-story for the corporate media as such events are blacked out.  What happened at Kaithal bears testimony to this and is the reason for this commentary.

The long and intense struggle of the workers of the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar, Haryana was the assertion of collective bargaining for the right to register a trade union fulfilling all norms as  stipulated by the Trade Union Act.  Moreover, last year’s conflict of July 18 happened right in the middle of discussions on wage revisions that the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU) was holding  with the management.  The incident led to the termination of 546 permanent and 1800 contract workers by the company, confinement of 147 workers in the Bhondsi jail in Haryana and 66 nonbailable warrants. The management and the Haryana police and administration  squarely blamed  the workers for the death of the human resources (HR) manager much before investigations were over. [1]Therefore, it is only the workers who have been demanding an independent inquiry into the death of the manager.

Ever since this  death, the vibrant struggle of the MSWU gathered both momentum and support across Haryana and the country. One reason is that  the union  adopted a wide range of democratic and peaceful means of protest such as appeals, petitions, litigation, marches, cycle rallies, sending of delegations and hunger strikes. All these means of protest form the basic democratic right of workers as guaranteed in the Constitution. However, in an act of brazen cowardice and use of authority, a democratically elected government resorted to brutal repression. What was being planned in Kaithal with much hard work and labour of the MSWU and the local panchayats and what was done to scuttle it by the State has grave implications not only for the rights of the Maruti workers but also the entire working class movement in this country.

Fear of Popular Support

The Haryana Industries and Commerce Minister, Randip Singh Surjewala has his residence in Kaithal.  A majority of workers too hail from Kaithal and surrounding districts like Jind and Karnal. Entire communities of the vast region supported the workers at the dharna that began on 24 March with donations of wheat, oil, sugar, vegetables and by their sheer presence in large numbers. To stem the growing support of the communities around, government authority and its use of fiscal powers was directed against its own local leadership. The local newspapers mentioned that the Haryana government was planning to hold back the grants of 85 local panchayats that had participated in the protest event of 8 May  .

The administration therefore was well aware of the Mahapanchayat that had been called for on 19 May. Preparations had been on for weeks for this great day. An estimated 10, 000 people were expected from the villages around Kaithal that morning. The workers had asked the  the minister to respond to their  demands by 19 May.The discussion on the demands was pending since March 24 and therefore the workers continued the peaceful dharna at the Mini Secretariat, which is the office of the Deputy Commissioner/District Magistrate. Instead of coming forward for a discussion, Section 144 was declared from 5 pm on May 18 untilmidnight of the next day. Around 11.45 pm, the police swooped down on the area and arrested 91 people of whom 89 were workers and two were trade union activists. Many were asleep.Another four workers were arrested on the morning of May 19. The dharna site was  taken over by the police and  belongings of the workers were removed too.

Arrested and ‘Disappeared’

Kaithal was under siege the next day. Tension was rife with police jeeps and vans swarming across large stretches from the main bus stand and the railway station to the Mini Secretariat and from the entry points on the state highway to Surjewala’s residence. A six-member team from the Association for Democratic Right (AFDR) Punjab, the People’s Union for  Civil Rights (PUCR), Haryana, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) Delhi and the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) Delhi, spent a few hours trying to figure out the charges under which those picked up the previous night had been detained. The team was shunted from the Kaithal Civil Line station to the Police Civil Lines to the office of the superintendent of police (SP) in the Mini Secretariat building. However no information was forthcoming. The basic right of a democratic rights organisation or a family member to be informed of the charges under which a worker has been booked therefore seemed to hold little significance.  The team was told more than once that the SP and the DSP were at the site of the dharna or at the entry points to the town. It was when the 95 arrested were produced in court and escorted to jail that it was revealed they had been booked under Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), which in this case was the violation of Section 144. Surely, such simple information can be shared with democratic rights activists and anxious families and fellow workers. Almost every local resident spoken to expressed shock at the arrest of the 95 workers the previous night. What was the fear that had gripped the custodians of law and order? Where were these orders coming from? It was perhaps an omen of what was to follow.

That afternoon the police were chasing away  people at the entry points to the town and, in turn, the small team of rights activists was determined to chase the police and figure out the whereabouts of the 95 arrested.  The marchers slowly gathering in number were determined to make it to the residence of the minister.  At 43 degrees the heat was near unbearable but the endless chase continued.  Section 144 was  was being openly defied by the people pouring into the town to join the protest in small and big groups.  Busloads of detained protestors were shouting “Mazdoor Ekta Zindabaad! Zindabaad, Zindabaad!” There were women in the buses too. Till almost late evening, the police never bothered to share where those being picked up were being detained.  Despite  the entry points to Kaithal being blocked and protestors being turned away, a few hundred people gathered and were stopped on the road leading to the minister’s residence. Workers and their families were ready to face anything. And they did.

Barricades were put up and there was heavy deployment of police in riot gear with lathis etc. Water canons and tear gas were kept in readiness. Workers and their leaders spoke and reaffirmed their commitment to get the terminated workers reinstated as well as the 147 in Bhondsi jail released. However, the demand for the release of the 95 arrested the previous night grew in intensity.  The pradhans of the panchayats unanimously demanded the withdrawal of the case and the release of the 95. The demand for the return of the detained workers was also coming from communities that were questioning corporate power for the first time. It was their “children” in jail. The struggle of labour against capital that is truly worldwide seemed to momentarily take a disturbing turn as a speaker passionately invoked the Haryana identity:  “Laundehamare Haryana kehai; koi Pakistan kenahin! “ (These boys are ours and not from Pakistan). The few khap panchayats and largely elected panchayats directed their wrath at the Haryana government. Indeed, the mood was electric; the demand was for their “boys” to be brought to the dharna spot. The DSP stationed at the barricades, protected by a shield, became the only point of contact. All the speakers denounced the high-handedness of the Hooda regime in Haryana. The anger and the disbelief were palpable. Workers and their families refused to leave the spot until those arrested the previous night were brought to them.

Act of Cowardice

Perhaps the defiance of Section 144 by women and children and the elderly who had gathered there sent a chill down the spine of the state. Or maybe the unity and rising crescendo of the voice of the workers’ families frightened the police.Around 6 pm, the police started using the water cannons and bursting tear gas shells without any warning.  Two shots were fired in the air. The workers had started pushing against the police barricades to continue the march. The police warned everyone to leave within 10 minutes but when that did not happen, the lathi charge started.  Many workers, women and the eldersly were mercilessly caned sustaining sever injuries.  A policewoman was heard severely reprimanding a senior officer why the women police had been summoned at all, if the former were going to beat up the women. Many of the injured were admitted to the government hospital. Six women were detained till late night while the names of three of them are Mentioned in the first information report (FIR).

Eleven people were arrested under the Arms Act and Section 307 (attempt to murder). The number of Maruti workers in the jails of Haryana shot up from 147 to 258. Ironically, although the administration imposed Section 144 on the town, it allowed two other processions the same day. One was by the Haryana Janhit Congress and the other by the Brahmin Samaj on the occasion of Parshuram Jayanti. The latter was addressed by Surjewala who had no time for the workers. Interestingly, not a single  journalist was present to cover such a momentous protest and the heavy police repression that followed. Evidently this does not constitute news for the corporate media. The only two cameras at work were those of the police. The Times of India came wrapped with a full page advertisement of Maruti claiming that it was capturing the national spirit of change by empowering the "I" (meaning the citizens of India).

The ingenuity of capital and state in the neo-liberal paradigm is manifest in the series of swift and sure undemocratic actions against workers across the Manesar-Gurgaon industrial belt and in the entire national capital region.

An Awakening

The struggle of the MSWU is not simply a revival of the trade union movement at one of its bleakest moments in history. It is an awakening of an entire new generation of workers that dares to question the coercion and violence of capitalist development.  The Haryana government’s response to just demands with such brutal violence and arrests has made criminals of workers who make the cars the privileged drive and whose back breaking labour contributes to the national hysteria of “growth”. It is precisely at this time that the Constitution can be shaken and rattled to see if there remains today any vestige of rights for workers and citizens who question global capital.  And the state’s cowardice is actually the response of  corporate India in sheer panic. There is no impending macro-economic crisis; this is the crisis. 


[1] See PUDR Report “Driving Force: Labour Struggles and Violation of Rights in Maruti Suzuki India Limited” (May 2013) at http://www.pudr.org/?q=content/driving-force-labour-struggles-and-violat...

 

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top