When the history of the struggles of industrial workers against injustice in India is finally written, a detailed chapter will have to be devoted to the various injustices suffered by Maruti vehicle workers in Manesar (Haryana) following some unfortunate and regrettable violence in July 2012. More than a decade later this struggle is still continuing, as was visible in the hunger strike of a large number of these workers in Gurugram, Haryana.
Going back to those days in 2012 when this chain of events started, there had been a growing feeling among citizens dedicated to justice and workers’ rights that Maruti workers had been the victims of several injustices in recent years. Some reports on working conditions which prevailed here and gave rise to unrest among workers indicated that the working conditions were so tight and rigid as to create health hazards for workers. The injustices faced by non-regular, contract workers were the most acute. They received much lesser wages and suffered more problems. There were deliberate efforts to put more workers in this category, even if their work was of a regular and permanent nature. It had also been pointed out that whenever workers made efforts to form a genuine union committed to their welfare, repression against them was stepped up.
A true democracy based on justice and equality can flourish only if all sections of people have access to justice. Sometimes when the poor living in very remote villages suffer shocking injustice, it is said that their remoteness led to denial of justice to them from our democratic system. But in the case of Maruti workers injustice was suffered very close to the capital city and had yet gone largely unreported and unquestioned.
Once industrial unrest grew, violent incidents were reported. Any violence and loss of life is very unfortunate. Anyone responsible for this should be condemned and should get deserving punishment. But what cannot be denied is that the versions of violent events given by the management and the workers were very different. In the interest of democracy and in the interest of truth, it was important that workers’ version should also be properly heard and carefully considered.
It was important that truth should prevail and any move to implicate workers in false cases by powerful persons should have been checked at the outset. The available evidence indicates that several innocent workers and their family members had to suffer a lot.
If the government and the labor department did not come forward to protect truth and justice in such an important case so close to the capital of India, then how can we maintain the trust of workers in the ability of our democracy to provide justice to them?
Nearly 148 workers were arrested. 546 permanent workers were sacked by the company in 2012. About 400 of them were sacked citing ‘loss of confidence’ even though they were not accused of any violence. As they carried the stigma of loss of confidence and termination by a leading company, an industrial giant, many of them could not get employment elsewhere or faced a lot of problems in this.
After about 2 years, On July 27 2014, this writer had issued an appeal titled “ An Appeal for Justice and Help for 148 jailed Maruti Workers’ which stated—About 148 workers of Maruti Suzuki workers have been languishing in jail following the unfortunate incident at Manesar plant in Haryana in July 2012. Since then several reports and eminent activists have expressed their surprise and indignation at the imprisonment of such a large number of workers and the one-sided actions ignoring the workers’ point of view of the happenings of July 2012. Trade unions have emphasized that the point of view of many innocent workers was not heard properly.
This appeal of year 2014 also pointed out that many of the imprisoned workers were in very poor health conditions. Their families had suffered untold hardships during the last two years, to the extent of being denied the basic essentials of life. They also suffered great hardship in travelling long distances to meet their (imprisoned) family members whom they had sent to work in such a big company with great hopes. Family members had also been very distressed by the fact that for such a long time bail had been denied which was rare.
Here we should also remember that the skilled, technically trained workers who came to join Maruti-Suzuki even from far away parts of the country had come with high hopes to the highly reputed company, carrying with them even higher hopes of family members who believed sincerely that once a young man joins such a world-famous company success and prosperity are assured. They could hardly have foreseen that a journey begun with such high hopes would end all too soon in tears, shattered health and even imprisonment!
All this happened during Congress rule in Haryana when the chief Minister was Bhupinder Singh Hooda, son of a great freedom fighter who did not hesitate to collude in and inflict such grave injustice on workers ( while the union government was also in the hands of UPA/Congress government). If someone wants to do a case study of how and why the Congress during those days lost the confidence of people then this shocking victimization of workers can be an appropriate case study for this.
Out of the 148 workers arrested, in 2017 the trial court at Gurugram convicted 31 and acquitted 117. Even those released had lost some of the best years of life in jail and while undergoing great tension and experiencing other health problems as well, apart from economic ruin. An obstinate, ill thought-out, cruel decision of a few extremely powerful persons and the willingness of corrupt, undemocratic authorities to carry this forward has ruined so many promising, innocent lives.
Very recently, a hunger strike by several sacked workers to get back their jobs has attracted attention to the struggle of these Maruti workers. Having suffered so much, these workers deserve much more Let us see how various political parties now respond to this, now that they are also preparing for elections. For Congress, with its current emphasis on social justice, this can be a time of prayashchit (penance), to atone for its sins of 2012-14. Will it do something big for these workers? The BJP is now the ruling party in the centre and the state. Even if it does not go the extent of ensuring their re-employment in Maruti, it can at least give them a generous rehabilitation grant and get the due credit for securing some justice in a case of injustice caused by the previous Congress government. The Aam Aadmi Party is in the most convenient position—it only has to make a promise of some specific act of justice or generosity to these victims of injustice, if it comes to power. This will get it support among a lot of other industrial workers as well.
Out of 546 sacked workers, about 340 are reported to have sought the path of pursuing the matter legally and they can hopefully get back their jobs also through the rather slow-moving wheels of justice. Hence legal help for them should also be strengthened. In addition there is a strong justice-based need for reconsidering the cases of those Maruti workers who are still in jail.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Man over Machine.