Maruti Mayhem: Neither SWIFT, Nor DZIRE

Amit Sengupta and Sadiq Naqvi

ONE GENERAL MANAGER dead, his legs and arms broken, his body asphyxiated and charred. Several management executives injured, some beaten black and blue, other staffers wounded. Cars vandalised, office furniture and computers destroyed, portions of the factory burnt out. Car parts and instruments used with lethal effect.

Lock Out. Sine Die. Factory shut.

This was in a way India’s ‘Dark Knight Rises’ moment. Suddenly, the troubled underbelly of India’s industrial sector seemed to violently question a status-quo dressed up to please foreign investors. This incident shocked the smug corporate sector like nothing before. It proved that not only was the much vaunted Japanese management style that brought colossal riches to the Suzuki car company a sham, it ripped apart the fraudulent claim by the Haryana government that the industrial climate in Manesar is the best in the country.

Wipro boss Azim Premji felt that the incident highlighted the social unrest in the country, especially among the trade unions, and that the government should come down heavily. “It was pretty unfortunate. It is important that individual associations take up the cause and the government should act ruthlessly to ensure that such incidents don’t happen anymore,” he said.

An opportunist Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, added fat to fire. During his trip to the Suzuki plant in Japan, he expressed regret at what had happened in Manesar and in the same breath indulged in self praise, praising the “peace” in his own state. With subsidised corporates with doled out benefits eating out of his hands, Modi is desperate to shift the Maruti plant to his state and he does not even conceal it!

Not only Modi, a lot many sinister minds are looking diabolically at the direction of the Maruti plant at Manesar. Why?

In this sprawling 750 acre establishment that produces 600,000 units for India’s largest automobile manufacturing company, losses are running into Rs 70 to Rs 83 crore plus every day. Work in almost 460 ancillary units is disrupted because production has been stopped at the crucial Manesar Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) plant. The state-of-the-art factory used to produce one car every 50 seconds, automobile brand names: Swift and Dzire.

Almost 3,000 workers have gone underground — they have vanished into the blue. Police witch-hunt continues: 92workers in jail, more to follow. Most workers in jail claim absolute innocence. At least 40 ‘innocent’ workers were sitting ducks,

picked up by the police from Aliyar village near the plant, because they chose not to run away that night.

An eerie atmosphere of panic, terror, repression and uncertainty stalks the unhappy industrial landscape. Locals are tight-lipped. No one wants to be quoted. No one wants to resurrect the exact thread of events. Fear looms large.

The government and media are basically one-dimensional. Pro-management, almost unilaterally. No multiple versions or deeper layers or causes discovered. There is no other version other than the management or government version. Everyone is baying for the blood of the workers. As if all of them are killers. No one is reporting the workers’ version. Anyway, the workers have disappeared. Even those inside jail, are stuck speechless with fear. Thousands of lives are at stake, the future of their families in stunning jeopardy.

So whatever happened in the lucrative, profit-making Maruti Suzuki India Limited at the swanky industrial hub next to Gurgaon and Delhi on the ill-fated evening of July 18, 2012?

Was it spontaneous violence by a section of aggressive workers? Or, was it a pre-planned, targeted, organised act of sabotage by vested interests outside/inside the plant? Or was it, indeed, a possible management dream sequence which turned into a nightmare? Who benefits from the violence and the lock out? Was there a sinister plan to create organised violence?

There are too many uncanny questions which remain unexplained. Hardnews enters this twilight zone of a massive crisis emanating from the golden goose industrial hotbed next to the capital.

HARDNEWS WAS INFORMED by two veteran panchayat heads in a neighbourhood village of the Maruti plant that there is more to the story than what has appeared in the media. These ‘panchs’ are rich and powerful, and they have their umbilical links tied up with influential sections in the Maruti management. They are clearly opposed to Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Chief Minister of Haryana. They told these reporters that two top management executives (names withheld) told them on July 17, 2012, a day before the violence at the plant, that the panchayat should be prepared because “something big” is going to happen on July 18. Also, because the workers are demanding a “huge salary hike of Rs 80,000”!

Something big? What? And why was this warning being passed on so clandestinely by two top officials of the Maruti management to the panchayat heads?

Local trade unionists laugh at the sheer preposterous scale of the workers’ demand of Rs 80,000 per month! It is mindless, they say; how can workers earning Rs 6,000 plus even dream of demanding such an impossible and absurd demand? Besides, scaling up stakes is a time-tested union tactic to compel the management not to get away by giving a pittance as hike.

The panchayat chiefs confirmed this warning by the management to Hardnews. SIT too in its initial report on the violence at the Maruti Suzuki plant points out that the company was warned about brewing trouble and asked to ramp up security. There was a posse of cops (50 to 60 cops led by a ACP) around the premises when the violence started.  Management officials say they stood silently while the ugly drama unfolded. Why? Even the wife of General Manager (HR) Avanish Kumar Dev, who was killed, has blamed the police for not lifting a finger while the violence continued. And why did reinforcements arrive so late?

The violence started on July 18 at around 5/6 pm. The A shift workers had done their shift by 3.30 pm and stayed back, while the B Shift workers were already in. There were therefore 3,000 plus workers inside or close to the gate in the factory premises.

It has been confirmed by sources that there were a substantial number of armed bouncers and pehelwans (wrestlers) hired by the management inside the premises. This is apparently a norm in most factories in the area where the management uses strong-arm tactics by stationing bouncers in sensitive situations or as and when they want to terrorise the workers, several workers in the industrial area said.

Honda workers in the neighbourhood also confirmed the ritualistic presence of bouncers in the factory premises, especially when there are negotiations or peaceful rallies. (These reporters saw bouncers in the Honda premises during the rally on July 25 in commemoration of the brutal lathicharge on Honda workers on July 25, 2005). Workers said that they are routinely armed, carry revolvers, and get huge pay packages from the management. “Often, bouncers stand inside the room when talks are being held. How can normal talks be held under the shadow of bouncers and guns,” said workers at the Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India in Manesar.

In the Manesar Maruti plant, too, workers around the industrial hub confirmed the presence of bouncers, though the panchayat heads and contractors denied of any such activity. Workers cited that a revolver was put on a table to scare the union members during the talks on July 18 just before the violence started. There are allegations that Union workers were beaten up by the bouncers before/during the talks.

A civil contractor and his associate who were inside the premises during the violence said that workers on the shop floor (ground floor) would never go to the first floor where the management had work stations. “It is really surprising that the first floor was hit by the fire, including the conference room where Dev’s body was found. Workers never go up,” they said.

They said that the entire sequence of violence seemed to be pre-planned with ulterior motives behind it. They were of the opinion that most workers had nothing to do with the violence and it was done by vested interests. They said, “Those who did the violence had a determined purpose and plan. They targeted the fire office and scattered the firemen of the private fire safety office. They also attacked the security office and scattered the security men. Then they entered the premises, hit the cars, beat up staffers, and generally went on a rampage. It was utter chaos and we all ran out. Even the police stood by and watched. This seemed to be a coordinated attack and to simply attribute it the sudden anger of workers is illogical. This was targeted and organised action.”

Two young fire safety staffers working in Maruti recounted the similar chain of events. They said the CCTV was also broken to block any evidence, the fire safety and security office were first targeted. They refused to give names (like most people in the vicinity) and they too suspected a planned conspiracy. They asked: “Who benefits from these huge losses and lock out?”

Hardnews was informed by various sources that there was a strong rumour among workers that a topmost official with huge powers had warned a few days back that he will cleanse the Manesar plant of “all the filth very soon”. There was anxiety, anger and fear among the workers. The situation was already extremely tense on the shop floor.

THERE WERE ON-GOING negotiations before July 18 mainly on the unfinished wage agreements and settlements discussed earlier between the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union and the management. The new settlement process began in April 2012, after the three year term for the old settlement beginning in 2009 ended on March 31, 2012.

After several rounds, the talks broke on the question of the abolition of contract labour, which is the most contentious issue in the on-going conflict. Hardworking contract workers constitute 40 per cent plus in the old Manesar plant of Maruti, and more than 50 per cent in the new plant, working at abysmally low salaries of Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000, surviving in sub-human conditions in the rented ghettos nearby, with no job or social security, basic facilities or other rights.

Last year during the strike, Hardnews had reported (July, 2011): “The supervisors ritualistically abuse us even at the slightest of mistakes,” said a worker. He narrated how even medical emergencies are overlooked in the race for more production. “Even when we are ill, they refuse to allow us rest or leave. We have to keep working like robots till our stipulated eight-hour workday gets over.” While on the assembly line, workers allege, they are often not even allowed to go to the toilet… Workers had complained that for every day they don’t report to work, a sum of Rs 2,000 is deducted from their salary.

For casual workers, the deduction is Rs 700 for one leave and the sum increases with every additional ‘holiday’. “I get Rs 6,600 per month. If there is an emergency and I am unable to report for a few days, all the money goes.” Besides, they stand the risk of being sacked at the slightest provocation.

However, the Maruti management categorically said that everything was going fine at the plant before the violence. “Last October, we went into the settlement, and after that, we worked out a one-year plan to define employee communication plans, betterment of policies and their wage settlement. Everything was going fine till about 18th (July) morning and we had reached the final stages of discussing their annual salary packages,” said Chief Operating Officer SY Siddiqui to a pink daily.

He said, after the July 18 incident, “It is the need of the industry to get a fair amount of workforce based on production requirements at regular intervals. We have decided to minimise the role of contract workers in our manufacturing process and would eventually employ only permanent workforce to carry out all critical processes in our plants.”

“We will not have any contract worker in the core areas of manufacturing after March 2013. We have decided to change the mode of employment and all future recruitment would be done through the HR department to remove all distortions,” Maruti Suzuki Chairman RC Bhargava told the media in the Capital.

Activists argue that keeping contract workers in factories is a violation of labour laws. In fact, trade union leaders in Manesar are actually demanding strict implementation of labour laws, which the labour department ignores while pushing the interests of business groups and contractors. Indeed, companies need to be hauled up for violating labour laws on contract labour, demand activists.

Even the Union government seems to be agreeing. “There are social security benefits that are not reaching workers… especially with contractualisation. In every industry, you will find more workers on contract than regular workers… This has resulted in labour disputes and also violence,” said Ravi Mathur, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Labour, in a seminar in Delhi.

THREE DAYS BEFORE July 18, workers had reportedly started to boycott the pre-shift assembly because the management was not budging on the question of contract labour and other settlement issues. The management was unhappy that the workers were not attending the assembly. Tension was building up.

The immediate and rather superfluous conflict between supervisor Ramkishore Majhi and worker Jiya Lal (also an office bearer of the union) has different versions. One is, of course, that Jiya Lal got into a verbal confrontation and Majhi uttered a caste abuse. This led to the suspension of Jiya Lal.

The other version is that Majhi fought with Jiya Lal, the workers intervened, both apologised and shook hands and the matter ended there. (The truth is that while the supervisor represents the management, but his economic and social condition is closer to the worker.) The situation worsened because someone from the management pressurised Majhi to lodge a complaint which triggered mass anger and thus led to the workers’ demanding that both of them should be punished, or the matter should be buried.

Another version is that Awanish Kumar Dev too was in favour of withdrawing the suspension order, but received a phone call asking him to maintain status quo— despite the rising tension within the plant. Consequently, Jiya Lal was suspended and Majhi was sent off for the day.

Workers were adamant that the suspension order should be withdrawn at that moment itself— because there was a wave of anger mounting inside and outside the gate. Sources point out that the workers’ pent up resentment and unhappiness needed a catalyst; there were many longstanding and unresolved issues with the management adopting a tough, rigid stance.

Most workers in the industrial area complained that inflation has hit them very hard, family life has become stressful, children’s health and education expenses are impossible to meet, basic food procurement has become a difficult task, and general financial despair stalks their daily existence. A group of workers in the Honda factory said: “How many daily needs can we cut, even while we avoid meat, pulses and milk? Vegetable prices are shooting up constantly in recent times. Brinjal costs Rs 40. Gas and transport is so expensive. Life in Gurgaon is really expensive. House rents are very high. How do we survive?”

Classic class contradictions relentlessly haunt the industrial landscape. Workers are aware of the opulent lifestyles and huge pay packages of the management officials, the massive income disparities, and the deprivations and poverty of the workers as a result of the neo liberalisation policies of the government. Their questions are typical: “Why does the management refuse to give us basic facilities despite making so much profit? Why do they hate workers so much? Why don’t they create humane work and living conditions for us?

Indeed, on July 18, the Maruti management cared two hoots. It refused to budge on Jiya Lal, and postponed the decision till the next day. “The management perhaps thought that if the union officer bearers are forced to tell the angry workers that the suspension has not been withdrawn— the workers might actually turn against their own union,”says Shyambir of Inquilabi Mazdoor Kendra.

Another version is that there is a militant, impatient and aggressive section within the workers who wanted to “sort out” things with the management at any cost— (aar paar ki laraai). They seemed to be prepared for violence, with rods etc. Locals in the neighbourhood villages alleged that most migrant workers from UP, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh were innocent while the most aggressive were the young lot from Rohtak, Jind, Hissar and Bhiwani from Haryana. Reportedly, the management was terribly peeved with the workers from these areas and wanted to teach them a lesson, or get rid of them at any cost.

Trade unionists say that these allegations against workers from other districts in  Haryana is a ploy to divide the workers. Similarly, the Maoist angle was declared as total hogwash, planted by certain mediapersons who take dictation from intelligence agencies in Delhi. Even the Haryana government refused to believe it.

The Maruti workers union in Manesar is new and thereby ideologically immature. It has no formal or ideological links with the newly elected Maruti union at Gurgaon, or with established trade unions, especially of the Left. This can have a flip side: they can be militant and refuse to get co-opted as many established trade unions do. However, they can also lose control and make mistakes due to the eclectic nature of their union.

For instance, the mature and strong Honda workers union is directly guided by the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) of the CPI. They recovered and gained resilience despite the police assault on July 25, 2005. Last year, AITUC leaders had helped the Maruti workers to streamline their union work. Now, even those links were absent.

The Maruti Suzuki Workers Union in Manesar was registered by the administration on February 29, 2012. The union itself was formed after a long struggle. There were three strikes between June and October in 2011— all peaceful with not one act of violence. In one strike they were inside the factory for 13 days— but there was no violence.  Last year, union leader Ram Meher was suspended. There was no violence and he was later taken back.

Hence, why this sudden and massive violence on just a verbal tiff, ask veteran trade unionists?

The last union leadership of young Sonu Gujjar and Shiv Kumar (and others in the coterie) betrayed the workers— they reportedly got a ‘golden handshake’ from the management running into several lakhs. Sonu Gujjar is currently said to be in Rohtak, comfortably employed by the government’s Haryana Roadways. Workers saw a pattern in this betrayal; for them this was a management ploy to buy off the leadership and break the union.

Most workers are young, unmarried and below 30. Most are also new to the ways of hardened trade union politics. Four days before July 18, there were allegations that the current union was also striking a compromise deal with management. Activists say that there was mistrust between the workers and the union.

Almost 92 workers are currently in Bhondsi jail. Not one of them have been apparently listed in the 51 blamed by the company— and yet they are in jail. The police crackdown has been unprecedented and indiscriminate. Many workers have been picked up without any verification or evidence. They have been reportedly booked under various sections of the IPC: 302, 307, 323, 147, 148, 149, 34, 114. Those who met the workers in jail say that they are stunned and afraid, most seem to be clueless as to how the fire started and who did the violence, and most have been rendered speechless by fear. It’s a long haul for them, say activists. Most of them are just victims of the violence.

Several trade union leaders of the neighbouring plants in Manesar suspect a deeper conspiracy behind the violence and lock out. In the rally on July 25 inside the Honda factory premises to reaffirm the workers’ struggle against police repression and pay homage to the workers who faced the brutal police lathicharge of July 25, 2005 in Gurgaon, trade union leaders from across the Manesar-Gurgaon-Dharuhera belt demanded an impartial probe into the violence at the Maruti plant. They also said that charges under Section 307 against 65 workers lodged in 2005 should be dropped.

Kuldeep Jhangu, leader of the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union in the Gurgaon manufacturing plant, declared that blaming all the workers is blatant injustice; there is “a deeper, bigger conspiracy and more to it” behind the violence. Nothing less than a CBI inquiry will unravel the truth, he said. He told Hardnews that there could be “elements and factors” which are still not exposed because only the workers are being unilaterally blamed.

Most trade union leaders and workers believe that innocent workers should not be punished in this general hysteria of retribution. There should be an impartial enquiry into the Maruti plant violence and the guilty should be punished, even while the bigger conspiracy behind the ‘sabotage’ should be investigated. They condemned the violence, shared their condolence on the death of Dev, and appealed to the workers to stay disciplined, adopt peaceful methods of protest, and not get provoked. Maruti will reopen, they said, normalcy and peace will be restored, justice will prevail, and workers will reunite.

(The story was first published in the Hardnews)

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