Additional district and sessions judge RP Goyal on Friday pronounced judgment in the 2012 Maruti Suzuki case in which a violent altercation between management and the workers Union resulted in the death of human resources manager Awanish Dev.
Thirteen men were found guilty of murdering Dev, and another 18 were found guilty of rioting, destruction of property, causing grievous injury and criminal trespass and 117 co-accused were acquitted of all charges.
Trade union leaders and defence lawyers have pointed to the poor quality of prosecutorial evidence to argue that the factory management and Haryana administration have used Dev’s tragic death as a pretext to crack down on workers’ movements.
“Maruti deliberately implicated the union leaders, thereby using criminal law to throttle workers’ movements,” said Vrinda Grover, a defence lawyer.
Maruti did not respond to an emailed questionnaire or text messages.
The violence at Maruti began in 2011 as a standoff with management over the workers’ right to form an independent union.
“Now, there is a palpable fear among first generation workers that they will be persecuted, or rendered jobless simply for demanding a union,” said Gautam Mody, general secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative.
Yet, interviews in Manesar’s industrial belt reveal that the case has — if anything — convinced workers of the need to forge ever-closer solidarities, and build elaborate networks of support for the incarcerated workers and their families.
“Today it is Maruti, tomorrow it could be us in jail,” said a worker from Bellsonica, a Suzuki subsidiary, “We want our comrades to be released, but Maruti has already united workers more than any trade union could.”
In his dreams, Pradeep Gujjar would hear sirens and shouting policemen. He’d awaken with a start and run out into the dark unknown streets of unfamiliar cities.
“Immediately after the incident at the factory, I was a 24-year-old Maruti worker on the run,” he recalled describing how the police were singling out union members for arrest. “I didn’t know where to go, how to find a lawyer, how to save myself.”
But help was at hand.
“I’d sneak into Manesar in the dead of night, starving, penniless,” he recalled, “I’d knock on a Maruti worker’s door — even if I didn’t know him personally, and without a word, he’d push money, clothes and food into my hands.”
His benefactors, Gujjar said, would waive off his thanks. “They would say, ‘You are fighting for all of us.’”
Gujjar was absconding for a year, before he was arrested by the police and sent to Bhondsi Jail’s Barrack Number 8, where 148 of his co-workers were awaiting trial.
By then, a committee of former Maruti workers found him a lawyer.
“After the riot, Maruti terminated 546 permanent workers, I was one of them,” said Ram Niwas, 31, who had worked at Maruti since he was 18, “We decided to find lawyers to help our friends and their families.”
Months after the committee was set up, the police arrested their president, Imaan Khan. Immediately, another former worker, Om Prakash Jat, took his place.
“Then they took out a warrant on Jat, he went into hiding and died of a stress-related heart attack,” Niwas said, “He was only 28. I took his place.”
Niwas and his colleagues also built alliances with other worker struggles like at Suzuki-subsidiary Bellsonica that operates from the same campus.
The Maruti effect
“In Bellsonica, the ‘Maruti effect’ made management wary of worker violence and amenable to compromise,” said the Bellsonica worker, “From 2014 to 2017, we managed to raise the number of permanent workers in our factory from 89 to 705.”
Rather than going on strike, the workers subtly raised pressure on the management.
“One day all workers brought a fistful of channa to work,” the source said, “The next day they brought bed-sheets, the third day it was something else.” Each object was a sign to management that workers were prepared to occupy the plant to fulfil their demands. “But we never struck — a threat only works if you don’t carry it through.”
In Maruti’s own Manesar plant, 2012 has left a mixed legacy. The fracas had first begun over the intensity of work: The factory rolled out a new car every 50 seconds, management wanted to increase production to one car per 48 seconds.
“Today, we work on a 59 second deadline,” said Pawan Kumar, who still works at Maruti; even as he conceded that the company now employed over 10,000 temporary workers, compared to about 6,500 when he was union president in 2013-14.
“But the biggest legacy of 2012 is that forged an understanding between permanent and temporary workers,” Kumar said, “This unity will be hard to break.”