India: Why are workers being jailed for murder?

Maruti Suzuki workers protest against the verdict. Manesar, March 23.
Monday, April 10, 2017

A March 10 trial court judgement acquitted 117 workers from Maruti Suzuki’s automobile factory in Manesar, Gurgaon, India of charges of murder. Eighteen workers were convicted of minor offences.

However, 13 workers – all leaders of the Maruti union – were found guilty of murder. The Maruti workers plan to appeal the verdict in the High Court.

Why are workers being jailed for murder? The story at Maruti is a familiar one in India’s industrial scene.

Where unionisation is a crime

In 2011, workers at the Maruti plant formed an independent union and demanded its formal recognition.

Manesar is an industrial belt where managements fear that an independent union in even one factory could be contagious, emboldening workers in other factories to unionise.

Labour law violations are rampant in the entire belt, but labour departments and governments turn a blind eye.

Indian labour laws recognise the right to form unions – on paper. In reality, every attempt to form a union is met with immediate victimisation: those who are seen as leaders are either transferred to another factory or sacked.

On July 18, 2012, Maruti workers agitating outside the factory gate heard that their comrades were being subjected to a beating by factory security – a common practice in the industrial belt. They stormed into the factory to rescue their comrades.

Soon after, a fire broke out in the factory in which a human resources manager lost his life.

Immediately after, workers and union leaders were accused of conspiring to murder the HR manager and indiscriminate arrests followed.

It did not matter that there was no evidence that a murder had occurred.

While 117 workers were ultimately acquitted, 13 union leaders were convicted on the testimony of company witnesses. These witnesses were deemed to have told the truth while workers’ testimonies were declared false, not because they were proven false but because of ideological assumptions about workers and unions.

For instance, the judgement observed: “it is clear that the workers who ... had witnessed the incident ... would never tell the truth nor would they speak against the assailants or union members because of fear of their expulsion from the union ... they would always fear that the union leaders or the union members would boycott them or that they would be excommunicated from their brotherhood.”

The judge did not say that company witnesses could likewise be suspected of lying to protect their own jobs.

Partial vindication

It is clear why Maruti workers see the verdict as a partial vindication of the truth: the very fact that 117 workers have been acquitted exposes the hollow and vindictive nature of the entire prosecution’s cases.

The fact that most of the workers have been proved innocent is a triumph of the Maruti workers’ struggle in a very unequal battle against the nexus of management, the capitalist class, the state and the corporate media that had painted them all as a murderous mob.

The 13 workers convicted of murder are all – unsurprisingly – leaders of the union. The Maruti workers recognise what this verdict means. Leaders of the union are being punished for sticking their necks out and daring to lead the struggle of workers to form a union.

The legal defence of the Maruti workers was led by Rebecca Mammen John and Vrinda Grover.

Grover said of the verdict: “The judgement of the Gurgaon trial court in the Maruti workers case acquitting 117 workers of all charges has unequivocally demolished the foundation of the prosecution’s case.

“Eighteen workers have been convicted only of grievous hurt and trespass. Thirteen workers have been convicted of murder.

“What is important to understand is that these 13 are the office bearers of the union and the main leaders. They have been implicated in the case and management witnesses have deposed against them because they stand for the rights of workers.

“They are paying the price of championing the cause of workers.

“One man very regrettably lost his life in the fire at the Manesar plant. But there is less than tenuous evidence to link any of these 13 workers to the fire.

“The legal defence team for the Maruti workers is confident of mounting a very strong challenge to their conviction in appeal before the High Court.

“The judgment vindicates our stand that a very large number of workers were falsely implicated to prejudice public opinion and project an exaggerated and alarming version of the incident.

“The question to ask today is who will be held accountable for the incarceration that these 117 [workers] suffered for over 2 years in jail. Will the police officers who arrested them on the dictates of the company be held answerable by the law?

“For the 13 convicted for murder we shall fight, we shall win.”

Bizarre -arguments

Anurag Hooda, the Public Prosecutor in the Maruti case, argued in court for the death penalty for the 13 workers convicted for murder. The judge rejected this argument, instead sentencing the 13 to life imprisonment.

In a video interview with writer and journalist Aman Sethi, Hooda explained why he argued for the death penalty, which in Indian law is reserved for the “rarest of the rare” violent crimes, but only offered political, not legal arguments.

He said they deserved death because theirs was a crime against capital, against “industrial growth”, against “foreign direct investment” and against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign.

Hooda implied that those who create hurdles for what the state calls “growth” - by unionising and demanding the implementation of labour laws - deserve death.

He argued quite explicitly in the interview that the death penalty was needed as a “deterrent effect” against workers’ protest.

He had no answer to Sethi’s question about the failure of the police to “bring enough evidence on the table.”

Asked by Sethi whether he felt any regret for the fact that 117 innocent workers had spent years in jail, Hooda replied: “What was the atmosphere outside the court? They [the workers] are not taking lunch. What kind of societal fear are they creating?”

Hooda was referring to the lunch boycott protests by workers, not only at the Maruti plant but all over the country, in solidarity with the convicted workers. His expression and tone conveyed moral outrage as he argued that workers missing a meal were causing “societal fear.”

What could possibly be scary or threatening or outrageous about workers volunteering to miss a meal?

His words reveal that he is outraged because the workers – the ones acquitted as well as their colleagues and comrades – have not allowed their will to be broken; they are still organising, unionising and holding protests.

That is why he argued that hanging the 13 workers convicted of murder is necessary to break their will and deter protests like the lunch boycotts.

Growing solidarity

What is remarkable is that the witch-hunt of workers and trade union leaders has not broken the back of the working class movements – in fact, it has had the opposite effect.

As Pricol workers celebrate 10 years of their struggle, welcoming back six of their own comrades and continuing the struggle for the release of the remaining two, they savour the fact that their union – the Kovai Mavatta Pricol Thozhilalar Sangam – not only survived, but forced management to recognise it in 2012.

The Maruti struggle has generated waves of solidarity across the Manesar industrial belt and beyond.

Journalist Aman Sethi quotes a worker from Bellsonica, a Suzuki subsidiary in the same area, saying: “Today it is Maruti, tomorrow it could be us in jail … We want our comrades to be released, but Maruti has already united workers more than any trade union could.”

Another worker, speaking to Sethi, recalled how when he was on the run from the police, “I’d sneak into Manesar in the dead of night, starving, penniless … 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 … They would say, ‘You are fighting for all of us’.”

Maruti and Pricol are reminders that India is seeking to criminalise unions, even as its government is seeking to erode and destroy existing labour laws.

Modi welcomes multinational corporations to “Make In India”, promising them a docile labour environment and “cheap and good quality labour.”

Suppressing unions is a priority for governments in such a climate. But it is not finding it easy to succeed with its attempted suppression and criminalisation.

India’s workers are unionising, uniting and fighting back.

[Abridged from Liberation.]