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The Pre-decided Maruti Suzuki Case

Gautam Navlakha

The Peoples Union for Democratic Rights report on the Maruti Suzuki case judgment says that it is illustrative of the anti-worker bias entrenched in the law and order machinery. The prosecution’s brief in the case involving the violence at the Manesar plant in July 2012 was riddled with discrepancies, but 31 workers were convicted—13 of them sentenced to life imprisonment—based on the testimonies of the management personnel, says the report.

On 10 March 2017, the Additional Sessions Judge Rajinder Pal Goyal at the Gurugram Sessions Court pronounced the judgment in the Maruti Suzuki case convicting 31 workers (13 with life imprisonment), while acquitting 117 others. This case was related to an incident of violence and arson that occurred on 18 July 2012 at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant in which one of the human resource managers unfortunately lost his life. Barring one, all the acquitted workers had spent two to four years in jail, before being released on bail. The 13 workers who were given life imprisonment sentences included all the 12 office-bearers of the erstwhile union and one worker. The workers had managed to get their union, the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU), registered in March 2012 after a prolonged struggle just three and a half months prior to the incident.1 Appeals by the workers against conviction and by the state for increasing the punishment to death penalty are pending in the high court.

This conviction has grave implications not just for the Maruti Suzuki workers or for those in the automobile industry alone, but for the rights of workers across the country struggling to form unions in order to collectively fight the autocratic hold of corporate managements. It is a boost for not just Maruti Suzuki, but for capitalists at large. Maruti Suzuki is the largest automobile manufacturer in India with more than 50% market share in this sector. The automobile industry together with the automobile ancillary industry makes up 22% of India’s manufacturing industry. Having been closely associated with the Maruti workers’ struggle since 2000, the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) decided to examine this process and the judgment of the trial court.2 What follows is a summary of its report, “A Pre-decided Case: A Critique of the Maruti Judgment of 2017.”

A close reading of the judgment brings out that, at the very outset, the police investigation followed a single line of inquiry which tallied with the management’s version of the incident. It is important to contextualise the judgment within the history of the Maruti Suzuki workers’ struggle to get the unions of their choice at the Gurugram and Manesar plants, and the battles that were fought and won by them. This history reveals how as management control was incrementally transferred to the Japanese-owned Suzuki Company in the course of the 1990s till the early 2000s, the then recognised and representative trade union came under assault and was derecognised. This period, especially from around 2000 onwards, saw the company resorting to many anti-worker policies and practices, including reducing the regular workforce and opting for a larger percentage of contract labour, intensification of work, deterioration in working conditions, forced voluntary retirement scheme (VRS), arbitrary transfers, suspensions, dismissal of active and vocal union members at both the plants, and preventing the union from being formed (at Manesar plant) or not letting them function.

On the other hand, the history of the company is also marked by the exemplary unrelenting struggle of the workers for a representative union, fair wages, reduction in work pressure, protesting the unfair labour practices, braving the attacks of the company to thwart the same, and criminalising them with the connivance of the labour department and the police. Seven months before the incident of 18 July 2012, that is, on 30 January 2012, after nearly two years of battering by the management and a bitter struggle by the workers, the MSWU was registered at the Manesar plant. It had 95 coordinators, one or two coordinator(s) for each shop floor, to facilitate communication between workers and the union leaders. On 18 April 2012, it had submitted its charter of demand, and the negotiations with the management on these remained inconclusive.

The last round of talks prior to the “incident” was on 14 July, where the management had declared that the company would not concede any of the demands of the workers. On 16 July, the union communicated the management’s decision to the workers and its leadership resigned. It is this background of bitter conflict between the management and the workers, which the police investigation deemed as the basis of the workers’ culpability. In other words, the investigation was tainted by the police’s pro-management bias. So much so that, although workers too suffered injuries in the incident of 18 July, they were neither taken for a medical examination nor were any of them or any other workers present at the site made witnesses or their testimonies recorded. This lacuna in investigation was sought to be explained by the specious argument that the workers could have been influenced by the union and their account would be biased. It is an illogical argument as the management enjoyed much greater clout than the union and the workers had more to lose in siding with the union than with the management. The possibility that the management witnesses themselves could have been biased against the workers was not considered, let alone entertained as a possibility.

Bias, Prejudice, Contradictions

The prosecution’s narrative of the events disregarded anything that workers had to say, and became the bedrock of its charge sheet. In other words, all that the crime branch did was to proceed on the assumption that workers were guilty even before completing the investigation, and went about collecting evidence to back this theory.

Significantly, inconsistencies and contradictions in the prosecution’s version, starting from the recorded first information report (FIR) to the trial, were glossed over, including the fact that the station house officer (SHO) of Manesar police station reached the plant between 2 pm and 2.30 pm on 18 July though the incident occurred after 7 pm. The prosecution’s version was that on 18 July 2012, at around 8.30 am, a worker, Jiya Lal, slapped a supervisor, Sangram Kishore Majhi. The company management suspended Jiya Lal for indiscipline. Jiya Lal instigated the union that he had been wrongly suspended and thereafter the union instructed the morning shift workers not to leave the premises, after their shift got over at 3 pm. At around 7 pm, between 500 and 600 workers picked up hundreds of shockers and beams from the weld shop and assembly shop and forcibly entered the office, beat up the management staff with the intention to kill, set the office and company complex on fire, and vandalised the property. A number of persons were trapped inside the office due to the fire and were escorted out by the police. As the fire was brought under control, a charred unrecognisable body was found inside. It was that of the human resources general manager, Awanish Dev. He was allegedly badly beaten by the workers and could not escape, and died due to asphyxiation.

A close look at the case papers and the judgment however shows that this neat, narration has not really been corroborated by the investigation and trial. Let us see how. The FIR was filed on the basis of a complaint made by Deepak Anand, General Manager Vigilance, who named 55 workers along with other details. Actually, Anand could not have seen the workers as he was on the ground floor and the incident occurred on the first floor. The argument that he saw the incident through the CCTV cameras also could not be substantiated as the cameras, it was claimed, were burnt, though again no proof of their getting burnt was ever produced during the trial. This prosecution witness failed to identify the workers he named, barring Jiya Lal.

There was a gap of four to five hours in the recording of the FIR and its reaching the office of the Metropolitan Magistrate. It is on record that the Assistant Manager of the human resources department, Nitin Saraswat, prepared two lists of workers (by retrieving the names from the Gurugram office) during the intervening period, one containing 55 names, and another 89 names. So it is very likely that the 55 workers named in the FIR were from the list provided by the management.

The narratives of the police about how the arrests were made are unbelievable and strikingly similar. Prosecution witnesses 60, 61, 62, 48 and 58 (all police personnel) arrested large groups of workers without any problem and seized the “weapons of offence.” Thus, each policeman would have arrested 12 to 16 accused workers, who were supposedly found loitering in public places, including at the gate of the Maruti plant, carrying with them the “weapons of offence.” The question, that would a person, after perpetrating a crime, continue to remain in a public place visibly carrying “weapons of offence” and would not run away or resist arrest, was not accounted for in the prosecution’s narrative. The police’s story of arrests was marred by the fact that there were no independent witnesses to the arrests. Also, most policemen failed to identify the workers who they claimed to have arrested.

By about noon on 19 July 2012, four labour contractors named the 89 accused in alphabetical order. It is beyond imagination that they noticed the workers involved in violence in alphabetical order. Yet, after such precise naming of workers in their submission before the investigators, the labour contractor “witnesses” failed to identify any of the workers. Moreover, these workers were arrested by the police on the morning of 19 July before they had been “named” by the labour contractors.

Upon being shown this inconsistency by the defence lawyers, the judge was compelled to agree that the arrest of the 89 workers before being named was illegal. They were finally acquitted after spending two to four years in prison. While acquitting them, the judge commented, “Who will compensate the lost years?,” but offered no recompense. However, the argument of the defence, that the arrest of 89 people without being named suggests that the investigation was tainted and biased, was rejected by the judge, who termed this as a matter of negligence and not a deliberate act on the part of the police to target specific workers.

The complainant had stated in the FIR that the workers were armed with lathi, belcha, lohe ke saria, but later changed these to spare parts of the automobiles, that is, shockers and door beams. This was probably done because procurement of the former inside the company premises would have been difficult to explain, given the fact that the workers are thoroughly checked before entering the plant. It is worth remembering that, in a criminal case, the weapon of offence is important evidence and a change in named weapons is suspect because the case itself, so to say, gets changed. However, the judge covered it up by saying that the complainant in his complaint had used the word “etc,” meaning the later set of weapons could be part of this “etc.”

After the incident, 546 permanent workers and around 2,000 contract workers and apprentices were dismissed from service without even holding an inquiry. Arrests of the workers began, as mentioned, from the morning of 19 July. Accused workers were forced to sign on blank papers in custody and the union office-bearers were severely tortured. Prosecution witness 45, Deepak Mathur, a doctor who examined them almost a month after the arrest, confirmed before the court that the workers were still in pain due to injuries suffered by them during interrogation. The allegations of custodial torture and the medical evidence were ignored, despite the fact that this had a bearing upon the investigation and indicated the bias of the police.

The management personnel in their testimony named workers who, according to them, either instigated others to set the premises on fire or lighted the fire. However, of the nearly 40 prosecution witnesses, all of whom were in the factory at the time of the fire, not a single one could correctly name or identify any accused worker, who they claimed had been seen lighting the fire. No inflammable material was discovered at the site. Also, none of the managers, policemen or the workers sustained any burn injuries, indicating that the fire could have occurred after everyone left the site. On this, the judge opined that it is for the accused to explain with what material they set the room on fire. This makes the Maruti incident a unique criminal case where the accused were asked to explain how they committed the crime for which they had pleaded not guilty, when the investigation and prosecution stories had gaping holes in it.

The death of Awanish Dev is similarly unexplained. The prosecution witnesses have named different workers as being responsible for the assault and different numbers of assailants. They have moreover not been able to identify them accurately. While it is true that Dev was incapacitated and assaulted, it is not clear who was responsible. He finally died of asphyxia because of the fire, but the cause of the fire and who was responsible for it is also not proved. There is, thus, no proof that links the accused workers to the murderous assault and death of Dev, and the fire.

The prosecution story is that, after the violence and arson on 18 July, many accused workers carried the “weapons” out of the factory. Some of them carried these to their respective homes, located as far as 200 km away in Gurugram, Kishangarh, or Kurukshetra districts, among others. Many kept the weapons at home only to be recovered by the police six or seven days after the incident. In the first place, no witnesses could be produced to show that the workers carried the weapons from the stores to the site of the incident. Second, there was no one who saw them carry these “weapons” out of the factory after the incident. Why these workers who were allegedly bent on causing harm to the Maruti management would keep the “weapons of offence” in their respective places remains unexplained. The police’s story of recoveries is unbelievable also because there is no independent witness to any of the recoveries.

Most policemen who allegedly “recovered” material evidence from the residences of the accused workers claimed that they carried cloth in their bags while going to make recoveries. After having recovered the weapons they conveniently found tailors wandering nearby to stitch bags for the recovered weapons, paid the tailors out of their own pockets, did not seek reimbursements from their department, and of course could not state the names or contact numbers of the tailors. Besides, there were no independent witnesses to vouch for any part of this claim. No fingerprints were collected from these “recovered weapons.” No attempts were made to prove in court that these weapons actually belonged to the Maruti factory. Apart from the weapons, the bloodstained uniforms and identity cards of the workers were also said to have been “recovered.” However, none of these were sent for any forensic examination to serve as corroborative evidence. While acquitting the 117 workers, the judge observed that the recoveries that were not corroborated by other evidence are of no value and could even have been planted. Yet identical incongruities did not worry the judge while convicting the 31 workers.

The prosecution’s story hinged on the murderous assault allegedly carried out with door beams and shockers on the management staff intending to kill them. If shockers had been used, they would have caused puncture wounds because of their sharp edges. None of the injuries sustained by the management personnel revealed such wounds, and doctors who examined them were not shown the weapons, or asked if these weapons could caused such injuries. It is clear from the medico legal certificates (MLCs) that the injuries suffered by the management personnel, the key prosecution witnesses, were on non-vital parts of their bodies. This is substantiated by the statements of several doctors and also X-ray reports. Five doctors stated that such injuries could even be caused by a fall on a hard or uneven surface.

The testimonies of the injured prosecution witnesses are also suspiciously similar in language and content. They alleged that several accused assaulted each one of them with door beams and shockers, with the intention to cause injuries to the head. But, all of them identically warded off the attack using their left hands and miraculously managed to prevent injuries to their heads or other vital parts. Actually, as the statements were recorded several days after the incident, it cannot be ruled out that these “warding off” statements were a later addition presumably to cover up the fact that there were no injuries to vital organs.

The judge accepted that the MLCs of the police officials about the injuries are bogus, but at the same time commented, “Merely because their MLCs are bogus that does not mean that the injuries of all PWs (eyewitnesses) are bogus.” That bogus MLCs and wrong claims of injuries by policemen are signs of a compromised investigation and could be part of a design to frame the workers, was ignored.

In a criminal trial, when the witnesses name some accused, they are required to identify them in court. In this case, a large number of main eyewitnesses, that is, the managerial staff, the labour contractors and the policemen who named the accused and whose accounts became the basis of conviction unsubstantiated by any other evidence, failed to identify or wrongly identified them. This raises serious suspicions about the naming of the accused workers by these prosecution witnesses.

Finally, it is also important to look at the allegations against the 13 workers facing life imprisonment. Sandeep Dhillon and Dhanraj are accused of exhortation, Suresh and Pawan of extortion and attack on other management persons, Jiya Lal and Sohan Kumar of lighting the fire, and Ram Mehar, Sarbjeet, Ajmer, Ram Bilas, Pradeep, Yogesh and Amarjeet of beating Awanish Dev. It is noteworthy that all these allegations are based on verbal and often contradictory accounts. But, in the end all 13 are said to be responsible for everything from beating Awanish Dev, to setting fire to the first floor rooms and also the CCTV room and the server.

Conclusions

Even though 31 workers have been convicted, 13 of them with life imprisonment sentences, for the 18 July 2012 incident at Maruti’s Manesar plant, the case papers and the judgment demonstrate that it has not been proved through the investigation and trial that any workers, or in particular, these 31 workers, were responsible for the violence or the fire. The conviction has solely been made on the basis of the verbal testimonies of the management personnel.

Right from the beginning, the efforts of the police were to pin the blame on specific workers they were targeting and they went about trying to prove the management’s version of the incident. During the trial, the inexplicable delays in the recording of statements, non-identification of the accused by witnesses, bogus MLCs of the witnesses, not connecting weapons to the accused or to injuries, non-availability of any supporting evidence like fingerprints, and unbelievable statements of the witnesses were all condoned.

The bias against the workers was apparent from the fact that not a single worker was made a witness by the prosecution, though hundreds of them were present at the time of the incident. Not making the workers witnesses amounts to a kind of presumption of guilt. The judge’s comment that the “quality” of witnesses mattered rather than the “quantity” points to the predisposition to regard the management’s version as superior and workers’ version as suspect, making the class bias evident.

The history of the Maruti Suzuki workers’ struggle against the management establishes that preventing the formation of the union, working to derecognise and not letting them function are the tools that the management employed to throttle them. The Maruti case judgment shows that the judiciary ignored biased investigation and dubious evidence, and went out of its way to assist the management. From the registration of the FIR, investigation of the incident, filing of the charge sheet, to the actual trial, the way in which the prosecution and the judiciary dealt with the case shows how anti-worker or anti-union attitudes are embedded in the enforcement and implementation of the law.

The denial of bail to most workers for over two years, and the judiciary’s upholding of the prosecution’s version despite its almost farcical nature at times, show the seamlessness of the company’s control over the entire state machinery, and over the wider judiciary as well as the executive. The farce becomes a tragedy when, violating basic principles of jurisprudence—of the need for evidence to link the crime to the criminal—the judgment, following a script of vengeance by capital, convicts the active and vocal workers at the behest of the company.

The danger of a pre-decided judgment such as this is that it sends out a strong message to workers throughout the country to accept the commands of capital, and gives impunity to it to violate even the legally enshrined rights of workers.

Notes

1 Maruti Suzuki India was established as Maruti Udyog in Gurgaon, Haryana in 1981 and its first car, “Maruti 800” rolled out in 1983. In 2006, another manufacturing unit of the company was started in the Industrial Model Township in Manesar spread over 600 acres of land. According to the company’s Annual Report 2016–17, it produced 15,80,000 cars in that year. There is, thus, an enormous increase in the production capacity, compared to the modest figure of 1,00,000 cars per annum produced in 1989. What started as a public sector enterprise with Suzuki Motor Corporation of Japan having only 10% of the shares, was completely privatised by 2007, and the name formally changed to include Suzuki. Today, it occupies 50.4% of the passenger car market in India, significantly ahead of its nearest competitor.

2 For more information, see the PUDR’s three previous reports: “Hard Drive” (2001), “Freewheelin’ Capital” (2007) and “Driving Force” (2013) which recorded three previous moments of the labour struggle at Maruti. While the first report documented how the gains made by workers of the then union started coming under attack, the second one highlighted the changing composition of the workforce. Both the reports have clearly established the acts of omission and commission of the state institutions in favouring the Maruti management. The third report dealt with what led up to the incident of 18 July 2012 in which a manager lost his life.

([email protected]) is a member of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi.

https://www.epw.in/journal/2018/24/commentary/pre-decided-maruti-suzuki-case.html

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