JYOTI PUNWANI 29 Jul 2021 

For 15 years, these Mumbai contract workers struggled to be treated on par with regular workers and went from success to success, despite arrests and dismissals. Then the State used a law meant to be used against terrorists to incarcerate them with scant evidence of such crimes.

Union workers keep up the struggle after the arrests.

Mumbai:  Saidulu Singapanga’s most vivid memory of  the 1185 days he spent in custody,  since he was  arrested in February 2018 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, was when his wife and three children came to visit him in a police lock-up a few days after his arrest. .

It was the birthday of his daughters, aged 11 and 9. The two girls and their brother came towards him eagerly, saw his handcuffs and drew back in fear. 

Singapanga, 39, was the last of five Reliance Energy Ltd (now Reliance Infrastructure Ltd) contract workers from the densely packed working-class eastern Mumbai neighbourhood of Kamraj Nagar in Ghatkopar detained that year—the other four were arrested in January, a month before he was.

Singapanga’s four colleagues were granted bail in December 2018 because the Maharashtra police’s anti-terorrism squad did not file a chargesheet within 90 days, as they were required to under the UAPA. An extension to this period was  set aside by the Bombay High Court because neither the accused nor their lawyers were informed or present in a sessions  court when it was granted.

 Singapanga got bail in May 2021 after Justice Bharati Dangre of the Bombay High Court ruled that prima facie the material against him did not indicate that he had committed the offences he was charged with.

The police argued, with scant evidence, that the workers  had links with  Maoists.  The workers maintain that  they were arrested merely for labour activism, to serve as a warning to others. 

Singapanga’s bail comes at a time of growing criticism of the UAPA’s draconian qualities, in particular the difficulties in getting bail, and its misuse by investigative agencies.

“Criminal law, including anti-terror legislation, should not be misused for quelling dissent or for harassment of citizens,” Supreme Court Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud said on 13 July 2021. 

Once a UAPA case is filed, critics have pointed out, bail is difficult and investigation slow. Over four years to 2019, more than 5,105 people were arrested under the UAPA with a conviction rate of 2.2%, according to data submitted by the government to Parliament in February 2021. 

The legal limbo of UAPA accused and the damage to their families and livelihoods is embodied in those arrested in the Reliance Energy case.

Losing Childhood, Livelihoods & Life

After their father went to jail, Singapanga’s children quickly lost their childhood. With his income gone, their mother, a domestic help, took on more temporary jobs. What she made was just enough for rent and food, but it was not enough to pay the fees of the children’s English-medium school. 

“The life my children were used to could no longer continue,” Singapanga said, a catch in his voice as he spoke to Article 14. “They couldn’t even get new clothes on their birthday.”

Singapanga’s wife sent the elder girl and her brother to a residential government school in their home state of Telengana, where everything was paid for.  Singapanga recalled his children reassuring him: “We’ll be okay, you don’t worry about us.” 

He has not seen them since.

Babu Vanguri was not as lucky. His daughter had just got admission to an English-medium school when he was arrested. But his wife had to vacate their room in Kamraj Nagar; the landlord told her he was being pressured by the police. After staying with friends for a few weeks, she left for her village in Telangana with her children. “I pleaded with the police not to trouble the landlord, I told them my wife has nowhere to go,’’ recalled Vanguri. 

Satyanarayan Karrela’s mother died of shock within five days of hearing of his arrest. A few months later, his wife lost her father, who was also Karrela’s  maternal uncle. Unable to cope, his wife suffered a stroke and has lost her mental faculties.  She has periods of normalcy; otherwise, Karrela  and his son cook and look after the house.  

On 12 January and 5 February 2018,  the Maharashtra police anti-terrorism squad (ATS) arrested eight Telugu-speaking men, five  of them contract workers with Reliance Energy, including Singapanga, , Vanguri,  Karrela, Shankarayya Gunde,  Ravi  Maarampalli,  a contractor with the same company and two social activists. 

All of them were charged under sections 13(1)(a), 13(1)(b)1618(a)18(b)1920383940 of UAPA (Amended 2004, 2008) along with sections 465468 and 471 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC). These relate to abetting unlawful and terrorist activity, recruiting others for committing terrorist acts, harbouring a known terrorist, being a member of a terrorist organization, raising funds for a banned organisation and forgery. 

‘Attempt To Sabotage The Union’

Susan Abraham, the advocate who, along with colleagues Sudeep Pasbola and Arif Siddiqui, helped the Reliance Energy workers get bail, said they were paying the price of spearheading a fight for the rights of contract workers hired by the company.

“That contract workers can be implicated in terror laws for their union work is the most shocking aspect of this case,’’ said Abraham. 

The workers felt the same.  They linked the timing of their arrests to the takeover of Reliance Energy by Adani Transmission in December 2017. They were arrested within two months of the takeover.

“We thought our life was made, we would soon be made permanent workers,” said Singapanga. “But our worlds turned upside down.” 

The arrests saw trade union activity come to a standstill at Reliance Energy, now Adani Electricity Mumbai Limited.  N Vasudevan, general secretary of the Mumbai Electricity Employees Union (MEEU),  said workers were afraid because they were on contract, which meant they could be dismissed without notice. 

“Since the arrests, HR managers keep reminding them  that police are making inquiries about them,” said Vasudevan. “The atmosphere is not suitable for any collective action.”

But it was not their trade union activity that the ATS mentioned while announcing the workers’ arrest in January 2018. Instead, they claimed to have picked up “seven Maoists”, who had chosen the industrial belt of Mumbai to “propagate their ideology”. The police also said that a “Bhima Koregaon poster” was found on them. 

So, long before the June 2018 arrests of six Left activists in what has come to be known as the Bhima Koregaon case, the Maharashtra Government’s narrative that the violence on 1 January 2018 was planned by “urban Naxals” was set into motion by the arrests of these workers. 

Despite police claims, however, the discovery of the Bhima-Koregaon  posters is the only mention of Bhima Koregaon in the 5,876-page charge sheet filed against the workers in May 2018. When Vasudevan, along with fellow trade union leader Milind Ranade met ATS officials after the arrests of the workers, they were told the arrests had nothing to do with the Bhima-Koregaon violence.   

Widening The Bhima-Koregaon Conspiracy

The Bhima-Koregaon violence refers to attacks by mobs carrying saffron flags on Dalits making their way towards Bhima Koregaon (near Pune) on 1 January 2018,  to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, fought between the British and the Peshwas. The British,  helped by Mahar or Dalit soldiers, defeated the Peshwas. . Ever since Dr B R Ambedkar first paid homage in 1927 to the victory memorial built by the British, Dalits gather there on 1 January every year.   

Later that day, clashes broke out in which both Dalit and Maratha homes were damaged and a Maratha youth died.

The first first information report (FIR) named Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote as responsible for the violence. Bhide was never arrested, and was given a clean chit by then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in the state assembly. Ekbote was arrested after the Supreme Court rejected his anticipatory bail petition, and is out on bail.

Subsequent FIRs named activists Umar Khalid from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jignesh Mewani, Dalit leader and independent MLA from Gujarat, writer Sudhir Dhawale and members of the cultural group Kabir Kala Manch, all of whom had addressed or performed at the Elgar Parishad, a public meeting held in Pune by retired judges B G Kolse Patil and the late P B Samant on 31 December 2017, the eve of the Bhima-Koregaon anniversary.  

From  June 2018 onwards, 16 academics, artistes and lawyers were arrested in the case, the latest arrest being that of Jesuit priest and oldest accused Father Stan Swamy, who died aged 84 on 5 July 2021, awaiting bail after being in custody for 9 months. In January 2020, the National Investigation Agency took over the case. 

While in police custody, the Reliance Energy workers recalled being questioned about all three angles related to their arrests: their trade union work, the Bhima-Koregaon violence and their supposed links with Maoists.

‘We Are Dalits, So We Went (To Bhima Koregaon)’

All the workers alleged police beat them so badly that they had to be regularly taken to hospital.  “Who’s your boss? Your union’s tactics show that it’s a Maoist union. You people are engaged in anti-national activities. Why do you use words such as ‘Comrade’ and ‘Lal Salaam’? You extort money from contractors and send it to Maoists,’’ police interrogators said, according to the workers. 

This presumption on the part of the police that all their trade union activities were inspired by their alleged connection with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), was reflected in the kind of accusations made against the workers, charges which Justice Bharati Dangre found unsubstantiated by the material presented against Singapanga.

One of the workers,  Ravi Maarampalli, told Article 14 that he found the police disinterested in his accounts of the struggles waged by the workers’ union. “Forget all that,” he quoted the police as telling him. “Tell us about the Maoists.”

The workers were shown photographs of Sudhir Dhawale, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, all of whom were arrested later that year in the Bhima-Koregaon-Elgar-Parishad case.

The workers had a ready answer to these questions: they told the police to check their credentials with their managers or check their bank accounts, which would show how many days they had worked, how much leave they had taken.  

As for the charge of extorting funds from contractors and sending them to Maoists, the workers told the police that all Reliance unions officially collected funds from contractors which were used for the workers. 

Indeed, as Justice Dangre’s order noted: “The contractors and the workers whose statements have been compiled in the charge sheet do not speak to any amount being collected, to be paid towards the banned organisation, but it is specifically stated that it was collected as a donation for which the receipt was obtained and some amount was contributed by the contractors…for meeting any contingency faced by their own labourers.”

Why did you go to Bhima Koregaon, the police asked the Reliance workers. All of them had the same reply: “We are Dalits, so we went.”

The name of one of them, Shankarayya Gunde, was on the pamphlet issued by the organisers of the Elgar Parishad, one of 15 who were part of the organising committee. . 

The workers  told the police  they had visited Bhima Koregaon  along with about 40 other Dalit workers. After paying homage at the war memorial on 31 December, they had gone to the Elgar Parishad held in Pune that evening but found it packed and were unable to go inside the venue.  They were back in Mumbai early morning on 1 January. Except Gunde, who had been  dismissed in 2007, the rest reported to work on 1 January.

Maarampalli was told by the police that they knew everything about him, including what time his wife dropped their daughter to school and picked her up.

Ravi Maarampalli with his family.

Why The Police Watched Electricity Workers

What made these workers so dangerous that the police were watching them? The answer lies in the growth of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union (MEEU) since its formation in 2005. 

Vasudevan, general secretary of the union, recalled the evening when Reliance Energy workers came to him. They were on strike, they told him, and needed his “guidance”.

A worker named Taslim Siddiqui had been electrocuted while on duty.  The company had paid his wife a compensation of Rs 25,000, an amount that angered the workers enough to strike work, although Siddiqui’s wife had accepted the money. With the management refusing to do better, the workers wanted to know what to do next.

Just a month earlier, then labour minister Nawab Malik had worked out compensation of Rs 650,000 for the families of two Tata Power contract workers  who had set themselves on fire in front of the Tata Group headquarters, Bombay House. Vasudevan thought it would be best if a delegation of trade unionists and workers met Malik.

The delegation found the Reliance Energy management willing to not just pay Rs 650,000 as compensation but also give a job to Siddiqui’s widow, on condition that the strike be withdrawn.  

“The story of this success spread throughout the workforce, and the workers came back to us asking how to go forward. I told them they had to join a union,’’ recalled Vasudevan. But the workers were unwilling to join any of the Reliance Energy unions.

None of the unions were interested in workers’ issues, they told Vasudevan, adding that  some union leaders sent goons to attack them when they tried to raise demands with the management.

That was the birth of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union (MEEU), a unique union which had office bearers from three different trade unions: Vasudevan from the Trade Union Solidarity Committee as general secretary, K L Bajaj from Centre of Indian Trade Unions as President, A D Golandaz of the All India Trade Union Congress as vice-president and labour lawyer M M  Abhyankar as treasurer. 

MEEU general secretary N Vasudevan addressing workers at a rally.

The main strength of the union, however, lay in its active workers.

The Concessions Extracted By Workers

Thanks to the MEEU, contract workers of Reliance Energy saw their lives change.

Earlier, they travelled long distances to their workplaces but were often sent back without any work being provided. If the contractor went to his village, their payments would be held up till he returned. If they went to their village, they would be made to wait for days before being taken back on work. 

Contract workers would dig trenches and lay cables wearing ordinary slippers, with their feet often affected by standing hours in dirty water. When it rained, they used plastic sheets to cover themselves. If any of them died, the company would pay a measly lump sum, even as low as Rs 5,000 on occasion, and the contractor would send the deceased worker’s family back to the village. 

Forming the MEEU changed all that. 

They got paid on a fixed day of the month instead of any time; salaries were paid directly into their bank accounts; they got provident fund benefits; regular work instead of work dependent on the whims of the management; paid leave and paid national holidays; they were provided basic safety equipment, such as raincoats and rubber shoes to prevent electrocutions, which took place with regularity when workers dug trenches or laid cables; the family of a worker who died on duty was now to be paid a compensation of Rs 810,000; and in 2017, got health cards under the Employees’ State Insurance scheme.

The union also achieved historic success in 2007, when, unhappy with the settlement reached by the official union, the MEEU struck work. They were joined by all contract workers, including those belonging to the official union, and together they got the management to agree to the settlement they sought.

In 2010, 1,200 contract workers got permanent positions, based not on recommendations of union leaders, as was the case in the past, but on seniority.

These successes led to about 1,300 of 4,000 contract workers joining the MEEU.   “All this happened because of the commitment of 100-odd active workers,” said Vasudevan. The five who were arrested under the UAPA were among the most active.

“For every demand, they had to strike because initially, the company was not willing to listen,” said Vasudevan. “Later, when they saw how complete the strikes were, and how they affected Reliance’s business which was expanding with the construction boom in the city,  the company started calling us for negotiations—unofficially, because there already existed a recognised union.”  

“Since we always took workers along with us when we went to negotiate, the latter learnt to negotiate with the management on their own, becoming the only group of Reliance workers who didn’t depend on outsiders,” said Vasudevan.

But the commitment of these workers came at a cost. In 2007, Shankarayya Gunde was among 11 workers dismissed for agitating for regular work in Kandivali, charged under The Maharashtra Essential Services Act, 2005, for having allegedly disrupted essential services. 

With no evidence to back up the accusations against the workers, the case was eventually withdrawn. The dismissal was not revoked; Gunde’s case is pending in the  labour court.

No Regrets

A few days before his arrest in January 2018, Karrela and four colleagues were suspended. On 19 December 2017, a worker fainted on his way home after work and died the next morning. The workers alleged that he did not get proper treatment for lack of an ESI card. Holding the company responsible for his death, they struck work demanding compensation.

The strike lasted a few hours till the company agreed to pay the compensation, but the workers were marked absent even though they had gone back to work. When the MEEU protested, four workers were suspended, including Karrela.  

Did they regret being active in the union, given the high price they had to pay? All the five arrested workers reacted vehemently to the question.

“What have we done, compared to great men like Babasaheb Ambedkar (who chaired the committee that wrote India’s constitution)?” asked Gunde. “Didn’t he suffer in order to benefit crores of Dalits?”

“We didn’t work for others, we worked for our own selves,” said Karrela. “Vasu Sir didn’t come to us; we went to him. For whom did he work so much? When we look at him, our work seems like nothing.”

The brunt of their imprisonment was borne by their families. Did their spouses reproach them for being active in the union? 

“Our wives have come for morchas (protests) carrying our small children in their arms,” said Vanguri. “They know what we have achieved through our union. Even our children know. I come from a farm labourer’s family. In the village, we ate when my mother worked. All I wanted was a better life.”

Reading Interests That Became ‘Evidence’

Among the earliest requests the five former Reliance Energy workers made to Vasudevan was that he allow them to receive copies of the Telugu magazine Veekshanam in his union office. They were avid readers of the magazine, but had no place to receive it in bulk. Vasudevan agreed. 

“It is very rare to get people, especially workers, to read,” said Vasudevan. “Their awareness, their eagerness to read everything, led them to get interested in causes beyond their own. Hailing from Telangana, they also became part of the movement for statehood for Telangana. Other workers have no idea of anything going on in the world; these workers were completely different.”

The material that the police found from their homes reflected their interests: red and yellow flags; copies of ‘Veekshanam’, and a 8 March International Women’s Day poster that, said Vanguri, irritated the police.  

This political awareness made life more difficult for them in jail. They refused to bribe the jail authorities and policemen for basic conveniences, whether being allowed to sit comfortably and eat the food brought by their families to court; or enough space to sleep in the barracks. They also  refused  to sign papers that the police wanted them to sign in jail.

As UAPA prisoners, they were also subjected to more hardship than others. After the first few months, their wives were stopped from meeting them in jail, till they got a special ID card verified by a police station located near their home. This process took about four months. When they were brought to court, it was under tight security, sometimes in handcuffs. The police would, often, not allow their families to talk to them in court.

Today, the five men are down and out. They have been dismissed for not having attended work since they were in jail, and are dependent on odd jobs for a living, unable to visit their children or their mothers in the village because bail conditions require weekly reporting to the police. 

Vanguri’s  mother had a heart attack after he was arrested. The court did not allow him to visit her, even after he got bail. “You have terror charges against you, I was told,’’ recalled Vanguri with a bitter laugh.  

But, their spirits remain unbroken. “In this country, if you want to fight for your and others’ rights, you have to suffer,” said Gunde.  “That’s the rule.” 

“If we are out,” added Maarampalli, “It has to be because of the blessings of our fellow workers.”

(Jyoti Punwani is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

courtesy Artcile 14