By JYOTI PUNWANI
‘At 23, he has experienced what very few of his age have: Poverty at home, a stint in jail for his student activism.’
‘His experience told him that if you want your rights, you have to fight for them.’
IMAGE: Shiv Kumar.
A purse containing Rs 300 and daily accounts scribbled on a bunch of chits; a broken phone, and a book of poems by the Punjabi revolutionary poet Paash.
These are the valuables being lovingly guarded by Ankit, a close friend of Shiv Kumar, the 23-year-old president of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sanghatan, since the latter was taken away by the Haryana police in January.
“As a student, I would often see Shiv in the library. He loved Paash; he would read him all the time,” said Ankit.
The picture of the young workers’ leader from Haryana that emerges from a long conversation with Ankit, is a compelling one.
Immersed in the social media world, one had begun to think they didn’t make them like this anymore.
Shiv Kumar — now well known across the country because of the medical report detailing the torture he suffered in police custody — lost vision in one eye when he was in school; two operations didn’t help.
When he was taken away by the police, he was undergoing treatment for his defective eye.
Protests became a part of Shiv Kumar’s life very early; as a student, he had joined the student organisation Chhatra Ekta Manch, and fought for admission of poor children in private schools in Sonipat, as mandated by the Right to Education act.
IMAGE: Nodeep Kaur. Photograph: Kind courtesy Majdoor Adhikar Sangathan/Facebook.com
Shiv Kumar knew first hand what it meant to be a poor student: His father works as a chowkidar on contract in a government school.
On a salary of Rs 6,500, he supports a family of five: His wife who has psychiatric problems, his school-going daughter, and a 17-year-old son with low IQ.More from around the web
Shiv Kumar therefore, would normally have been the family’s main support.
Instead, he became the leader of unorganised workers, a role that often leads to jail.
Like his colleague Nodeep Kaur, he has been charged with attempt to murder and extortion.
This is not Shiv Kumar’s first jail stint.
As a member of the Chhatra Ekta Manch, he was jailed in Sonipat in 2016 for 18 days along with other students.
This time however, he’d angered too many important people; hence he had to be taught a lesson.
So nobody was informed when he was taken away.
His family came to know only on January 31, when a villager saw him at the police station.
According to the statement he gave to the doctors at the Chandigarh Government Medical College and Hospital, the police took him away on January 16.
They presented him in court on Sunday, January 24, and got 10 days’ remand.
Denying him his glasses (he got them only on February 19, in court), warm clothes in Haryana’s winter, and access to a lawyer, would have been torment enough.
But the police decided to leave him with fractures and ripped off toenails too.
Why this fury?
The reason is simple.
In the last one year, the MAS, with Shiv Kumar as its president, had managed to force the authorities as well as the company owners who make up the Kundli Industrial Association to break the cycle of exploitation of their workforce and give them their due.
IMAGE: Shiv Kumar emerging from the police van. Photograph: Kind courtesy Majdoor Adhikar Sangathan/Facebook.com
It started off in April 2020 with a protest for rations which workers were not getting during the lockdown, and ended in January 2021 with many of them getting wage arrears due to them.
Between April 2020 and January 2021, says the MAS on its Facebook page, the workers were attacked twice: in May by the Hindu Jagruti Manch, which blamed them for spreading Covid by gathering to protest; and in December, by the police and the QRT, the quick response team set up by the KIA as a private security force.
Despite these attacks, the MAS succeeded in getting their demands fulfilled.
Not only were rations provided during the lockdown, but the Haryana government was also forced to arrange for buses to transport the migrant workforce to their hometowns in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The KIA prefers not to employ locals, revealed Ankit, because of their potential to gather support against intolerable working conditions.
These include denial of the minimum wage of Rs 9,319 set by the Haryana labour department, and a 12-hour working day.
Brought to Kundli by contractors, what these migrant workers get in hand after the contractors’ commission and PF is deducted, is a measly Rs 7000, and that too not on time.
Rent for the tiny rooms they share in the workers’ colonies is Rs 2,000 plus.
If they default on rent for three months, they are evicted.
Many workers therefore simply give up and go home without getting the wages due to them, said Ankit.
When they demand back wages, the companies tell them they haven’t been paid because they must have remained absent from work.
It is here that Shiv Kumar came after completing an ITI course — the higher education he had dreamt of was beyond his reach.
He found a job, joined the MAS and soon became its president.
IMAGE: Workers protest at Kundli. Photograph: Kind courtesy Majdoor Adhikar Sangathan/Facebook.com
Ankit, who heads the Chhatra Ekta Manch’s Sonipat unit, insists that this wasn’t a choice Shiv Kumar made.
“The Chhatra Ekta Manch fights for students, but we also link them to the world outside. We show them that the issues facing workers, farmers, employees, all affect them.”
Given this background, says Ankit, it was inevitable that Shiv Kumar would plunge into the fight for the rights of Kundli’s workers.
“At 23, he has experienced what very few of his age have: Poverty at home, a stint in jail for his student activism. Coming from a background of struggle, it was only natural that he would get involved in the fight for workers. His experience told him that if you want your rights, you have to fight for them.”
So, though they filed applications in the labour department for wage arrears, says Ankit, what got the workers their arrears were the collective protests organised by the MAS outside factories.
After the first few protests were successful, more and more workers started approaching the MAS.
Soon, all it took was a letter to the company by Shiv Kumar on the MAS letterhead threatening a strike if arrears were not paid, for the workers to get their dues.
The passing of the three farm laws and then the farmers’ agitation at the Kundli border provided a fillip to the MAS.
Shiv Kumar started educating workers on how the changes to the Essential Commodities Act would affect them.
“He slept sometimes in the MAS office, sometimes in the workers’ tiny rooms. He ate with them too. He would occasionally go home, and send money home whenever he could,” recalls Ankit.
IMAGE: Protests became a part of Shiv Kumar’s life very early.
Living with the workers, Shiv Kumar knew their minutest problems.
One of the agitations he led was for the construction of a foot bridge to link the workers’ colonies which lie on one side of the Chandigarh-Delhi highway to the factories on the other side.
“Workers had to cross the highway dodging traffic; accidents were routine,” said Ankit.
“In fact, Shiv Kumar’s own friend, a worker protesting along with him for the bridge, died in an accident while crossing the highway. The administration finally agreed to build one; work on it has begun.”
Someone like that had to be tamed.
His medical report showed that the 23-year-old half-blind Dalit fighter for workers’ rights had a number of injuries, including two fractures, injuries to the nails of his toes and hands, and swollen feet.
The report also quoted Shiv Kumar’s narration of the torture meted out to him.
However, after the medical examination, he was taken to a local doctor and taken back to jail.
What does Shiv Kumar’s traumatic experience in jail mean for the future of the workers and the MAS?
“They thought it would demoralise him and the workers,” said Ankit.
“Of course, everyone was upset, even fearful. But those who managed to talk to him when he was brought to the local doctor for treatment say he was in high spirits.