On the hot afternoon of 7 May, 55-year-old Shiv Prasad, a resident of New Delhi’s Vivek Vihar colony, is nervously pacing up and down the corridor in front of the Gurgaon district court. He has been here for the past two hours and is waiting to deposit the bail bond for his son’s release. His son, 25-year-old Pradeep Kumar, who had been in jail for the past two-and-a-half years, had got bail the previous day.
Pradeep is one of the 148 workers arrested in July 2012 from Maruti’s Manesar unit in Haryana after general manager Awanish Kumar Dev was burnt to death in a row between the workers and the management. The police booked all the sacked workers under sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 147 (rioting), 353 (use of assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 436 (mischief by fire) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code. All of them were taken in judicial custody over the next few days.
In a report published by Tehelka Hindi in March 2014, Majboor Mazdoor, senior advocate Raghubir Singh Hooda, who is pursuing the cases of Maruti Suzuki Workers Union at the Gurgaon district court, had questioned the account of four eyewitnesses in the chargesheet filed by the police. In his statement, eyewitness No. 9 named 25 workers in the alphabetical range of A-G. Eyewitness No. 10 testified that he saw 25 workers rioting, all of whose names fall in the next range, G-P. Eyewitness No. 11 named 25 other workers whose names fall in the range P-S. And eyewitness No. 12 testified to seeing 14 workers whose names, continuing the alphabetical sequence, are in the range S-Y.
The rest of the details in these four testimonies were found to be exactly similar. For instance, at the end, all four witnesses mentioned seeing some 400 other workers rushing out of the building carrying door beams. Hooda alleged that these eyewitness accounts were written by a single person and the names of the accused were copied from the company register in an alphabetical order.
Three years have gone by since the incident in the Manesar factory. Around 114 workers have been released on bail so far while 34 are yet to be freed. The bail came two years and three months after the arrests. The Supreme Court first released two workers on bail this February and 112 others have been set free since then. The district court had rejected the bail pleas thrice and the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, Chandigarh, twice. Rejecting the bail pleas the first time in May 2013, High Court judge Justice KC Puri had observed, “The incident has lowered the reputation of India in the estimation of the world. Foreign investors are not likely to invest money in India out of fear of labour unrest.”
The worker duo appealed against the high court verdict in the Supreme Court. On 17 February 2014, the apex court refused them bail stating that the plea will be considered after the lower courts record the eyewitness accounts. The court also directed the Gurgaon District Court to complete the process by 30 April that year.
The order, though, was ignored and the statements recorded much later. The two workers again appealed for bail in the high court on 23 December 2014. The high court rejected their bail plea observing that they should approach the Supreme Court. They eventually got bail from the apex court on 20 February 2015, almost 31 months after their arrest. Following the release of the duo, the Gurgaon District Court granted bail to 77 workers in March.
Why did it take so long for the workers to get bail despite the Supreme Court observing several times that bail must be the norm and jail the exception?
Vrinda Grover, counsel for the workers union in the apex court, is surprised that it took so long for the judiciary to get the workers released even though the case against them stands on legally weak ground. “The last hearing is scheduled for July and 34 workers are still in jail,” she says.
Representing the workers union at the Gurgaon District Court, lawyer Monu Kuhar believes law has little to do with the treatment meted out to the Maruti workers.
“When we try to look at the case from outside the legal perspective, many things become clear. In Gurgaon, around 12 lakh workers are employed with different private companies. They have to put pressure on the management to make them heed their concerns and demands. By forcing the workers to rot in jail for prolonged periods despite lack of evidence, the management and the courts are sending out a warning to the entire working class: that their life, livelihood and family will be in danger if they dare organise themselves and try to assert their demands,” says Kuhar. “In this case 148 workers were sent to jail, but look a little closer and it becomes clear that there was some evidence of sorts against only 10-15 of them and that too not strong enough to hold them guilty. The court heard the testimonies of 102 witnesses. Nobody testified against 16 of the accused, while 98 others could not be identified by the very witnesses who had named them. Those who have been released now should have got bail long ago because there was neither material evidence nor any witness testimonies against them. It only shows that the administration wanted to teach these workers a lesson.”