The attempt by the workers of the Gurgaon unit of Honda to form a trade union meets with stiff resistance from the management and repression from the State government.T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Gurgaon
"I WANT to see him once before I die," said S. Clifton, the aunt of Vikram Pal Rai. Vikram is one of the 63 employees of Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India Private Limited (HMSI) who are in police custody in the Bhondsi Model Jail Complex, on the outskirts of Gurgaon in Haryana. He was also one among the hundreds of workers who were lathicharged by the Haryana police on July 25. The jail staff said that barring two, all the arrested workers had head injuries. Like the thousands of other workers who came out on the streets for a peaceful protest on July 25, Vikram was the sole breadwinner of his family. "I saw his blood-streaked face on television. I said, `What have they done to my child?' Is this what he came for all the way from Himachal?" said S. Clifton amid tears.
Most of the injured workers were the victims of what is described in medical parlance as a "deadly assault" on the head, arms and legs. Many had fractures. While the State government put the number of injured persons at less than hundred, it was clear on a visit to the Civil Hospital at Gurgaon on the day after the assault that the figure was much higher. Each bed, the doctor on night duty at the hospital said, was occupied by two people.
ON July 25, more than 3,000 workers of the HMSI factory, a fully owned company of the Japanese multinational corporation Honda, assembled at Kamla Nehru Park, Gurgaon, for a protest rally. They were joined by several hundred workers from industrial units in nearby areas and in neighbouring Punjab. It was part of series of peaceful protests they had been staging against an illegal lockout by the Honda management (which is managed by Indians in Gurgaon) on June 27.
The rally was peaceful until the police confronted the workers and began a lathicharge. While some protesters ran, some hit back. In the melee, a government vehicle was set on fire and a police official was injured. After four hours, Sudhir Rajpal, Deputy Commissioner, Gurgaon, summoned the union leaders to the Mini-Secretariat for talks. The workers followed their leaders and collected on the lawns of the Mini-Secretariat. They were not prepared for what happened next. Lathi-wielding police personnel, including staff from the Haryana Reserved Police Force, the fire brigade, the Rapid Action Force and personnel drawn from nearby police stations, beat them up mercilessly. The police claimed that the workers were armed with barchas (spears), lathis and iron rods. However, the visuals that appeared in the electronic and print media proved that this was a lie.
Leeladhar, an injured worker admitted to the Civil Hospital, said: "It was peaceful even when the police attacked us. They hit us even as we were sitting. It happened in front of the D.C. [Deputy Commissioner]. I saw one person being beaten up by four policemen. When we asked for water, they did not give it. Only when they saw the mediapersons approach, they offered us water." He said that the workers did not burn the government vehicle.
Deputy Commissioner Sudhir Rajpal saw it only as yet another law and order problem. The "people had taken the law into their own hands" and the police retaliated in self-defence, he said. Section 144 was being enforced, he added. According to the trade unions, 400 workers were arrested on July 25. Around midnight, 320 were released and 63 were sent to the Bhondsi jail. D.L. Sachdeva, national secretary, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), said the majority of the 63 arrested under Indian Penal Code Sections 307, 148, 149, 332, 353 and 506 were Honda workers.
On July 26, when anxious relatives of the workers arrived at the Civil Hospital, the police once again confronted them. No information was given about the hundreds of missing workers and the police refused to say where they had taken the arrested workers. Birmati, sister of Khushiram, who was the union leader of the private security staff of the HSMI, hit a police officer with a lathi when he abused her. Such was the anger and frustration among people. A senior police officer dismissed the angry reaction of Birmati and another woman protester as a result of "nasha" (intoxication).
Injured workers at the Civil Hospital told a Communist Party of India (Marxist) delegation comprising Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat, Rajya Sabha Member Nilotpal Basu and Haryana State secretary Inderjit Singh that several of them were first taken to the police stations instead of being given medical treatment. The delegation was witness to the public anger as the police and the administration continued to be high-handed and refused to assuage the feelings of the relatives. In fact, the police burst teargas shells, fired in the air and lathicharged them. In the scuffle that followed, the police also roughed up several mediapersons.
Inderjit Singh said: "It was pathetic to see the D.C. cowering behind a police officer at the time of the scuffle. He must have realised what would happen when defenceless people are lathicharged." The CPI(M) delegation demanded criminal prosecution of Sudhir Rajpal. CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta called the Congress-led State government an agent of the multinational corporations (MNCs).
TENSION had been brewing in the three-and-a-half-year-old Manesar unit of Honda for the past six months over complaints of ill-treatment of workers, including women, and increased workload. The workers were keen to form a union and they had applied for registration with the government. The registration process was almost through. Sachdeva, who had been in touch with the employees, said that it was the workers' decision to form the union that met with tremendous resistance from the industry associations and the Honda management.
In April, four workers were dismissed from service without notice. Two of the dismissed workers were office-bearers of the fledgling union, which was affiliated to the AITUC. In May, the management suspended 13 workers and 37 more a few weeks later. The dismissals, which were by all counts illegal, were seen as part of a concerted design to break the unity of the workers. But the management's efforts failed. The AITUC-supported union received the support of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The CITU had in the recent past conducted successful struggles in the Gurgaon-Dharuhera industrial belt, which has about 90 factories.
On June 27, the factory bus did not arrive to pick up workers from their places of residence (most of them lived some 20 km from the factory unit in Manesar). Some of them managed to reach the factory, but they were told that they would be allowed to enter only if they signed an undertaking for "good conduct". Some workers signed the undertaking but were still not let in. The majority of the workers resisted the management's move. According to the management, the workers were on strike, but the workers claimed that it was an illegal lockout. The government deployed the police outside the factory premises.
A meeting at the Labour Commissioner's office in Chandigarh on July 10 failed to resolve the deadlock. The management was unyielding on the workload issue. On July 13, negotiations resumed and the Labour Department was informed that the workers wanted to resume work. On July 17, the management put out a notice stating that it would take back workers in batches of 400. But on July 18 the number was scaled down to 100. On the same day the workers hoisted a union flag, which annoyed the management. The management refused to take back the four dismissed and 50 suspended workers. The talks broke down again as the workers were unsure of the intention of the management.
"If the State government had withdrawn the police from the Honda premises, the management would have had to take back all the workers," said a Labour Department official. The Deputy Commissioner, he said, used to order the Labour Department officials to "sit in the Honda office" as if they were employees of the MNC. Labour Department officers said that the MNCs in particular resented their intervention. One official said: "When the government itself encourages them as they pay service charges, then what is our locus standi? If we talk of labour laws to them, they say we trouble them. The freedom given to them is not correct. They commit irregularities in Provident Fund contributions as well. Our laws should apply. Otherwise such conflicts will continue to take place."
Trade union leaders allege that the Labour Department officials do not carry out their statutory duties properly. It was only 15 days after the lockout that the Labour Department called a meeting for conciliation, they said.
THE Gurgaon incidents dominated discussions in both Houses of Parliament on July 26. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil's statements on the number of people injured came in for severe criticism. He said it was unbelievable that 700 workers were in prison as claimed by the Left parties. Members of the Left parties walked out in protest. The Left, led by the Delhi State unit of the CPI(M), organised a rally in front of Haryana Bhavan. The police used water cannons to disperse the protesters. On July 28, a bandh was observed in Gurgaon. The Left parties organised protest rallies across the country and observed August 1 as "Virodh Diwas" (protest action day).
The response of industry and certain political party representatives to the Gurgaon atrocity drew much criticism. The investment climate would deteriorate if such incidents were not prevented on time, they said. Office-bearers of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) and the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PHDCCI) expressed concern that such incidents would send negative signals to international and domestic investors. Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath described the episode as an isolated and "freak" incident that would not affect investor confidence. After all, he said, India had been rated as one of the top three "investment hot spots" after the United States and China by a recent survey of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the leaders of the four Left parties - the CPI(M), the CPI, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the All India Forward Bloc - to discuss the incident. He expressed deep anguish and concern over the police action and asked the State government to take action against all those responsible, including police personnel. Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who initially claimed that the July 25 incident was a "conspiracy" to defame his government, ordered a magisterial inquiry later. As pressure mounted for an impartial inquiry, a judicial inquiry commission headed by a retired judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court was set up. The Left parties insisted that the inquiry be held under a sitting judge of the Supreme Court.
On July 29, a "settlement" was brokered between the Honda management and union leaders, in the presence of the Labour Secretary and the Chief Minister. Representatives of Central trade unions were kept out of the negotiations. According to the "deal", the management has agreed to take back the dismissed employees and revoke the suspension of others. The four dismissed workers would be shifted from the manufacturing unit and the suspended workers, if found guilty after an inquiry into their conduct, too would be shifted. The workers, on the other hand, have to sign individual undertakings of "good conduct", relinquish demands for a wage hike for the next one year, withdraw all the demand notices and maintain discipline at the workplace. However, Hooda said the "law would take its own course" in the case of those in the Bhondsi jail facing charges such as attempt to murder. On August 4, Deputy Commissioner Sudhir Rajpal and Superintendent of Police Yoginder Nehra were transferred from Gurgaon.
Terming the result of the struggle "a partial victory", the AITUC, the CITU and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) condemned the Haryana Chief Minister for trying "politicise the issue" and for having "imposed retrograde conditions on the workers". The unions declared that none of the undertakings would be binding on the workers and that the latter would continue their struggle for their demands and for the unconditional release of those in prison. They held that Hooda had gone back on his earlier promise to withdraw the cases against those in jail.
GURGAON is an industrial town of contradictions. Huge billboards, sprawling shiny malls, flyovers, farmhouses and apartment blocks are signs of overt prosperity of a minority. At the same time, the working conditions of ordinary workers, most of them on contract, are abysmal. And managements and industry associations resent the formation of unions.
Local people are not preferred for employment as they are seen as capable of forming unions and mobilising support at short notice. Hence people from outside the State are recruited. In HMSI too most of the workers were from outside Haryana. In fact, the leadership of the union itself comprises workers who belong to States other than Haryana. However, factors such as "local" and "non-local" have not affected workers' unity, especially in the Honda unit - a reason perhaps for the unprecedented brutality that marked the police action on July 25.