Jia Lal, who was among the 13 Maruti workers sentenced to life imprisonment in Bhondsi Jail, Gurgaon, under the alleged charge of attempt to murder of a Maruri official, passed away on June 4. Though he was suffering from cancer, his imprisonment and death illustrate a painful example of how the corporate- state nexus joins hands with the judiciary and police to push the Indian workers towards a slow decimation in both body and spirit. A Groundxero report.
Jia Lal came from a Dalit family, and worked in the assembly line of Maruti Suzuki Manesar plant until 2012. He was the only non-office bearer of the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, amongst the 13 workers sentenced to life imprisonment in Bhondsi Jail, Gurgaon, in 2012, allegedly on attempt to murder charge. Jia Lal passed away a few days back on June 4 at around 11PM. He was in his mid-thirties. He was suffering from cancer that initially affected his lower spinal cord and finally claimed his life.
Jia Lal was arrested and imprisoned after the July 18, 2012 incident that took place in Maruti Manesar plant, resulting in death of a HR manager. The Maruti management could not even provide any circumstantial evidences against Jia Lal and his 12 other accused co-workers. In particular, as a moving article in Scroll described two years after the arrest, none of the witnesses saw Jia Lal at the ‘crime spot,’ except for one senior plant manager, who claimed that Jia Lal had set fire to the factory, but later failed to identify him, when paraded along with other workers.
45 small seconds are sufficient for assembling a car!
The date June 4 is of immense significance for the Maruti Workers movement. More so this year, as it was on this date exactly a decade back that the Maruti workers in the Manesar plant staged a sit-in inside the company, claiming their right to form their own union. Thus began the Maruti struggle that significantly re-energized the working-class movement not only in that region but in the entire country. “This had consequences in the Suzuki Powertrain and Motorcycle plants as well, and both these plants also saw unions being made during this time”, states a detailed report published in TNLabour by the Krantikari Naujawan Sabha Delhi Unit. Led and participated by young workers in their early twenties, the struggle was special for many reasons including the “unprecedented unity between permanent and contract workers”, as a PUDR report seeking justice for the workers mentioned.
The June 4-17 sit-in rattled the management and to defuse the crisis it was forced to agree to almost all the demands made by the workers, including re-employment of terminated workers and increasing the assembling time for each car from 45 seconds to 60 seconds. For many of us, gaining a matter of 15 seconds for a work might sound meaningless. But for the assembly line workers, who are completely alienated from the production and forced to perform twenty different mechanical actions within those few seconds, keeping up with the robotic arms and conveyer belts for several harrowing hours, the gain was significant.
In order to gain an understanding of the abysmal working conditions that Jia Lal and his colleagues suffered, why they needed to unionize, and how, for the company, legal penalization was an extension of its already inhuman treatment of the workers – one may watch the video of an informative and analytical revisiting of the Maruti movement. In interviews in the video, the activists / journalists discuss an old Tehelka report that spoke of the Maruti assembly line: how the workers’ pay was deducted for even a minute’s delay; how a mere half an hour lunch break was allowed for travelling back and forth between the factory and the canteen, lying three fourth of a kilometre apart; how a piddly 7 minutes was to be divided between a tea-break and a pee-break and so on. On top of this precarity, the workers were customarily made to work in an abusive atmosphere, where it was common for supervisors to throw casteist slurs and other obscenities at the workers.
June 4, 2011 changed some of it. As a Groundxero report from May 2018 states, for these workers, June 4 was their own form of May Day. And the following 13 days of sit-in followed in the same spirit. From now on, many of them might also remember this day as the day of Jia Lal’s martyrdom.
9 long years are insufficient for granting an innocent man bail…
After July 18, 2012, 147 workers were arrested under various charges, but the murder charge was saved for the union office bearers in order to demonize the union and break its backbone completely. Also, a total of 546 permanent workers were thrown out of the company, along with 1800 contractual workers and apprentices. But why was Jia Lal, who was not even an office bearer, implicated in the murder case?
Even though, since June 2011, Maruti workers had been involved in several protests, once the union was registered in February 2012, it was an incident specifically involving Jia Lal that escalated the conflict situation. A week before the July 18 incident, Jia Lal was verbally abused by a supervisor. The supervisor had come to collect feedback for evaluating the production during the tea-time. Jia Lal protested as he rightly felt that this was an infiltration by the management even into the few minutes allotted to the workers for a break. The practice though, was perfectly consistent with the vigilance that was habitually imposed upon the workers inside the factory premises, not only in Maruti but other assembly line productions as well. Jia Lal, as his colleagues fondly recall, was a man of few words, probably because he was of a calm nature, as well as his stutter. But the obscene abuses made him angry, and in a moment’s fury, he grabbed the collar of the supervisor’s shirt. This led to a suspension order issued in his name. The workers demanded an immediate revocation of the suspension order, along with putting forward several other demands. The management dillydallied in responding. The workers completely took over the production chain within the factory, and began to live inside the company premise day and night. Soon, things took an ugly turn and following a violent clash between the workers and the management backed ‘bouncers’, a HR manager lost his life in the incident. The management, though unable to prove anything till date, promptly charged Jia Lal, along with the 12 union leaders with murder. The inclusion of Jia Lal was for the purpose of making an example out of him, and further validate the abuse that he and the other workers were often victims of.
This is when the state and the judiciary, along with their pet police force, actively joined hands against the workers. The arrested workers were mercilessly beaten up in the police custody. Jia Lal, being a Dalit, was subjected to intense humiliation in the hands of the police, and at the same time, faced the casteist prejudice from the larger social environment that surrounded him. He was often accused as some kind of a sole perpetrator behind the entire adversity.
Following the arrests, on one hand, the peaceful protests by the families of the affected workers were lathi-charged. On another hand, the public prosecutor’s false witnesses failed to prove the charges against the accused workers. On March 18, 2017, 117 workers were released from jail and even out of the 30 remaining, 21 got bail (whereas 9 did not). The 13 primary accused, including Jia Lal, were held back under baseless charges, and were slammed with life imprisonment. Subsequently, they would be repeatedly denied bail.
Jia Lal – an innocent, peaceful, hardworking man – gained a place of dignity for himself in the jail through labour. Once in jail, he acquired new skills – he learnt to cut hair, and to make sweets. But since the beginning of last year, he began to suffer from a pain in his lower back. The jail management took him to several hospitals, but neither he nor his family, could get hold of any of the reports. Thus, until he was let out in parole due to COVID-19 and underwent a thorough check-up, he was practically left untreated. By the time the diagnosis came, his cancer was in a fatally advanced stage. Jia Lal was not only a cancer victim, but he was victim of the vindictive wrath of the corporate, a state catering to the corporate needs, a corrupt judiciary and the police that was ready to kill the prisoners by whichever means – active massacre or passive carelessness.
Such attitude in the police and a large faction of the judiciary has become increasingly visible through the shameless denial of the rights of the prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, despite his medical reports being submitted to all administrative bodies from panchayat to jail authority, and an appeal to the High Court for bail, Jia Lal was not granted one. Moreover as he was finally under proper treatment last year, in an inexplicable bout of cruelty, the police kept visiting his house, intimidating his old parents, threatening to take him back to the prison. Deeply stressed, his aged father passed away several months back. Jia Lal is survived by his wife and two minor sons. His younger brother, who was forced to leave his education after Jia Lal’s arrest, and now works as a labourer in the village, is the sole bread-earner for the entire family now.
Support exists, but not enough to dream again
Such avalanche of tragedy is not unique to Jia Lal and his family. Earlier this year, Pawan Dahia, another one among the 13, was struck by the lightning, while working in his fields, as he was out in parole. Ajmer, yet another ex-office bearer amongst the 13, suffered from brain tumour, and just like Jia Lal would have been left untreated, if not for the COVID-19 exemption that allowed him to come out of the jail and undergo a surgery. Besides those in jail, out of the close to 2500 laid off workers, at least two have committed suicide. Several have attempted to kill themselves on different occasions. Included amongst this is a worker who lost more than one family member, but was barred from visiting his family even once. Many failed to settle into a comfortable life or livelihood, families were torn apart and were scarred by deaths, divorces and ailments.
The Maruti Suzuki Workers Union continues to support not only their jailed co-workers in financial, legal and social terms, but also others who lost their jobs, to a certain extent. Nevertheless, the union survives within an overall environment of a labour movement, where political disorientation is the order of the day. Consequently, the union, too, has lost much of its political edge, and has not been able to provide the workers with a militant agenda for struggle, as in the past. This is clear from, amongst other things, the loss of its deep camaraderie with the contractual workers. At this moment, the union exists primarily as a body with economist goals, and has not been able to inspire new dreams of political change in the workers’ minds.
In one of his last interviews, Jia Lal spoke of the necessity for “peace” and “wellbeing” for the working masses as one of the primary conditions of existence, even as he was proud of his own participation in the workers’ movement, and the union leadership, it probably speaks of a deep despair over the political state of affairs. Jia Lal’s life demonstrates, like everything else, that the right to “peace” and “wellbeing” are to be acquired through long-drawn political struggles. While “cancer” would always be listed as the official cause for Jia Lal’s death, what ultimately killed him was the corporate-state nexus, which found its most acute expression in a judiciary that did not deliver the workers the justice that they deserved, and in the actions of an ever violent police force, whose everyday operations always teeter on the brink of grave human rights violations. Jia Lal’s death, thus, needs to be read as an expression of the fact that both the judiciary and the police, in the end, remain as instruments of class oppression, and it is only through militant struggles outside these institutions of the state the workers can achieve any justice. There is however a question that we who survive Jia Lal need to ask: What made him keep faith in the labour movement, even when his own resistance had brought him such personal pain and loss? In the end, Jia Lal’s life is one that inspires, but also highlights a host of problems – the state of the working class movement today, the place of a Dalit worker within a militant labour struggle, and last but not the least, the modes and methods through which the working class will fight its battles in the face of an increasing corporate aggression and government’s forever readiness to bend its knees in front of such interests.
This article was first published on groundxero.in