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 bailcame 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.
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.”
Senior Supreme Court advocate and former aap leader Prashant Bhushanquestions the judiciary and the government. “The entire bail procedure is arbitrary. The courts grant bail to whoever they want. Class prejudice is a reality in our courts. A rich or educated person gets bail easily but not someone coming from the lower class. He has to run from one court to another for years. Governments also influence the judiciary. The courts often deny bail to please the government, especially in the case of political prisoners.”
When Awanish Dev was burnt to death in the Manesar factory, the Congress under the then chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda was in power in Haryana. Hooda appointed senior Supreme Court lawyer KTS Tulsi as special public prosecutor. An rti query revealed that the government paid Tulsi 11 lakh for each hearing while his three assistants were paid 66,000 each. In two years, the government ended up paing 5 crore in fees alone.
Following the regime change last year that brought the bjp to power, the case was taken away from Tulsi’s charge. Haryana Labour and Employment Minister Captain Abhimanyu was not available for comment despite repeated attempts to contact him.
Meanwhile, it is an endless wait for justice for the families of workers who have been released on bail and those who are still behind bars. Amit Kumar, a worker who was released on bail this month, tells Tehelka, “Why do you want to meet me now? You never came to interview my family when I was in jail and my father was sick. Now that I am out, you want an interview. I don’t want to meet you. I have nothing to say. I am free now and my family is doing well. You don’t have to worry about them now.”
“It feels good to be home after two years. My family was devastated when I was put behind bars as a criminal for no fault of mine. It was a harsh life and I don’t want to think about it,” says 26-year-old Kamal Singh, his eyes welling up with tears. “They had all rejoiced when I landed a job with Maruti. Now see what it came to? Today, I am jobless and have no savings. I, my wife and our daughter are totally dependent on my father.”
On the morning of 17 August 2012, a month after the rioting at the Manesar factory, some plainclothesmen picked up Kamal and later arrested him. He was imprisoned for 34 months before getting bail on 15 April 2015.
“It was 5.30 am when my father woke me up,” he recalls. “The plainclothesmen were knocking at the door. It took me some time to figure out what they wanted. My mother was crying and father was going crazy begging them to let me be. ‘You are making a mistake. My son had nothing to do with the violence,’ he said again and again. They told my mother that they were only taking me for questioning and I would be back soon. But I knew they were going to arrest me. They showed me no warrant nor informed the local police.”
Kamal’s mother is a diabetic and it got worse during his imprisonment. Close by, his two-year-old daughter is playing with a cellphone. Kamal’s wife was pregnant with their first child when he was arrested. Two months later, a daughter was born. “My father told me. When I chose her name, I had not seen her even once. I saw her for the first time after I was freed.”
Kamal’s 55-year-old father Dharam Pal is a Class IV employee with the Delhi government. After his son’s arrest, life turned into an endless rigmarole between his job, his family and the courts. “It was exhausting,” he recalls. “All that running around was a little too much for my tired bones but one glimpse of my son was enough to rejuvenate me. I wanted to do all I could to get him out.”
Dharam Pal approached several reputed Supreme Court lawyers. “I met around 30-35 of them. They charge 5-7 lakh for each hearing. Some demand Rs 1 lakh just for a meeting. In fact, I met one big-shot lawyer who asked for 21 lakh per hearing. His assistant settled for 10 lakh but demanded a cheque in advance for five hearings. He said even if the boy gets his bail in the first hearing, they won’t refund the rest of the fees. Another top lawyer demanded 31 lakh. When we asked to meet him personally, we were told to deposit 5 lakh for a 10-minute meeting. That’s when I realised we could not afford to file our plea in the Supreme Court.”
The family landed in a financial soup and Dharam Pal had to borrow a huge sum. “Now we have to pay back a debt of 5-7 lakh,” he says.
So who was responsible for all this? “It’s nobody’s fault. We must be paying for our own sins,” Dharam Pal says and breaks down.
Out of jail, other worries haunt Kamal. He has to find a job to make ends meet. And time is fast running out.
“Not a single person testified against me in the court, yet I had to spend 34 months behind bars,” he says. “Who would compensate us for what I and my folks had to endure all this while? Will the policemen and the real culprits ever be brought to justice?”
“I was in police custody in September 2014 when I went to see my mother at the hospital. She died two days later. My family tells me she was calling out my name just before she took her last breath. But I could not be there at her side. I performed her last rites in police custody and was sent back to jail,” recalls Naresh Kumar, a resident of Haryana’s Kaithal district. He blames the “system” for the trauma he and his folks went through.
Several questions bother him. For instance, if his innocence is proved in the court’s verdict, who will compensate for the years he spent in jail? “If it were not for my brothers, my wife and children wouldn’t have a roof over their heads today. In our country, a guilty Salman Khan can get bail easily, but people like us rot in jail. Salman has so much money that even his imprisonment would not affect his family. But I am not rich. My crime was not proved but I served a sentence. Today, I am jobless. If my innocence is proved, will they give me my job at Maruti? Will I be paid the salary for the past two years?”
Naresh claims he was on leave on the day their manager was burnt to death. “I had gone to attend a relative’s wedding,” he says. “But when I came to know that the police were looking for me, I went to the police station. I had no clue they would arrest me and keep me behind bars for 30 months.”
The police, however, claim they arrested Naresh from the factory. “They say they arrested everyone from Manesar. That is a lie,” he says. “The case has been three years in the court and the verdict is awaited. We hope the truth will come out.” The final hearing is scheduled for July.
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman