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A Pre-Decided Case: A Critique of the Maruti judgment of 2017

PUDR’S report on the Maruti case judgment on the grim anniversary of the court order sentencing workers

PUDR is presenting its report ‘A Pre-Decided Case: A Critique of the Maruti judgment of 2017,’ to mark the grim anniversary of the passing of the deeply unjust order by the Sessions Court, Gurugram, Haryana which sentenced 31 erstwhile workers of the Maruti company, 13 of them to life imprisonment. In this order passed on 18 March 2017 (following the conviction on 10 March), Additional Sessions Judge R.P. Goyal also acquitted 117 workers about 5 years after they had been arrested, after having spent 2-4 years in jail. It is significant that the 13 given the harshest punishment were all union office bearers and active members. In the incident of violence on 18 July 2012 in which sections of the plant had been set on fire, some managers and workers injured, and one HR Manager Awanish Dev unfortunately died due to asphyxiation, 148 workers had been indicted and arrested.

The report is a critique of the judgment, based on a close reading of it and other official documents of the case. It also raises questions about the nature of investigation, trial process, and the prosecution’s version and draws attention to the grave implications of the judgment, not just for workers at Maruti, or in the automobile industry alone, but for rights and struggles of labour across the country.

Three broad aspects of the context of the Maruti case and deeply skewed judgment, and the nature of investigation and prosecution that led to it need to be understood. These cannot be understood in isolation, but only in the context of:

(a)   the long term and contemporary history of capital-labour conflict and workers’ struggles at Maruti, in which workers have persisted in their struggle for basic labour rights and the company has repeatedly thwarted them

(b)  the dominant position and real economic power of the Maruti company in the automobile industry, its clout in Industrial Model Township (IMT) Manesar and over the institutions and machinery of the state.

(c)   the changing nature of the capital–labour conflict with Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and ease of doing business becoming enormously significant. (All three points are discussed on pages 2-10 of the present report).

The workers struggles at Maruti over the past several years have been for issues like fair wages, reduction in work pressure, and for a representative union, and the company has repeatedly aggressively thwarted them, using means like suspensions, terminations, transfers, deducting wages, enforced signing of ‘Good Conduct’ undertaking, among others (p. 6 of report). The company is able to do this because of its power that comes from multiple sources – such as its monopoly with over 50% share in the passenger car market, its dominant position in IMT Manesar (where it occupies 600 acres of land and a has a large number ancillary and vendor units) –  among others. Its overarching power and command extends not just over capital, but to the institutions of the state – the Labour Department, police and judiciary. Investigation, trial and judgment of the Maruti incident is reflective of the same.

 

The Judgment

 

The major part of the report is a discussion of the narrative presented by the company through the prosecution, and the version upheld by the judgment after taking into account the lacunae and questions pointed out by the defence. A stark pattern can be seen in the way in which the judge intervened at each point.

The F.I.R lodged in the incident that occurred on 18 July 2012 at Maruti’s Manesar plant became the basis of the prosecution’s version.

 

  • F.I.R

 

The F.I.R (No. 184/2012, P.S. Manesar, Haryana) was registered on the day of the incident at 11 pm, against 55 named and 500-600 unnamed workers at Manesar PS, on the basis of a complaint filed by Deepak Anand, General Manager Vigilance, and Prosecution Witness (PW) 29. Some important anomalies emerged in the course of the defence’s questioning which the report discusses in detail. For instance, it was established that PW29 could not have actually witnessed the incident (p. 12). He could not identify any of the workers except one. It was argued that he saw the events through the CCTV cameras, which were, conveniently, not there because management claimed that they were burnt (though there was no evidence of their burning). PW29’s credibility as the primary witness was further weakened as he first named the weapons allegedly used by the workers who attacked management on 18 July as ‘belcha, lathi, lohe ke sariye (iron rods) and danda’ in the F.I.R, but in a second statement made before the police he changed these to ‘door beams’ and ‘shockers.’ (pp 14-15) Yet, in a response reflective of the nature of judge’s intervention through the judgment, this was accepted and justified. The time lag of 5 hours between the recording of the F.I.R and its reaching the Metropolitan Magistrate’s (MM) office a short distance away only by morning of 19 July, the absence of corroborative evidence etc., were all accepted without questioning by the judge.

The workers’ counter complaint that the management hired bouncers to assault the manager Awanish Dev and start the fire was on the other hand dismissed.

The report discusses many aspects of the account of the incident of 18 July 2012 that were recorded in the F.I.R were exposed as doubtful and concocted in the course of the trial (pp. 12-27) Some of these were

 

  • The fire and death of Awanish Dev

 

The keystone of the prosecution’s narrative, and the basis of the case against the workers was that they had set the fire at the plant and attacked and killed the HR Manager Awanish Dev. None of the PWs could clearly identify who started the fire (p.16), nor was there any other evidence connecting workers to the fire. There is also no evidence to connect the death of Awanish Dev to the convicted workers. The report points to the inconsistencies in the statements of the PWs, and significant confusion regarding who and how many people supposedly attacked him (p. 15, p.17). If verbal accounts are to be the basis of conviction, as they are in this case, they need to be foolproof, and these statements made by PWs were not, the report shows. Yet the judge chose to see these major inconsistencies in the F.I.R and PWs’ statements as ‘small discrepancies’ (p.18) and disregarded the flawed and absent evidence to convict the workers for the fire, injuries and death despite the absence of evidence against them, following a strange line of argument – that as the workers could not prove their version (that they did not set the fire, or assault Awanish Dev, and bouncers did) then the version of prosecution, which incidentally also could not be proved, must be true.

 

  • Recoveries

 

The prosecution’s charge of murderous assault by workers depended on the ‘recovery’ of weapons and other evidence from them. The manner in which these so-called ‘recoveries’ of crucial evidence were made (pp.19-21) exposes the nature of the police investigation on which the prosecution based its version. This version presented in the judgment, held that all 148 accused ‘workers’ walked out of the plant carrying the weapons after the incident to their respective homes, some located as far as 200 km away, where they hid them in obvious places, to be conveniently recovered by the police 6-7 days after the incident. The defence posed several questions that the prosecution completely failed to answer – for instance, How were these weapons transported inside the plant to the actual site of incident without anyone seeing them?; Why did the Maruti management not ‘report’ the supposed ‘theft’ of these shockers and doorbeams by workers until Oct. 2012?; Was there any evidence that these actually belonged to the Maruti company and was any attempt made by taking fingerprints etc., to establish which particular weapon was supposedly used by which particular worker? Why were these weapons and (in the case of some workers), ‘blood stained uniforms’ and ‘identity cards’ etc. recovered from their houses, with no independent eyewitnesses to the recoveries? – (p.20).

Compelled to accept these serious lacunae in the prosecution’s version, the judge however still overlooked this absence of evidence that connected workers to the assault by implying that the absence of evidence of any connection between weapons, the assault and the accused, did not mean that such a connection was not there (p.21).

The report further shows how the medical evidence does not substantiate the prosecution’s account (pp. 21-23). The police investigation failed to show the doctors the weapons or ask them if these could have caused the injuries of the PWs, and all the doctors agreed during the trial that the injuries could have been caused also by falling on a hard or uneven surface.

The prosecution’s failure to prove the existence of a ‘criminal conspiracy’, a plan or agreement of ‘common intent’ between the workers, was demonstrated by the defence and is demonstrated in the report (p. 23). Despite this, the charge of ‘criminal conspiracy’ was upheld for the 13 workers convicted for life imprisonment.

 

  • Arrests, Investigation, and Trial

 

The grave flaws and serious problems in the process of investigation, the manner of arrests the nature of the trial, and the way in which bail was denied and granted are also highlighted in the report (pp 10-14). These exposed the police investigation’s clear bias and collusion with the extremely powerful and dominant Maruti management. They also cast doubts on the nature of the evidence and testimonies which then became the basis of the prosecution narrative, in turn upheld substantively in the judgment.

The collusion can be illustrated through one example cited in the report (p.12-13). The Assistant Manager of HR Department (PW 101), Nitin Saraswat stated, on record, that he had prepared 2 lists of workers (by retrieving the names from the Gurgaon office) at 3 am on 19 July 2012 which he gave to the SHO Manesar. One list contained 55 names, and another 89 names. The list of 55 workers’ names was evidently included in the F.I.R, and this is the likely explanation for the delay in submitting the F.I.R to the MM. The list of 89 workers meanwhile was given to the labour-contractors who ‘submitted’ to the police team when they were called by them to the plant at 12.30 pm on 19 July. The labour-contractors supposedly identified the workers in alphabetical order (p.13), and could not identify them in court. However the police in its zeal, had already arrested these workers before 12.30 pm. This anomaly later became the basis of their eventual acquittal due to the defence’s efforts. This revelation shows the eagerness of the police to do the company’s bidding. Moreover it clearly shows that the names of workers given in the F.I.R were handpicked by the management on the basis of reasons other than their actual involvement in the incident. Yet the judgment has made this kind of manufactured statement and document the basis of inflicting extremely severe punishment on vocal, active workers and union office bearers.

Another instance of clear fabrication comes from the police account of the recoveries of weapons (discussed above). Their peculiar and unreal similarity – in each case the policemen who made the recoveries were coincidentally carrying large lengths of cloth to wrap the weapons recovered, were able to summon tailors again conveniently roaming around the sites of recovery and so on – expose their fabricated nature (p.20, Box 2).

The report highlights some other instances of the police investigation’s bias towards the company. This includes the choice of the site of recording the statements of prosecution witnesses – the ‘Japanese Hostel’ leased by the Maruti company, and the non-inclusion of workers among witnesses though hundreds of them were present at the time at the site (p. 26-27).

 

Conclusion

 

The report shows how it has not been proved through the investigation and trial that any workers or in particular the 31 convicted Maruti workers were responsible for the violence or the fire at the Manesar unit on 18 July 2012. Similarly it is also not established without reasonable doubt as to who was responsible for Awanish Dev’s death. There is no clear evidence to link the accused to the crime. And yet these workers have been convicted and given extremely harsh punishment. The judgment seems to have served the purposes of the company in providing the alibi for criminalising and imprisoning active union members and workers.

The judgment makes a further mockery of justice when it applies different standards for different accused. Thus while acquitting 117 workers, the judge points out several shortcomings in the prosecution's case, to the extent of suggesting that the evidence could be planted. However in the same case, with the same kind of evidence, he does not apply the same standards while convicting 31 workers.

The judge did not allow all these facts, e.g., the manner of recoveries and lack of eyewitnesses, the intimidation, arrests and custodial torture of workers (p.10, p. 22) by the police, the repeated failure of prosecution witnesses to correctly identify workers they had named and accused in court (p.24-25, Box 3) –to come in the way of his decision to convict the workers. This judgment reveals a higher degree of determination to overlook and even justify the shortcomings and lacunae in the prosecution’s narrative, and multiple violations of law and procedure by the Maruti company and the police, willingness to accept of the prosecution witnesses’ accounts even while accepting that their version is fabricated than has been witnessed in recent times. It reveals the completely blatant support of the judiciary for capital, giving up even a pretence of neutrality.  The denial of bail to most workers for over two years (pp 10-12), and the judiciary’s upholding of the prosecution’s version despite its almost farcical nature at times (pp 30-31), show the seamlessness of the company’s control over the entire state machinery, over the wider judiciary as well as the executive. The farce then becomes a tragedy when, violating basic principles of jurisprudence, of need for evidence to link the crime to the criminal, the judgment, following a script of vengeance by capital, convicts the active and vocal workers at the behest of the company.

The danger from a pre-decided judgment such as this is that it sends out a strong message to workers throughout the country to accept the commands of capital, and gives impunity to it to violate even the legally enshrined rights of workers. Teaching a lesson to Maruti workers was particularly important because of their history of undeterred struggle ever since the establishment of the company. In earlier phases of struggle, union members and active workers at Maruti have had to face suspensions, transfer, and dismissals. This time however, they have had to pay the heaviest price for being active in the union – that of conviction and life imprisonment.

 

PUDR presents its report ‘A Pre-Decided Case: A Critique of the Maruti judgment of 2017,’ March 2018, and in the light of its findings outlined above, demands:

1)    The immediate release of the convicted workers and a fresh, fair, independent and just investigation and re-trial.

2)    The right of workers to unionise and organize to raise their demands be recognized, respected and protected by the institutions of the state and by management.

Shashi Saxena

Shahana Bhattacharya

Secretaries, PUDR

18 March 2018

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