Police Crack-Down on the Honda Workers of Gurgaon:
A Tale of the Corporate-State Nexus

Saurabh Bhattacharjee

The ignominious bloodbath of 25th July in Gurgaon and the subsequent reportage of the incident in the print and electronic medium is a poignant manifestation of the nexus between capital, state and corporate media.

The reportage in the media has attempted to portray the incident as a case of disproportionate and brutal use of force by a colonial police in retaliation to attacks by an unruly and violent mob. Some of the newspapers have chosen to focus more on the ‘rise in militant trade unionism.’ One eminent national newspaper asserted that ‘beyond the numbers being trotted out of injured protesters and the political noise that has ensued, lies the less comfortable business of militant trade unionism and the way State deals with it’. Another felt it more pertinent to express concerns on what the incident will ‘do to morale in the call centre/BPO industry that has made Gurgaon a byword for Indian infotech.’

Concerned citizens and activists from several organisations working in New Delhi have visited Gurgaon after the tragedy. Their meeting with the workers, members of trade unions, reconstructions of the unfolding of events from statements of injured workers and their terrified families, nurses and other staff of the Gurgaon Civil Hospital reveal a picture completely buried under the yarns of lies and deception being spun by the police, administrative machinery and the media.

The Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI), Manesar, Gurgaon has around 4000 employees out of which about 3000 are permanent and 1000 are employed on a casual basis. The staff is pan-Indian in its composition with most employees hailing from several states including Uttaranchal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Andhra Pradesh, etc.

The present impasse had its genesis in the daily humiliation and harassment of the workers by Honda’s senior management. A Japanese manager kicked a worker in the shop floor in December 2004. The services of four workers who came to his rescue were terminated. Fifty workers who protested against this unfair dismissal were also placed on suspension. There were other cases of humiliation and harassment also reported by the workers within work premises at the hands of the management. The pagri (turban) of a Sikh worker was thrown off his head, and women workers faced regular sexual harassment. Further, workers were subjected to harsh and inhuman conditions. The workers said that they could go to the toilet only after signing to relieve themselves and that too only after every three and half hours. All the workers were expected to have their lunch hastily in one cramped canteen within a very short period.

The workers protested peacefully by sporting black arm-badges and refusing to eat at the workplace. But it was to no avail. The simmering discontent culminated in the formation of a trade union with the active support of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). The workers faced several impediments in the way from the Honda management and the state bureaucracy. After several rounds of tribulation, the union was registered on May 29 2005.

On 27 June, the company imposed a ‘good conduct undertaking’ on the entire workforce: they could not form any union, call strikes, move courts, ask for monetary increments till 2008. The factory’s 3500 employees faced a lockout. The workers had to sign the undertaking before being allowed into the factory. The illegal lockout by the Honda Management in June, insistence on signing of ‘good conduct undertaking’ and the subsequent state repression impinge on the rights of the workers to organise, an inalienable constitutional and legal right of every worker.

On the same day, several union leaders were assaulted by goondas hired by the Honda Company and a union leader was thrown from the third floor. He suffered several fractures and serious injuries.

Despite workers agreeing to sign limited conditions against any ‘misconduct’ and meeting production targets, the Company refused to take them back. The Company was intent on breaking the newly-formed union. The Company and the workers concluded three agreements under the aegis of the Labour Commissioner wherein they agreed to take the workers back in separate batches. However, the Company reneged on its commitment. The stalemate continued even after the issue was raised before the Prime Minister by CPI Parliamentarian and AITUC National General Secretary, Gurudas Dasgupta.

Hence on 25 July the workers along with other trade unions marched in protest to the mini-Secretariat. The workers took out a peaceful procession to protest against the repressive practices of the Company to the Mini-Secretariat. A small police squad stopped the procession when it reached the Gurgaon industrial area. The police claims (and as reported by the media) that while CITU leader Raj Singh and AITUC leader Subhash Diwan engaged the police in a discussion, some of the workers badly thrashed sections of the police squad accompanying them. However, most of the workers asserted that the assailants were not part of the employees or the union.

In the afternoon, the workers were called to a park near the Office of Deputy Commissioner for discussions with the administration. While the crowd was waiting peacefully, a huge police contingent launched itself on the hapless crowd and savaged them. The survivors allege that the police targeted the heads of the protesters and thrashed them mercilessly. According to some workers, the Deputy Commissioner himself was seen inciting the police personnel.

The police arrested a large number of workers including those severely injured. The injured workers were subjected to further beatings in the custody. The horrific conditions of the workers were made worse by the lack of treatment. In spite of the seriousness of the injuries, most of the injured workers were not treated properly. The treatment did not go beyond administration of first-aid and dressing of wounds.

Unbelievably, workers and others were lathi-charged inside the Civil Hospital premises on 26th July where the wounded from the previous day’s brutalities were recuperating. This happened even in presence of several people’s movement activists and senior politicians and trade union leaders. Ironically, rather than take action against the state police for these attacks or the Honda management for violating workers’ right to organize, it is the workers who are being targeted. More than a week after the bloodbath, more than 60 workers are still languishing in police custody and are facing trumped up charges of utmost severity including ‘attempt to murder’. The gravity of the charges has meant that the detained workers have not been enlarged on bail in spite of persistent legal efforts of AITUC and the workers.

After intense pressure upon Honda and the government following massive and widespread protests in Gurgaon, Delhi and all over India, a tripartite agreement was reached between the management, state government and the workers. According to the said agreement, the Honda Management agreed to take back all the workers who were on duty till 27th June. The Company also agreed to take back all the dismissed and the suspended workers but not for manufacturing duties. The disciplinary inquiries pending against them are to continue. The Union decided to drop all its earlier demands raised against the management. It has agreed to not raise any economic demand or organise strikes for a period of one year. Further, the Union undertook to follow all the standing orders and meet production targets. This agreement represents a partial victory for the workers as their resolve and determination and the solidarity of the rest of the nation compelled the Honda Management and the State Government to come to the negotiation table.

However, the victory is only partial. The working class of this country must unite and resolutely continue its struggle for there will be many more trials in the days to come. Already, the Honda Management has started going back on its own words. Around ninety trainees have not been absorbed back and more than hundred and fifty casual workers have been retrenched after being taken back.

The administration has been completely apathetic to the plight of the workers. No action has been taken against the erring police officials or the Deputy Commissioner in spite of the protests of the Prime Minister and other political groups. The fact that additional forces were brought in from adjoining districts for this attack suggests premeditation, and prior planning by the authorities. Yet, hardly any meaningful punitive action has been taken or any complaint been filed against the police or district administration. This indicates that the police action had support at the highest political level. Incidentally, Mr. Sandeep Hooda, Manager, Manesar factory, is a relation of the Haryana Chief Minister, Mr. Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

The administration indifference to such brutality is also betrayed by the timid approach of the ‘latest nuclear superpower’, the Indian government to the veiled threat from the Japanese envoy. The Indian Express reports:

‘India today sought to make the point that an ‘isolated incident’ of labour unrest at the Gurgaon-based Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI) should not become a benchmark for judging the investment climate in the country. New Delhi underlined that the ‘legal interest’ of foreign investors will be ‘fully safeguarded’.

The Government reaction came as a response to Japanese Ambassador Y Enoki’s remark that unrest at the Honda unit could have an adverse impact on the inflow of foreign direct investment into India.

The West Bengal Commerce and Industries Minister and CPI-(M) Central Committee Member, Mr. Nirupam Sen lost no time in ‘dispelling Japanese fears’ and assured investors that similar incidents shall not take place in West Bengal.

More troublesome is the complete underplaying of the role of the Honda Company in this crisis. Their opposition to formation of a union, insistence on signing of Good Conduct Undertakings, use of force against union leaders were completely unconstitutional and illegal. The illegal lock-out by the Honda management on 27th June, which was in complete contravention of all norms of labour jurisprudence, has also been completely ignored. Now, when the Honda Company is reneging from its latest set of commitments, the administrative machinery and the media has been conspicuously hushed.

These tragic events expose the unholy nexus between the forces of capital and the State. The police and administration are increasingly acting as enforcement agents of big corporations across the country, whether it is in the tribal belts of Orissa or Chattisgarh. In Kashipur in Orissa, the adivasi villagers have been waging a heroic struggle against the aluminum-mining project set up in blatant violation of environmental and constitutional norms and which will displace thousands of adivasis from their homes. On December 16, 2000, three young men were killed in police firing when hundreds gathered to oppose the project. Security forces have unleashed a wave of repression on the protesting villagers. These incidents are indicative of our times when the State agencies have increasingly begun to sacrifice the interests of the people to the highest bidders.

This incident also serves to highlight the ghastly consequences of the suggested labour reforms. If the repression of labour rights can acquire such a savage shape under the present dispensation, the future appears bleak for the toiling masses unless all such efforts are resisted in full earnest.

It is time for the working class and people at large to unite and assert in one voice that we will not surrender our right to form trade unions, collective bargaining and related rights. These rights, now recognized by the Constitution, have been secured after decades of struggle and immense sacrifice of workers.

The violent repression and the tyranny of the state and the capital have never been able to subjugate the voices of the workers. Workers, people’s movements and concerned citizens must come together and oppose this vile league between the State and the capital.

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