//The Black Hole of Manesar : (Non) News of a Strike at Maruti-Suzuki

The Black Hole of Manesar : (Non) News of a Strike at Maruti-Suzuki


by Shuddhabrata Sengupta

It is not yet dawn, and I am wondering what is happening inside the Maruti Suzuki Factories in Manesar. How exactly is the Haryana Police, armed, along with its usual ordnance, with a High Court order, and the Haryana Labour Department’s ‘go ahead’, going about its stated business of ‘escorting’ a few thousand unwilling workers out of their factories under cover of darkness? Apparently, the factory fence has been layered with tent cloth. No light gets in, no light gets out. The Maruti Factories in Manesar have become black holes.They are producing more darkness than cars in Manesar tonight.

There is no way of knowing just what is going on inside. And yet, a few hundred surveillance cameras must be recording what the management, police,  administration and ‘security personnel’  are doing to ‘convince’ the workers to leave. Someday, this archive, every inch of video footage, should be played and rewound repeatedly, in order to arrive at a clearer understanding of the evolution of class relations in the industrial belt around the National Capital Region in the second decade of the twenty first century in India. Unfortunately, I have a strong feeling that tonight’s footage is going to go where all inconvenient truths go – to the limbo of unsolicited erasure.

The rapidly unfolding Industrial dispute in the Maruti Suzuki factories at Manesar, Gurgaon is no longer an unfamiliar situation for Kafila and its readers. A small cluster of posts have been following what has been going on in the black hole of Maruti Suzuki for the past two months. Interested readers can search and find many other useful links in the blogsphere, and across several facebook walls.

Nayanjyoti’s guest post on behalf of Krantikari Naujawan Sabha uploaded recently on Kafila gave a summary of the situation till the workers in three Maruti Suzuki plants went on strike eight days ago and occupied their factories in solidarity with temporary and contract workers who were not taken back into work by the Maruti Suzuki management and against the suspension of 44 workers.

This demonstration of a living unity between permanent and casual workers, and across plants within the Maruti Suzuki operation at Manesar, will remain as an example of what working class solidarity actually means in practice. The strike has been largely peaceful and non-confrontational so far. It was the Management that sent in its hired goons, (security company personnel and their minions) to try and provoke the workers into violence. This strategy met with no success. Despite a security contractor and his associates firing bullet rounds and throwing empty beer bottles  at the workers, the workers chose not to break their discipline, chose not to retaliate in kind. The majority of the reports appearing in the mainstream media, predictably, dished out the PR speak of the Maruti Management, even about this standoff and made loose, unsubstantiated allegations of workers coercing their colleagues or intimidating other personnel. Workers, according to some reports, were ‘violent’, while the management was only ‘allegedly violent’. Here the presence or absence of the word ‘alleged’ as a qualifier across the class divide speaks volumes. None of these reports were backed up by any shred of evidence. They were hearsay, rumors and disinformation, the kind of stuff that should never cross the threshold of any self respecting news-room.

Repeatedly, television anchors on some channels, referred to the ‘pattern’ or ‘habit’ of strikes, neglecting to mention that this strike had come only as a last resort, and that it had come after workers had rejoined work following a management led ‘lockout’. The draconian nature of the ‘lockout’, which entailed the management’s arbitrary intent to not let workers join work became evident only weeks before, but was passed over in complete and total silence, as if it had not occurred. It was indeed incredible to see a ‘lockout’ being (mis)reported as a ‘strike’ – as in “…workers have made a ‘habit’ of going on strike at Maruti Suzuki” – which implied that even the previous stand-off was a strike, not a lock-out. Do the journalists who report these events not know the ABC of industrial disputes, or, are their superiors giving them clear instructions to obfuscate, confuse and misinform the public? Sadly, ignorance and stupidity (the first possible explanation) are the keys to the more generous interpretation of the motives of their actions. The only other explanation suggests a far darker possibility.

When the worker’s representatives were given even a fraction of air time, (compared to what Maruti Suzuki management figures were getting) they were treated with an incomprehensible condescension. Facts were misreported and distorted, and any semblance of journalistic responsibility or ethics thrown to the wind. Some channels chose to dignify themselves with a mantle of stoic silence, breaking it substantially, like flatulent dinner guests, only when the situation could be looked at through an appropriately ‘law and order’ lens. In Yoga, there is a pose known as Pawana Mukta Asana (‘The Wind Release Posture’), which is recommended for people with gastric problems. This pose reminds us of the (painfully? embarrassingly?) restrained conduct of the careful class warriors in the studios of a few distinguished television studios and editorial meeting rooms.

In late August, when the Maruti-Suzuki management had ‘occupied’ its Manesar plant by sending in a battalion of Haryana police that kept out its workers, some of us (who had been contacted by the workers and their allies) had tried to interest the mandarins of the media in the ‘law and order’ dimensions of  what was then a developing story – an evolving industrial dispute, not far from Delhi. It could have made, we reasoned, good ‘breaking news’, especially in the wake of the anti-corruption groundswell. Here, after all, were Industrial Workers talking about corruption and the attrition of unfair and inhuman work conditions in a ‘blue chip’ environment. At that time, the terms of reference were the exact opposite of what they are today. There were workers, eager to work on one side, and an obdurate management on the other, that insisted on not letting them in to work if they did not submit to a humiliating set of conditions, and a police force standing in between them, ensuring, effectively, that production could not begin.

At that time, we were given to understand by those who had the ear of those who are making the executive decisions to run stories on ‘defiant’ workers today, that there was little public interest in stories on industrial relations, even when there was a potential ‘law and order’ angle involved. It is a
lmost magical to see how quickly this view has changed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a groundswell of ‘public interest’ in the management’s effort to end a strike that has been sensed in exactly the same circles were once there was a perception of ‘no public interest’ in workers effort to end a lock-out.

This period has been a sad and shameful time, not just for the history of how the capitalist class and the state treats industrial workers, but also how their lapdogs in the mainstream media, so keen to be seen to be anti-corruption crusaders, crawl and grovel, even when they are perhaps required, perfunctorily, to kneel.

We need to ask the serious question about whether or not the generous contributions in the form of advertising revenue that companies like Maruti-Suzuki offer media companies is, or is not, a form of open bribery. If the acceptance of the necessity to misreport an industrial dispute (because your media baronetcy fattens on the advertisements for cars) is not corruption, I don’t know what is. It this is not ‘paid for news’, I don’t know what is.

As of today, the Maruti-Suzuki Management, in collusion with the Haryana Government and its Labour Department, have been on the offensive. They are armed with a high court order that deems the strike ‘illegal’. Latest reports from within the factory indicate that a force of one thousand and five hundred or so policemen are now inside the compounds. That access to water and mass kitchen have been cut off. That workers are being blocked even from using toilets.

In any war, the invaders begin by laying siege to the target of their attack. The first things they do is to cut off news and information. Then they cut off access to food and water. Then they intimidate and bully, and finally they smash as many heads as they need to. This is class war, and the siege of the factories has begun. The violent intentions of the management and their political-administrative allies in the state of Haryana are as clear as day. The workers, on their part have not indicated that they are prepared to listen to the dictates they are being given. They are standing their ground.

Yesterday afternoon, reports tell us that there was a meeting in support of the striking workers in Manesar. Several trade union leaders had apparently said that they will not let the workers of the Maruti Suzuki plants in Manesar be touched. It is time for them, and for the cadres who listen to them, to redeem their words. Or else be exposed for what they have become well known for – bluster.

Let us hope that once the sun rises, when the accounting for the last eight days and more will begin, those who take on themselves the task of telling us what happened before television cameras and in cold print can be honest, at least to the tenor of their proclamations against corruption, delivered with such aplomb and enthusiasm, not so long ago from Ramlila Ground.  The din of that pious noise is still ringing in my ears.

Meanwhile, this is going to be one long night in Manesar. One hell of a long night.

Update : The workers ended their occupation in compliance with the high court order and are continuing their peaceful protest at a distance of just more than 100 metres from the gates of the factories in Manesar.

Meanwhile, the voices of people allied to the workers are beginning to make themselves heard on certain corners of mainstream news television – here for instance, is a segment on Bloomberg TV which allows air time to Mr. Bhargava, the Maruti-Suzuki boss, and also to Rakhi Sehgal, who represents the New Trade Union Initiative of India (NTUI).

October 15, 2011 kafila