Film maker Rahul Roy feels the discourse around 2012 rioting incident at Manesar is dictated by what the industry and the State want us to believe
AROUND 20,000 workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited and its vendor companies went on a tool down strike in Haryana’s Gurugram district on March 18. This was to express solidarity with 13 former workers of Maruti Suzuki who were sentenced to life imprisonment for the death of a manager during rioting at the plant in 2012.
Film maker Rahul Roy, who has made a documentary, ‘The Factory’, feels it’s an iconic case not just because of the workers’ struggle but also because of the way the court proceedings went. As many as 147 workers on trial for four years without bail is just one of the glaring anomalies.
Here he shares his learnings from being with the workers, their families and through interactions with the justice delivery system.
Q. What do you think about the court verdict sentencing 13 workers to life imprisonment?
A: It has been said earlier and I believe that what you get in courts is judgment, not justice. Having 147 workers in prison for four years without bail underscores this point especially when we compare this to cases of people like Sanjay Dutt who get bail within a short time.
Going by the witness statements and the prosecution case, there’s complete lack of evidence on what happened on the day of the violence in July, 2012. I believe that if the arrested workers are guilty of killing the manager, they should be punished but there are so many versions of the incident and no concrete evidence whatsoever. Workers believe that management conspired to escalate the situation and hired bouncers who staged the riot.
Nobody knows for sure what happened but the court has a duty to go only by law and the evidence presented. When the High Court observes while dismissing the bail application of an accused worker that granting bail would adversely affect foreign direct investment (FDI), we are left wondering whether the application is being examined by a judge or the finance minister. Why should the court worry about FDI? It should just go by the rulebook to reject or approve the bail.
This raises question of fairness and points to the inherent bias in the system as represented by the corporation, administration and the judiciary. There’s one particular arrest in which the investigating officer goes with one constable and arrests a group of workers who were shown to be sitting in a public park along with shockers and door beams which they used to attack people in the factory. Two police officers make the arrest and not a single worker tries to flee and for two days they were moving around in public spaces clinging on to the weapons used to attack the management. If this is the way evidence is going to be made, it’s very clear how deep the rot is.
When High Court observes that granting bail to an accused worker would adversely affect foreign direct investment (FDI), we are left wondering whether the application is being examined by a judge or the finance minister.
Q. What made you decide that you have to do this film?
A: I had been following the troubles at Maruti’s Manesar plant since 2011 when workers had gone on strike thrice. Their struggle to form a union had already attracted a lot of attention and it had become iconic for the strategies at display and the determination. In July 2012 immediately after the incident of violence and the death of the manager, the coverage of the entire episode by the mainstream media convinced me that there is a documentary to be made on what really happened.
The trigger was an NDTV discussion show which had people from the industry, lawyers, Maruti management, journalists and friends of the deceased manager. There was no representation at all of the workers. So, the media was not giving the workers an opportunity to present the side of the story as they experienced it. The coverage also lacked any details about what led to the event of 2012 and I felt then that there’s a film here because a lot was being left unsaid.
The media was not giving the workers an opportunity to present the side of the story as they experienced it. The coverage also lacked any details about what led to the event of 2012
Q. What have we learnt from this case and has Maruti made any amends in its dealings with the workers?
A: If you look at the research projects students at management schools have done on the case, they are all critical of the company for making such gross errors in negotiating with the workers. All management experts know that when a newly-elected union submits its first charter of demands, which was the case at Manesar plant, it’s a critical moment. This is because the union is itself under pressure from workers, especially when it is elected after a long struggle. The management should have engaged with them in honest negotiations and settled the issues.
After two years of the July incident, the company changed the management and also removed the then managers after an internal inquiry. Salaries of workers went up and the company removed the system of hiring contract workers through middlemen; now they are hired directly. A new canteen has been constructed as the location of canteen and little time to have lunch there in 20-minutes break was one of the major issues workers had raised. However, 2,500 workers lost their jobs, 147 workers spent almost four years in prison and now 13 workers have been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. But the company carries on, profits are being booked and no one really gives a damn about the workers.
Q. Do you think your documentary also became a one-sided story with only the workers’ version?
A: The documentary was filmed in one year from July 2013 to July 2014. This was the period when attempts by the dismissed workers to set up a struggle outside the factory in the villages of Haryana had already been crushed by the Congress government. There was only the court case going on and that provided the documentary with the central narrative. I did pursue the Maruti management for a year to allow me access to their plant and management but they didn’t. As far as the case is concerned, I utilised the management witness statements to give a sense of the management perspective but I don’t think truth can be arrived at by presenting two opposing points of view.
Truth is far deeper and nothing exemplifies it better than the judgement in the case itself. Does the judgement represent the truth? Does it give justice? The film instead of positing itself with claims of objectivity investigates the details of what happened from 2011 onwards, the truth lies merged in these details, in the stories of resistance, in every day humiliation of the workers, in the camaraderie between the management and the labour department to deny the workers a union.
When we follow the details and the stories as they evolved over a period of two years we get closer to the truth of what probably happened in July 2012. The discourse that surrounds this issue is a singular discourse that the management, state or the industry wants us to believe. The point is there are various ways to navigate towards truth. Giving both the sides just means two different versions, does not mean you are nearer the truth.
The discourse that surrounds this issue is a singular discourse that the management, state or the industry wants us to believe.
Q. How did interacting with workers’ families help your understanding as a filmmaker?
A: What I am always interested in is the nature of the everyday in an emergency situation. Every day is the only way you can escape the pressure of being ideological. You will always encounter narratives, stories, people that do not align themselves to one particular position of understanding the events. That’s what excites me. Even in this film, there are ways in which a certain narrative is built and then there are questions constantly inserted. For instance, we always associate a certain heroism with these kinds of struggles. But there’s this sequence about a union leader and his wife at their house, which questions that heroism. It shows that there are various other stories going on within that heroism.
Q. A lot of states have gone for labour reforms which are meant to further weaken the workers’ unity, how do you think this will pan out?
A: When the new government at Centre came to power, it had two goals: Land reforms and labour reforms. Due to opposition in the Parliament, these so-called reforms could not take place. But these are now happening at the level of States.
Labour issues are no longer sought to be resolved through tripartite discussion between unions, management and the labour department but instead the effort is to somehow create a situation of impasse or violence and then get workers embroiled in criminal cases
Besides this, a lot of other changes are happening in the industrial sector. Managements of all companies want to be in a position where they can keep changing production goals as per orders and requirements. This can only happen when you have contractual workers who can be hired and fired at will. Another trend that is now visible and is exemplified by what happened at Maruti is to criminalise labour demands. Labour issues are no longer sought to be resolved through the process of a tripartite discussion between unions, management and the labour department but instead the effort is to somehow create a situation of impasse or violence and then get workers embroiled in criminal cases.
The big new challenge that the management of industries is facing now is the demand for dignity by workers. The new, educated and self confident worker is no longer willing to be treated as a slave or an extension of the machine. There is a recognition of rights and a willingness to fight for it. That is exactly what happened at Maruti. It was besides everything else a fight for dignity and that is increasingly what is happening at several other plants. The managements have to figure this out and change otherwise we will see many more Maruti like situations in the near future.
The screening of 'Factory' was organised by the Chandigarh Creative Cinema Circle