An activist’s account of the working class anger and outrage in the NCR region during the two-day strike. It contradicts the media construction of the workers as a destructive mob. The basis for the anger of the workers lies in the blatant strangulation of industrial democracy, denial of rights to organise and unionise, and the open violation of labour laws, including minimum wage and contract work laws.
Kavita Krishnan (Kavitakrish73@gmail.com) is secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.
The dominant media narrative about the two-day All India Strike called by Trade Unions was one of ‘hooliganism’ by workers and inconvenience to the ‘public.’ As is usual, the main demands of the Strike found little space in the media’s discussion of the Strike. The working class – usually invisible both at the workplace and where they live – attain visibility on TV screens only as a ‘mob.’ Workers, whose labour is, after all, the source of all production, are seen – and shown – as an ever-present source of wanton, mindless destruction.
This February 2013, the narrative of the workers as a destructive mob, was constructed with images of the stone-pelting, arson and looting in NOIDA on the first day of the Strike. What followed has been an all-out crackdown on workers all across NOIDA.
Before we get to what is taking place in NOIDA, let us, briefly, talk about whyIndia’s working class responded so magnificently to the Strike. The Strike was successful in most of the vital sectors ofIndia’s economy: oil, telecom, mining, defence, power, port and dock, insurance, transport, State Government employees, post, banking, and income tax. Industrial workers all over the country shut down the production in both public and private industrial centres. In the NCR region, the Gurgaon-Dharuhera industrial belt of Haryana remained virtually closed on the second day of the Strike. Contract workers and workers of the unorganized sector participated fully in the Strike, everywhere. Several states – including Kerala,Bihar, and Jharkhand – observed a complete Bandh.
What were the workers saying, by striking for two days? They were demanding measures to curb price rise and unemployment. They were demanding that labour laws be enforced strictly. They were demanding compulsory registration of trade unions within 45 days, and immediate ratification of the ILO Conventions Nos. 87 and 98 that concern workers’ right to organize and collective bargaining. They were protesting against the rampant contractualisation of work of a perennial nature, in both public and private sector, in blatant violation of the law. They were demanding that mandated minimum wages be paid, and that the statutory minimum wage be fixed at not less than Rs 10,000. The Government and the industrialists that are accusing workers of lawlessness, are themselves guilty of systematically abusing the laws enacted to protect workers’ rights.
In Wazirpur Industrial Area of Delhi, around 20,000 workers came out on the streets on the second day of the Strike, in a protest march organized by various Trade Unions including AICCTU and CITU. For workers employed in the factories in this industrial area, one of the key issues is the blatant and open denial of minimum wages. Some years ago, a struggle to demand payment of minimum wages in one factory was met with a ‘united’ opposition of all the industrialists in the area, and the local MLA as well. The struggle succeeded only thanks to the upswell of support from workers across factories and their families, most of whom are migrants living in the local slum cluster that borders a railway track. When a worker has been killed in a workplace accident and the management tries to fudge records to avoid paying his wages and compensation, women from this slum cluster, most of them married to the factory workers, have spontaneously gheraoed (surrounded) the factory and forced the management to pay the dues. In the slum cluster where the workers live with the constant threat of eviction, basics like water, drainage, and sanitation are missing, while most of the migrant workers struggle for voter identity cards and BPL ration cards. Every time there is a major all-India Strike, the response here is huge. During the Strike, the anger of the young workers is palpable, and not uncommonly, factories which remain open and barricade their workers inside to prevent them from joining the Strike, are targeted. This is not wanton vandalism – it is a bid to free fellow workers from the factory that uses coercion to prevent workers from exercising their right to Strike. This time, too, the workers marched for hours in the lanes of Wazirpur, enforcing the Strike, and they blockadedDelhi’s Ring Road for a couple of hours. But there was no looting: what was seen was the collective, organized anger and energy of the working class.
What, then, happened in NOIDA on 20th February? For the large part, workers participated in the Strike in NOIDA as they did in the rest of the country. But in a few pockets of NOIDA, especially NOIDA Phase II, there was arson and looting. Who, in fact, was responsible for that violence? Clearly, it was not the Trade Unions that planned and executed the arson – if they had, why would such actions have been confined to a few pockets of NOIDA alone? Though the perpetrators of the violence are not known, the incident has been used by the UP Government, police and administration, to strangle the workers’ movement in NOIDA.
A virtual emergency has been imposed on NOIDA – at least on the working class. The Provincial Armed Constabulary is patrolling the area and conducting flag marches. Section 144 has been imposed all over NOIDA till the end of the month. Reportedly, 150 people have been arrested against 338 FIRs. Trade Union leaders have been systematically targeted and jailed, charged with attempt to murder, arson, rioting, and looting. Ordinary striking workers, and even by-standers, have been branded as criminals and jailed. The entire working class in NOIDA today has been criminalized.
Several of us from CPI(ML) and AISA visited NOIDA on 22nd February, following the arrest of 17 AICCTU activists on the 21st. On the morning of the 21st, our activists – including Delhi-NCR AICCTU Secretary Shyamkishor Yadav, were sitting inside the AICCTU office in NOIDA Sector-10, which is on the road adjoining the Sector-10 slum cluster. The activists, most of them unorganized sector workers including rickshaw pullers and street vendors, were preparing to hold a march in support of the second day of the Strike. They were arrested from inside their office, where they could not even be said to be violating Section 144! The AICCTU office in Sector-10 is very far away (at least 20 kms away) from NOIDA Phase-II where most of the violence occurred. The AICCTU activists had never even visited Phase-II.
On the 22nd morning, when we arrived at the Sector 10 office, there was a palpable feeling of terror among the local workers and activists. We were told it was not safe to stand near a Trade Union office. Eyewitnesses told us that on the previous morning, a large fleet of white ambassador cars (15-20 of them) with flashing red lights drew up and disgorged a posse of police as well as several VIPs from the local police and administration. We were told that in these cars, there were also mediapersons – presumably comfortably ‘embedded’ in the local administration. Once our activists were arrested from inside their office, they were paraded in front of the media, while the top police officials informed the media that the ‘culprits’ of the previous day’s rioting had been caught!
We waited at our office, trying to gather people who could stand bail for those arrested. We were also calling up the police, trying to get information on the status and whereabouts of those arrested. Several police vehicles drew up, and a large number of cops descended on us, including the SHO of the Sector-20 police station. The latter told us that we must disperse immediately, or else she would have us arrested! They waited till we left the place. Clearly, being in the vicinity of a Trade Union office, or being a Trade Union activist, is enough to merit being arrested in NOIDA today.
We then went to the Phase II police station, where we heard that those arrested were being detained. At the police station, we were told that there was no question of bail, and that all those arrested would be jailed by evening. We asked to meet the arrested people, and were told that one of us would be allowed to do so. I went inside the police station to meet our comrades in the lock-up. I was told to switch off my phone before doing so, and I later realized it was so I could not take photographs of the conditions in which the arrested workers were kept.
The police lock-up is a tiny 8ft/8ft room, totally dark, with no light whatsoever. Through the bars I saw and greeted Comrade Shyam Kishor. He is recovering from an accident, because of which he cannot sit on the ground easily nor stand for long periods of time. But inside that tiny room, there were some 45 men, sitting and standing in impossibly cramped conditions. There was a toilet, I was told, but it was full of water and so unusable. And the men had not been given water to drink for several hours! They had been there since the night of the 21st February, cooped up in that pen, deprived of basic rights and dignities. Seeing me, several of the young workers, all migrants, were desperate to have me note down contact numbers for their families, who would be worried about their whereabouts. They had not been informed about what they were being accused of, and what sections they were being booked under. Their families had not been informed about their arrest. Some family members who managed to reach the police station were not allowed to meet their arrested relatives.
When I asked the authorities about the conditions in which those arrested had been kept, he said, “What can we do, we have to keep them in the place allocated for such arrests by the government.” I asked them, had a politician or an industrialist been arrested, would they too be kept in such a lock-up?! Since a large number of people had been arrested, why could they not be detained in a stadium or any other similar room? Why should they be denied the right to inform their families? The answer was clear: the manner of the arrest and detention, and the denial of dignity, were punitive, intended to victimize and intimidate the entire working class.
I called on the number given to me by one of the arrested boys, Ram Bahadur. His aunt kept saying he had been on his way to visit a relative when he vanished – that is when the police picked him up. “My boy is bright, educated, a hard worker – why is he being treated like a criminal?,” she asked. Throughout the day, Ram Bahadur’s family kept calling up, feeling utterly shocked and helpless about the arrest of their son and breadwinner. Another concerned person trying to meet the detainees at the police station told us that among those arrested was a school master in Sector-10 NOIDA, who had been sitting on the road reading a paper when he was arrested. We secured a copy of one of the FIRs, which named 59 people, charging them with charges as serious as attempt to murder (307). All those arrested have now been jailed at Dasna Jail.
In the FIR that names Shyam Kishor Yadav, the SHO of Sector 20thana(Police Station) states that she and her team were on a raid when they received information that a group of people were gathering in preparation to protest. On reaching the spot, they found 34 people – and instantly recognised them all as being the ones responsible for the arson and looting of the previous day. So, she states, they were all arrested, their families will be duly informed of their arrest, and, she takes care to add, guidelines laid down by the honourable Supreme Court were followed to ensure that there were no human rights violations, and those arrested had no complaints against the police! Most of the rest of the FIR is a litany of names of those arrested.
There is, as of now, no evidence of who exactly was responsible for the arson and looting in NOIDA Phase-II. But without any evidence, why are all Trade Union leaders and ordinary workers being randomly arrested and booked in blatantly concocted cases for serious crimes? Why is terror being unleashed against NOIDA’s working class and trade union movement?
Working class anger and outrage in the NCR region, contrary to the media construction, is reasoned and with basis. And the main basis for this anger is the blatant strangulation of industrial democracy, denial of rights to organize and unionise, and the open violation of labour laws including minimum wage and contract work laws. NOIDA’s slum clusters where the workers live, are in stark contrast to the massive gated communities that are enclaves for the rich, carved out in what used till recently to be fertile farmland.
The industrialists, government, and mainstream media, rant righteously about the trade unions that ‘break the peace.’ Maintaining exploitative work conditions by denying the right to unionise and encouraging the open violations of labour laws, criminalizing NOIDA’s entire working class and trade union leadership and jailing them on blatantly fake charges, and deploying paramilitary forces in the industrial areas are not acts of ‘peace’. They are declarations of a virtual war on the working class. The Uttar Pradesh Government and the central Government are both equally answerable for this war on the workers – happening so close toDelhi,India’s seat of power.
Ed. Updated on 26 February, 2013
EPW Vol – XLVIII No. 09, March 02, 2013 | Kavita Krishnan
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