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India: 13 union leaders sentenced to life

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In a blatant attack on trade unionism, a court in India has sentenced 13 workers, including all 12 members of the Executive Committee of the Maruti-Suzuki Workers' Union, to life imprisonment. The ferocity of the company management's legal onslaught can be seen from the prosecution's demand for the death penalty, even though the evidence presented during the trial was so discredited that 117 other workers who had also been prosecuted were exonerated by the court.

The case itself went back to 2012 and a shop floor dispute during which a fire broke out, killing the Human Resources Manager. The company responded by sacking 546 permanent workers and 1800 “contract”, that is, temporary, workers. They then drew up a list of “suspects” who they accused of a variety of crimes including riot and culpable homicide.

In the course of the trial, none of the witnesses brought forward by the prosecution was able to identify any of those whom they had given testimony against. The defence was also able to show that evidence had been fabricated. For example, the only evidence that the fire had been started deliberately was a box of matches supposedly retrieved from the scene of the fire – a fire that had burnt out an entire room, apart from the box of matches.

Equally, the evidence presented by several witnesses was simply incredible; four contractors each named lists of workers they had seen involved in the incident, the first named 25 workers, all of whose surnames began with letters in the range A - G, the second named another 25, whose names, coincidentally, all began with letters in the range G – P, the third identified 26 workers and their names all began with letters in the range P – S. The fourth only identified 13 workers, but their names all began with letters in the range S – Z. In other words, they had each been given names from an alphabetical list of employees supplied by the company. None of that, however, stopped the court from delivering its verdicts on those the company considered the “ringleaders”.

The case has been seen across India as a clear attempt to intimidate workers from forming, or joining, trade unions. It is part of the strategy of the Indian state, now under the right wing Hindu nationalist party, BJP, of Narendra Modi, to attract investment in the “Delhi-Mumbai Investment Corridor” by ensuring a cheap and “flexible” workforce. This is clearly illustrated by the reasoning given by the High Court for denying bail to defendants who had already been held in prison for over a year at the time; “this is one of the unfortunate incidents that has lowered the reputation of India in the world. Foreign direct investment is likely not to happen due to fear of growing labour unrest”.

But India's workers are not so easily intimidated; when the court handed down its verdicts, there were demonstrations in cities across the country and workers staged protests in nearly 50 factories in the Gurgaon region where the trial took place. These included major multinational corporations such as Honda, Bajaj and Daikin. The Provisional Working Committee of the Maruti Suzuki Workers' Union is determined to carry on the struggle for unionisation and has appealed for support and solidarity actions to “resist this onslaught by capitalists and government and to stand with the working class movement in this crucial and decisive situation”.