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Maruti Suzuki workers protest 'one-sided' riot verdicts

Five years on from deadly clashes, unions demand answers

Members of the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union lead a 4km protest march in Manesar on Mar. 23. (Photo by Kiran Sharma)

NEW DELHI Nearly five years after a deadly riot rocked Maruti Suzuki India's Manesar plant, convictions in a long-running court case were finally handed down in March.

A total of 148 workers had been arrested after the uprising took place, most of whom had been released on bail after sitting in jail for three to four years. On March 10, 117 of them were acquitted. Eight days later, of the remaining 31 workers, 13 were sentenced to life imprisonment, four received five-year terms, and the remaining 14 were deemed to have served sufficient time before being granted bail.

The rulings were handed down by a court in the northern state of Haryana, where the plant is located.

All 148 of the arrested workers were fired by the company after the incident.

'HONOR STUDENT' The riot came as a shock. Suzuki had been thought of as an "honor student" among foreign-funded companies.

Management of Maruti Suzuki, India's largest passenger car maker, 56% owned by Japan's Suzuki Motor, had described the protest as "an orchestrated act of mob violence" and shut the plant for a month citing safety concerns.

The violence broke out on July 18, 2012, when a workers' union demanded that a suspended colleague be reinstated. Before the incident, the workers had also been seeking a wage hike and other benefits.

Maruti Suzuki claimed the workers used iron rods and door beams from cars to beat managers, and that they also damaged property and set fire to offices.

The workers allege company-hired thugs attacked them first.

Awanish Kumar Dev, a human resources general manager, was burned to death, and 96 supervisors and managers were injured during the riot.

The ruling came days before March 23, "Martyrs' Day" in India, when Indians commemorate the 1931 hanging of three revolutionaries who fought against British rule. Hundreds of Maruti Suzuki India's workers from the Manesar plant chose that day to protest the verdicts against their former colleagues. Led by the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, as well as colleagues from elsewhere in Haryana, they went on a 4km protest march.

Workers and their advocates gather at Maruti Suzuki's Manesar factory, where they began a demonstration on Mar. 23. (Photo by Kiran Sharma)

As they converged in an open area, workers from other unions joined in support. In all, more than 5,000 marchers showed up.

Kuldeep Janghu, general secretary of the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union, said the workers were not criticizing the judiciary as such but were questioning the investigation into the 2012 incident. He alleged that it only took into account management's claims.

"It was a one-sided probe," he said. "For a long time, we have been seeking a judicial inquiry, but this hasn't happened."

The Nikkei Asian Review talked to two workers from Maruti Suzuki's powertrain plant in Manesar who participated in the protest. "Now our unions are powerful [compared with 2012] and are working for our welfare," one said.

The other, who has worked for the company for a decade, said, "When I joined the company, no one cared for our rights. The working environment was poor. We were enduring longer working hours and were given just a 10- to 15-minute lunch break every day. But now we have a proper 30-minute lunchtime and a couple of 10-minute breaks to relax during the nine and a half hours we spend working in the plant."

Before the 2012 riot, Maruti Suzuki's Haryana plant had already been the site of worker unrest. So when it came time to set up another plant, Maruti Suzuki and its parent company plopped the new facility down in the industry-friendly western state of Gujarat.

Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Gujarat's chief minister back then.

The Manesar violence could have scared foreign investors away from India -- and especially Haryana -- but Modi, who came to power in May 2014, has instead managed to buff up the country's attractiveness.

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