Ten years ago, the long, peaceful struggle of workers at the Maruti Suzuki India Limited plant in Haryana’s Manesar took a dramatic turn as violence erupted on the premises on July 18, 2012. A human resources managers at the factory, Awanish Kumar Dev, was killed and hundreds were injured as the situation spiralled out of control.

The events of that day were an unfortunate culmination of a series of democratic protests by workers in the previous few years against their low wages, precarious working conditions, low wages and the unwillingness of the company management to negotiate with their independent union in good faith.

The management and the state held the workers directly responsible for Dev’s death. The workers, however, pointed to the management’s role in stoking violence and arson through hired instigators.

The trigger for the events, workers said, was an altercation between a foreman and a worker named Jiya Lal over a casteist slur used by the former. A perspective on the events of that day and the immediate aftermath that was published in the Economic and Political Weekly by labour researcher Rakhi Sehgal can be accessed here.

Over the next few days, more than 2,000 Maruti workers were summarily dismissed. Hundreds of them, including the union office-bearers, were indiscriminately arrested. Several of the workers arrested claimed they were not present on the factory premises at the time of the violence. Public statements by politicians and business leaders demanding “exemplary punishment” and “ruthless action” against the workers made clear the intent of the state and the industry to crush the workers’ struggle.

RC Bhargava, the chairman of Maruti Suzuki India Limited, described the incident as a “class attack”. After this, the small section of the mainstream news media that had given the workers sympathetic coverage for their struggle also reverted to the pro-industrialist frames through which labour problems are usually reported.

Media coverage

The tone of the media coverage belied the faith that the workers had placed in journalism. Before the attack, as I visited the protest site, many of the workers I interviewed believed that if the mainstream media would cover a problem in a fair manner, there was a greater chance of the authorities resolving it. The workers mentioned the contemporaneous “Anna Movement” – as the 2011-’12 India Against Corruption mobilisation was popularly known – that was being comprehensively covered by the mainstream media.

In fact, they even held up a placard saying, “Media se baat karaao” – let us talk to the media.

A little later in 2012-’13 the workers also referred to the “Nirbhaya case” – the December 2012 gangrape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi – that had caught the public imagination across the country due to the sustained mainstream media coverage. They also pointed to the coverage of an earlier police attack on workers of Gurgaon’s Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India in 2005 and the public outrage that had followed.

From my conversations with them, it was clear that their expectations were derived from a range of popular understandings of the media – as muckrakers, watchdogs of democracy, the fourth estate, as an institution that amplifies the voices of the weak and keeps in check the powerful, especially the instruments of state.

Members of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions protest against the sacking of workers at the plant, in New Delhi in August 2012. Credit: Reuters.

As the workers witnessed the actual news media reportage of their struggles, they realised that most mainstream outlets had accorded greater importance to the perspective of the company management. The workers’ concerns were either missing or misrepresented to a large extent.

The coverage of the Maruti labour-management conflict conformed to the well-established tropes apparently in the broader media discourse and news media reportage about industrial relations.

Some of these are that trade unions protect lazy, unproductive and insubordinate workers, and that they undermine the competitiveness of private enterprises by advocating for higher wages. In addition, unions are projected as not really representing the interest of the working class.

Other perceptions include: the consumer is king, production is none of the public’s business, the economy is driven by – to borrow a phrase from Indian business news media – “captains of the industry” and unionisation/collective economic action is damaging to the country’s economy.

Angry, irrational workers

One of the most significant news themes around the Maruti workers’ struggle focused on their strike. The provision to go on a strike as a mode of raising workplace concerns or concrete demands is legally provided in the Industrial Disputes Act 1947.

The Industrial Relations Code passed in 2020 includes features of this Act, as well as the Trade Unions Act, 1926, and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946. For now, though, the code has not yet been implemented.

However, the mainstream news has historically reported on labour strikes unsympathetically. Strikes are often tied to the threat of violence. The sections of the news media that had until July 18, 2012, either ignored or covered the Maruti workers struggle unsympathetically found the violence to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But not all kinds of violence find equal prominence in the news and neither do all its victims.

Take, for instance, a primetime debate aired on NDTV on July 30, 2012, days after the violence at the Maruti factory. Barkha Dutt conducted the debate on the assumption that Dev’s unfortunate death was in fact a murder by hordes of Maruti workers.

She tried to conduct the debate like a prosecutor, browbeating those who wanted to talk about the larger context, while trying to appeal to the emotions of the jury – “We the People” – to think along the lines she had set.

This tendency of the mainstream media has been documented by scholars as early as the 1970. Labour-management conflicts are presented as discrete events or “immediate forms of events” without placing them on the context of the “relationship between particular events and underlying structural processes”, wrote British communications professor David Morley.

Also, in such kinds of news coverage, “coherence and rationality are granted to management and not to the workforce”, said researchers of the Glasgow Media Group. The structural violence of backbreaking work, abusive disciplining, wage theft and poor working conditions that routinely lead to severe injuries and maiming – very high in the automobile manufacturing sector – never really make it to the headlines.

Just days before the NDTV show, the public prosecutor in the case against the factory workers, had appeared on another television news channel – this time the prominent business news channel CNBC TV-18 – and said that his objective would be to push for a death sentence for those found guilty.

The anchor’s introduction to the story, “speedy probe and swift justice”, was a distasteful wordplay with automobile metaphors – speedy referring to cars and swift to one of the most popular car models by the company.

It was hard not to see the duplicitousness in the mainstream media discourses that so inextricably link the workers to violence all the time and hold human life sacrosanct to also betray a sense of humour at the prospect of putting someone to death.

Private security guards stand outside the main entrance to a Maruti Suzuki India Limited plant as protesting employees shout slogans, in Manesar in June 2011. Credit: Reuters.

As is evident, even some sections in the English news media that claim to be liberal do not seem to mind mind trading in prejudice when it comes to class relations or conflicts.

In March 18, 2017, 13 of the 148 accused Maruti workers were given life sentences. Twelve of them were union office bearers. Among them was the president the union. A worker who had complained of casteist abuse, Jiyalal, was the thirteenth. Four others were sentenced to five years imprisonment. Fourteen workers were handed down three years of imprisonment, since they had already done time as undertrials, they were released.

A hundred and seventeen workers were acquitted after having spent four years in prison. The judgment was widely criticised by civil society organisations. The convicted workers continue to be regarded and referred to as political prisoners in the broader labour movement.

While large sections of the mainstream media condemned the workers’ violent tendency, they remained unaware of the violence of their own words and the real consequences of this. Hundreds of workers have spent time in jail only to be later acquitted and several thousand are out of work, with little prospect of finding employment in the sector again.

Since the hostility of the media was normalised then, perhaps because it was not directed at those whom journalist critic P Sainath calls “people like us”, it has become even more biased in its perceptions about workers.

Jiyalal, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, died of spinal cancer in his home on June 4 last year. He was among the prisoners temporarily released to decongest jails during the Covid-19 pandemic. While the cancer was detected in jail, Jiyalal’s access to diagnosis and treatment was allegedly curtailed by the authorities. He is survived by his wife and two children.

Faiz Ullah is an assistant professor at the School of Media and Cultural Studies of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.