Sushma sat next to me in the car as we drove to the jail. She has unslept, baggy eyes. She couldn’t sleep the night because her neighbour committed suicide. The neighbour, who worked in a cable factory, had a fight at work. He came home, made one last phone call to his wife in the village, asking her to remarry after his death. By the time his wife called up his neighbours, he had hung himself to death.
Sushma said, “So difficult to live alone for a woman.” She was dressed for office: neat salwar-kameez, hair tightly pulled back into a ponytail, a big, black bag with a small tiffin box in her hands. She works for a company that makes wires and cables and allows her to come late twice a week.
“My next door neighbor, a woman, asked me today, ‘I was thinking… You look married but the husband never comes and you didn’t even have a baby in all these years. What could the case be?’ I told her, ‘Why? You want to raise my babies?'
Now in her late twenties, she graduated and became a certified teacher at Shimla University in 2008. The same year, they met at a common friend’s wedding, fell in love and got married. Sohan’s father in Karnal, Haryana, did not approve of the marriage, and made it clear he would have nothing to do with them.
Sohan was already working with Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant as a permanent employee, earning Rs 15,000 a month. She got a job at a nearby school and earned Rs 5,000 a month.
“There is a worker who had been married only for a month when the incident took place. His wife told me how everyone at home curses her for being unlucky for the family. I told her that she should ignore such barbs. I was married for four years and yet my husband was also arrested,” Sushma said.
Identifying Jia Lal
Twenty five minutes later, we reached the prison complex. “We reached early today. Usually I have to change three autos to reach here”, she said walking towards the ‘Interview Registration Centre’, the place where one has to register before meeting the inmates.
A small woman in an Anarkali suit and burgundy coloured hair was on the phone, saying, “Sir, why don’t you ask the Station House Officer the reason for mentioning in my husband’s character report that his life would be in danger if he was released. I even gave him money.” After a minute of nodding, she hung up. Her name is Mamta. Her husband was sentenced to a life-term fifteen years ago and is still in jail. Two years ago, Sushma and Mamta were brought together by the initials of their husbands’ names, which developed into a nurturing friendship, filled with empathy and togetherness, when everyday – as for most women whose husbands are in jail – they are met with judgment and isolation.
They share notes as they wait in the queue to register for the meeting. Their actions were reflexes interrupting their intense conversation: presenting documents, posing before the webcam, moving to the next counter. “Why do you listen to them?” Mamta asks Sushma, “They call me ‘bechaari’ [pitiful]. When I reject their sympathy, they say I am characterless because I live my life, wear nice clothes and don’t mourn all the time that my husband is in jail. What if I were not married? I would still live no? I think of that and move ahead.”
“Didi, your case is different. My husband didn’t kill anyone, he was just demanding his rights,” Sushma stops and corrects herself. “As in, his crime has not even been proved, unlike your case.”
Mamta’s husband was convicted for a murder in 1999. Sushma’s husband and 146 more workers have been accused of murdering Awanish Kumar Dev, the human resources manager of Maruti Suzuki, on July 18, 2012. KTS Tulsi, the Haryana state prosecutor, who charges Rs 11 lakh per hearing, has claimed that he has 23 witnesses to prove their guilt. Rajendra Pathak, the lawyer for the workers, said, “Only Prasad, a senior plant manager claimed that he saw Jia Lal, one of the workers, setting the Maruti plant on fire. When he was asked to identify Jia Lal among the workers, he could not do that.”
In May 2013, when the first bail application of the workers was rejected, the Haryana and Punjab High Court noted that “foreign investors are likely not to invest money in India out of fear of labour unrest”. The case is being used as a precedent. If charges are proved, all 147 workers will be sentenced to the harshest punishment, which could mean imprisonment for over two decades.
Sushma was carrying a bag with three books: an Oxford dictionary from English to Hindi, a book on spirituality and a concise edition of the Labour Act of India. The woman constable flipped through all the pages, one by one and then turned to Sushma, “What is the need for a law book and a dictionary inside the jail. You cannot take them.”
The door opens into a ten foot wide room, neatly divided into two parts by two parallel sets of iron netted bars, separated by about a foot. Both of them headed the queue of the first round of visitors, 15 of them.
They waited on this side of the bars.
“There are very few people today,” Sushma observed.
“It was cloudy this morning, that is why,” Mamta said from experience.
"Knowing does not help"
As they waited, the first man on the other side of the bar appeared. Anshu, the two year old son of Sumit, another Maruti worker, screamed in joy on seeing him. Since his birth, he has always seen his father behind bars. His mother picks him up so he can see his father clearly.
“My man will make me wait today. He is upset with me for not being able to do the paperwork fast enough for his release,” said Mamta.
Sohan arrives, freshly bathed, nicely shaved, hair combed and parted to the left. His face beamed as he saw Sushma on the other side.
They stand like a mirror image of each other on either side of the bars, clasping the iron nets as tightly as they can to get close enough. Sushma points towards me and he waves.
More inmates soon appear and the decibel levels gradually rise. Mamta’s husband, a middle aged, large man in a white kurta-pyjama and a gamchaa enters and sits cross-legged on the floor. Mamta spots him and does the same on this side.
“Thanks for coming, Madam. Everyone has forgotten us. The media has also stopped helping us. Is this what is called corporate media?” Sohan asks.
“There are three-four boys whose children have died but they could not even go to attend the funeral at all... Another boy’s father died last year and he could not make it to the cremation on time. They were the only earning members of the family from far off... Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa and elsewhere. Their family members have stopped coming to visit them because they cannot afford it any longer. Some have not seen them for over six months. Three-four boys are losing their mental balance,” he said.
I stepped back to let him be with Sushma. By now, they have started yelling to be able to talk to each other. And so have others. Everyone was smiling, happy for the precious moments they were able to see each other.
Two minutes later, Sohan called out to me. “Don’t stand away. I rarely get to meet new people nowadays,” he laughed.
“How are things inside?” I asked.
“It is fine. We get basic food,” he laughed, “kacchi roti and patli dal. There is a library and a doctor comes for regular checkup. There is a canteen as well. We can buy things to eat if we want but that requires money. My wife earns so I can buy it but those who don’t get visitors or were the only earning members have to do with whatever limited food is given. We share with them whatever we get... Some of them are casual workers, one had joined work just three days before the incident. At least they should be let off,” he speaks in a flow.
He pauses and points at four other Maruti workers who were meeting their families around us. “We all got along really well with Awanish Kumar. We consulted him for advice quite often. Why would we murder him? Asking for enough time to pee and medical leaves is murder? It is not like that even in jail. I had left for work that day, did not know that I will be in jail for two years. And I still don’t know how many more years I will spend here.”
The police constable has come to announce that the visitors have one more minute. As if by reflex, the visitors and inmates draw closer to the netted bars. In the last half of the minute, all the Maruti workers came together and waved at me. Sohan yelled, “Madam, please try to do something!”
People are ushered out. Mamta is the last to leave. Her husband was one of the first inmates of this jail.
They came out and collected their bags. Sushma had teary eyes. “I don’t show him that I am sad,” she said. “He asks me if his father called to ask about him. I lie and tell him he did. I don’t want him to be troubled by what is happening outside,” she pauses, “I don’t buy anything for myself but don’t let him wait for a day for a thing of requirement. I haven’t bought clothes in all these years because I use the money to buy clothes for him and the other inmates whose families cannot afford it.”
We sat in the car. “Why do people become terrorists? They become terrorists because you eat up their entire productive youth for demanding what is right?” Sushma said in a stern voice.
Mamta said, “I don’t know what my husband will do when he comes out, unaware of how things have changed in so many years. Modi said acche din aanewale hain, good days are around the corner. Mine haven't come.”
Sushma said, “This month, all I bought for ration was a bottle of oil. The prices have gone up yet again. Plus the rent and the expenses on Sohan and other inmates. If they were sentenced, I would at least know until when life will be like this.”
Mamta said, “Knowing does not help. I knew it was 14, but now it is 15.”
Sushma said, “Guess you are right. Which was the Tarkeshwar Mandir you were telling me about?” asks Sushma.
“It is close by. Let us go next time,” Mamta replied.