At 8 am on a rainy Thursday, Ram Niwas waited on a bench outside the Bhondsi prison on the outskirts of Gurgaon. From there, he made his way to the interview registration room, along with a handful of others. They were the day's first visitors to the prison.

In Bhondsi, Thursday is Visitors’ Day for inmates whose names begin with the alphabets R and S. Niwas, a former worker of Maruti Suzuki India Limited, was there to meet his former colleagues Ram Meher and Suresh Dhool, who have spent the last four years in prison.

Behind bars

On July 18, 2012, a senior manager died and several others were injured after a fire broke out during a clash between workers and management in the Manesar factory of Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest car-maker.

The police charged 147 workers, including the workers' union president Ram Meher and treasurer Suresh Dhool, with rioting and murder.

It was only after the Supreme Court granted bail to two workers last year that other workers, with similar charges against them, also got bail. Most of them had already spent nearly three years in prison. However, 35 workers continue to remain behind bars.

A provisional committee set up by former workers, of whom Niwas is one, continues to act as a support group for the workers still in jail. The committee members visit their incarcerated former colleagues twice a week, provide them with supplies, help with court applications and run errands for their families.

The workers currently employed at Maruti's Manesar plant pool in funds for legal expenses through the Maruti Suzuki Workers' Union, which several people, now in jail, had fought to set up in 2011-’12.

“Biased government”

Niwas and Meher had worked on the shop-floor of the Manesar factory from 2006 till 2012.

Once the formalities were finished and Niwas entered the jail, he told Meher about the preparations for July 18, the fourth anniversary of the Maruti workers' riot inside the factory.

Like last year, the police has prohibited any demonstrations in Manesar on July 18 by imposing Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits the gathering of more than five people.

“They are saying, ‘you cannot protest,’ but we will hold a demonstration from Rajiv Chowk in Gurgaon till the Collector's office, and sit-in there,” Niwas told Meher across the metal bars and glass partition that separated the two. Meher nodded.

Meher had just bathed, shaved and was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, but his eyes were bloodshot with sleeplessness from a painful back condition. He said he had developed a slipped disk in jail, and said other workers suffered from depression.

Of 35 not given bail, 12 are union body members,” said Meher. “The others include several young workers and apprentices who were picked up from their houses later and jailed simply because they worked at the Manesar plant.”

He said that the Haryana government was attempting to make an example out of the jailed workers to appease factory owners.

“Their labour laws have failed, and they are now using criminal cases to stifle workers who protest,” said Meher. “In jail, besides those of us from Maruti, a group of extremely poor youth, who worked in garment factories, were also imprisoned after they protested against the management at their work-site. They too were denied bail for over a year.”

Organised evidence?

The arrested workers were charged on identical counts for the murder of manager Awanish Kumar Dev.

While some have since got bail after they approached the Supreme Court, several workers, with little evidence against them, continue to be denied bail.

For instance, the sessions court in Gurgaon is set to hear the bail plea of a worker, Sumit Nain, who was a permanent employee at the Manesar plant.

Of the 102 prosecution witnesses who have testified, only one – Rajeev Kaul, who was General Manager (Materials) at the Manesar plant at the time of the riot – could identify Nain.

Even Kaul does not claim that Nain had inflicted any injury on him. In his testimony, Kaul stated that he saw Nain standing on a staircase inside the factory: At about 6 pm, when I and Mr Maghho [another manager] went upstairs in the main office, I saw accused Sumit Nain along with 15-20 other workers standing in the staircase. I sensed they had blocked the same. Therefore, we went upstairs at about 6:45 pm...”

Later, in the same testimony, Kaul added: “Mr Maghho was already with me from Assembly-B office when I came into the hall. The 15-20 workers who were found sitting in the stairs, they did not stop us from going upstairs.”

Though no witness identified Nain as having injured them, the sessions court dismissed his bail plea in May, 2015, as did the High Court of Punjab and Haryana in August that year.

Lawyer Vrinda Grover, who is representing the workers, questioned why Nain was denied bail. “The prosecution witness says he did not hit him, he did not obstruct him,” said Grover. “Then why is the accused in jail since four years simply for standing and talking to 15 people at the foot of the stairs inside his own workplace?”

Nain has applied for bail for the second time after the Supreme Court, on July 1, gave bail to another worker, who was also described by prosecution witnesses as merely standing on the stairs.

Earlier, the defence counsels had pointed out that in the case of 89 accused workers, the Haryana police had cited the testimonies of only four labour supply contractors hired by Maruti Suzuki at its Manesar plant.

What was odd was that each of these four contractors – who allegedly saw the workers rioting – listed workers' names that fell neatly within four separate sections of the alphabet.

For instance, labour contractor Virendra Yadav named 25 workers all of whose names fell in the A-G section of the alphabet. Similarly, the second witness, Yaad Ram, testified that he saw 25 workers rioting, all of whose names fell in the alphabetical range G-P, while witness Ashok Rana named 26 workers whose names fell in the P-S category. The last witness, Rakesh, of Tirupati Associates, who supplied 900 contract workers to Maruti Suzuki India Limited, said that he saw 13 rioting workers, all of whose names appear within the S-Y range of the alphabet.

There were 11 workers against whom there were no witnesses.

In 2014, all four contractors failed to identify any of the 89 workers they named.

The defence lawyers had argued that after noting the names of 55 workers, mainly those of union functionaries, in the First Information Report following the 2012 riot and fire, the police arrested a large number of workers without any evidence, and simply assigned their names in an alphabetical order to Maruti Suzuki labour contractors who testified as eyewitnesses.

Identical rioting weapons

In addition, the police showed that it had recovered rioting weapons – 139 car door-beams and shockers – from the workers several weeks after the incident.

Union president Ram Meher was arrested 13 days after the riot on August 1, 2012. The recovery memo records that a car door-beam over 2 feet long, which was allegedly used as rioting weapon, was found inside his bed at his home in Ashok Vihar, 25 km from the Manesar plant.

Amarjeet Singh, a Union executive, was arrested in the first week of August, 2012. The police say they recovered a car doorbeam from his cousin's house on August 4, 2012. The same pattern of evidence is repeated for 139 workers.

Singh’s father Kampoor Singh, a retired soldier, who was at the sessions court in Gurgaon on Thursday refuted this. “We live in Rohtak, more than 70 km, away,” he said. “Why would Amarjeet have carried a 2- or 3-foot-long iron beam with him for tens of kilometers after rioting and store it inside the house? The police have planted this as evidence.”

Singh was in court that day to apply for interim bail so that his son could attend the funeral of Surendra, his younger brother, who had died in a road accident. Singh's application was turned down. Amarjeet Singh was instead given permission to attend his brother's last rites for a few hours while in police custody.

On Monday, the Supreme Court is set to hear an application by the defence lawyers of the workers for the re-examination of 12 prosecution witnesses, including 11 Maruti officials, under Section 311 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which permits the recall of any person already examined if the evidence is essential to a just decision.

Lawyer Rebecca M John, representing the workers, pointed that this was necessary because the trial is large, involving 147 accused, and RS Hooda, who was the leading defence counsel for the workers, was critically ill during the trial. John said the recall is crucial to establish some important questions related to individual roles of the accused, the injuries sustained by witnesses, and the alleged weapons.

“On one hand they say the workers did not leave factory premises,” she said. “But the weapons in the First Information Report filed on July 18 [2012] are described as “belcha, lathis, rods”, which were not available in the factory. Then later, car door beams and shockers were shown as the weapons used.”

John added: “The company management did not list any inventory as missing, they did not register any FIR on missing property. This is a fraudulent way of introducing evidence.”

DC Gupta, a lawyer representing Maruti Suzuki India Limited, said the application to recall 12 witnesses was a delaying tactic.

“The witnesses have been thoroughly examined,” he said. “If new advocates come in, that does not mean more opportunities for cross-questioning will be given.”

Public prosecutor LS Yadav opposed the application citing similar reasons. He said that the Haryana government continued to oppose bail applications as well. “The workers committed a very heinous crime,” said Yadav. “If they come out, they will cause more problems.”