On Friday, the Gurgaon Additional District and Sessions Court is set to deliver its judgement in a case of violence at India’s largest automobile manufacturer Maruti Suzuki India Limited’s factory at Manesar, Haryana, after a four-year trial.

A senior manager died and several others were injured when a fire broke out at the plant during a clash between workers and management on July 18, 2012. The police arrested 147 Maruti workers and charged all of them on 18 identical counts, including under section 302 of Indian Penal Code for murder of manager Awanish Kumar Dev, and rioting, and unlawful assembly.

Tensions that had been brewing in the plant for some time. In 2011-’12, over 4,000 workers struck work three times at Maruti’s Manesar factory to demand better work conditions and the right to form an independent trade union. Even after the union was formed, relations between the workers and management continued to be strained.

Of the 147 workers who were arrested after the fire, 113 received bail in 2015, after three and a half years in jail. Eleven workers who were members of the union body of Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union were denied bail and are still in Bhondsi prison.

The legal arguments in the case concluded on February 18.

DC Gupta, who argued on behalf of Maruti company said during the arguments, the prosecution had been able to show the workers were guilty of the charges. “The accused workers formed an unlawful assembly reached the administrative block of the factory, and caused injuries to 94 managers, fractures to 25 managers, and the murder of Awanish Kumar Dev,” he said. “The workers set the building on fire, and damaged the CCTV cameras.”

Vikas Pahwa, a senior advocate who also represented Maruti, said that union members had executed a criminal conspiracy and formed an unlawful assembly with the intention to kill management officials. Pahwa said a criminal conspiracy was hatched on the afternoon of July 18, 2012, when the union body asked the workers in the first shift to not return home and assemble in the plant.

He said the accused workers had delivered provocative speeches, blocked staircases restricting entry movement of management officials.”The workers armed with door-beams and shockers started assaulting the management officials, vandalising the property, indulging in arson, all with intention to kill the management officials,” he said.

Awanish Kumar Dev had died of burn injuries with multiple fractures in his legs. Pahwa said that workers had “deliberately assaulted” Dev, leaving him unable to escape the fire.

Gaps remain

But the defence lawyers – Rebecca John, Vrinda Grover, and RS Cheema – say that there are several “internal contradictions and falsehoods” in the prosecution’s case. They say several questions remain over the fairness of the police investigation.

  • Weapons replaced: The defence lawyers have pointed out that though in the First Information Report after the incident in July 2012, the weapons of offence were described as “belcha, lathi, rod, iron saria, danda” (sticks, iron rods), in the testimonies before the court by the prosecution witness, these weapons were changed to include “136 car door frames, shockers”. The defence lawyers say the prosecution deliberately introduced new weapons of evidence as these could be shown to be made easily available within the factory premises.“No police complaints were made by the management about hundreds of missing door frames, shockers, which the police have shown the workers as carrying over several dozen kilometers after the arson, and kept hidden in their beds or in their homes,” pointed out senior advocate Rebecca M John. “The stock register is not given to the police, nor do the police ask for it. The recovered door frames bear no mark of identification if these belonged to Manesar factory.” John said the police did not even send these door frames, shockers which were the so-called weapons for forensic analysis, which could have showed if there were any blood stains on them.
  • ‘No one saw fire being lit, and how it was lit’: The prosecution failed to prove who lit the fire on factory premises, or how fire was lit and whether any flammable substance was used. Of the prosecution witnesses who testified about the fire, three did not see the fire starting and did not attribute anyone’s role. Three other prosecution witnesses named three workers, but failed to identify them correctly. For instance, prosecution witness Vikram Verma state that he saw a fire “had broken outside the M1 room”, another prosecution witness PK Roy stated he heard the accused Ram Meher, Pardeep Gujjar, and Dhanraj saying that “office be set on fire and all of them should be burnt alive” and that he saw workers Jia Lal, Ishwar, Narsi, Sohan Kumar near M1 conference room. But later, he failed to identify the persons he had named. The defence lawyers claim that this shows the prosecution witnesses made an attempt to falsely incriminate certain accused persons, especially the union body members. 
  • Flammable material not conclusive: The workers’ lawyers  also pointed out that though the police say a matchbox was used to light a fire, the matchbox shown as recovered from M1 room and office hall which were allegedly burnt down is completely unburnt. No efforts were made by the police to even lift the fingerprints off the matchbox, they pointed out. “Here, we do not know for certain if it was man-made fire or whether it could have been an electrical short circuit, it is not clear,” said senior advocate Vrinda Grover.  
  • Medico-legal evidence: The workers’ lawyers also questioned the lack of consistency in the identical charges of murder, attempt to murder against all 147 workers, and the medico-legal evidence. Senior advocate RS Cheema pointed to how each of the injured’s medico-legal records show the “injuries sustained – regardless of seriousness – are all on non-vital parts of bodies”. This, he said, shows at the most they could be charged under section 324 of Indian Penal Code on voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous means and weapons for which punishment is three years of imprisonment, not section 307 of Indian Penal Code of attempt to murder punishable with life imprisonment. 
  • No ‘unlawful assembly’: The workers’ lawyers also questioned the lack of consistency in the identical charges of murder, attempt to murder against all 147 workers, and the medico-legal evidence. The defence lawyers also questioned how the police were justified in bringing section 149, relating to the workers being members of an “unlawful” assembly, when the workers were at their workplace that day.   

Rioting alphabetically

As reported earlier, defence lawyers had pointed out that in case of 89 of the accused workers, the Haryana police had named four Maruti Suzuki contractors as the sole witnesses. 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.

Labour contractor Virendra Yadav had 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 have 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, they argued.

Despite this pattern having been questioned in court, the workers were denied bail multiple times in the Gurgaon court as well as even in High Court of Punjab and Haryana for three and a half years. The workers were granted bail in 2015 by the Supreme Court.