A photograph of Marx overlooks stacks of plastic chairs, crammed bookshelves and an old desktop computer in an office on the ground floor of a building in central Mumbai. On the evening of January 12, a group of electricity workers affiliated with the Mumbai Electric Employees Union met here. They worked for Reliance Energy, which supplied electricity to homes in the city’s suburbs. Despite working for the company for around two decades, laying cables and excavating new lines, they were not permanent employees – they were hired by contractors, who supplied labour to the company.

The previous few weeks had been tumultuous. The company was in the middle of a major transition: its ownership was changing hands, with the Adani Group in the process of taking over.

During this period, a worker died on December 19. He was returning home from work when he fainted and hit his head, resulting in a brain haemorrhage. All the workers in the area – permanent and contract – went on a one-day strike to force the company to pay full-duty compensation to his family.

It seemed like a victory – except, on January 1, the contract workers found they had been marked absent for the day of the strike, while the permanent workers had not. When the union raised this, four workers were suspended on January 9.

Three days later, the union met in their Dadar office to discuss this suspension. Hours later, close to midnight, four of its members found men in plain clothes at their doorstep.

“At around 11.45 pm, around 15 to 20 people came to our door,” said Rajitha, wife of Satyanarayana Karrela, 40, one of the union members. “We did not know who they were as they were in civil dress. When we asked they just told us they had work with us.”

The men made the couple sit with their backs to each other and asked them to stay silent as they went about ransacking the house. At the end of the search, they said that they had to take Karrela with them. Panicking that he was about to be kidnapped, Rajitha seized her husband’s arm and refused to let go. At this point, she said, the men announced they were the police. They said Karrela would be released in the morning. When she still refused to let go, they wrote an address and phone number on a piece of paper and told her to come there the next morning.

Similar stories played out at the houses of other union members that night – Babushankar Vanguri, 30, Shankar Gunde, 40, and Ravi Marampelli, 40. Large groups of police in plain clothes appeared close to midnight, searched their houses and took them away.

This was no ordinary police detail – it was the Anti-Terrorism Squad of the Maharashtra Police. As the families of the union members found out later, the arrests had been made under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which punishes those proved guilty of working with banned organisations. In this case, the ATS claims the workers had been funding the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), which has been fighting a protracted guerilla war in central and eastern India for decades with the aim of overthrowing the government.

How exactly had low-paid workers in Mumbai, who barely earned enough to support their families in India’s most expensive city, saved money to send to an underground organisation?

The police claims they did so by raising money from contractors.

At the heart of the police claims, as outlined in its 5,000-page chargesheet submitted in May, are two bank cheques of Rs 1.5 lakh each. Issued in May 2017, the cheques was signed by three office bearers of a contractors association that supplied labour to Reliance Energy. The police claim the workers encashed the cheques and passed on the money to a Maoist operative, who further transferred the money to underground Maoists in Telangana.

But other union members have a simpler explanation for the cheques: they say they were written in support of the union’s annual May Day function.

“The workers organised May Day functions every year and get donations from the contractors association for this,” said N Vasudevan of the New Trade Union Initiative that backs the contract workers’ union.

On the same day that they arrested the four union members, the police also arrested Narsaiah Jumpala, one of the three signatories of the cheques and a member of the contractors association. Anjaiah Anthati, president of the association, said there was no coercion at the contractor association meeting at which they decided to sign the cheques. The association, he claimed, makes donations to all workers unions every few years and that too in “white” money, by cheque, not cash.

“We can conduct our business only if we have good relations with them,” said Anthati. “If we tell them, ‘No, go, we won’t give you anything’, then at some point, the union people will cause trouble for us. That is why we tell them we will take care of them. For this, we have to give them chai paani (money).”

But the police has cited witness statements from at least unnamed 12 contractors in support of its claims. These feature as part of the chargesheet, among the 100-odd statements which have been cited after redacting witness names.

Strikingly, all 12 statements contain identical paragraphs about how the workers introduced a man named “Mahesh”, who they claimed worked for “the Party”. “As I am a resident of Andhra Pradesh, I know that in our native place, Naxalites are recognised as being of the ‘party,’” reads every single statement as translated into Marathi, purportedly made independently in Hindi by each contractor. “Since then, we became afraid of the topic of Mahesh and whenever Ravi Marampelli, Satyanarayana Karrela and Shankar Gunde asked us for money, we always gave them money out of fear.”

Said Atul Chandra Kulkarni, additional director general of police in charge of the Anti-Terrorism Squad, “If they have made identical statements to us, that is why we have recorded it that way.”

On January 12, along with four workers and the contractor, the police also arrested a man named Ajay Dasari, who they allege is the Maoist operative who workers introduced as “Mahesh”. The seventh arrest, also made the same day, was of Ramesh Gondiala, 37, a pro-Telangana poet and activist who worked as a milk delivery man near Kalyan, on the outskirts of Mumbai. In February, another worker, Saidulu Singapanga, 36, was taken into custody, taking the total number of arrests in the case to eight.

This isn’t the only Maoist case brought by the Maharashtra police against urban residents. Over June and August, Pune police arrested ten lawyers and activists, accusing them of working with the banned CPI (Maoist) and labelling them “Urban Naxals”. These arrests too were made under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Often described as draconian with vague definitions, it allows the police to hold the accused in prison for long periods by prohibiting the courts to grant bail as long as the accusation made by the police appears “prima facie true”.

“As far as Maharashtra is concerned, there are very few UAPA cases,” said Nihalsingh Rathod, a Nagpur lawyer with the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers. “Most cases are invoked against Islamic terrorism. The rest are concentrated in Gadchiroli district [in eastern Maharashtra, where there is a Maoist presence].”

Of the few in western Maharashtra, one is the union workers’ case. Another is the 2011 case against alleged Maoist Angela Sontakke and the Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural organisation based in Pune, members of which have since been released on bail. In 2015, the Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested Konnath Muralidharan, a Maoist leader from Kerala while he was being treated at a hospital near Pune.

Given the prominence of the ten activists arrested between June and August, and a legal challenge to their arrests in the Supreme Court, discussions on the misuse of this 1960 law were briefly revived, before receding again.

According to Indiaspend, as many as 2,700 cases were filed under UAPA in three years between 2014 and 2016. Of the 33 trials under the law completed in 2016, it reported, 67% ended in acquittals. Evidence in several of these cases tends to be vague.

“I think a lot of leeway is given to the prosecuting agency at the pre-charge stage because it’s their word against what the accused have to say,” said senior advocate Rebecca John, who has argued several cases under the act. “I don’t think enough judicial scrutiny takes place at this stage. And very few of these cases end in conviction. For the prosecution, the period of incarceration is itself the punishment.”

A poster of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union behind a plain red flag hoisted in a concrete block outside the Tilak Nagar office of Adani Electricity Mumbai. Photo: Mridula Chari
A poster of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union behind a plain red flag hoisted in a concrete block outside the Tilak Nagar office of Adani Electricity Mumbai. Photo: Mridula Chari

From Telangana to Mumbai

A common thread that connects all of the men arrested on January 12 is the place where they came from: Telangana. Or more specifically, the two districts of Nalgonda and Karimnagar. Also common is their caste background: the workers are all Dalits.

The Mumbai Electric Employees Union was established in 2005, after a worker died while on duty. As contract workers, they were entitled to a compensation of only Rs 25,000 but as union members claim, they successfully forced the company to increase it Rs 6.5 lakh. Since then, the union grew in strength, attracting a large membership of around 1,000 of the company’s 4,000 contract workers, many of whom are Telugu-speaking migrants. The Shiv Sena-affiliated Mumbai Electric Workers’ Union, which is the only union which is recognised by the company and the Labour Commissioner, claims to represent all contract workers, apart from the 3,500-odd permanent workers, many of whom are Marathi-speaking.

All the arrested workers were office-bearers of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union and played a crucial role in every negotiation with the company and contractors. They all lived in and around Ghatkopar in central Mumbai with their wives and young children and had each been with the electricity company for around at least 15-20 years.

Work conditions were severe at first, say members of the union who worked with their arrested counterparts. Each day, they would go to the company’s electricity office and contractors would tell them how many of them would get work for that day. Often, workers would return home empty-handed. With the formation of their union, however, working conditions changed. One of their first struggles was to ensure that all contract workers would get work daily. The arrested workers were active in ensuring this.

In their spare time, they organised reading groups and kept their fellow workers updated with political pamphlets and books related to Marxist, Ambedkarite and pro-Telangana ideology, said Vasudevan. Despite their long stint in the metropolis, the union members had strong connections to their homelands and were active in supporting the movement for a new Telangana state. When Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, the new Telangana Rashtra Samiti government promised three acres of land each to landless Dalit farmers. The workers, said Vasudevan, made several trips back home in the hope of getting land.

A Telangana-based researcher specialising in human rights and law, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that many migrants did indeed come back in droves in the first year of the new government, thinking they had to be physically present to avail of the scheme. However, the scheme has not materialised. The workers had grown disenchanted with the new government, said Vasudevan.

According to their co-workers, all the arrested shared an interest in Ambedkarite and Marxist ideas. At all their homes, the police found books, magazines and pamphlets related to this ideology. At Singapanga’s home, the police found copies of Veekshanam, a magazine edited by N Venugopal, a Telugu poet, literary critic and journalist.

“We have even published their letters in Veekshanam,” said Venugopal, who knew six of the eight accused. “That way they are socially active. But the charge the police is making now is preposterous and unbelievable.”

The police chargesheet contains a screenshot of an email sent by one of the arrested workers, Vanguri, to another arrested worker, Singapanga, inviting him to an event at Ramabai Nagar to protest the arrest of Manda Krishna Madiga, a Telugu Dalit rights activist living in Telangana. Krishna, who was subsequently released, has spoken against the Maoist party for betraying the cause of workers.

But an official of the Anti-Terrorism Squad, who did not want to be identified, claimed the workers’ union itself was as an overground organisation of the Maoists. Such organisations are part of the Golden Corridor Committee plan, he said, through which Maoists seek to infiltrate industrial areas in western India.

By all accounts, the workers, however, showed greater interest in Ambedkarite ideas. On December 31, they travelled to Pune in a group of 40 to take part in the anti-caste commemoration at Bhima Koregaon near Pune, where Dalit soldiers with the East India Company had trounced the casteist Peshwa-led army of the Maratha empire in 1818. “I had gone there for the first time because it was the 200th anniversary of the battle,” said Saidulu Gondrigalla, one of the suspended workers who was part of the group. “We saw the [memorial] pillar in the morning, while the garlands were still being put up, then returned to Pune for the Elgaar Parishad,” a conference being held to mark the anniversay.

While they returned to Mumbai on January 1, back in Bhima Koregaon, Dalits came under attack that day, sparking a strike and caste clashes, which spread across western Maharashtra. By the second week of January, police had conducted sweeping arrests of Dalits they believed to have participated in the violence.

When news of the workers’ arrests first came, their colleagues thought this might be related to this action. However, given that the arrested workers were all union members, they also wondered whether this had anything to do with their last protest against the management in December.

The chargesheet is silent on both.

Spokespersons of both Reliance Infrastructure and Adani Electricity Mumbai Limited declined to comment on the case or the suspension of the employees.

“We are not pursuing any such past matters,” said a spokesperson for Adani Electricity Mumbai Limited in response to a detailed questionnaire. “It’s a brand new company and a brand new way to do things. We took over on August 29 and this is a matter of last year December and January.”

A representative of Reliance Infrastructure, the holding company for Reliance Energy, also declined to comment. “As discussed, as this business is now with Adani Electricity, you may write to Adani Electricity,” a Reliance Infrastructure spokesperson wrote in reply to Scroll.in’s questions.

The contractor and the ‘Maoist operative’

Other than the workers, those arrested in the case include Jumpala, the contractor, Dasari, the alleged Maoist operative, and Gondiala, a poet and activist whose connection to the workers is tenuous.

As general secretary of the contractors association, Narsaiah Jumpala was one of the authorised signatories for cheques issued by the organisation. He had a reputation within the association for being sympathetic to the cause of workers, according to both his wife, other workers in the union, and even the head of the contractors’ association.

When the worker who later died was admitted to a hospital in December, the contractor who was his employer called Jumpala for advice, according to his wife. Jumpala told the contractor to go to the hospital. “[The contractor] said he was afraid to go there alone as the workers would be agitated,” she told Scroll.in. “He then asked my husband to accompany him in the morning, as my husband has good relations with workers of other contractors as well.”

Anthati, president of the contractors’ association told Scroll.in that Jumpala did indeed have good relations with the workers. “Vo worker ke piche hi rehta tha,” he said. “Jumpala was always with the workers, particularly that union...He used to favour them.”

The donation to the union came out of Jumpala’s initiative, but the decision was taken collectively by 12 committee members, said Anthati. “This fellow [Jumpala] only arranged the meeting for the workers,” Anthati said. “He asked me three times and I did not give him a time. The fourth time he asked me, I said all right and the entire committee sat and decided to give them money.”

There is not much information available about Ajay Dasari, the man the police claims the money was diverted to. The police chargesheet says he lived in Kalyan and even lists an address. But the address, a squat building adjacent to a larger bungalow, is occupied by families of Bihari and Jharkhand migrant workers, living there on rent. The wife of one of the workers confirmed the Anti-Terrorism Squad had visited this address on a Saturday in January, asking for Dasari.

The woman, who did not want to be identified, said Dasari was her husband’s friend. They had met about five years ago while working at a cola factory in Kalyan and Dasari used to visit their home once or twice a month.

“Even now none of us can believe that he could be a terrorist like they said,” the wife said. “He always kept his eyes down, he spoke softly, did not look at any women, and never fought with anybody.”

Dasari told them that he lived with relatives in Thane, but that his wife and children were in his village in Telangana. They did not know much else about him.

The Telangana-based researcher found the police claims about a Maoist operative meeting openly with workers suspect.

“It is highly unlikely that if this person was a Maoist, he would go around telling people he was one,” he said. “In general, Maoists use cities as safe zones, where they don’t take up any activity.”

An Anti-Terrorism Squad official familiar with the case who asked not to be identified agreed that “Maoists keep their open activities away from secret ones to prevent detection.” However, he claimed that if Dasari was “allowed access to both sides”, it indicated that he was in fact a “high level functionary”.

The poet and the writer

It is not clear how Ramesh Gondiala, a poet and milkman, came to be linked to this case. A pro-Telangana activist from Nalgonda district, his connection with the workers is tenuous – according to Gondrigalla and Vasudevan, he met them in November 2013 at a meeting to support the formation of the state.

Venugopal, who wrote the preface to a book of poetry that Gondiala published, said his poetry covered issues of gender, Dalit rights, labour and the Telangana state.

Gondiala worked to deliver milk to houses in his neighbourhood and also worked as a driver. His wife told Scroll.in that he also regularly helped construction workers to arrange compensation or treatment for them if they suffered injuries or died while on duty.

The ATS also questioned another writer and translator, Prabhakar Macha, in the case. A teacher who was quite popular in Telugu writing circles, Venugopal said Macha was a significant link between Marathi and Telugu literature. He had written a 200-page book on the contribution of Telugu migrants to the building of Mumbai city.

In the first week of January, Macha’s wife died. On January 23, a week after he was questioned by the ATS, he killed himself.

Kalyan and its surrounding villages are hubs for migrant workers from North India. Photo: Shone Satheesh
Kalyan and its surrounding villages are hubs for migrant workers from North India. Photo: Shone Satheesh

The plot, according to the police

In the First Information Report filed hours after the arrests, the ATS claims its operative received a confidential tip-off from an informer, who told them that members of the Maoist party were raising money, recruiting new members and spreading Maoist propaganda to destabilise the nation. The informer said the members were going to congregate at Kalyan station at around 4.30 pm. The FIR charges seven men – excluding Singapanga at this stage – under sections 20, 38 and 39 of the the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which pertain to membership of and recruitment to banned organisations, but not to fundraising for them. The charges of fundraising appear only in the chargesheet.

In the chargesheet, the police claims to have CCTV footage from an apartment building in Tilak Nagar, which purportedly shows Dasari meeting the arrested workers between 12 pm to 3 pm.

The ATS claims in the FIR that it arrested Dasari at Kalyan station at 5.30 pm. Through his interrogation, within a matter of hours, it was able to get the residential addresses of seven accomplices. At midnight, in simultaneous raids, six men were arrested.

Saidulu Singapanga is not among the seven individuals named in this FIR. Like several other union members at the time, Singapanga too did not appear for work for some weeks after the other union members were arrested, fearing that it was the union itself being targeted. When he reported for work on February 5, he was arrested immediately.

Doubts over the police claims

But questions have been raised over the police claims.

Jumpala’s wife pointed out only her husband was arrested, even though cheques from the contractors association require three signatures. The union’s founding minutes, a copy of which is in the chargesheet, designates three individuals – the president, general secretary and treasurer – as elected officers for bank transactions.

“When I confronted [another contractor in the association] about this, he became very aggressive and started shouting at me,” Jumpala’s wife told Scroll.in. “He said he had nothing to do with the cheques, and that my husband had signed a cheques in his personal capacity and handed them over for illegal activities.”

Anthati, president of the contractors’ association, said that all three signatories had indeed signed two cheques, each amounting to Rs 1.5 lakh, but did not hand them over to the union representatives at the meeting because they did not have a receipt book with them.

“I told them we would give them the cheques only after they gave us the receipt,” Anthati said. However, he added, a few days later, Jumpala took the cheques from the office assistant, saying that he was going to Chembur, would give them to the union people and bring back a receipt. This never happened. Instead, the cheques were made out to two individual members of the union and the receipt never made it to the association office, he claimed. Scroll.in could not independently confirm this.

It is not clear from the chargesheet how the money from the cheques was passed on to the Maoists, nor is it clear whether or how the accused recruited new members for the Maoist cause.

Most of all, what is mysterious are the 12 near-identical statements purportedly made by contractors to the police.

Anthati said that as he operated in Kandivali zone in another part of the city, he did not know what the others had said to the police and whether they knew that their statements in Hindi had been identically translated into Marathi. Contractors in the east zone deflected numerous attempts by Scroll.in over almost two months to speak with them.

Advocate Rebecca John said that identical statements were a common feature of the UAPA cases she was familiar with. “It is common to have nebulous evidence, nothing very concrete,” John said. “The police looks into their personal lives, including their computers, so that even if you download an article, you can become a member by association. The police also gets surrendered Maoists to make statements in which there is a fair degree of police control. In a fair world none of these cases would see the light of day.”

However, Atul Chandra Kulkarni, additional director general of police in charge of the Anti-Terrorism Squad staunchly defended the investigation. “UAPA cases are especially serious because I know that people don’t get bail or they will get a longer prison term if convicted,” he said. “That is why I don’t cook up evidence nor do I let my officers do so. But of course, I have the prerogative to take X [fact or person] and not Y in my case if it supports that. Facts will be chosen to marshal evidence.”

He pointed out that his team was simultaneously working on a case involving Hindutva extremists who had been arrested with large caches of weapons and bombs.

The front gate of the Adani Electricity Mumbai office at Tilak Nagar. Photo: Shone Satheesh
The front gate of the Adani Electricity Mumbai office at Tilak Nagar. Photo: Shone Satheesh

The aftermath of the arrests

Ten months after the arrests, the families of the union members are struggling. Reduced to single-income households, one family left for their village in Telangana, unable to pay the rent for their room. The others are being supported by women who have taken up domestic work to make ends meet. There is uncertainty over whether they would be able to pay their children’s school fees.

There are other consequences too. The families of the workers were reluctant to meet Scroll.in in their homes to avoid drawing more attention to themselves. They said the ATS officials still visit them regularly, making their neighbours wary of them. One of their landlords even asked them to leave, to avoid the police attention.

Since the arrests, the scrappy union, which took on the company to fight for provident funds, safety equipment, identity cards and even a kind of job security with assured daily work to all its members, has become somewhat dormant.

“Because of this atmosphere, the workers are scared that if they remain with our union, they too will be arrested,” Vasudevan said.

There are other losses which the workers rue, including the hard-earned one of dignity.

“When we go to make demands of the contractor now, they tell us to go away or we will also be arrested,” said Laxman Bomma, one of the workers suspended on January 9. “They normally give us our new uniforms in January, but we have not got that this year. We now have to go to Vile Parle to collect our salaries, when earlier they would give it at the offices where we report for work.”

Said Gondrigalla, “Earlier, they would treat us with some respect and dignity. That is no longer there.”