While right-wing sections insidethe media, fanatically anti-working class bloggers, vested interests in theHaryana establishment, and other sundry forces are baying for tradeunion/communist blood in the unfortunate incidents that took place inside the Maruti-Suzukiplant at Manesar, sober assessment reveals a different picture.
Nineteen ninety-one, the yearthat inaugurated new economic policies and the liberalization drive, markedalso the emergence of new ideas regarding the management of productive forces.Large public sector sections were dismantled. Enormous human and domestic/foreigncapital resources were placed in the hands of private corporate players. In thename of fiscal management, state expenditure was sought to be restricted. Butperhaps, most importantly, production relations between labour and capital,workers and management, were altered.
Foreign direct investment in themanufacturing sector brought in foreigners in management as well. The newmanagement structures, which included Indians and foreigners, were inculcatedwith a new work ethic that placed growth above workers' welfare, but thecrucial change rested in the way the new management culture played down thecultural sensitivities of the Indian worker.
In a famous case that took placelast year in the Honda factory of Haryana’s industrial belt, foreign-trainedIndian managers refused to allow workers to celebrate Vishvakarma Pooja. In theHindu pantheon, Vishvakarma is the lord of tools and workers—his birthday isnormally a holiday, no less relevant than Ram Navami, Buddha Jayanti or thebirthday of Prophet Muhammad.
Workers worship their tools onVishvakarma Diwas. At Honda, a worker was assaulted by the supervisor when thelatter tried applying a "teeka" on the former’s head. Indian workershave their own definition of what constitutes "hard work". It includeswhiling away time, bonding with fellow workers, and then putting in extra workat the right time. Also, the sense of impersonal hierarchy is alien to Indianworkers. They can respect an angrez who mingles with them, but they willboycott Indian managers trying to put on foreign airs and indulging inunfamiliar hierarchical behaviour.
Foreign—especially American,German and Japanese personnel—were often left dumbfounded by these culturalpractices. Because of historic factors—the traditional resistance of theHindi-Urdu belt to British Imperialism, the rugged-peasant masculinity andsense of honour—dubbed mistakenly, "pre-modern" by socialanalysts—the management versus worker clash was more severe inpost-liberalization, north Indian factories.
In the 1990s and 2000s, India sawsubstantial creation of wealth. The culture of malls and new units in servicesector and manufacturing, inducted a new working force emerging from Bihar,Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The management culture in force looked moretowards casual, contract labour.
Affiliated either to communists,Congress, and BJP-Shiv Sena—or practising Dutta Samant type syndicalism—the oldunions were unable to read the modern times. After failing miserably increating space for casual/contract labour, they started losing their grip overold working-class centres as well.
Interestingly, theGurgaon-NCR-based factories flirted at first with CITU and AITUC, the tradeunions respectively of the CPM and the CPI. The workers—most of them in theirtwenties—young, restless and ambitious—however, soon grew tired of oldnegotiating skills of traditional unions. It is symptomatic that last year, theManesar Maruti-Suzuki plant, saw the emergence of a new union with a new,younger leadership. Sonu Gujjar, the then chief of the union, typified thenovel, 21st century worker. By presenting the viewpoints of workers throughcon-calls and other modern techniques, Sonu Gujjar grabbed national headlines.His colleagues wanted their own voice, independent of the management, to beheard.
Indeed this contemporary worker,especially in north India/Hindi-Urdu heartland, was both more rooted andcosmopolitan. Unlike his counterpart of 1970s and 1980s, who hailed mainly froma landless labour, poor peasant or a pauperized proletariat background, thecontemporary worker came from middle to upper-middle peasant backdrop. InIndian terms, he belonged to a khaata-peeta milieu—he was much more capable ofacting on his own. He was part of the north Indian pattidari village community system that ensuredboth bonding and individuality. He had learned how to fight while growing up,without getting inflicted with the scars of the lumpen proletariat. Averse toslow paced, constitutional ways, he found the quick action recommended by radicalleft activists—or "on their own" "marka" angry young men—far moreattractive.
This contemporary worker dislikedboth the detached persona of the foreign manager as well as the philistine,pseudo-personalized approach of Indian mangers. He was as impatient with the"taalu-chaalu andaaz"of the foreigners as with the "baniagiri"of Indian executives.
In March 2012, while the Manesarplant was facing wage negotiations between the new union and the management,two workers shocked the managers with their statistical knowledge. The workersknew exactly that between 2007 and 2011 while the Maruti Suzuki workers’ yearlyearnings increased by 5.5%, the consumer price index (for the Faridabad centre,Haryana), went up by over 50%. Since 2001, profits for the Maruti Suzukicompany increased by 2,200%!
So in any case, the Maruti Suzukimanagement was throwing crumbs at the workers. The workers’ salary was in noway, by any yardstick, commensurate with the rise in the company’s profit. Yetthe Manesar plant management was not ready to grant even a minuscule wageincrease. Here, while contract labour got Rs 7,000 a month, regular workerssurvived on a mere Rs 17,000. Manesar workers were demanding a wage increase ofRs 15-18,000, which the management was resisting, even when Honda workers weregetting similar pay scales.
In this period of global crisis,the Maruti section (Swift and Dzire cars) was contributing more to MarutiSuzuki’s super profits. There seems to be immense pressure on the management toreduce wages in the name of increasing productivity. But why should Indianworkers always suffer during a downward spiral cycle of global capitalism?
The problem is thatpost-liberalization India has no idea of 1857, India’s first war ofIndependence. The Bengal Army of the East India Company, which remained at theforefront of the war’s long and torturous course, comprised of soldiers fromthe Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar belt. They rebelled against whatwas seen as the insensitivity of a multinational company—the world’s largestthat managed a huge country like India plus other colonial stations—towards thesense of dignity, pride and religion of both Hindus and Muslims.
It is imperative to note that theManesar incident arose following an anti-Dalit, caste slur issued by asupervisor to Jiya Lal, a worker. Then Jat-Gujar-Tyagi-Dalit workers—belongingto the Haryana region—and UP-Bihar Poorabias—united to give a fitting reply tothe miscreants belonging to the management. The management brought in hundredsof bouncers to beat workers to submission. In fact, the official statement ofthe Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union, states that the bouncers started the firethat killed a senior manager.
So class solidarity overcamecaste divisions—a similar phenomenon occurred during 1857.
Both 1857 and Manesar incidentsarose out of cultural slights inflicted by an insensitive foreign/part-foreignmanagement. At the other end of the spectrum, it can be seen that like theManesar incident, the cultural aspect of 1857 carried a slew of wage relatedissues, and other socio-economic grievances, nursed by soldiers against theBritish East India Company.
It can be seen clearly thatthough India runs on the workforce of UP, Bihar, Delhi and Haryana, the peopleof these regions have historically resisted the homogeneity, uniformity andconformity demanded by global corporate culture. These workers demand their ownindigenous-capitalist ethic, different from the west. They are in no mood tocomply. Be it Gujarat or whatever take, Maruti Suzuki anywhere—Gujarat is notIndia. But UP, Bihar, Delhi and Haryana do constitute India. The country isfinished without these states. As the author signs off this article, news aboutcertain Jat sections of the Haryana establishment dividing Jats and Gujars andundermining workers’ solidarity is pouring in—massive police repression hasbeen unleashed on workers. Without a proper enquiry, workers are being blamedfor the Manesar violence. Such tactics however are not going to work—aftertwenty years of enormous liberalization, India is on the threshold of agigantic working class unrest. Indian people regard economic reform and theEnglish speaking managerial elite with disdain. They have tasted wealth—butthey also know that, foreigners and their lackeys have amassed riches athousand times over. With people of north Indian origin—their culture ofconstructive violence and non-submission to power intact—leading this battle,the stage is set for new class struggles of the 21st century. Like the AnnaHazare movement of August 2011, the Manesar incident has taken all politicalparties by surprise. Their political response system is simply, not attuned tothe new, 21st century Indian reality.