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How Many Working Class Families Have Been Rendered Destitute in the Town of the Great Shopping Mall?

The Class War in Gurgaon

by P. SAINATH

The northern Indian state of Haryana in which Gurgaon is a town is known for the ruthlessness and barbarity of its police and the backwardness of its policiics. It is also ­ needless to say ­ seen as a popular investment destination by multinational corporations. Honda recently threw out lots of workers. When protests boiled up, they sacked some leaders. The workers took out a legal, lawful protest march which was set upon by the police with incredible ferocity. Only, this time it happened on the highway and very close to New Delhi, the capital city. So there was "live" coverage of the violence for two days. The same Gurgaon is also famous for its Great Mall, a symbol of the emerging ‘new’ India, much touted by the New York Times and other newspapers. AC/JSC

The scenes from Gurgaon gave us more than just a picture of one labour protest, police brutality or corporate tyranny. It presented us a microcosm of the new and old Indias. Different rules and realities for different classes of society.

A horribly oppressed wife, so runs the old American joke, slapped her husband in despair. The man punched her over 30 times, till she lay battered and he was exhausted by the effort. Then, panting, he told her: "Now we’re even." That’s right. Both sides were violent, weren’t they?

That’s pretty much the both-sides-did-it line, now in vogue to describe the brutality in Haryana. Months of being denied their rights, the ruthless cutting of their jobs, the despair of the workers, count for little. The breaking of the nation’s laws, the torment of the sacked workers, their wives and children count for less. Context counts for nothing at all. History begins with the televised violence of two days. Not with the hidden violence of years.

Even those 48 hours are instructive. On the one hand, hundreds thrashed mercilessly by the police. Some still being clubbed as they lay bleeding on the ground. Hundreds missing. Lathis [hard wooden stick carried by Indian policemen, often metal-tipped], teargas, water canons and other action from the police. One woman sick with anxiety, swinging a stick at them – shown ad nauseum on every channel. That, and some stone-throwers targeting cops in bullet-proof vests, neatly symbolised the match-up. Yup, both sides were violent.

The Haryana police lived up to their history. At the best of times, this force would not win a prize in any human rights competition. (Unless the only other contestants were Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Punjab police. The race might then be close.) This is the state of Jhajar, where five Dalits were lynched by a mob. Their crime: they were suspected of killing a cow. The Haryana police swung into action as only they could, filing cases against those they suspected of cow slaughter. Then too, only nationwide outrage saw matters go further. Then too, the site was close enough to the capital city for the media to take notice.

Yet the present violence in Haryana speaks of newer things as well. There was something quite symbolic about Gurgaon being the venue of the protests. About "old" Gurgaon being the scene of bloodshed and mayhem. While "new" Gurgaon with its bustling, happy, mall culture, saw business as usual. Gurgaon’s mall has won the attention of media the world over. Many well-known papers, notably, the New York Times, have added lustre to its legend.

On Tuesday, one television channel was smart enough to see the contrast. The clearly better-off (and for now unaffected) having their hot dogs and coleslaw in the Mall. While the plebs battled the cops at the barricades in "old" Gurgaon. In that is a parable of an old and new India as well.

This time, much of the media got the picture, but many of them missed the point. Two channels at least, told us the police were showing "maximum" and "extreme" restraint. This against a background (reported by the same channels) of hundreds missing. Of injured persons being frogmarched from hospital to lock-ups. And of frightened people searching for their relatives. This, too, alongside visuals of police battering unarmed people lying helpless on the ground. I guess that’s the maximum restraint the Haryana police are capable of, anyway.

The second day’s violence was reportedly sparked off when frantic members of the public who turned up at the civil hospital could not find their relatives. Some of these seem to have been whisked away by police to be charged with the previous day’s violence. That inflamed matters. Note that some non-involved citizens of "old" Gurgaon got quickly involved. What they had seen angered them. And anyway, their anger had other causes, too. Oddly, those pushing the "both-sides-were-violent" line seek no action against the police. Both sides were violent, right? How come one side faces no punishment?

Gurgaon was about the police and administration increasingly acting as enforcement agents of big corporations. Not without precedent in the past. But more and more a symbol of the new India. It has been happening for some years in Kashipur and other parts of Orissa. There, police and local officials have functioned almost as a private army of the mining companies. Opposition leaders, even elected representatives, have been attacked when reaching there to inquire into the violence.

In Haryana, Honda did not even have to come into the picture till things went awfully wrong. The police and administration were there to act on its behalf. Had this incident occurred in Japan, where Honda has large unions to deal with, some of its top brass would have been seeking new employment. Here, they’ve just begun to talk about giving back some of the workers their jobs.

Japan’s Ambassador to India says this episode might prove bad for our image as an investment destination. Gee! I’m sure that warning will send all those terrified women searching for their relatives scurrying back to their homes in shame. What’s a few breadwinners when the image of India as an investment destination is at stake? That mindset too, is symbolic of the new India. Remember those editorial writers whose horror over the pogroms in Gujarat was roused not so much by the misery of the victims as by the damage to India’s image as an investment destination? They’re back.

It’s not all about Honda, either. Haryana has seen many brutal actions against workers in the past decade. In 1996, over 18,000 safai karamcharis struck work across that State for 80 days. They were not seeking a paisa extra in wages or benefits. They had a single demand. They wanted their wages paid on time. They sometimes went months without getting paid.

In response, the then Bansi Lal Government sacked 6,000 of them. Close to 700 women found themselves jailed for up to 70 days under the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA). This had not happened even during the Emergency. This is the State of which an editorial says approvingly: "Historically, Haryana has been a State without labour unrest. This has made it a sought after destination for investment… " It has in fact been a region of severe labour suppression. The editorial worries about finding "a more enlightened and less brutal way" of "dispersing a crowd." Such kindness. It might also be enlightened to respect the basic rights of people. Haryana is notorious for a labour department that will not register trade unions formed by workers.

All such government actions were, of course, aimed at privatising services like sanitation. In 2001, the Punjab & Haryana High Court ordered the reinstatement of over 1,000 workers of the Faridabad municipal corporation. The corporation had privatised sanitation work – to an "NGO" – for "a monthly fee." The then Mayor admitted the "experiment" had failed. The fate of the Rs.2.5 million monthly fee is best guessed at. The court held the retrenchment to be wrong. Some courts still do such things. That’s why governments are so keen to change labour laws. That too, reflects the new India.

Successive governments in Haryana have allowed companies to ride roughshod over workers’ rights. And though quite a few of new India’s elite may not know it, trade unions are still legal in the country. For now, anyway. It would be worth looking at how much media coverage there has been of workers’ problems here. (Or anywhere else.) In what depth have the often illegal practices of managements been covered? How many working class families have been rendered destitute in the town of the Great Mall?

How many channels or big newspapers even have full-time correspondents on the labour beat? That too in a country where just the job seekers at the employment exchanges almost equal the population of South Africa?

In Mumbai, the Mall itself has been built on the retrenched future of the workers. On mill lands and on work they’ve been cheated off. And laws have been stretched or changed. You can open a bowling alley and evade the rules by dubbing it "a workers’ recreation centre." You can see both new and old India cheek by jowl here.

When entities closely linked to two top Shiv Sena leaders buy former mill lands for Rs. 421 crore, you’d think there would be much curiosity. At least about where the money came from. That too, when one of them happens to be a former Chief Minister and the other a Thackeray. There’s far more, though, about the "record" nature of the deal. And excitement over what will come up. A grand mall? Or residential complexes?

The streets of Gurgaon gave us a glimpse of something larger than a single protest. Bigger than a portrait of the Haryana police. Greater than Honda. Far more complex than the "image of India" as an investment destination. It presented us a microcosm of the new and old Indias. Of private cities and gated communities. Of different realities for different classes of society. Of ever-growing inequality. Of the malls of the few and the chawls run-down tenements where usually working class people live] of the many.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu (where this piece initially ran) and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at:psainath@vsnl.com.