As I write this article, Gurgaon approaches its third day of street riots. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged full support for neo-liberalism and the global war on terror upon his visit to Washington, only to see the Indian district in the state of Haryana explode, exposing the contradictions of the Indian economy.
Gurgaon is a prime example of combined and uneven development under late capitalism. The satellite-town of New Delhi, India’s capital, is host to an impressive lineup of multi-national corporations (MNCs) such as Honda, Suzuki, and IBM. Although eighty-percent of the Gurgaon population subsists by agricultural labor, the region is also a major industrial complex. Four-fifths of India’s cars and seventy-percent of India’s motorcycles are made in the area.
The rich and the affluent middle classes, who are tied to the circuits of global capital, can be found sipping away their Rs.100 lattes (about $2.50) in one of the many Starbucks-imitate coffee shops. This minority stands in stark contrast to the majority of the population that are engaged in rural, blue-collar, and informal labor and on average earn less than $2 a day.
On July 25th workers at the Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI) plant walked out in a protest against management. The strike was the culmination of a six month-long battle between management and workers.
It began when a HMSI manager reportedly hit a worker for disobeying orders.
Four other workers were fired for protesting the management’s action. Another 50 workers were also suspended for supporting the fired workers. The standoff between management and workers coupled with a lack of resolution resulted in a workers’ walkout, during which workers demanded better wages, better treatment from management, and reinstatement of the fired workers.
When the workers’ hit the street with banner and chants, the march was stopped by the police’s attempt to disperse the crowd, some participants began throwing rocks at authorities, who responded by firing tear gas and with a lathi charge.
In spite of this unwarranted police action, the Indian media portrays the strikers as implacable, continually featuring images of workers burning a bus and police vehicle and throwing stones through shop windows. But the police response was savage. Video footage shows images of the police brutally beating protestors, leaving one man dead and many bleeding with broken limbs. The police assault continued for nearly two hours, charging protestors even after many became unconscious and lying on the ground. Police then forced surrendered workers to march away with their hands tugging their ears, a show of humiliation in Indian culture.
The Indian newspaper The Hindu has reported more than 700 workers have been admitted to hospitals and many are "missing," probably tortured and killed by the police after arrest.
"They beat us up mercilessly," one worker told NDTV News, wrapped in bloodied bandages. "They took us into police stations and beat us more," said another.
The riots broke out again the next day as workers and their supporters protested in front of hospitals treating the injured. The protestors included many women-family members of the hurt male-workers. Video footage reveals hundreds of furious women charging a retreating police line with their own lathis.
The situation remains tense as anger over the police violence has sparked sporadic clashes between police and protestors throughout the district.
The riots have sparked a political crisis for the politically moderate Congress Party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). India’s Left parties led by the two main Communist Parties denounced the police violence and walked out of the Indian Parliament.
The Left party activists have staged demonstrations outside the Indian Parliament demanding the Haryana state government be dissolved, only to be attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The Congress, for its part, has denounced the police violence. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed "deep anguish" over the violence.
But the Congress’ words are empty, as they failed to call for an investigation at the center. Congress also holds power in Haryana, where Chief Minister Bhupender Singh Hooda is a favorite of the MNCs and refused to call a probe until forced to do so by the Congress’s national leadership.
The roots of this incident lie deep in the neo-liberal agenda pursued by the Indian government since 1991, the then Congress controlled government introduced the New Economic Policy, drastically cutting spending on the Food Distribution System and other welfare measures.
Subsequently the right-wing Barthya Janata Party (BJP) accelerated the neo-liberal agenda by privatizing India’s public goods to MNCs and orchestrating other attacks on workers’ rights.
In last year’s elections, the BJP was ousted due to mass anger against this agenda. The Congress was elected to power with increased support for Left Parties under a mandate for a "people’s program," listed in the Common Minimum Program (CMP). The CMP sought to reverse some of the egregious communal policies of the BJP, including reversing a Hinduvta (Hindu supremacist) curriculum in public school. On the economic front it pledged support for rural development, increase in welfare measures, and a cap on Foreign Direct Investments (FDI).
While the Congress has taken measures against communalism it has continued down the neo-liberal path and ignored the CMP, even as the Left parties continue to support them in Parliament. While it continues to support the UPA inside parliament, the Left parties have managed to hold protests against the Congress’s attempt to increase the cap on FDI and other measures.
The riots however have become a new exemplar for workers across the country to protest the realities of neo-liberal capitalism. The Left parties have called for a nationwide demonstration on August 1st, and a campaign to culminate in a general strike for September 29th.
However, the riots have already thrown the Congress plans for increased FDI into crisis, as is evidenced in Japanese Ambassador Yasukuni Enoki’s remark that the violence has shed a dim light on prospects for investments in India.
These riots are one example of bigger explosions to come as class and social polarization deepens in India, and as workers are left with little choice but to fight the plans of the political parties committed to appeasing global capital.
NAVEEN JAGANATHAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org