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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 15, April 8, 2023

Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Struggle: Inside Stories | Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Saturday 8 April 2023, by Deepti Priya Mehrotra



by Deepti Mehrotra

Japanese Management, Indian Resistance: 
The Struggles of the Maruti Suzuki Workers
By Anjali Deshpande and Nandita Haksar

Speaking Tiger, Harper Collins
2023 / 366 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9354474446 | ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9354474446

Real Stories: Behind the scenes

Maruti Suzuki workers have been in the public eye, largely due to the death of a manager, on 18 July 2012. Worker-management tension seemed to snowball into a major fracas that day; fire broke out in the Manesar plant, and a manager, Awanish Dev, suffocated to death. Workers were held responsible. This book takes us behind the scenes, relating inside stories, what was happening over the years. The facts cast doubt on the veracity of the anti-worker judgment.

Management perspectives are already well publicized: senior executive R.C. Bhargava for instance, wrote a book The Maruti Story: How A Public Sector Company Put India on Wheels (2013); he rose to become chairman of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL). Workers’ perspectives are less known; they have no leisure or wherewithal, to write up detailed accounts. PUDR and a few other reports do document workers’ struggles: from Hard Drive: Working Conditions and Workers’ Struggles at Maruti (2001) to A Pre-decided Case: A Critique of the Maruti Judgment of 2017 (2018).

During August 2012, 146 workers were arrested, and subsequently, a few more. In February-March 2017, thirteen workers, twelve of whom were office-bearers of Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU), were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder; and another 33 workers convicted of lesser crimes. MSIL terminated services of as many as 2,500 workers, 546 permanent, the rest contract workers.

Anjali Deshpande painstakingly tracked down many workers and trade union leaders, including life convicts out on parole, and interviewed them at length. The book, written together with Nandita Haksar, is meticulously researched, oral history narratives interweaving with detailed scrutiny of legal processes, against the backdrop of the widespread labour unrest. The broad context, of a welfare state transforming into a corporate state, where profits trump the rights of citizens; and Japanese-style management policies ruthlessly trample upon labour rights, is clearly delineated; as well as the sustained resistance by workers.

Privatization, Japanese-style Management and `Death from Overwork’

The timeline begins with Sanjay Gandhi setting up Maruti Motors Ltd in 1971, the murky first decade culminating in a joint venture between Government of India and Suzuki Motor Corporation in 1982. Suzuki’s equity rose to 50 percent by 1992; in 2003, Maruti Udyog Ltd was sold to Osamu Suzuki and in 2007 it became known as Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL). Interviews with older workers reveal that, despite the scams and scandals of the early years, permanent workers who worked in the Maruti factory when it was a public sector enterprise were on the whole happy with their working conditions.

As the factory got privatized, while Suzuki made more and more profits, workers experienced steady deterioration in their conditions of work. The level of automation increased, number of robots grew and so did dehumanization of working conditions. The Japanese have a word for a phenomenon that distinguishes modern Japanese work culture: `karoshi’, meaning, `death from overwork’: this culture was imported onto Indian soil.

Almost every narrative testifies to horrific working conditions: `...They don’t allow you time even to eat or go to the toilet.’ One worker explained, ‘Everything is measured in micro seconds.... Perhaps a tenth or even a hundredth part of a second.... The worker has to pick up the component and fit in into the body of the car which is moving towards him; he has to walk along with the moving car and at the same time fit in the components, nuts or screws within the given seconds. Sometimes the worker is not able to... do the job so fast... In such a situation, he can sound an alarm. The assembly line stops... the whole factory gets to know... he is hauled up, given a dressing down, and told he will get a bad CR (confidential report).... There is a heavy burden of work... all the time. It is very stressful.’

The workers had serious, authentic demands, relating to their inhuman working conditions, seeking regularization of contract workers, and calibrated increase in wages. The management turned a blind eye to every demand. Suzuki was obsessed with keeping production costs low, and it was workers who suffered the impact. Bhargava later said, and wrote, that workers raised no substantial demands: rather, the strikes by workers were `political’. However, the fact is, the workers, union leaders included, were not revolutionaries, ideologically driven; young men from low-income rural backgrounds, they were aspiring to a life of dignity, decent job with decent wages: this was their focus.

As Ram Niwas, who worked in the Manesar factory, says, ‘In such an environment, a union is necessary just for the safety of the worker. It is necessary for their rights. We were only asking for our rights, we were not asking for something unreasonable.’

Unions: how else will we fight for decent working conditions?

The first independent union, Maruti Udyog Employees Union (MUEU) fought for better working conditions, from the time of its inception in 1986, in the Gurugram plant. There are histories there, of harassment of union leaders, false cases and dismissal from work. Other tactics too were used: after a long strike in 2000, management set up a pocket union, Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). No other union was allowed.

The Manesar factory was set up in 2006, and production started the next year. Its workers were asked to join MUKU but they refused. In June 2011, an ordinary worker, Sonu Gujjar, keen to bring about decent working conditions in the factory, took the initiative to form a union, Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU). Its application for registration was rejected. Workers went on strike the same month, a 13-day occupation, which ended after verbal assurances from the management. In August 2011, the application for registration of MSEU was again rejected; and management imposed lock-out on those who refused to sign ‘good-conduct’ bonds. In October 2011, the second occupy strike took place; a settlement was reached with management reinstating 64 permanent workers, but 30 were not taken back, including all the MUEU leaders; these, Sonu Gujjar and others, were forced out of their jobs.

After this, working conditions deteriorated very sharply. A new set of young workers got together to form a union: they were sincere and wanted to improve working conditions on the plant, but had little experience. Older, experienced workers had been made to leave the company, by various management ploys.

The new union, Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU), was registered, in March 2012, and in April 2012 they gave their charter of demands to the management. The first demand was for regularization of contract workers. Although they were permanent workers, they were adamant about getting rights for the contract workers. The demands were all authentic, for the benefit of rank-and-file workers. The union began negotiating these demands with the management, but the management kept stalling—right up to 18 July 2012.

 Tea and loo break in 7.5 minutes; an altercation and a death

It was a normal morning at the Manesar factory. Jiya Lal, a dalit worker, even-tempered and hard-working by all accounts, began the early morning shift without anything to eat. When the alarm rang for tea break, he hurried to grab tea and a samosa and go to the toilet 500 metres away—the tea break lasted exactly seven and a half minutes! Supervisor Sangram Majhi accosted him, and abused him using casteist slurs, Jiya Lal kept his cool. Then Majhi hurled abuses, words for sister, mother, which enraged Jiya Lal: there was a heated exchange between the two. Soon Jiya Lal returned, to his work station. But later that day, management suspended Jiya Lal; the union immediately took up the matter, arguing that either both should be suspended, or none, pending an inquiry. It could have been easily settled, but the management was adamant. The whole plant knew about it, and workers grew restive. Management called in a huge police contingent, and bouncers.

Suddenly there was a lot of beating up. Union leaders were taken by surprise. They neither instigated the violence nor do they condone it. They do not know who started it, whether it was workers or bouncers or management. Police did nothing to stop it, nor did the company’s security personnel. Jiya Lal was not on the premises when the fire blazed, after 7 p.m. that evening; nor were the union leaders. The original charge-sheet made by the police did not name any of them. Yet, in August police chased them down, in their homes or villages, wherever they were. Jiya Lal, out of fear, had gone into hiding. Several of them then went to the police station and surrendered, others were arrested.


Awanish Dev was a manager whom workers liked. Each worker’s narrative speaks of this. He understood their point of view. He helped them register MSWU, even went with them to Chandigarh for the registration. He was well aware of growing worker-management tensions and had recently put in his resignation papers. He was probably forced to stay on, the condition imposed being that if he left, he would have to pay the company a heavy amount for the training they had invested in him; this was beyond his means.

Workers and trade union leaders believe that Awanish Dev was sympathetic to their cause; several other senior managers were not. They were shocked by his death, and sad for his wife, Suparna Dev. Office-bearers had been to Awanish Dev’s house, and liked the family.

Looking at the death of Awanish Dev from this angle puts a very different light on the events of the day. Who is it who might be motivated to bump off such a manager? Questions hang in the air, as in any whodunit: in all likelihood, there will never be a proper answer.

Some workers say that the people who got violent were 100 to 150 bouncers who had come in, wearing workers’ uniforms. In a petition, workers alleged that one of the senior managers, with whom Awanish Dev had serious differences, instigated the killing. We do not know what the truth is. But there was substantial police presence, why did they not stop the violence? Why did security force employed by the company not rescue the manager?

After the events of that day, Suzuki tightened its grip on the Indian production units, many changes were instituted. Among these, were some pseudo-spiritual measures: vastu expert, Daivajna K S Somaiyaji, conducted rituals over two or three weeks to rid the Manesar plant of `negative energy’ which he said was due to its once having been a burial ground, and because three temples were razed to set up the plant. Brahmakumaris also were called in, to teach yoga and meditation to workers, explicitly to keep their emotions in check!

No Justice for Workers: It’s class war

The process of charge-sheeting, arrest, investigation, trial and conviction, was full of absurdities, irregularities, riddled with loopholes. Arrests were arbitrary; and then there was the torture in police custody. Worker after worker describes the torture. There can be absolutely no justification. Brutality one does not want to even think about, worse than what anyone at all should ever have to suffer, was deliberately inflicted on workers, especially union office-bearers. They were subjected to electric shocks, hung upside-down and beaten, head pushed underwater until the person gagged and nearly-drowned.... And more—people developed all kinds of ailments... brain tumor, cancer, depression.

There was no fair trial. Witnesses were obviously rigged. Sandeep Dhillon, MSWU Chief Patron, asks, ‘In the court they have claimed people were standing on the stairs and preventing the management from leaving... The other managers got out... Why did anyone not get Awanish Dev out...? We were not there but other managers were there.’

Dhillon adds, what several others have mentioned too, that there was an original charge-sheet, filed by police. Police who were inside the factory, were eyewitnesses to whatever happened, and wrote what they saw: `Nowhere in that report did it say that we set fire to the factory.’ But government lawyer, KTS Tulsi, threw away that report: ‘He prepared a new chalan and it said that we stood on the stairs and we did not let people escape.’ This paved the way for their conviction.

In September 2020, when Anjali interviewed Jiya Lal, he gave his address as Bhondsi Jail... ‘A long time ago,’ he said, ‘I used to live in Jind, in my village, Dhakalgaon, where my home is, where my home is and now even my wife. We are very poor people. We belong to the working class; we work hard to buy our food.’ He studied, and trained in ITI Narwana, as a fitter. He began work as an apprentice in 2004, and got regularized in 2011: ‘I can’t tell you how happy I was.... I could not get that salary for long though. I had to go to prison...’

In June 2021, Jiya Lal died of cancer. He had been tortured very badly, after he was picked up in August 2012; he had been ailing ever since.

Testimonies of Ram Meher, President of MSWU, from a family of small farmers in Kaithal, Haryana; Sarabjeet Singh, Sandeep Dhillon, Ajmer Singh, Ram Vilas, Dhanraj Bhambi, Yogesh Kumar... all union office-bearers, all sentenced to life imprisonment, are gut-wrenching. These are simple, brave men, punished because they fought for basic rights for all, insisting on solidarity with their less privileged brethren the contract workers. There was an earthy sincerity in their demands, their fight.

Workers chose a provisional committee, of seven members, to continue the struggle for justice. It helped in legal battle, and ran a protest campaign. But then, several of them, like Junaid Khan, were harassed, picked up by the police, and jailed.

Afterwards elections were held in the union, the new team passed a resolution, that the union will give 2.5 lakh rupees every year to the families of each of the 13 who were imprisoned for life. The money was raised through worker contributions; they were grateful because ‘...everyone’s salary increased because of their sacrifice... the credit goes to the tireless struggle of the union. Everybody acknowledges this.’

The unity displayed by Maruti Suzuki workers has been phenomenal. It is noteworthy that Japanese union members gave a statement of solidarity with the workers of Maruti Suzuki. While in jail, most of the union leaders studied, completed a degree in the social sciences, from IGNOU. They got an opportunity to read, books borrowed from the jail library.

Yadavendra Sharma, a young worker who was jailed for five years and then acquitted, wrote a diary in jail filling several notebooks, conveying anxiety, disappointments, longing and small joys that a prisoner feels; there was bonhomie among inmates, they ran dance classes, celebrated festivals: here he celebrated his best Eid, Muslim and Hindus eating together.

The automobile industry workers were all men; Sushma Devi’s voice, in the book, is distinctive. Her husband Sohan Lal, an ordinary worker, was jailed for three years, and then acquitted. She stood by him with exemplary fortitude. Now sarpanch of Purewal village, Himachal Pradesh, she has a balanced, even-handed approach, which company managers could well learn from: ‘...Suppose something happens in my village. I have to listen to all the people involved in it. I must. Otherwise, what kind of a sarpanch will I make? I have to listen to all and then arrive at a decision. Even if Jiya Lal had done something wrong, the managers should have listened to his version. They should have either taken action against both him and the supervisor, or not taken action against any of them.’

Sushma Devi took part in every protest, for justice: she is aware: ‘The company is powerful. We are all weak compared to them. So they did what they wanted to.’ She notes that at least 50 workers were acquitted, after years in jail, but have not been reinstated. When her husband was released, she told him they should file a case for compensation against the government for falsely accusing and imprisoning him although he was completely innocent. She wanted to file a defamation case too. She talked to the other 50 workers also, but they all said no; her husband said he was so relieved to be out of jail, he did not want to do the rounds of courts.

Dismissed workers are still fighting cases for reinstatement, in labour courts, another charade of justice. Sushma Devi thinks they should go sit on dharna outside the court, to expedite the cases; but so far nobody has agreed with her proposal.

The Long Haul

This book is a must-read, for the ordinary interested reader, and for all those studying management, labour relations, social work, sociology, law, political science.... The writing is lucid, bringing alive the human beings involved, in one of the best-known yet least-understood industrial conflicts in the country of our times.

After the events of 18 July 2012, Maruti Suzuki set itself up smartly, raised salaries of permanent workers, discontinued the old contract system, but in effect kept it going by various ploys such as hiring increasing numbers of ‘temporary workers’. The company’s production figures have kept multiplying; Suzuki has a big plant in Gujarat as well, wholly owned by the Japanese company but supplying its cars to MSIL. By 2025, the company plans to close down the Gurugram plant and move to a much bigger space in Sonipat, recently inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi.

Maruti Suzuki is the biggest player in India’s automobile space, cornering about 42 percent of the domestic market. It is a big success story: that rests on the back of gross injustice. It sets the tone for others, and not only in the automobile industry. We need to understand this story, a tragedy, a human saga, a tale of advanced-capitalist, neo-liberal, globalized India. The shine and glitter hide the absolute rot within, degradation of human fiber, greed and vicious power play.


My one practical suggestion to the authors is, the need to add a list of interviewees, cast of characters as it were. I looked for it in vain, more than once: it is sorely required. There are so many narratives, of workers, union leaders, and some managers, that it becomes confusing for the reader; especially because narratives are often presented in snippets, part in one chapter and another part in another chapter, divided theme-wise (which is logical). But in such a situation, an index of persons is essential.

(Reviewer: Deepti Mehrotra is an independent political scientist, feminist scholar, and more)

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