[Here on Kafila we have written before about the new contours of class struggle and unrest in industrial zones. As the demands of capital become ever more rapacious, and worker’s bodies more dispensable, the last few years have witnessed increasing incidents of violent conflict in urban industrial areas across the country. In each case workers’ demands fall on the deaf ears of an increasingly unresponsive management backed by the weapons of the state. When the simmering violence finally comes to a head, it is workers who are demonized. We carry below a report by the Jamia Teacher’s Solidarity Association on the recent outbreaks of violence in Ludhiana’s industrial zone.]
A fact-finding team of university teachers from Delhi visited Ludhiana on Sunday (20.12.2009) to ascertain the facts of the incidents of violence that have gripped the industrial part of the city involving migrant workers. The team visited Dhandari kalan and Sherpur and spoke to a large number of migrant workers and visited their homes. The team found that despite a large number of the migrant workforce (around 12 lakhs) living in Ludhiana for over 15 years, sometimes even much longer, a majority of them had no voting rights or ration cards. Even when they applied for voters I cards, their applications were rejected on spurious grounds. It is not surprising that no political party, not even the local Member of Parliament, Mr. Manish Tiwari, has bothered to visit them. This attitude percolates down to the bureaucracy and police force, who treat the migrant workers as virtually second class citizens.
It was found that:
1) The migrant workers have for the past 2-3 months been gripped by a sense of fear and insecurity following a series of violent attacks by ‘biker gangs’, in which several workers were injured, attacked, robbed of their daily earnings, with one worker even succumbing to his injuries later in PGI.
2) The workers were greatly agitated that the police refused to file any complaints about these incidents of loot and attack. On 3rd December, when the workers assembled at the Dhandhari PS to complain of yet another attack on them, the police hurled abuses at them and pushed them out of the gate, locking the gate to the PS. The workers jammed the highway close to the PS in the hope that the police would open the gates and come out and listen to them. However, the police responded by opening lathi charge and tear gas. This incensed a section of the workers into burning eight cars.
3) The police meanwhile refused to engage/negotiate with the surging crowds of the workers, numbering according to eyewitnesses, around ten thousand. Instead, it sent messages to the neighbouring villages such as Pammi and Dhandari that migrant workers were marching towards their villages to loot and burn, and that the police was unable to control the crowds. The Police thus asked the local population to join them in controlling the migrant workers. Thus, an issue which was essentially a workers versus administration was maliciously turned by the administration into a migrant versus local issue.
4) On the 4th Dec., there was a pitched battle between the workers on side of the railway track at Dhandari Kalan and the police and its army of anti-social criminal elements. The latter were brandishing, according to eyewitnesses, swords and iron rods as well as fire arms. The workers were trying to resist the entry of these criminal elements into their neighbourhood by pelting stones, however by around noon, they were pushed back and while the police provided them cover, these criminals entered the neighbourhood of Ishwar Colony and created mayhem.
5) The team in its visit to the various bedas (housing complex with one-room tenement) found them deserted, with a large majority of workers residing there having fled or missing. Only about 20 per cent of the original inhabitants remained with whom the team interacted. The Ishwar beda, for instance, has 125 rooms and each room houses 4-5 roommates. When we visited the complex on Sunday, only about 15 people remained.
6) We found one room after another burnt, the belongings reduced to cinders. There were clear remnants of forcible entry: sword and spear marks on aluminium doors; in Pooja Complex, the lock to the main gate had been broken with a bullet shot; scooters, bikes and an auto rickshaw were burnt. The six shops in the Ishwar Complex were all completely burnt.
7) Eyewitnesses and victims told us how they had returned from their night shift and were hiding inside their rooms while the clashes were on at the railway track. They had locked themselves inside their little rooms when the attackers came and set their rooms on fire. Women and children were manhandled, men attacked with rods and swords. Eye witnesses told us that on the 4th December , men were taken to hospital with their heads bleeding, and deep gashes made by swords on their faces.
8) The team spoke to SSP Ludhiana who claimed that the workers had set their own houses on fire by themselves! Therefore, the question of compensation was not easy to address. While the people we met told us that they had filed complaints in the PS about the arson at their shops (in Ishwar Complex) and the huge losses incurred by them they were yet to receive a copy of their complaints. We raised this issue with the SSP and he said that no FIR had been filed till now (after 16 days), and if the need arose, these complaints could be accommodated in the FIR about the burning of the vehicles. He also dismissed the possibility of the existence of any biker gangs. This reflects the apathy and prejudice which is characteristic of the administration’s response towards the problems of the migrant workers. It is inconceivable that workers who work for 12 -14 hours a day, live in tiny rooms with no ventilation, 4-5 people in one room in almost sub-human conditions, to be able to survive and save some money, to have set their own belongings on fire.
The people of the area have made the following demands:
1) Compensation to be paid for all the losses incurred.
2) Given the prevailing atmosphere of fear, there should be a CRPF camp to secure the neighbourhood. The people have lost all faith in the local police.
3) The 42 migrant workers who have been arrested should be immediately released.
4) Charges against those responsible for the violence on migrant workers be framed without delay.
Signed: Tanweer Fazal, Sanghamitra Misra, Manisha Sethi, Ahmed Sohaib for JTSA