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He led the strikes that paralysed Maruti’s Gurgaon plants, and then quit under a cloud of suspicion. Former labour leader Sonu Gujjar talks to Rrishi Raote.
Sonu Gujjar is supposed to have gone into hiding, yet here we are at his home in a village near Jhajjar in Haryana, and here he is. We are in a room on the upper floor of the house, drinking tea. Three or four of his cousins, all young men, drift in and out. Gujjar is telling us about the workers’ strikes that he led at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant near Gurgaon last year.
When the last strike ended in October, news reports indicated that Gujjar and his fellow leader Shiv Kumar took a big payout and quit. The sum was variously reported from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 1 crore. The company was said to have suffered a loss of Rs 1,700-2,000 crore during the months of trouble at the factory — at a time when the car market was weak. The other 28 workers of Gujjar’s core group received Rs 16 lakh each as a final settlement when they too quit, after their leaders. Some, it was reported, considered Gujjar a traitor and sellout.
Did he in fact go underground, and stop answering his phone? He says, “That was my NCR number. I’m not so big that I can pay roaming charges to hear other people talk. It’s not like nobody had my local number.” Was his house locked and closed, as reported? “You see me here. Yes, I might have gone to Jhajjar for some work, but there was no lock.” When Business Standard’s photographer visited at the time, he was told by locals to go away.
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It has taken us three hours to get here, much of that time spent on zigzagging village roads. In the end we found Gujjar’s house just 1 km off the district road. The old man who pointed it out said: “Oh, the boy who was kicked out of his job? There!”
The area looks prosperous. Delhi is arriving, with housing projects and industrial estates half an hour away. New four-lane roads end abruptly in narrow rural lanes, along which tractors chug. Smoke pours from the chimneys atop dozens of brick kilns, and fields are dug up to provide soil for the bricks. It is disconcerting to see lush fields next to empty, barren pits.
Village paths are cemented. Houses are pucca, and some are palatial; each is built around a courtyard which accommodates the shaggy local buffaloes. The air is clear but everything is dusty — everything except the cars, most of them white and new-looking, tucked into every other lane. Marutis are everywhere, but also mid-size sedans of other brands.
Outside Gujjar’s house, too, sits a new and white, slightly scuffed Swift. It is there when we pull in. He was just about to leave for Jhajjar, he says, showing us courteously up to his room on the roof.
Gujjar is instantly recognisable from photographs, though he has put on some weight and his face seems to have hardened a little. He looks educated. He speaks fast and clearly, repeating his points like one accustomed to speaking in public. He is wearing a gold chain under his shirt.
When we leave, the Swift is not there, and Gujjar explains, “The car is not mine, it’s the car of the son of my tau [uncle]”, one of the men we met in his house.
The house is by no means impressive. It is not small, but is not new and shows no sign of recent improvement. The walls are faded and lined with cracks, to which Gujjar draws our attention. There is a brick-paved courtyard. In a large alcove is a machine for chopping buffalo feed. A well-swept room houses the buffaloes. There are two rooms for the family. There is a motorcycle, which Gujjar used to ride one and a half hours each way to the factory.
A narrow cement staircase leads to the roof and Gujjar’s room. It is crowded with a large bed on which he perches as we talk, a pile of clothes in need of washing, and a small sofa set. Also on the roof: several rows of drying dung-cakes, a satellite TV dish and another charpai on which his elderly mother sits sunning herself. Later Gujjar’s wife, who has a BA, joins her mother-in-law in the sun, her face veiled. Neither woman says anything. Two very small children potter about. These people, together with Gujjar’s father, who is not well and whom we later see sitting quietly on a charpai outdoors, are the family.
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No sign of luxury here; no sign of Gujjar’s golden handshake. It was Rs 16 lakh, he reiterates, and when presented with alternate figures gives a bitter defence: nothing was done in secret, he discussed everything with his group of 30 and was to discuss it with all the workers as well. “Afterwards people say what they want, and one knows why they say it.” He showed his fellow workers the cheque, he says, and they agreed to take the payout and “sacrifice themselves” so that their goals would be achieved. That is, a new independent union (the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union, or MSEU), kinder leave policy, bus pickup for workers from Jhajjar and Rewari, contract workers being given priority in hiring, and a return to production.
In short, he says, unions in other companies did not act in MSEU’s support, and meanwhile the strikers’ families were suffering. Political groups were getting involved — “Behti Ganga mein sab haat dhote hain,” he says, pointing to their opportunism and MSEU’s popularity — but the support never came.
The company was adamant, he says, that with Gujjar’s group in control no new union would be allowed — better to go, and clear the way. Since most of MSEU’s demands were met, and now the union is registered, albeit without its founding group, Gujjar counts the experience a victory. “It’s always been that way,” he says. “The one who makes a start gets nothing.”
He has not found a job. “As you know, my name is such that no companies give me work.” I ask whether he has set up a business or bought land, and he laughs. “To start a business Rs 16 lakh seems a lot to you? In our village 1 keela [about 1 acre] of land is Rs 85 lakh.” Some of his payout went to repay loans, some goes in buying medicines for his father, and Rs 5,000 per appearance goes to his lawyer, because five court cases are still pending against him for “maar-pitai” (beating up) during the strike.
Maruti Suzuki did not comment on any of these matters.
Yet Gujjar does not look downcast. After he wishes us farewell and we drive off, the photographer suggests we go back to see whether the vanished Swift has rematerialised. And it has! Gujjar says again that this is his cousin’s car; the cousin says he owns a travel agency in Jhajjar.
Gujjar is so likeable that one wishes to believe everything he says. It’s no surprise that he was an effective leader.