ALSO READThe struggle is still on: Life after Maruti's Manesar factory clash 31 convicted, 117 acquitted in Maruti's 2012 violence case 2012 Maruti factory violence: Meet Sonu Gujjar, the man behind the strike Gujarat plant to help Maruti achieve 50% market share Strong growth justifies Maruti's valuations
One by one, 26 former employees of Maruti Suzuki stepped out of jail for the first time in two-and-a-half years early on March 20, 2015. Many looked up to the sky, perhaps to thank God, while others scurried past policemen to meet their family members gathered outside the Bhondsi jail.
Clad in a blue checked shirt and jeans, Raman Kumar appeared from behind a police van close to the entrance of the jail. He and former colleague, Ravinder Singh, walked another thousand yards to reach the lawns, where many families had slept the previous night. The jail, on the outskirts of the city, involves a walk of five km to the nearest point of public transport. The remote location delayed the release of these inmates by a day as the bail orders reached the jail authorities late in the evening.
Additional Sessions Judge S K Khanduja had granted bail to 77 of the 148 accused three days ago. It took the lawyers another two days to complete the formalities and the release orders of 26 accused could only be signed on Thursday. The orders for the remaining ones will be signed over the next two days. The men, mostly aged between 21 and 28, were arrested in July 2012 for allegedly rioting at Maruti's Manesar plant, during which a company executive was charred to death. The administration slapped 18 sections of the Indian Penal Code, including charges of murder, attempt to murder, arson, rioting and criminal conspiracy, on the accused. The rioting occurred following the suspension of an employee, leading to one of the worst industrial unrests in the country. The plant was shut for days, resulting in huge losses.
The judge had earlier refused bail on grounds of the serious nature of the case. In India, the judicial system is such that the judge gives an equal opportunity to the prosecution to oppose bail prayers. In this case, it took time because of the large number of bail applications. "The trial dragged on because the prosecution deliberately delayed the examination of the witnesses, knowing well that the latter would not stand up to scrutiny in court. They could not produce any evidence before the judge," said Vrinda Grover, who argued for the accused. "The false case has left the families destitute," she added.
A Maruti spokesperson refused to comment.
Outside the jail, Kumar, Singh and many other accused claimed innocence.
They allege they were arrested from locations far from the company's plant. The police identified them through their uniforms and took them into custody. "We were returning to our rented accommodations when the police waylaid and arrested us. We have been framed," said Kumar, tension palpable on his face.
"We are saddened because the police arrested us without a proper investigation. They (the prosecution) have failed to produce a single witness in the case for two and a half years," added Kumar, a resident of Mazra village in Haryana's Fatehabad district.
He joined Maruti as a trainee nine months before his arrest and was paid Rs 9,000 a month.
"The Haryana government under former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda was paying a huge amount to high-profile lawyers to keep these people in jail. It was a message for around a million workers and their unions in Gurgaon to desist from such activities or face being locked in jail for years," said Monu Kuhar, one of the defence lawyers.
The families believe the change of government in Haryana is the main reason behind bail being granted. "We knocked on every door, cried and held several public protests. But the former chief minister never gave us a hearing. We have suffered the most," said Darshna Devi, mother of another accused Raj Kumar Dhanak.
"When we were coming to Delhi, my three-year-old granddaughter grabbed me from behind asking if her father would come home this time. She was only a few months old when her father was arrested," she said wiping tears. Her husband Khajaan Singh, too, breaks down while narrating the tough time the family went through in the absence of Dhanak, who earned Rs 6,000 a month.
Almost all families, mostly belonging to the farming community, had similar stories to tell. Amarjeet Singh's father Kaptan Singh, who retired from the army, was inconsolable. He trembled while recalling the arrest of his son. "Amarjeet was not even in the plant where the incident happened. It was his younger brother who saw the news on television and informed him about the violence in the factory. We ran from pillar to post, but no one listened," he said seated in the Gurgaon court.
Though it is up to the court to decide how many of them are guilty, the biggest challenge the accused face is finding a new source of livelihood. Those who were married just before their arrests need to convince their wives to return.