Pic:Meeting of Mumbai Electric Employees Union
By Mumbai Rises to Save Democracy
Excerpt of: A Quest for Freedom – the Story of Bhima Koregaon Conspiracy
In January 2018, five workers employed by Reliance Infrastructure (now taken over by Adani Electricity Mumbai Limited) were arrested after their homes were raided by the ATS. Four of them– Satyanarayan Karrela, Babushankar Vanguri, Shankar Gunde and Ravi Marampelli- were arrested on January 12, and the fifth worker, Saidulu Singapanga, was taken into custody on February 5. The arrests of these workers have been amongst the earliest ones to feed into the narrative of conspiracy theory about ‘Urban Naxals’ that has been weaved by the present regime.
The arrested workers are migrants from Telangana and have been working with the company regularly for more than 15 years. All are leading activists of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union (MEEU). The Union was formed in 2005 to represent the voices of workers treated as cheap contract workers by the management. Many have suffered injuries at work, some had died of electric shock. The union fought for dignity, labour rights, regular and full payment of wages through bank, provision of ID cards, safety shoes/gumboots, rainwear, uniforms, leave and bonus. Workers succeeded in these areas. After prolonged struggle ESI coverage was provided on April 2017. 2007 onwards, the union has also been fighting a case in Industrial court, Bandra, Mumbai seeking permanency for hundreds of contract workers.
With rising membership and steadfast struggle, the union became an eyesore for the company. The management, hence, retaliated against the Union time to time. In 2007, eleven workers were arrested on a complaint led by Reliance Industries on the grounds that they had disrupted electric supply to customers. Electricity is considered to be an essential service under the Essential Services Maintenance Act. But the case was later quashed by the Dindoshi court as there was no evidence to substantiate the charges. Nevertheless, eleven of the arrested workers were dismissed from their employment without any enquiry. A chargesheet was never led. Workers have challenged the above dismissals in court and the case is ongoing.
Prior to the arrests by ATS police, on 19th December 2017, there was an agitation by workers at Tilaknagar, Chembur, after a worker died due to lack of proper treatment due to the refusal of the Reliance management to issue ESI card. Following the agitation, the management was compelled to issue the ESI cards to all workers but in turn suspended from service four workers on the grounds that they had organized the agitation.
ATS arrested the five workers under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) alleging that these workers had links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), were in touch with an underground party person and were supplying funds to the party. The workers denied these charges and contend that these arrests have been part of the very organised efforts to curb union activities particularly after the takeover of Reliance by Adani. Workers have witnessed frequent visits of ATS personnel to the HR department under the Reliance (and later Adani) company to identify the leaders of the MEEU union. Apart from the five arrested workers, several unionists were called by the police for interrogation.
The arrests of these workers have been amongst the earliest ones to feed into the narrative of conspiracy theory about ‘Urban Naxals’ that has been weaved by the present regime. The Kisaan Long March from Nashik to Mumbai in March 2018 was also declared to be the handiwork of urban naxals by a BJP MP in a press conference. In Jharkhand, Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti (MSS) which had done considerable work among unorganised sector workers, many among them being tribal workers, was banned on the fabricated charge that MSS is a Maoist organisation. Two of the union office bearers of the MSS were arrested on the grounds of being alleged Maoist sympathisers. In June and August 2018, the state arrested under various UAPA charges several intellectuals, activists and lawyers who have been fighting for people’s rights. This has now become the notorious Bhima Koregaon (BK) conspiracy case. The narrative of “urban naxals” has become a convenient tool to suppress and socially isolate activists and conscience keepers who have steadfastly exposed injustice and also criticised the RSS-led BJP government’s policies and actions for violating the freedoms, dignity and livelihoods of the people of this country.
The arrested MEEU activists are amongst such fighters for social justice. Besides organising and agitating for the rights of workers of their company, they have taken part in several workers’ and people’sstruggles over the years.They have actively lent support to the movement for Telangana statehood believing that their wretched migrant living conditions in Mumbai would come to an end after the creation of a prosperous Telangana. These workers from Telangana are from oppressed castes and had a very strong emotional connect to all agitations for social justice including the campaign to commemorate the bicentenary of the Bhima Koregaon battle. Some workers visited the victory pillar at Bhima Koregaon on December 31, 2017 but they were not present in Pune when the trouble took place on January 1.
Undoubtedly, these arrests have shaken up other members of the union. Families of the arrested workers have undergone a difficult time due to the loss of principle source of income of the household and constant vigilance of the police. The mother of one of the workers died out of shock soon after the arrests. Despite the hardships, the workers who had been arrested and are now out on bail, are determined to carry on with the union activities and strengthen its organizational reach. This says something about the resilience and commitment of political workers unions hardened by struggle and repression, and about why the big capital and the state is afraid of these union workers.
At the time this booklet went into print, four workers had been granted bail in December 2018 by the Bombay High Court but were released only some months later due to the insistence of the court that it would accept only property papers as surety for bail. The bail matter of the fifth worker has been decided against him by the Sessions court. This order is being challenged in the High Court.