The issues raised by the now infamous Gurgaon clashes go well beyond an industrial dispute between the Honda management and the workers. It forces us to confront two fundamental questions.
First, what are the duties owed by the State to the citizens?
Second, what are the long-term consequences of liberalisation?
Let me begin by discussing the second one.
I am all for economic liberalisation, but it must be understood that the Constitution takes precedence over any commercial contract. I hope that is also grasped by foreigners.
The Japanese ambassador in Delhi, Y Enoki, has been widely quoted as saying that the clashes in Gurgaon could have a fallout on FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in India.
Could someone tell me the precise diplomatic language for asking His Excellency to mind his own business?
First, no Japanese citizen was involved at any point, leave alone injured, in the fighting. Whatever took place was between Indian workers and Indian policemen. (And some Indian politicians too!) This immediately cuts out any ground for the Japanese envoy to interfere -- unless, of course, he is taking the position that he is representing Japanese corporations and not the Japanese nation.
Second, mumbling dark threats about FDI investment being throttled is nonsense. FDI is not charity, nor a grant in aid. Honda, or any other business entity for that matter, is in India for purely commercial reasons. They know that India presents a huge, and growing, market for whatever goods and services they choose to market. They know that manufacturing in India is a lot cheaper than building elsewhere and then importing it into India. It really doesn't matter whether the Manesar plant is a war zone or a slice of heaven, Honda will stay there as long as it makes commercial sense and not a minute longer.
Moving on, every government since 1991 has brushed the question of labour reforms under the carpet. In a democracy you cannot just impose a new policy by passing an order, you need to educate the people and encourage them to discuss and debate the issues. By turning a blind eye to all this our leaders have left us with a situation where the only place to resolve an industrial dispute is on the streets.
Think about it, did you see either the Union labour minister or his counterpart in the government of Haryana trying to settle this festering squabble? (The roots of the Gurgaon clash go back at least six months.) Come to that, did you see either of these worthies appear even after blood began to spill?
The fact is that there is no working machinery to settle a trial of strength between the powers of management and the rights of workers. The latter privileges must certainly include the power to organise in a union. That has been conceded by the Constitution, a document which certainly cannot be overridden by any Memorandum of Understanding.
It is also nonsense for the Honda management, or the district administration in Gurgaon, to talk of 'outside provocateurs.' They can certainly be stopped from entering the Honda factory, but any political activist is free to join a protest once he or she is on the road.
I hate the fact that the likes of Gurudas Dasgupta or Brinda Karat might abuse their freedom, reducing thriving Haryana to the level of the vast industrial wasteland between Kanpur and Kolkata.
But that is the law of the land, and I have to respect it even if I don't like it. After all, this isn't the first time that charges of 'outsiders provoking our workers' has been raised in India.
Didn't the indigo planters of Champaran and the mill owners of Ahmedabad hurl the same invective against a certain gentleman eighty years ago?
If the language has changed little since the 1920s the behaviour of the police too has not evolved since the colonial era. And this brings up the far more important question: what is the relationship between rulers and ruled in a democracy?
With the honourable exceptions of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, is there a single wing of the Executive which is liked and respected by citizens at large? We are all familiar with the greasy hand opened for a bribe and the closed fist if that payment is not made quickly, or generously, enough. Whether it is the revenue authorities, or the electricity and water boards, or any other department of governance you care to name, the State (in the Marxist sense of that word) is the enemy of the people.
Gurudas Dasgupta had a telling anecdote about the confrontation with the Haryana Police when he went to Gurgaon. When he told one of them that he was an MP, the man took off his badge so that he could not be identified, and then sneered, 'Now, do whatever you can do!'
Dasgupta is not an impartial witness, but the incident rings so true that I am compelled to believe that it is precisely what happened. The arrogance of the policeman and his belief that he could indulge in violence without fear of punishment are the hallmarks of an uncivilised society.
Comparisons with Jallianwala Bagh may be overblown rhetoric, but the scenes of policemen beating unarmed demonstrators with lathis are eerily reminiscent of the grainy footage shown on Independence Day every year, aren't they?
It has been a hundred years since such shots began to be filmed. Since then we have heard a disgusted Allahabad high court remark that elements in the Uttar Pradesh police were worse than any organised criminal forces. India may have won independence 58 years ago but the fight against oppression continues to this day.