28 August 2021
The charge against the 5 was that they had attended the celebrations at Bhima Koregaon on the night of 31 December 2017 – 1 January 2018. Before they were arrested they were questioned, their houses searched and their employer informed of the ‘charges’ against them. Their employer stopped paying them their salaries and in a couple of cases citing police harassment their landlords evicted them and their families from their houses.
Shankarayya Gunde, Satyanarayan Karrela, Ravi Maarampalli, Saidulu Singapanga and Babu Vanguri all five contract employees at Reliance Energy Limited (REL), Mumbai and activists of their union the Mumbai Electricity Employees’ Union (MEEU) were arrested in February, 2018 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967. Four of them were released on bail in December, 2018 because the Maharashtra Police failed to file a charge sheet within the 90 day limit required under the law. Singapanga was released in May, 2021 for lack of evidence.
These five and their co-workers had come together nearly a decade ago to form the MEEU to fight for their rights as contract workers at REL. Over a decade they gained in strength as they earned the minimum wage, won health benefits under the ESIC and compensation for the ever so frequent accidents on the unsafe electricity lines in suburban Mumbai. The contract workers of REL had come together in MEEU giving them the power and dignity to stand up the REL. In December, 2017 the MEEU led a strike ensuring that the family of a fellow worker, killed by an electricity leak on the lines, was compensated and his wife given a job in his place. These are not challenges to their authority that employers take to kindly especially at a time when the REL business was being passed into the hands of Adani Transmission Limited.
Days before Bhima Koregaon emerged as the site that allegedly undermined the very existence of this country, the charge against the 5 was that they had attended the celebrations at Bhima Koregaon on the night of 31 December 2017 – 1 January 2018. Before they were arrested they were questioned, beaten, had their houses searched and their employer informed of the ‘charges’ against them by the police. Their employer stopped paying them their salaries and in a couple of cases citing police harassment their landlords evicted them and their families from their houses. The charge against them was that they were ‘anti-national’, they were ‘Maoists’ and they were ‘urban-naxals’. In reality, all that they are is workers who stand up for their rights under law and identify as dalits because that is what they are.
Today the lives of the Reliance-5 and their families stand in ruin and the MEEU weak as their co-workers are fearful of what they may face should they stand up again.
The Reliance-5 are not alone. They are in the good company of the Bhima Koregaon – 16, which now includes only the memory of Stan Swamy who was sent to his death in the cruellest way possible and so many more.
The UAPA, the Sedition Act 1870, and the many other draconian laws that undermine democratic rights of individuals and make bail next to impossible have been used by successive governments to defeat dissent against their actions. The use of these laws has been taken to another level by the BJP since it came to government in 2014 both in terms of frequency and in the numbers of those arrested. For the BJP government the use of these laws has become the first line of defence against trade unions, people’s movements and democratic rights activists who have the courage to stand up to them and speak the truth. This attack is not an attack against any one individual. It is an attack on the mass of people who stand up in resistance against exploitation, discrimination and injustice of the working class and all working people, of women, of historically discriminated communities and those of minority religions especially those of the Islamic faith and in particular the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir.
This is the first line of attack against those of us who stand up against a majoritarian Hindutva India.
This is the first line of attack against those who have and will stand up to the virtual erosion of all workers’ rights in the country through the introduction of the four Labour Codes. It is an attack on those hard working farmers whose livelihoods will be wiped out with the three farm laws. Both these sets of laws along with the BJP government’s economic programme that has privatisation at its heart are to turn the economy over to private, including international capital, leaving working people to the ravages of the market.
This 28 August, 2021 that marks three years of the arrest of five of the Bhima Koregaon – 16 we in the NTUI come together with so many others across our country to defend our democracy and resist the attack on the very idea of India that speaks to republicanism, equality and social justice.
Stand in Solidarity with the Reliance-5
Release the Bhima Koregaon – 16
Repeal UPA, Repeal the Sedition Act, Repeal all Draconian Laws
Defend the Right to Dissent
Defend the Right to Freedom of Association
Defend the Right to form and join Trade Unions
Repeal the 4 Labour Codes
Repeal the Farm Laws