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Striking Maharashtra bus workers and their lawyer charged with ‘riot’ and ‘conspiracy’

One hundred and eighteen Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) bus strikers and their lawyer, Gunratan Sadavarte, were released on bail yesterday. But they still face charges of “rioting” and “conspiracy” for staging a protest in Mumbai, the residence of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, on April 8.

Authorities, who denounced the April 8 protest in the strongest terms, say workers threw slippers and rocks at police officers guarding Pawar’s house and attempted to enter.

The workers and their lawyer have spent the past two weeks in jail, their previous attempts to obtain bail having been refused or postponed.

A magistrate’s court yesterday said the workers could be released on bail on payment of a deposit of 10,000 rupees (US$130). For many workers and their families, this will prove to be a great ordeal. 10,000 rupees exceeds the monthly salary of many MSRTC workers. Additionally, they received no income or strike pay during the nearly six-month strike against the government-owned intercity bus service.

The court set Sadavarte’s bail at 50,000 rupees.

Pawar’s official residence, Silver Oak, was the scene of an angry protest just a day after the Bombay High Court ruled that more than 70,000 MSRTC workers must end their strike and return to work. ‘by April 22, otherwise their jobs would be terminated.

MSRTC workers protest in Nagpur, Maharashtra’s third largest city. (Workers’ Unit)

The striking workers’ central demand – that the MSRTC, an independent body, be merged with the state government to protect their wages, terms and conditions from impending privatization – was dismissed by the court.

The arrest and imprisonment of strikers who demonstrated at the residence of Pawar and Sadavarte, who faces fabricated charges of “conspiracy”, is part of a campaign of state repression aimed at intimidating MSRTC workers and to break their strike.

The spontaneous protest outside Pawar’s residence in South Mumbai speaks to the depth of anger among India’s working class and urban and rural workers, amid a pandemic that has claimed millions of lives and inflation galloping which imposes an enormous burden on the workers.

MSRTC workers are fighting the same program of privatization and austerity that is being applied against India’s multi-million working class by the far-right Indian government led by Narendra Modi and all state governments, including those like that of Maharashtra, which are led by opposition parties. .

However, the “left” unions and parties – especially the Stalinist (Marxist) Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (CPI) and their respective union federations, the CITU and the AITUC – did nothing to mobilize supports. for the fight against the privatization of MSRTC workers. On the contrary, they did everything to isolate and sabotage it.

Protesting strikers angrily denounced the NCP leader for refusing to back their demands, throwing away shoes and slippers in disgust. Pawar has been an integral part of Maharashtra’s political establishment for decades. He was targeted after pretending to sympathize with the bus workers’ struggle, while colluding with unions and the courts to force a return to work.

The NCP rules Maharashtra under a coalition government led by the fascist Shiv Sena and also includes the Congress Party, from which the NCP split more than two decades ago.

India’s ruling class was rocked by the April 8 protest. Sarad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar, also a senior NCP politician and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, demanded to know why the police did not give advance warning. Interior Minister and NCP politician Dilip Walse-Patil announced an investigation into “intelligence failures” and a hunt for “instigators”. A local police chief has been sacked amid bitter recriminations.

Events in the Palk Strait in Sri Lanka were not insignificant in the panicked response to the Silver Oak protest. Just a week earlier, a protest outside the home of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakse helped spark the biggest mass protests on the island in nearly 70 years against an economic crisis that has ravaged millions of people.

Maharashtra state forces moved quickly to quell the April 8 protest and take revenge. Police immediately arrested 104 strikers, including 29 women, on charges of rioting. Six other strikers were arrested later that night. They were taken into custody and until yesterday deprived of bail.

Sadavarte, the lawyer who represented the strikers in the Bombay High Court, was detained for questioning on April 8, although he was not even present during the protest outside Pawar’s residence. He was sent to prison later that day. He now faces riot and conspiracy charges.

The bogus accusations were quickly used to launch a broader crackdown on the strike. On April 9, police “evacuated” the strikers from the Azad Maidan sports ground in Mumbai where they had been camping since last November. Cyber ​​police are being used “to review call data records and social media chats of protesters to find out if they were instigated by any political party or organization,” India reported. Free press journal April 11.

Sadavarte’s arrest was discussed at the highest state level. Transport Minister Anil Parab, the leader of the Shiv Sena who has repeatedly threatened to invoke the Essential Services Continuation Act (ESMA) and arrest the strikers en masse, denounced the lawyer as the “mastermind “of the demonstration.

State authorities opposed bail for Sadavarte, whose home was raided by police two days after the protest. Attorney General Pradeep Ghara claimed the lawyer should be detained to help authorities uncover a “wider conspiracy” that allegedly targeted the homes of three other state government ministers.

News reports indicate that the imprisoned strikers were subjected to repeated interrogation by the police to extract false “confessions” from them.

The crackdown inflicted on brave strikers in Maharashtra reveals the true purpose of the Bombay High Court’s April 7 ruling. His much applauded assertions that no worker would be victimized for their participation in the strike if they returned to work before April 22. lies in tatters.

“We will take strict action against the staff members who were part of the crowd involved in the attack and who have been arrested,” MSRTC Director General Shekhar Channe said on April 12. He continued, “Most of the striking MSRTC staff members who were arrested in the attack have already been suspended or given notices of dismissal as part of disciplinary action for participation in (the ) strike. »

Workers across India and the world must demand the dropping of all charges against the Maharashtra strikers and their lawyer, and that they and the thousands of other MSRTC workers who were victims of the strike be reinstated unconditionally in their employment. The Indian state has a long history of violent reprisals against strike leaders. In 2017, Indian courts vindictively sentenced 13 workers who led militant struggles at the Maruti-Suzuki car assembly plant in Manesar, Haryana, to life imprisonment on charges pin.