New Delhi: Following global attention around the arrest and alleged torture and sexual assault of Nodeep Kaur, demands to release the 23-year-old labour rights activist is growing. Activists, rights bodies and student unions have been staging protests against alleged custodial violence and her detention in Haryana’s Karnal jail, where the young dalit girl has been lodged since January 12.
A worker in a factory in Haryana’s Kundli Industrial Area, Nodeep — resident of Gyandar village in Punjab’s Muktsar Sahib — was arrested on January 12 after a demonstration in front of the metal-cutting firm Sharan Elecmech Private Ltd, Kundli. Her arrest was based on a complaint filed by company’s accountant Lalit Khurana undre FIR (number 26/2021) lodged at Kundli police station under Sections 148, 149, 323, 452, 384 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The complaint alleged that Nodeep, along with two other women and over 50 men, stormed the company office carrying wooden sticks and demanded money. It also alleged that Nodeep challenged the three policemen, who had reached the site and “instigated others to teach the police a lesson”.
As per the FIR, the accused allegedly tried to snatch a carbine and a file from the policemen, in addition to attacking them with sticks. However, the police managed to arrest Kaur, while the co-accused escaped.
Kaur is associated with the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS), a union fighting for the rights of industrial workers. Formed in 2016 with the aim to organise workers for waging struggle against the “discriminatory wage system and various forms of exploitation of workers”, MAS began active functioning in 2018 among workers in the Kundli Industrial Area.
KUNDLI INDUSTRIAL AREA AT A GLANCE
The Kundli industrial area accommodates over two lakh workers hailing from various states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar etc. These daily wagers belong to marginalised communities, including dalits, Muslims, landless and poor peasants. The industrial hub had witnessed a mass movement of migrant workers to their hometowns during the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown last year..
As per activists, workers here are paid wages as low as Rs 7,000 per month, with no or barely any incentives and bonus in the contractual mode of employment that makes them vulnerable to sacking. They also claimed that female workers are exploited more as they receive even lower wages and longer working hours.
It should be noted that the Haryana state government has notified Rs 9,319 as the minimum wage for unskilled labourers.
Workers’ rights activists from the area also said that “the discrimination and exploitation of workers has been continuing without any outrage from the workers due to the lack of unionisation”. They also claimed that despite the presence of various workers unions, they haven’t been able to organise the workers.
“The lack of unionisation is owed to the presence and muscle power of the existent organisation of the company managements and owners, which goes by the name of Kundli Industrial Association (KIA). It has a organised, well-equipped private security team/bouncers, whose main function is to curb any kind of unionisation and struggle of the workers against their exploitation. The KIA team is based in Kundli, Rai and Nathupur industrial areas of Haryana and have multiple Quick Response Team (QRT), which respond to stress calls made by the company management whenever the workers attempt to strike or protest for their wages, sacking of any worker or non-payment of wages etc.,” Sangeeta Geet, an activist and friend of Nodeep, told NewsClick.
INCIDENT LEADING TO NODEEP’S ARREST
MAS has also extended active support to the ongoing farmers’ agitation against the three recently enacted farm laws at the borders of the national capital. However, MAS members said the task of mobilising workers against the new farm laws that are not directly affecting workers — as they see it — was neither easy, nor it was the work of one day.
“The organisation started actively working on the ground from day one of the farmers camping at Delhi-Haryana Singhu border near Kundli to realise the slogan of worker-peasant unity. We made attempts to strengthen unity between the working class and peasants,” Geet said, explaining how they drew support from the workers.
“On December 2 last year, around 200 workers of the area boycotted work under the MAS leadership and joined the farmers’ protest. Again on December 8, workers of the Kundli Industrial Area boycotted their day’s work and marched with over 1,000 workers to the main stage to voice their full support to the farmers’ movement. Earlier, labourers couldn’t even dare to distribute pamphlets, forget about going on a strike,” she added, referring to an incident where labourers were stopped by industrialists from distributing pamphlets to observe May Day.
MAS then set up a help desk at the protest site at Singhu for redressal of grievances of industrial workers. Several workers have reportedly lodged their complaints with regard to alleged refusal of payments of their wages by factory owners. Geet claimed over 250 workers got their dues to the tune of Rs 5 lakh from different factories.
On December 8, the workers marched to Sharan Elecmech Private Ltd to get the dues totalling Rs 5,000 for a worker (name withheld) which had been pending for a long time. When the worker approached the management with a letter issued by MAS, they allegedly abused him. As the workers started protesting, the QRT of the Kundli Industrial Association (KIA) was called.
“The bouncers began threatening the agitating workers, who resisted the threats with sloganeering. Later, a police team reached the protest site. The cops instead of mediating between the protesters and the management manhandled the workers. Nodeep, who was leading them, was also manhandled by the men in uniform. The police then lathi-charged the protesting workers, who too resisted to defend themselves. A police constable fired few rounds of live bullets in the air. Following the gun fire, the protesters ran away fearing for their life. Nodeep was arrested by the cops,” Geet told NewsClick, recalling the events of that day.
Two FIRs (no. 25 and 26 — one by the company and the other by the police) were registered at the Kundli Police station on January 12 under various IPC sections, including attempt to murder, obstructing public officer from discharging his duty and rioting with deadly weapons etc., against Naudeep and others.
THE POLICE THEORY
The police narrative, according to the FIRs is that Naudeep and her 40-50 aides attacked the cops with “malicious intention” of taking revenge for FIR registered against MAS members and Nodeep on December 28, 2020. The police also alleged that they were informed that workers, armed with rods and batons, were creating nuisance outside the company and were attempting to extort money. Hence, they rushed to the protest spot and were attacked by the workers.
However, eyewitnesses rubbished these allegations, instead claiming that in both the incidents KIA bouncers were present while the management failed to show up. “On December 28, the bouncers had also physically assaulted the workers. On January 12, the police had lathi-charged the protesting workers,” a worker from the area told NewsClick on condition of anonymity.
Another worker alleged that the policemen held the woman leading the protest and beating her. Following this, the workers started defending themselves.
Referring to the workers’ allegations as a “concocted version”, Sonipat Superintendent of Police Jashandeep Singh Randhawa, said: “SHO PS Kundli along with his team had reached the spot to mediate between the two sides. However, the young activists (Nodeep Kaur and her associates) became violent and started attacking the police officials with huge lathis and sticks. This entire incident was video recorded, and there were neutral eyewitnesses at the spot as well.”
He also alleged that seven police personnel sustained injuries in the ensuing violence. “By the time our police personnel could reorient themselves, most of the culprits had run away. However, they succeeded in nabbing Nodeep Kaur from the spot,” he told NewsClick.
Highlighting the FIRs registered, Randhawa negated the allegation of Kaur’s arbitrary detention for 18 days.
On being asked about the alleged sexual assault, he said that Kaur was accompanied by female police personnel during the stay. He also said that she was taken for a medical examination to the Civil Hospital in Sonipat on the same day. “However Kaur herself gave a written statement to the female doctor that she doesn’t want to be medically examined as she had not been assaulted,” Randhawa added.
According to him, the police had also presented the accused before the chief judicial magistrate within few hours of arrest to seek judicial remand, and she was accompanied by female police. “As per the directions of the magistrate, she was taken to Karnal Jail that very night, accompanied by two lady police officials for judicial custody, where she is lodged now,” he added, emphasising that due procedure was followed.
A TALE OF VIDEOS
Both the police and the defence lawyer have provided NewsClick with video clips in support of their claims. In the two footages of 43 seconds and 12 seconds given by the police, a group of men, also comprising a girl in black jacket and maroon colour lower, can be seen charging batons on the police and QRT bouncers. Since the cops can be seen as a shield between the two sides, hence they too can be seen receiving several blows, with some of them getting injured.
In the second video, a girl in the same outfit whose face is out of focus in the purported video can be heard addressing a group of people with the help of a public address system, “Abhi saamne peet peet kar bhagaya hai, phir peetenge agar aa gaya to. Jitni video bana hai bana lo (we have thrashed and chased them away in front of you. They will be beaten up if they come once again. Record our videos as much as you wish).”
But it is not clear whom she is referring to as both the videos are too short to understand the sequence of events.
NewsClick does not independently vouch for the authenticity of any of the video footage.
However, according to the defence lawyers, the girl visible in the two video clips provided by the police seem the same, but she is not Nodeep. They also alleged that selective footage was being released by the cops.
“If you look at the incident, it has continuity. Kundli Industries Association has a QRT, which was called in to forcefully stifle the workers’ protest, if any. They don’t allow the labourers to hold any demonstrations and meetings. They were also not allowed to observe May Day. Though the MAS had actively started working for the rights of oppressed workers, the ongoing farmers’ agitation helped it increase its influence,” one of the lawyers of the defence team led by Advocate Jaitinder Kumar told NewsClick.
“However, after the MAS members started pursuing the workers’ grievance with the management after failing to elicit any response from the police and the labour court, they were attacked by the goons hired by the industrialists,” he added.
The lawyer told NewsClick that the first FIR (no 649) was lodged by the police on December 28 after they were allegedly fired upon by a bouncer of the QRT for holding demonstration outside a company, which was not ready to release wages of some of its workers. NewsClick has accessed a video of the incident wherein a gunshot-like sound can be heard during the scuffle.
“The MAS activists, especially Nodeep, have been involved in fighting for civil rights. She is a dalit rights activist; she has actively participated in the anti-CAA protests. She is now fighting for workers’ rights. In Modiji’s language, she is an andolanjeevi (a term recently used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently in Parliament for agitating farmers),” he said, talking about Nodeep.
“This is not a case of extortion but workers’ rights. There is no case for slapping Section 384 of the IPC against the activists, as protesting to ensure workers get their due wages is not extortion. We have evidence of 50-60 workers getting their dues after the MAS intervention,” he added.
Talking about the January 12 incident, the lawyer said: “The videos shown by the police have been shot by a lady constable. Therefore, it does not have the record of the scuffle between the bouncers and the agitators. The appearance of the police indicates that a violent fight has already taken place and therefore the police was called in. As the police comes in between the two fighting groups, they also face the assault.”
“However, the attack on cops was unintentional. In this case, they should have been charged with IPC sections of 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty) and 334 (voluntarily causing hurt on grave and sudden provocation). But they have been charged with 384 (extortion), which they neither intended, nor had they done, 307 (intention to kill) and 379-B (snatching of valuables), which in Haryana has been amended and made punishable with a jail term of 10 years. The police have intentionally invoked such sections so that the activists cannot secure bail,” he added.
On the contrary, he claimed, they have a video wherein a policeman can allegedly be seen opening several rounds of fire.
According to the first FIR, the complainant, who was on patrol duty, noted that a group of 15-20 men accompanied by two women was standing at the gate of Sector 57 armed with sticks and misbehaved with the factory owner. The FIR added that the group of youth were led by a girl wearing spectacles, who identified herself as Nodeep Kaur, a resident of Punjab. However, they attacked the complainant when they intervened.
“Interestingly, when the alleged victims are private security guards, the accused were slapped with Section 384 of the IPC. But when the victim is police in the January 12 incident, the accused were charged with Section 307 of the IPC wherein securing bail is a bit difficult,” the lawyer pointed out.
He also said that even though a through medical examination of the alleged victim under the supervision of a medical officer was ordered by the court, the report has not so far been placed on record in the court or supplied to defence. “We are relying on what she is saying: she has been tortured brutally in the police custody and has been sexually assaulted. We as her lawyers have not so far allowed to meet her in person. Since her judicial custody, she has not been presented in the court physically so that we can talk to her,” he said.
“But despite the law mandating that the police must register an FIR and begin investigation if a victim alleges that she has been sexually abused, the police are not following it. Instead, they are demanding medical report even before cognisance, which is just corroborative evidence,” the lawyer alleged.
Responding to the police claim that she was produced before a magistrate after the arrest, but she did not speak about the alleged sexual harassment, the lawyer said expecting a girl who is not well educated about the law to narrate her ordeal and that too in absence of her lawyers is nothing but an “excuse” to “cover up the matter”.
FIR No. 649, A GHOST FIR?
A total of three FIRs (25, 26 and 649) have been filed against Nodeep and others. The lawyer said her bail applications in FIR numbers 25 (which has Section 307 of the IPC) and 26 (which has Section 384 of the IPC) have been dismissed by sessions court and judicial magistrate (first class), respectively. Both the courts rejected the bail, citing the third FIR (no. 649) and concluding the she is a habitual offender.
He alleged neither the accused nor her lawyers knew about the third FIR. “We came to know about it only after the prosecution mentioned it in his arguments while opposing the bail. Violating all norms, the FIR was kept secret so that it can be used in future. If we knew about it, we could have argued that she cannot be called as habitual offender as all the three FIRs have been lodged within 15 days because of vendetta,” he alleged.
He said he will now move an application, praying for bail on the December 28 FIR. “And then, we will approach the sessions and lower courts for review of their decisions. If we don’t get a relief, then only we will approach the High Court,” he said.
DID KIA’S QRT REALLY FIRE AT PROTESTERS?
MAS and its lawyers have alleged that the armed security guards hired by the KIA opened fire at the protesting workers.
When asked the same, KIA President Subhash Gupta accepted it, adding that one of their security guards had fired a bullet in the air on December 28 in “self-defence”. He also said the workers are “troubling” their employers for their due payments and the factories are struggling because of the lockdown.
Asked about the QRT, he explained, “The QRT had been formed to prevent violent protests and theft in factories.”
But there is no mention of any bullet fire in the FIR filed by the KIA on December 28, even if it was done in “self-defence”. Asked as to why the firing incident was not mentioned in the FIR or a separate case was registered in this regard, Kundli Station House Officer Ravi Kumar claimed that no firing took place on December 28. He further said that under the guise of supporting farmers, labourers were engaging in “money extortion” and a FIR has been registered against them.