Nodeep Kaur speaking at the press conference. Image Courtesy: The Wire

The story of the unflinchingly brave workers’ rights activist Nodeep Kaur has captured the national imagination ever since her arrest in January. In this interview, Nodeep says her struggle for the rights of workers and women will only get stronger. VIVEK GUPTA reports from Chandigarh on her struggle and plans.

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BORN in Gandhar village of Punjab’s Muktsar district, Nodeep Kaur was in her teens when her village was woken up to a brutal rape of a Dalit girl in 2014.

Twenty-three-year-old Nodeep, who recently emerged as a symbol of labour rights in India, says she knew the victim very well as their family lived in her neighbourhood.

“Her story was tragic,” she recalls. The upper caste men of her village picked the victim on her way to school and gang-raped her.

It is only after a protest by the victims’ family and worker unions that the police were forced to arrest all the accused, charged them with gang-rape, and then tried them for the crime in local courts, says Nodeep.

She says that since her childhood she noticed how “normal” it was considered in rural Punjab to mete out ill-treatment to the Dalits.

Sharing a personal anecdote, she says that whenever she accompanied her mother to work in fields owned by big landlords, they often faced their misbehaviour including bad language. The wages they were paid were also inadequate and not on time, she says.

Through such experiences, Nodeep saw the caste fault-lines within society and the state machinery’s tepid response to the plight of those who live on its margins.

“When something troubles with the poor, no one, be it the police or rich people, comes to their help. They are left with no way out except to unionise and join hands with each other and fight for justice,” says Nodeep, who grew up in a poor family that, like millions of others, survived on the pain of daily labour.

Nodeep has four sisters and two brothers. Except for her elder sister Rajveer Kaur, no one could get a proper education in her family due to financial difficulties, she says.

She studied in her village school till class eight. Then, after a few years, she completed her tenth and then twelfth classes in the open school.

She says she tried to educate herself further, but the pressure to earn a livelihood did not allow this.

Delhi changes her life

Her sister Rajveer Kaur’s admission to Delhi University in an M.Phil programme after her post-graduation from Patiala’s Punjabi University allowed Nodeep to leave her village and Punjab for the first time.

Nodeep, who was not getting much work in Punjab, thought she would earn more in Delhi and that may help her return to studying. This is how she landed in the national capital in 2019.

She says her first job in Delhi was at a call centre in Azad Nagar. “But I left the job soon after when I realised that I was made to make false premises about employment to callers,” she says.

She came in contact with student union politics in Delhi through Rajveer, who was already actively involved in the union and was also involved in fronts such as the Bhagat Singh Students’ Front, named after the great Punjabi revolutionary.

“But the pressure of working was always there as parents often ask me to find some work or return home,” says Nodeep.

That is how, last year, she went in for employment in the industrial area in Kundli, a small town in Sonepat district on the Delhi-Haryana border. It was a move that later became her new battleground.

Nodeep’s first job soon after the Covid-19 lockdown was with a firm that makes headphones and lighting for home decor. But she was pained to see the labourers being made to work for 12 hours a day without Sundays off.

“In exchange for such hard labour, the monthly salary was a mere Rs. 7,000 a month, not more than Rs. 230 a day, whereas state labour laws fixed minimum pages of Rs. 9,300 for an eight-hour job,” she says.

“There was a salary cut when sometimes I left work early. I could not cope with it and left it later, she informs.

She says, “Another firm that I joined in June that was manufacturing LED lights had similar labour conditions.”

She says the firm’s manufacturing unit was near the Singhu border where farmers later squatted for protest against the Centre’s three new farm laws.

“During my work period, I found that wages were not as per the government’s minimum wage protocols. The condition of female labourers was even more exploited as their monthly salary was even lower than what the men would make,” she says.

This is when she came into contact with Mazdoor Adkhikar Sangathan (MAS), a local group that was actively highlighting workers’ rights and their issues in the Kundli industrial area.

This group came to exist three years ago under the leadership of people like Shiv Kumar (who currently is in jail), says Nodeep.

More than 1.5 lakh labourers are employed in Kundli factories. But industry owners often ignore their rights and do not help families of those who die during work or of work-related complications, she says.

After the sudden lockdown in March last year, there was a major issue of non-payment of pending dues of the workers.

When labourers returned to work after the lockdown, the factory owners did not pay them. They were already reeling under huge financial hardships because of the lack of work for over a month. Many left, but those who stayed on had no money to even feed their family, leave aside home rent and other needs.

Nodeep says MAS often engaged in conflicts with factory owners over the payment issue and helped several labourers get their pending dues.

“MAS also came to my rescue when my employer refused to clear my wages following my active engagement with MAS, which involved skipping work every now and then,” she adds.

She remembers actively participating in MAS’s massive protest against the alleged gang-rape of two Dalit girls in police custody. The girls had been arrested in connection with the alleged murder of two policemen of the Butana outpost in Sonipat.

“But I had to leave the job soon as this firm was not in favour of my active engagement with union work,” she says.

“In fact, I was refused work in other factories too. Later, I stopped trying since I learned I was on the target list of the industries in the area,” she recalls.

She says the Kundli Industrial Association has formed a team of security guards known as a quick reaction team (QRT), which has armed bouncers.

On paper, its purpose is to protect industrial properties from theft and other security threats.

But Nodeep alleges that the QRT also worked to suppress those who are fighting for the rights of workers in the area.

On several occasions, QRT beat and threatened workers involved in a peaceful demonstration, she says.

The Kundli Industrial Association has formed a team of security guards known as a quick reaction team (QRT), which has armed bouncers. The company says its purpose is to protect industrial properties from theft and other security threats. But Nodeep says QRT suppresses workers and beats peaceful demonstrators.

“Even we were stopped from circulating pamphlets among workers to make them aware of their problems and labour rights,” she says.

Clashes and aftermath

Nodeep says her arrest on 12 January has its genesis in a 28 December protest.

“Like our previous demonstration, we gathered outside a factory which had not released the pending dues of a group of labourers. A group of QRT bouncers showed up and started manhandling us. One of them even fired in open. We approached the police and marched towards the Kundli police station. We sent an email to the SP Sonipat, but no action was taken against QRT staff,” says Nodeep.

Instead, she and other workers were slapped with a case (FIR 649/2020) by the Kundli police station under section 148 (rioting), 149 (unlawful assembly, 384 (extortion) of Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Freelance journalist Mandeep Punia has recorded the incident in a story published in December in The Caravan magazine.

Nodeep says that since workers sought MAS’s help for the release of their pending dues, they had no option but to regularly hold marches in front of factories to put pressure on them.

“On 12 January, we held a similar peaceful demonstration. We went to a couple of factories where owners assured us to release pending dues at the earliest. But all of sudden, we were under attack by QRT. I and other women were also beaten. The police reached the spot later and beat us too,” Nodeep recalls.

She says, “Such a tense atmosphere was created that many from our side were also forced to respond to the QRT attack and police brutality in self-defense before the crowd was made to scatter.”

The state and industries version is different. Industry sees MAS as extortionists causing trouble to factories for months for fictitious pending dues.

Dheeraj Choudhary, a KIA executive, claimed in a media interview that why would any industry not pay workers? That KIA did not threaten anyone with violence or assault. He also said that if salaries were stopped, it must have been for a reason — for instance, if the worker “did not follow company rules”.

On QRT, KIA president Subhash Gupta reportedly said: “We have been robbed a lot of times. Our generators have been stolen and intruders have tried to get in. That is why we keep guards.”

Police saw MAS’s 12 January demonstration as an act of vandalism and hooliganism. It claimed the protest was violent and when police tried to disperse the crowd, they were attacked with sticks, injuring seven police personnel. There were also alleged attempts to snatch police weapons.

Police saw MAS’s 12 January demonstration as an act of vandalism and hooliganism. It claimed the protest was violent and when police tried to disperse the crowd, they were attacked with sticks, injuring seven police personnel. There were also alleged attempts to snatch police weapons.

Soon after the clash, Nodeep was picked up and two more FIRs were filed against her. Shiv Kumar was arrested three days later and faces similar charges. Nodeep faces sections 148, 149, 332 (deterring public servant from his duty), 353 (assault on public servant), 186 (voluntarily obstructs public servant of his public function), 384, 379-B (snatching), and 307 (attempt to murder) under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, registered at Police Station Kundli, district Sonipat.

FIR No. 26/2021 that was filed was at the behest of the accountant of the company where the incident occurred has four criminal charges under section 148, 149, 384, and 506 (criminal intimidation) of Indian Penal Code, 1860, registered at Police Station Kundli, District Sonipat.

Sister act, Harris support and bail at last

These events got hardly any media attention until Nodeep’s sister Rajveer and a group of her friends started fighting for her release.

In an interview published on 25 January, Rajveer said Nodeep was tortured in police custody and framed because she was fighting for labour rights.

She also claimed the state was worried that she was mobilising support for the farmers’ protest at the Singhu border.

Later, Rajveer claimed her sister was hit in her private parts, which the police have denied.

Word of the arrests spread and human rights organisations began talking about it. Nodeep’s story was picked up in other major portals notably by The Wire on 3 February.

The issue caught major media attention after US-based lawyer Meena Harris, a relative of American vice president Kamala Harris tweeted on 6 February about Nodeep’s case and seeking her release.

The Hindu newspaper reported on February 27 that after Harris’ tweet, everybody seemed interested in the story of the young activist. She was all over the social and mainstream media, with hashtags seeking her release trending on Twitter. “The issue gained centre stage with the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi and the media drawing parallels between the two young women activists. Support also poured in from farmers’ unions,” the report says.

A Sonipat court granted Nodeep bail on 12 February in connection with the 28 December FIR related to extortion and rioting.

She got more relief on 15 February, when a judicial magistrate in the Sonepat district court allowed her release in the 12 January FIR filed on a complaint of the company’s accountant.

But she was still in the jail premises in Karnal since the local court denied her bail in the third FIR related to the 12 January incident in which the police had slapped non-bailable charges of attempt to murder among others on the complaint of Kundli police station SHO.

It was during her bail argument in Punjab and Haryana High Court that her medical examination report was taken on record.

As per media reports on 26 February, the doctors who examined her at Sonipat Civil Hospital on 25 January, 13 days after her arrest, found bruises on various parts of her body.

The medical report said the injuries were simple and caused by a blunt object or weapon.

A Sonipat court granted Nodeep bail on 12 February in connection with the 28 December FIR related to extortion and rioting. She got more relief on 15 February when a Sonepat district court released her in the second case. During her bail argument in the Punjab and Haryana High Court on the third FIR, her medical examination was recorded. Doctors had found bruises on her body.

The High Court granted Nodeep bail in the third case as well, much to the relief of a large number of institutions and individuals that had been campaigning for her release. Then a startling fact came to notice relating to MAS president Shiv Kumar, co-accused in the case.

A medical examination report submitted by Chandigarh based Government Medical College and Hospital revealed on 24 February that Kumar, 24, had multiple injuries, including at least two fractures on his left hand and right foot, “caused by blunt object/ weapon”. The injuries are “more than two weeks old”, says the report. The next hearing in his bail plea filed by his father is on 16 March.

Emergence of a young activist

After her release from jail, Nodeep has been hailed for her courage and determination.

She told The Leaflet that when she was shifted to Karnal Jail after her arrest on 12 January, her mind was restless that their fight for pending wages of labourers and other issues is still not over.

“I somehow lost a bit of hope whether I would be able to come out of jail. It is when my parents met me in jail that I narrated the entire police brutality against me and that is how my medical [examination] was conducted on 25 January,” says Nodeep.

She says her hopes grew strong again when she learned of the public support for her release. “How can we be called extortionists for seeking the release of pending wages? Asking for minimum wages is not extortion. Minimum wages are a government rule that is not being implemented and we are fighting for it,” she says.

‘How can we be called extortionists for seeking the release of pending wages? Asking for minimum wages is not extortion. Minimum wages are a government rule that is not being implemented and we are fighting for it.’

She says, “Our fight is long. We want labour laws implemented, whether in Kundli or other industrial parks. The pending wages stuck since the lockdown should be released at the earliest.”

“I urge everyone to stand up for Shiv Kumar as well and demand his release, as has also been framed just for raising the voice of poor labourers,” she says.

‘Our fight is long. We want labour laws implemented in Kundli and other industrial parks. The pending wages stuck since the lockdown should be released. My hopes grew strong when I learned of public support for My release. I now urge everyone to stand up for Shiv Kumar and demand his release for he has also been framed for raising the voice of poor labourers.’

“I will keep fighting for labour rights and better conditions for farmers and women,” she says.

(Vivek Gupta is a senior journalist based in Chandigarh. The views are personal.)

The Leaflet