The Kerala police arrested 174 workers after violence broke out on Christmas night at the labour camp of the Kitex Group of Companies, despite only around 50 people seen indulging in violence.

Protest in Manipur photo sent by familyProtest in Manipur seeking Khumlo's release from jail
Delve Human Rights Tuesday, March 01, 2022 - 11:28

Two months after the Kerala police arrested 174 workers for vandalism and assault at a private company, many of them are still languishing in jail as they are unable to meet the bail requirements. On the night of December 25, 2021 the workers, most of them migrants, were rounded up by the police on charges of assaulting a police officer and vandalising police vehicles inside a labour camp of the Kitex Group of Companies at Kizhakkambalam.

Now, 163 of these workers have been granted bail, but around 123 of them are still in jail – either because they haven’t been able to meet the bail conditions, or because they can’t afford to pay their lawyers’ fees. According to activists, some lawyers who have taken on the cases of these workers have demanded exorbitant fees, and have refused to move further with the bail application, unless these fees are paid.

Delhi based NGO Human Rights Law Network, and Kerala State Legal Services Authority, are representing many of the jailed workers in court. In the first week of February, a Judicial First Class Magistrate Court in Kolenchery granted bail to 163 workers, but with stringent conditions. The bail condition seeking two local sureties to vouch for each jailed worker and a Rs 50,000 bond, has prevented these labourers from coming out. According to activists, only 40 people have managed to come out of prison after being granted bail, and most of them have incurred huge debts because of the bond. The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that many of the migrants hail from the eastern states of Jharkhand and West Bengal and other north eastern states and would find it difficult to get local people to offer sureties.

Further, many of the workers have taken the services of individual lawyers, who have been predatory in their approach, allege activists. “A few lawyers met these labourers inside the jail and signed the vakalath. Later the lawyers sought huge amounts of money from the families to work on the case. But these poor labourers will not be able to pay that. Also, they cannot arrange a local surety for bail," advocate Bharathy Mohan of Human Rights Law Network said.

Legally trapped

Anna Kitex group is a private sector company located in Ernakulam district. Established in 1992 by MC Jacob, it is now headed by Sabu Jacob and employs around 5,000 people in the company. In 2015, the company formed a political outfit Twenty20, which had a sweeping victory in that year’s local body elections in Kizhakkambalam Panchayath. In 2020 local body elections, they expanded their reach to three neighbouring panchayats, and have been ruling the local bodies with a clear majority. After the mass arrests, the company is now also facing allegations by local activists of keeping the workers like bonded labourers.

According to workers present at the site, the clash on December 25 began after a Kitex security guard stopped some of the workers who had consumed liquor from dancing. But according to the FIR, the clashes first occurred between two groups of migrant labourers, and security guards intervened later. The security guards informed the police, following which the police arrived in two vehicles.

“Since the police had difficulty in communicating with the workers due to language barrier, and because it was the security guards who called them, they just went with the guards’ version. At one point, the labourers had a spat with the police, and an officer was assaulted by some of the workers, and vehicles were vandalised,” says George Mathew, Convenor of the Progressive Workers Organisation, a collective of workers and activists.

Videos of the clash played by television channels show that though a large number of workers were gathered around the scene, only a few of them were involved in vandalising the vehicles. Some others gathered around were part of verbal spats. Kitex management says the total number of people who were involved in the incident cannot have been more than 30.

But when the police arrested people and filed FIRs, at least 300 people were named in the cases. Two FIRs were filed in the Kunnathunad police station related to the issue – the first, against 200 identifiable persons and later against 100 persons, all charged with rioting and assault under various sections of IPC and also under Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act 1984. The Kerala Legal Services Authority initially tried supporting some of the labourers by providing legal help, following which 16 of them were given bail in the first week of February. But half of them could not come out as they did not meet the bail condition of providing two local people as surety.

Photo| PTI

Activists blame unscrupulous lawyers

In February, the Human Rights Law Network that provides legal services to the underprivileged stepped in to offer help to the arrested workers after activists based in Ernakulam approached them. “When we first met these workers in jail, we learned that most of them have already signed vakalath with a few other lawyers, mainly one advocate BA Aloor,” says Bharathy. “In fact we wanted to provide our service to everybody. So when we met them, around 90 people’s bail applications were not moved in the court. We also understood that though they had signed the brief, they were not represented in court, as the lawyer said that he will not move the petition until his money is paid. So when we went there, the jailed workers were confused and even the jail officers were suspicious. Later, we gave them our brief and signed on whoever was ready to change their vakalath to us,” she explains. That is how 43 people gave their brief to the Human Rights Law Network

“Some of the lawyers, mainly BA Aloor, met these labourers and took their brief, and asked their families to pay huge amounts of money they cannot afford,” George Mathew alleged.

Speaking to TNM, Aloor however denied the allegations stating that almost 70 labourers signed up with him. “I have charged only Rs 10,000 and 15,000 for many of them. Otherwise it would cost them a lakh. Some of them who got bail came out and others are in jail as they cannot provide any surety. I do not arrange sureties for my clients. So these are baseless allegations. There are about eight other lawyers who are representing the labourers. They might have sought a huge amount, but I did not do that. Some organisation from Chennai stepped in and that lawyer has not done much. Even now, my clients are asking for my help."

The families of the jailed workers who TNM spoke to also confirmed that lawyers sought a huge amount of money, and that signatures were taken from the labourers in the jail without properly explaining the fees. “The lawyer compelled us to pay money by saying that they have to hire sureties,” says Lalji, brother of one of the jailed labourers. “There is a nexus between these lawyers and people who are hired as surety. Since there is this clause in the bail order, the lawyers tried to take advantage of the poor labourers,” George says.

What happened on December 25, 2021

Workers and relatives of those arrested tell TNM that many people who were removed from the violence on December 25 were picked up by the police from their rooms. “The police were not able to identify who was involved, so they arrested a whole lot of people,” one Kitex labour camp worker says.

“My brother was just watching when the violence happened. He came out of the room when he heard the noises and he was in no way involved. I am not sure how long he has to work to repay the loan taken for his bail. Lawyers are asking around Rs 60,000” says Jharkhand native, Nagesh, whose brother Raj has been granted bail, but has not been able to meet bail conditions.

The Kitex labour camp was filled with 984 people, of whom 499 are Keralites and 455 are from various other states, according to Sabu Jacob, the managing director of Kitex. In a press conference held two days after the incident, he alleged that the police arrested all the workers who were staying in three of the quarters in the camp. “Police did not even check the CCTV visuals properly. Out of the 162 people first arrested, only 13 were involved in the issue. We ourselves helped police identify 11 among them. How did the police identify these many labourers? Even the supervisors who worked with the labourers for 10 years couldn’t identify them,” he had said.

Families were unaware

Donshel, a woman from Manipur, was worried for a month that her son, 27-year-old Khumlo Kankhuhring did not make a phone call since December 25, 2021. The family did not receive any money from Khumlo. He is the eldest among six children, and the sole breadwinner of the family. On January 29, 2022, Donshel was informed by the local police that Khumlo is in jail. Though she approached authorities in Manipur, nothing could be done. Meanwhile a lawyer from Kerala contacted them, says Donshel, and asked them to pay Rs 60,000 to get Khumlo out on bail. Donshel then came to Kerala in the first week of February, along with a pastor in her church, Moses.

“We came here and we met a lawyer who asked for such a huge amount that we couldn't even dream of arranging. Our family is extremely poor, but we somehow gave him Rs 5,000, but that was not enough and he did not do any paperwork. After that, we met some activists here, with whom we met Khumlo in jail. Now they have said they will try their best to bring him out,” Moses says.

Mukesh Maradi, a 25-year-old from Sarwa district of Jharkhand, came out of his state for the first time in search of his 23-year-old brother Thalu Murmu. “We came to know about his arrest towards the end of January. We were worried as he did not call us for a long time, but we never expected this. He told me he was not aware of the clashes going on, he was inside his room. He just came out and watched what was happening after he heard a huge sound. But he was picked up from his room,” he says.

“Some lawyer met him and took his signature, he also sought a huge amount of money. But we cannot pay that; the lawyer did not complete any procedure. There are around 70 workers from Jharkhand inside the jail,” Mukesh says.  Lalji, 24, from Sarwa, also came along with Mukesh as his 21-year-old brother John Tutu is also in jail. “After he went missing for a month, we went to authorities in our home state but there was no response. Police here contacted our local police and that is how we came to know. After reaching here, we met a lawyer, but money was the problem,” Lalji says.

“We all belong to the Santhal tribal community in Jharkhand. We all come from extremely poor families that struggle to find a day’s food. How can we manage to get money for the lawyers?” he asks.

George with Khumlo's family

Kitex accused of bonded labour

On February 12, a six member committee that represented different human rights organisations held a press conference in Ernakulam and said that as per their studies, Kitex has kept their workers in bonded labour. They claimed that the workers’ movements are restricted and they’re always kept under the watch of security guards.

“There are restrictions for the labourers to go out of the camps on weekdays. They are not allowed to interact with local residents. This resembles how Africans were enslaved in European countries in the past,” George Mathew alleges. George says that even holy mass and confessions are being conducted inside the company campus so that people don’t go out.

He says that security guards in camp frequently bully the workers. “All these issues led to violence in the camp in December. Human rights being breached here,” George alleges.

Kitex owner alleges politics

Sabu Jacob, the managing director of the Kitex Group, in his press meet two days after the violence claimed that the arrests were part of Kerala government's political vendetta against the group. He alleged that this was a conspiracy to shut down his company, because the LDF government led by CPI(M) has a grudge against the political party launched by his company, Twenty20. Twenty20 is currently running the Kizhakkambalam local body; they also made their foray into the Assembly elections in Kerala in 2020, but did not gain much ground. 




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