Dec. 16: A group of masked men have been accused of assaulting a general manager of the largest private steel investor in Burdwan at his apartment complex in Durgapur — the alleged copycat attack spilling out on the eve of the chief minister’s pitch before industrialists in Delhi.
The reported assault on Arun Thatoi, a general manager with Jai Balaji Industries, carries uncanny similarities with an earlier allegation in Haldia, which had prompted the chief minister to say “kichhu hoyni (nothing has happened)”.
This time, referring to the alleged Durgapur assault that is linked to delay in payment of salaries, the state government conceded that such incidents should not take place. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is scheduled to meet the heads of 20 companies in Delhi tomorrow.
Industries minister Partha Chatterjee said in Delhi: “I have checked with a senior INTTUC leader. He told me none of the people associated with this incident belongs to our union. We think such incidents should not take place. However, the owners should also be responsible. There are many issues with them.”
Another leader who did not want to be named said: “We are battling a perception problem over land. We can’t afford to have something like this.” He added that the leaders on the ground had been told not to escalate the situation.
Sources said Mamata, who has been camping in Delhi, asked minister Chatterjee to clear the air at a hurriedly convened media conference at Banga Bhavan — which came an hour after the minister’s informal chat with reporters in the late afternoon.
In Durgapur, fingers are being pointed at the Trinamul-backed INTTUC because its supporters had held up executives of the steel company at the office a few hours before the attack. But the union has denied the charges and blamed converts from Citu.
The similarities between the Durgapur account and that in Haldia, where Haldia Bulk Terminals employees complained of abduction, are striking and raise the question whether the government’s silence earlier played an unwitting role in the failure to prevent a replay.
One, the alleged assailants went to the private homes of individuals to seek them out and manhandle them;
Two, the targeted executive and another who had a close shave hail from outside Bengal — a disturbing tendency for a state known to welcome people from across the country and the world. The Durgapur general manager is an engineer from Odisha;
Three, the alleged attackers in both cases were hooded;
Four, both the alleged attacks followed union-related disturbances at the workplace — an alarming trend of grudges being taken out of the shop-floor and settled at as personal a space as home. If retrenchment was the issue in Haldia, the delay in wages was the stated reason in Durgapur.
Thatoi, the general manager (electrical) of Jai Balaji’s integrated steel plant that employs 5,000 people, recounted today: “Last night, I had just returned home from the factory. I got a call from the security guard around 8.30pm, telling me that some union leaders had come to meet me. I thought it was an emergency and went to speak to them. There were 10 to 15 men, their faces covered with woollen mufflers. They first started abusing me and then pushed me around. Then they started beating me. When I slumped to the ground, they kicked me.”
It emerged later that a group had gone to the house of another Jai Balaji general manager who lives in the same area. “I was lucky enough that I was not at home, else I too would have been beaten up,” said Mohammad Yusuf, who hails from Bihar.
INTTUC-backed employees have been protesting the salary delay, which the company has blamed on the downturn. According to sources in the plant, the employees had been informed of the delay six months ago and were being paid between the 10th and 20th every month.
On Saturday, over 200 INTTUC-backed workers demonstrated at a unit to protest the delay. The protesters were led by Ashim Pramanik, secretary of the Balaji Permanent Workers’ Union, which is supported by the INTTUC. Another union leader, Nantu Chatterjee, was present during the agitation.
Around 25 senior executives, including Thatoi, were detained at their offices for over two hours since 3pm. Niranjan Gourisaria, the plant’s senior vice-president who was on tour, was contacted. “I said that we would declare a lockout if the agitation continued. The agitation was not justified,” Gourisaria said today.
When Thatoi and the others conveyed the VP’s message, the workers withdrew the agitation. The alleged assault took place a few hours later. The police said they had started investigations.
Sources said that other than the global situation, the iron ore crunch induced by a clampdown in Odisha had hit the plant. Besides, the company has been raising resources for a much larger plant in Purulia’s Raghunathpur, which has been delayed because of various reasons.
Other sources said factionalism within the INTTUC was also to blame for the disturbances.
Union secretary Pramanik said: “We did not threaten anybody but the plant management tried to split the workers by misleading them and creating panic among them about a lockout, against which we protested.”
This morning, Jai Balaji group director Rajiv Jajodia reached Durgapur and met INTTUC Burdwan district president Prabhat Chatterjee. “Union leader Chatterjee assured me he would take stern actionÖ. I have told them we will declare a lockout if there is any repetition,” Jajodia said.