HK Maheshwari, the jute mill president who was beaten to death on Sunday, and his chamber at Northbrook Jute in Hooghly. (Ananda Das)
Champdani, June 15: The chief executive of a jute mill was battered to death with bricks in Hooghly this morning by a group of workers after the management and unions discussed proposals to cut working hours because of paucity of orders.
The murder of 69-year-old H.K. Maheshwari, the president and chief of operations at Northbrook Jute Co Ltd, revived memories of the militant trade unionism that reduced Bengal to an industrial graveyard when the Left was in power.
It also triggered a political tussle with chief minister Mamata Banerjee blaming the RSS-backed BMS as well as Citu, the CPM’s labour arm that was once synonymous with strong-arm tactics on the factory floor. In the initial police sweep, three Citu supporters and another worker have been arrested.
Lost in the din was the irony that in modern-day Bengal, the rare industrial ripple is still created by strife in sunset sectors like jute and wheezing brands like the Ambassador car.
The fuse at Northbrook, incorporated 106 years ago and located off GT Road in Champdani, appears to have been blown by suspicion that harsh measures were round the corner to cope with losses blamed on delay in production orders.
The management had called a meeting with the representatives of nine unions at 7.30am, according to the mill’s owner, leaders of several unions and some workers.
The Calcutta-based mill owner, Prakash Chorariya, and Maheshwari were present at the meeting.
“At the meeting, the management put forward a proposal to operate the mill for three days in a week for the next two weeks, citing losses. The management also offered another option — that we work on a five hour-shift instead of eight hours a day. We initially did not want to accept it. The management asked us to discuss the proposal among ourselves and again meet this evening,” said Mohammad Aslam, the secretary of the Congress’s Intuc-led union at the mill.
The mill has around 2,800 workers. According to the owner, each worker is paid Rs 475, against what he termed the industry average of Rs 380, for an eight-hour day.
Mohammad Islam, a worker, said the meeting ended around 9am and the owner left the mill.
“During the change in shift at 11am, 300 to 350 workers became agitated as a rumour had spread that the management wanted to close down the mill. They started shouting slogans against any closure of the mill. The workers then marched to the administrative building of the mill and raised slogans,” Islam added.
Maheshwari, the chief of operations, came out of his office and tried to pacify the workers.
“An altercation followed. Bricks flew at him (Maheshwari) and hit him. A frenzied group of workers started beating him up with bricks and rods. Two other mill officials came to save him but they were also beaten up. He slumped to the ground. Seeing him collapse to the ground, the attackers fled,” Islam said.
Other officials rushed to Maheshwari and took him to Gourhati ESI Hospital but he died while being shifted to a private hospital in Uttarpara.
Maheshwari, who lived in a bungalow on the mill premises, is survived by his wife and their son who works in Chicago.
The two other officials who were beaten up — Kamalnath Jha, general manager, works, and Jadugopal Debnath, the security head — were also taken to the ESI Hospital where they were treated for injuries on their heads and hands and released.
Four persons had been arrested till this evening.
Hooghly superintendent of police Sunil Choudhury said: “Three of the arrested belong to Citu. Preliminary inquiries revealed that workers belonging to (the Citu-affiliated) Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union and BMS (the BJP-backed Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh) were in the group that assaulted the mill official. We have found a blood-splattered brick at the spot.”
Chorariya, the owner the mill, said the objective of the morning meeting was to discuss with the unions the possibility of scaling back production by “around 20-30 per cent for a short period of time”.
“Such a decision was being considered as there has been a delay in obtaining orders of jute bags, particularly from Punjab. In the absence of fresh orders, we were looking to scale down production,” he told The Telegraph.
Chorariya said he heard that “some anti-socials” were behind the attack on Maheshwari. “In view of this incident, at present I cannot say when I would be able to again start production at the plant,” he added.
A notice suspending work was put up at the mill gate this evening, police said.