New Delhi: Until December 2020, Nodeep Kaur, a 24-year-old from Punjab, worked at a firm in the Kundli Industrial Area (KIA) in Sonepat, which lies just about 3 kilometres from the Singhu Delhi-Haryana border.
Since her arrest on 12 January, the young Dalit labourer has become the face of a labour rights campaign that has run parallel to the farmers’ protest.
The campaign began in December and has since not just sought inspiration from the farmers’ agitation but also adopted Singhu as a stage to voice their own concerns about alleged non-payment of salaries and harassment by employers at the KIA — allegations denied by the Kundli Industrial Association, which represents local industry owners.
The campaign, led by the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS), a three-year-old labour organisation, has become a subject of controversy that centres on Kaur’s arrest.
Kaur’s family claims she was sexually assaulted and tortured in custody, but Sonepat police have denied the allegations.
Nodeep Kaur, police say, was detained during a gherao around an industrial unit that erupted in violence on 12 January.
Kaur is a member of the MAS, which has its own tent at Singhu. Two FIRs have been filed against her in connection with alleged violence in KIA on 12 January, where the charges invoked include the non-bailable sections 307, 384 and 379 of the Indian Penal Code — attempt to murder, extortion and theft, respectively.
According to her lawyer Vikas Attri, she faces another FIR under sections 148, 149, 384 and 506 (rioting, unlawful assembly, extortion and criminal intimidation, respectively) from a clash on 28 December.
She was denied bail by a Haryana court last week, and her next bail hearing is slated for Monday, 8 February.
Besides Nodeep, MAS president Shiv Kumar has also been arrested. Attri told ThePrint last week that Kumar has been sent to judicial custody in Sonepat jail.
‘Sexually assaulted in custody’
Nodeep, 24, is from Punjab’s Sri Muktsar Sahib. She has studied till Class 12.
Speaking to ThePrint, her sister Rajveer Kaur said Nodeep was sexually assaulted in police custody.
“I met her (Nodeep) on 13 January when she told me that she was beaten by both male and female officers in her private parts,” she added. “Haryana Police got involved and attacked the protesting labourers on 12 January. There was no female officer present. My sister was beaten up there and then picked up and taken to the police station,” she added.
Rajveer said she last met her sister on 13 January, while Attri last met her on 23 January.
“We raised the issue of sexual assault in court and are currently awaiting medical reports. But this has already been delayed so much that we don’t know how accurate the report will be,” Attri said.
“We filed for a medical report on 15 January… The judge gave the chief medical officer direction on 18 January to carry out an exam but did not inform the jail authorities. The medical exam finally took place on 25 January, (and) we were told the report will take one week to 15 days,” he added.
Sonepat police have denied these allegations. “Nothing of this sort happened. These are all false allegations. After arresting Nodeep, we took her straight to hospital, got her medical exam done, and then presented her in court before taking her to the Karnal jail,” Investigating Officer Shamsher Singh told ThePrint.
“She was not sexually assaulted, Mahila thanedar (policewoman) Sonia was there at all times.”
In a statement issued Saturday, the Sonepat police reiterated the denial.
Referring to a 1 February article published by the Sikh Press Association on the allegations made by Kaur’s family, and “similar messages… circulated on social media platforms about (Kaur’s) illegal detention and harassment”, Sonepat police said it “negates the concocted version”.
It said Nodeep and other activists got “violent and started beating the police officials with huge lathis and sticks” when they arrived to tackle a “gherao of an industrial unit… by certain members of Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan”.
They had received a complaint about the “manhandling of staff/management”, and “illegal extortion of money from the factory owners by the activists, under the garb of workers’ unpaid salaries”, it added.
The activists’ attack, the police said, resulted in injuries to seven personnel, including a woman constable.
The allegations of sexual assault “seem to be an afterthought and the police department clearly negates” them, the police said, adding that Kaur was constantly in the presence of two women personnel.
“At the civil hospital, she underwent not just a general medical examination but also a special medical examination by a lady doctor for sexual assault where she herself gave a written statement to the female doctor that she doesn’t want to be medically examined as she had not been assaulted,” they said, stating that she had not raised the issue before the chief judicial magistrate either.
Her sister, however, stands by their charge. “This is not the case at all. She was sexually assaulted. They tortured her so much, her foot hasn’t stopped bleeding. There are bruises and marks on her back as well,” Rajveer said.
She also denied the allegation that Kaur indulged in violence on 12 January. “Police got violent with the workers first. They have even charged her under Section 307 — attempt to murder — how can they do that? Nodeep was actually trying to ease the situation,” she added. Referring to the extortion allegation, she added, “They are workers in a factory demanding their salary. This is not extortion.”
Against ‘denial of wages’
Nodeep, Rajveer said, was “forced to work due to financial constraints our family was going through”. “She had applied to Delhi University for an undergraduate programme in literature, but she has been unable to pursue it,” she added.
She said Nodeep is not associated with any political party, but underlined that their mother was very active in the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union when Rajveer and her two brothers and three sisters were in school.
The protest against firms at the KIA largely revolves around alleged violations of minimum-wage rules and non-payment of wages.
“According to the Haryana government, the minimum wage should be Rs 9,300, but workers in the KIA are made to work 12 hours for Rs 6,000-7,000/month. Women are paid even less,” Nodeep said in a video report done by independent journalist Saurabh Bambaiya on 27 January.
According to her, they joined the protest at Singhu because “farmers and labourers are tied together and we are both falling backwards”.
In a 12 January statement demanding Nodeep’s immediate release, the Campaign Against State Repression — a group of 30 organisations that has been raising its voice against activists’ arrest — said workers “also face daily threats of violence and outright assaults at the hands of the extra-legal armed force of the management and contractors called the Quick Response Team (QRT) sponsored by the Kundli Industrial Association (KIA), a body of factory owners and management”.
The lockdown impacted workers the most, it said, adding that conditions remained “pitiable” in the Kundli Industrial Area even after the lockdown.
The MAS is described as a platform working towards ensuring that labour laws are followed.
“A total of Rs 1 lakh-1.5 lakh has been recovered as withheld salaries (by the MAS),” Attri told ThePrint.
Nodeep, Rajveer said, was asked to resign from her job at Fiem Industries — a light manufacturer — in December 2020 for her involvement with MAS and the farmers’ protest at Singhu. Her salary was also withheld, she added.
ThePrint tried to reach Fiem Industries via calls and emails for a comment but did not receive a response.
However, Dheeraj Choudhary, an executive of the Kundli Industrial Association, denied the charges.
“Why would any industry not pay their workers? This is not the case. They are family and we have always maintained that. We didn’t threaten anyone with violence or assault. If the salary has been stopped, it must have been for a reason — for instance, if the worker didn’t follow the company’s rules,” he told ThePrint. “We have to look at the situation from all angles before making a decision.”