Indian police in dock over violent clash with strikers

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The Independent Online

As the recriminations began, more violence followed yesterday when relatives of the injured attacked police at the hospital where they were being treated.

Television pictures of Monday's violence showed police officers rounding up hundreds of striking workers at a Honda factory and forcing them to sit or lie on the ground, then beating them with lathis - long bamboo clubs - while the workers pleaded for mercy.

India's parliament was chaotic yesterday as several opposition members walked out in protest, and members from the government's coalition partners demanded action against the police officers involved.

The violence took place in Gurgaon, a wealthy satellite town of Delhi that is supposed to be a symbol of the new India, replete with Western-style shopping malls - something you don't even find in Delhi proper.

It all started when around 1,000 workers at the local Honda motorbike and scooter factory took to the streets to protest the sacking of four of their colleagues, who were fired for insubordination a month ago. It is not clear how the violence began, but it may have been some of the workers who started it, by throwing stones at police and setting fire to a police jeep. Footage from earlier in the day showed protesters armed with sticks beating the police, and one officer pleading with protesters as they hit him.

"There was violence from both sides," said the Chief Minister of Haryana state, Bhupinder Singh Hooda. "Hundreds, including many policemen, were injured." But whatever started the violence, it appears that the police went far over the top in their reaction. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, spoke yesterday of his "anguish" at what had happened and called for an independent investigation.

"This is spine-chilling. I could not have imagined that an incident like this could have happened in independent India," said opposition leader Nitish Kumar.

Mr Singh is also facing anger from his coalition partners over the incident. "Even animals are not treated like this," said Devendra Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party, a coalition member.

The new clashes yesterday occurred outside the hospital where the injured were being treated. Live television pictures showed women chasing police officers and beating them with canes. Men armed with stones gathered around the hospital. Many of them were believed to be relatives of protesters who are still missing after Monday's violence.

"I want to see my brother," said a man called Veermati. "I saw him on TV yesterday, he was one of the leaders. We don't know what happened to him after that. I am furious. Nobody's telling me where my brother is."

India is one of the so-called "new tiger economies", with the second-fastest growing economy in the world after China. But signs of frustration from India's masses of poor labourers have been growing as their lifestyles undergo little change, while the relatively small middle class reaps most of the benefits of the economic growth.

This frustration is thought to have been the main reason that the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party - which had presided over unprecedented economic success - lost last year's elections to the left-leaning Congress Party and its hard-left allies. However, India's labour laws offer little job protection, and with the country's massive population providing readily available cheap labour, job security is poor for the working classes.

The striking workers were employees of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India, a subsidiary of the Japanese automotive giant. Most of its 1,900 workers have been on a go-slow since May, which the company says has cost£33m. Indian analysts expressed fears that this week's violence could deter future foreign investors.

The Japanese ambassador, Yasukuni Enoki, said last night: "This is a disadvantage for India's image as an FDI [foreign direct investment] destination and also this is a negative image for Japanese business."