A PEACEFUL MEETING was in progress at Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab on Basant Panchami day of 1919 when Gen. Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to shoot. Many were killed. The event shocked the nation. Gandhi was perhaps the one who was shocked most. When he returned from South Africa four years earlier he had imagined the British would grant India Dominion status when the World War was over. He started thinking about how best the people could give expression to their strong feelings. An idea struck him as he was travelling by train to Calcutta from Madras. All Indians must stop work for a day! He found a name for this protest action from his own language: hartal. Har means all or everything. Tal means lock. Thus hartal means lock-all.
Gandhi prepared a statement on the subject and gave it to the press. Since good communication facilities did not exist, his appeal reached people in different parts of the country on different days. So the hartal occurred in different places on different days. But the country recognized the potential of the new form of agitation.
Gandhi’s concept of hartal did not include use of force. He wanted everyone to abstain from work voluntarily. Under the influence of other leaders and other movements, hartal later became something that was to be enforced.
In the turbulent 1970s, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) felt that hartal lacked vigour. Some young people were looking for more extreme alternatives to the CPI (M) as they thought it too lacked sufficient revolutionary fervour. The CPI (M) moved from hartal to bandh. It was ready to throw stones and block traffic to make bandh a success. From lock-all it moved to tying up everybody.
Bandh soon became the main mode of agitation in Kerala and West Bengal, where the CPI (M) is influential. The rank and file took to it, viewing it as part of the revolution. Leaders who manage without toil in the name of the toiling masses toiled hard for the success of bandhs. They made sure that nothing worked except those institutions which they exempted from the bandh call. Among the institutions that were exempted was the press. The people may be denied food but not newspapers. After all the people must know that the bandh was a great success.
Apart from nationwide and statewide bandhs, local action limited to a single industry or even a single office took place. Factory managers and government officials came to be locked up in their rooms. But, for some reason, no industrialist or minister underwent such experience. After the CPI (M) came to power in West Bengal and stayed on without a break, the incidence of bandh came down As Kerala became bandh’s own land, the people learnt to live with bandh. As people resigned themselves to bandhs, even a small party could paralyze life. An informal bandh code came into being. It required that when a party called a bandh for whatever reason, the others must let it succeed. Our bandh became theirs, and their bandh became ours.
Word spread that Kerala was not a good place for investment. But statistics compiled by the Centre showed that the State’s lost few man-days due to work stoppages. The government cited statistics to prove that the State was investor-friendly. However, the image remained unchanged. The authorities did not realize that the real issue was not the number of agitations but their character.
Lately the number and intensity of labour disputes have come down. Employers have found that labour leaders can be tamed using new tactics. R. N. Saboo, who was Birlas’ representative in Kerala for many years, is regarded as the pioneer in this field.
As the incidence of bandh and other violent forms of agitation went down in industries, it went up in politics. When industrialists escaped the fury of bandh, ordinary people became its victims. As the media highlighted the hardship caused by bandh, there were small manifestations of anti-bandh sentiments. Participating in a discussion in Thiruvananthapuram, writer Zacharia said bandh was a violation of human rights. He was perhaps the first person to raise his voice against bandh in a public forum. Congress leader M. M. Hassan staged a 24-hour fast to register his personal opposition to bandh, The Left vigorously defended bandh.
Those who suffer most as a result of bandh are not office-goers but the working class. The bulk of Kerala’s working population is in the unorganized sector. Workers in this sector lack the protection and facilities available to their counterparts in the organized sector. For them bandh means starvation.
In 1997, a full bench of the Kerala High Court, acting on a writ petition, declared bandh illegal and unconstitutional. The Left Democratic Front government, which was in power, moved the Supreme Court. It claimed the High Court verdict denied the citizen the right to protest, which was a part of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The apex court rejected the argument and upheld the lower court decision.
To evade the judicial verdict, the CPI (M) gave up the practice of calling bandh, and called for hartal instead. Only the name changed. The character of the agitation remained unchanged. A traders’ organization challenged the constitutional validity of hartal in the High Court. The court ruled that calling for hartal was not illegal but enforcing it was illegal. It also said that if public property was destroyed the government or the Collector or other officials could recover the cost from those who called the hartal.
For some time thereafter the CPI (M) did not call hartals. Instead, it organized blockades. They too interfered with the rights and freedoms of other people. But no one went to court to ascertain their legal and constitutional validity.
In 2004, a petition seeking relief against hardships caused by hartals came up before the High Court. A full bench order on the petition directed the government to take appropriate steps to prevent hartal from paralyzing life. It should not declare a holiday and postpone examinations. Instead, it should offer the protection to those who do not want to strike. If the State is not in a position to do this, it can ask the Centre to deploy the army or paramilitary forces. It should not allow breakdown of the constitutional machinery or violation of fundamental rights. The district administration must be instructed to take steps in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 10 of the Criminal Procedure Code to maintain public services with the help of paramilitary services if law and order problems arise. If there was loss of property, the costs can be recovered from those responsible for it or those who called the hartal.
No government has shown the will to implement truthfully the court directives on bandh and hartal. Although the CPI (M) has been participating in the democratic process for six decades, it does not believe in parliamentary democracy. As such, the indifference of the governments under its leadership is understandable. But the situation is no different when the front led by the Congress, which believes in the parliamentary system, is in office. A class division is discernible in Kerala with parties that organize agitations on one side the people who suffer the consequences of agitations on the other.
Court verdicts cannot offer permanent solutions to problems like hartal. According to information provided by the government in response to an application under the Right to Information Act, Thrissur is the most hartal-prone city. Last year there was hartal there on 59 days, as against 19 days in Thiruvanathapuram and 11 in Kochi. Although hartals result in loss of property, the State government has not taken steps to recover the costs. Three years ago, the Bombay High Court set an example in this matter. Four persons had died in an explosion at Ghatkopar during a bandh jointly called by the BJP and the Shiv Sena in July 2003. The court ordered the two parties to pay Rs 2 million each in damages. Since the parties can make collections to pay the penalty, this cannot be taken as a good model.
Frequent hartals proclaim the failure of democracy. The problem has to be resolved by mobilizing public opinion. If political parties realize that there are strong feelings against agitations that impose hardship on the people, they are sure to give them up.
Based on an article in Malayalam which appeared in Madhyamam weekly dated November 19, 2007