Monday, November 5, 2007

Parties find their way around court ban on strike

Photo on the right, published by The Hindu,
shows two CPI (M) ministers, Kodiyeri
Balakrishnan and A. K. Balan, walking
to the party office on a hartal day in 2006.
Photo: S. Gopakumar
WHEN the courts held 'bandh' and 'hartal' illegal and declared that those who organised such work stoppages could be held to account, there arose a faint hope that such protest action might become a thing of the past. That hope did not materialise. Work stoppages are on the rise again.

Hartal and bandh are terms that signify shutdown. The first gained currency after Gandhi called for a day's gnereal strike in 1919 to protest against the shooting down of unarmed people on the orders of a British officer at Jalianwala Bagh in Punjab. The second was popularised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the 1970s. Gandhi envisaged hartal as peaceful and voluntary abstention from work. The Left developed bandh as forcible closure.

In the 1990s, signs of opposition to strikes that disrupted normal life appeared in Kerala. While reporting bandhs, some newspapers highlighted the hardship they caused to the public. They played up stories of the sick dying because they could not reach the hospital in time. At a discussion organised by Kerala Watch, a civil society organisation, writer Paul Zacharia said bandh involved violation of human rights. Congress leader MM Hassan observed a 24-hour fast demanding an end to bandh.

The Kerala High Court, which heard a petition on the subject, declared bandh unconstitutional on the ground that it curtailed the citizens' fundamental rights. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) approached the Supreme Court, claiming bandh was a legitimate form of protest. The apex court rejected the CPI-M argument and upheld the High Court verdict. Since its decisions become part of the law of the land, bandh became illegal.

Thereafter political parties started calling for hartal, instead of bandh. The High Court, holding that hartal, like bandh, involved use of force or threat of force, banned it too. After that the political parties observed restraint for some time. The CPI-M, instead of calling for bandh or hartal, organised 'uparodham' (blockade), which also caused hardship to the people.

Lately, the parties have abandoned the restraint of the past few years and started calling for hartal again. Last week there was one State-wide hartal and there were several at regional or district level. In some areas, three working days were lost during the week.

The State hartal on Thursday was called by the Bharatiya Janata Party to coincide with the inauguration of a railway division with headquarters at Salem in Tamil Nadu. Brushing aside Kerala's protests, the Railway Board had transferred to the new division more than half the rail network under the Palakkad division. The BJP turned down appeals by Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and poet ONV Kurup to drop or defer the hartal as the State was celebrating its 51st anniversary on that day and President Pratibha Patil was to be in the State capital on an official visit. The President's visit went off smoothly despite the hartal, thanks to the arrangements made by the State government to ensure attendance at her functions, which included a public reception.

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) organised a hartal in the Malabar region to protest against the alleged neglect of Kozhikode airport, which caters to the needs of a large section of Keralites working in the Gulf States. The airport is under the Centre and IUML leader E. Ahmed is a minister in the Central government.

Palakkad and Kottayam districts witnessed local hartals, called by various parties including the CPI-M, the BJP and the Congress to protest against some violent incidents.

The Kerala chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industries said on Friday that the spate of strikes and hartals was adversely affecting the State's economy. It estimated that the daily production loss due to work stoppages at Rs 6.50 to 7 billion.

The judicial verdicts have been of little avail because the machinery which should enforce them remains in the hands of the political parties. When the BJP called for hartal, the High Court asked the government what it proposed to do. By way of reply, the government furnished a copy of a circular the Director General of Police had sent to his force.

The only remedy open to a citizens who have suffered as a result of bandh or hartal is to initiate contempt of court proceedings against the party which called such a protest.
Considering the high cost and cumbersome nature of legal action, this will mean inviting more hardship on oneself. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 5, 2007


Binu Karunakaran said...

Great to see you blogging

B.R.P.Bhaskar said...

Thank you. Please come again.