Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hartal day surrender: how did we come to this pass?

The Bharatiya Janata Party wields power in the largest number of States. In Kerala, it has not been able to win a single seat in the Assembly so far. Yet when the party called a nationwide hartal on the issue of price rise it was Kerala that responded most enthusiastically. There was no comparable response in the States known as its strongholds.

It is not possible to conclude that the hartal was a success in Kerala because all people suffering as a result of the price rise responded whole-heartedly. After the national hartal, the BJP had organized a local hartal in Thalasseri. That hartal was in protest against some Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers in connection with the recent violent incidents there. Thalasseri is a fortress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yet the BJP hartal was a complete success.

Some observers are of the view that Malayalis welcome hartals as they can stay at home without going to work. It is said that liquor sales go up just before a hartal. That indicates how the people spend the hartal day. Apparently taking into account these facts a newspaper headline of May 3 proclaimed that Kerala celebrated hartal.

It can be assumed that this hartal ritual was developed by salaried middle class employees who can write a leave letter to cover the day’s absence. If there is a strong union, the leave application formality can even be dispensed with. Workers who toil to earn wages on daily basis cannot celebrate hartal in this manner. For them, hartal means loss of work or loss of wage. Yet they too observe the ritual. Thus CPI (M) men let the BJP hartal succeed. And BJP men likewise let the CPI (M) hartal succeed. That is the etiquette of hartal.

It is not political parties and trade unions alone that organize hartal here. Organizations of trade and industry also organize hartal. On such occasions the employer and the employee take a break from class war and join hands to make it a success. There have also been occasions when religious heads, in their capacity as religious heads or as teaching shop owners, called hartal. They too have been great successes.

Whatever the problem, whoever issues the call, we are ever ready to participate in hartal. Maybe such generalization is not in order. I believe some do not venture out on hartal day because of fear. Vehicle owners have to be afraid of those with stones in hand. However, one facts needs to be acknowledged. The middle class Malayali loves hartal. It is another matter whether laziness or cowardice is behind it.

How did we reach this state? Who mentally prepared us to surrender at the very mention of hartal? Why do we, who acquired strength through organization, turn into jelly in the presence of all organized forces? These are not questions that can be answered in one word. To arrive at right answers we have to sift through the history of the last five or six decades. That cannot be done within the limited framework of a newspaper column. But extensive research is not needed to understand that political parties have a clear responsibility in this matter.

Many of the problems Kerala faces today are the result of short-cuts taken by the parties to establish their supremacy. The Chief Minister drew attention to one such short-cut recently. He said the Congress’s ties with religious and casteist forces had led to the growth of communalism. His party, too, had tried to capture caste organizations and establish relations with them. This is something its own leaders have revealed. When Pinarayi Vijayan said that “nokkukooli” (wage for looking on) is extortion Oommen Chandy and K. Karunakaran ridiculed it as belated wisdom. Who does not know that Congress unions too collected “nokkukooli”, although the CPI (M) unions initiated the practice? Even after Pinarayi Vijayan’s public rebuke, CITU, INTUC and BMS unions were reported to have jointly extracted “nokkukooli” from a public sector undertaking. This means the problem will not get resolved merely because the leadership is ready to admit a mistake. Strenuous effort is needed to rectify many mistakes.

Our main problem is that there has been no significant change in the feudal character of the society. I remember reading somewhere that man does not give up anything; he only goes in for substitutes. That seems to be correct in our case. We have installed new masters in place of the old ones. The minister who orders the arrest of the driver who overtook his car and the trade union leaders who get hold of 30 acres by facilitating a 70-acre deal are part of the band of new masters. The real issue involved in the arguments between the priest and the party secretary over whether or not an unconscious man had received the sacraments is ‘who owns the slave?’. There is no salvation for the slave who loves his chain;
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated May 8, 2008.

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