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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

Bandh Politics

By Tushar Cahran - Syndicate Features

The Indian brand of democracy has many peculiarities one of which is the propensity of the party in power to adopt a protest tool usually identified with the Opposition, such as the ‘bandh’ or total shut down. It sounds peculiar because a ruling dispensation does not have to protest against its own actions or decisions and if there are shortcomings in their implementation the corrective measure does not lie in calling for what actually amounts to a government-sponsored strike. The Dravid Munnetra Kazhagham, which rules Tamil Nadu and is a coalition partner in the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre, called for a ‘bandh’ in the state over the Sethusamudram project that is supposed to reduce the distance covered by vessels sailing between the east and west coasts of India—and bring good shipping revenues to Tamil Nadu.

Understandably, the DMK will brook in deviation or delay in implementing the project, adhering to the original blueprint. It has little time for all the noises made by both the self-appointed custodians of the Hindus who allege that the project (authored at the time of the BJP-led government at the Centre) will hurt the sentiments of the Hindus. Objections have also come from the less religious minded sections that see the project as an ecological disaster or simply as unviable.

The DMK is well within its rights to defend the project, even though it seems to overlook that the stoppage of work follows a Supreme Court order of August 30. But why did the DMK have to give a ‘bandh’ call merely to reinforce its views that were conveyed once again just a few days earlier by M. Karunanidhi, the party supremo who is also the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. It is a different matter that the manner in which he reiterated his support for the Sethusamudram, also known as the Ram Setu, project generated a lot of unavoidable heat in the country. But he should have known that the Supreme Court, while backing a Kerala High Court judgement, had expressed its disapproval of ‘bandhs’ way back in 1998 and, therefore, the call would have run the risk of falling foul of a diktat of the apex court.

AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa and the one man wonder ( he is a loose canon according to some) Subramanian Swamy took the took the matter to the Supreme Court when the Madras High Court refused to rein in the DMK from going ahead with its ‘bandh’ call on October 1. The highest court in the land made some scathing observations in dealing with the ‘urgent’ petition.

First of all, the court saw through the DMK bluff after the latter maintained that what it had called for was a ‘hartal’, which is a lesser form of strike, and not a ‘bandh’. Referring to a DMK resolution, the court said: ‘Your own resolution says that on October 1, there will be complete cessation of all activities. If that is so, how can you say it is not a bandh but a hartal?’

Political parties have got into the habit of forcing a total shutdown (‘bandh’) in the name of a ‘hartal’ to get round the Supreme Court judgement. But the apex court is not amused by this subterfuge. The two-member court bench comprising Justice B. N. Agarwal, the senior most judge after the Chief Justice, and Justice P.P. Naolekar that heard the petition against the DMK ‘bandh’ call could not have been more excoriating: ‘In our country we have come to a stage where everything has to be dealt with an iron hand. Nothing moves even after our orders.’ For good measure, the state government was warned ‘not to play with fire’ by going ahead with the ‘bandh’ which would be ‘illegal’.

But the court’s stern warning did not seem to have a salutary effect on the DMK. Despite changing its ‘bandh’ or ‘hartal’ call into ‘hunger strike’ after receiving the dressing down from the apex court, there were reports suggesting forced closures of business. The Supreme Court followed with an even more severe warning: dismissal of the state government if defiance continued.

Some DMK members were unhappy over the ‘goof up’ by their leaders, who did not take the usual precaution of calling for a ‘hartal’ instead of the ‘bandh’, which the apex court has held militates against the fundamental rights of citizens. That is beside the point.

The court judgement on strikes was expectedly greeted with anger by most political parties, especially the Left parties. But a wide section of the civil society, harried for decades by frequent ‘bandh’ calls and other unwarranted disruptions had welcomed the court’s decision. Irrespective of the nature of public response political parties always claim that their ‘bandh’ has been a ‘great success’ supported by reports of ‘all’ activities coming to a stop.

The party that gives the call for a ‘bandh’ –or a ‘hartal’—never, never admits that much of the stoppage was anything but voluntary as they claim. The force used to bring everything to a halt on the day of the strike generates revulsion when the issues behind the strike do not arouse much passion among the ‘aam admi’, the man on the street. This is not to say that the public always disagrees with the views of the political parties that give the strike call. In fact, the opposite may be true in many cases. What bothers the public a great deal and sometimes converts the sympathy for the Opposition into anger against it is the coercive tactics used in enforcing ‘total’ strike.

Even in a country where absenteeism thrives despite being the nation with the maximum number of public holidays not everyone is pleased at the prospect of a ‘total strike’. Attending office may be an inconvenience for some but there are many other reasons why shut down of all forms of public transport, offices, banks etc is a real inconvenience for the majority.

It is really time the political parties in the country showed the moral courage to leave it to the people to respond in the manner in which they deem fit to their protest calls. Protest marches and street corner rallies can as effectively convey the message as a forced shutdown; perhaps better because of voluntary and spontaneous participation in the former form of protest. A point worthy of consideration is that certain burning issues appeal to the masses even without anyone articulating them on their behalf.

If, for example, prices of essential items take a Himalayan leap that save the very rich would remain indifferent? If a government policy—economic, social, foreign or whatever--is going to adversely affect the country or the lives of the ordinary people who would applaud the administration? The strikes are presumably called to impress the ordinary voter. But by now it should be clear that the silent voter makes up his or her mind with or without witnessing, or made to witness, political histrionics and subjected to undue harassment in the course of a day. The ‘anti-establishment’ wave is no more generated only by a strike that becomes a torture for many.

- Syndicate Features =

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