In the name of protesting against the Central government's decision to hike the price of diesel and allow FDI in multi-brand retail, the BJP-led NDA, the Left parties, and some regional satraps brought large parts of the nation to a virtual standstill on Thursday. Not all states were affected by the bandh, considering that the call coincided with a holiday, but it did impede the citizenry’s daily life. Many refrained from venturing out because they feared being stranded or physically obstructed.
Such shutdowns ~ to call them strikes would misleading ~ are a hoary Indian tradition. But then context is the key. It was one thing for Mahatma Gandhi to launch a non-violent satyagraha or civil disobedience movement against a colonial power; it is quite another when Opposition parties who disagree with a policy initiative of the ruling party let loose their party louts to enforce a bandh. Luckily, Goa was spared this sight thanks to the Ganesh festival. But the question needs to be asked ~ are such means to gets a point of view across, however passionately held, relevant in a vibrant democracy of 65 years standing?
The bandh call was entirely political in nature. It was certainly not for the welfare of the poor ~ the daily-wage earner whether in rural or urban India, it has been empirically proven, is the worst hit by such shutdowns. Those who fear they will be adversely affected by the FDI decision or the diesel hike too were not conspicuous by their presence on the streets. Rather, the bandh call could said to have emanated from the grouse of the Opposition that many major political parties’ consent was not taken before the announcement. That is ridiculous. There is a reason why we have an election every five years in which there are winners and losers ~ the winner gets to decide and implement policy. And if the Opposition feels the ruling combine has lost the people’s mandate, which indeed it may have, then they have recourse to Constitutional redress in the form of a no-confidence vote which if lost would cut short the term and end the policies of the UPA II regime its opponents are objecting to. Shorn of all sophistry and political posturing, it really is as simple as that.
The issues on which the bandh was ostensibly called, FDI, for instance, have been discussed for years. It would be fair to say that everybody in the know was aware about the impending reforms. Perhaps the Opposition is annoyed at the fact Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has turned out not to be the lame duck he was thought to be over the past year or so of policy paralysis.
When India’s economy is bleeding, is it in the national interest that the proponents of the bandh are acting? That is a question only the people of the country can answer, but the fact is that the bandh was disruptive for business and trade across the country. While the exact quantum of loss to the entire economy is not known, it has been estimated at Rs 12,500 crore. That’s the loss in one day.
The Indian judiciary has in various judgments held that an enforced bandh, whatever the reasons, can never be justified since the shutdown violates the rights of citizens, including the seven freedoms, in addition to causing a national loss. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. The apex court also made it clear over a decade ago that state governments should take steps to "recoup the loss from the sponsors and organizers” of such bandhs.
Readers would recall that in a landmark decision in 2004, Bombay High Court imposed costs of Rs 20 lakh each on the BJP and Shiv Sena for calling a Mumbai bandh on July 30 2003 to protest against a bomb blast in Ghatkopar. Some courts have differentiated between bandhs and hartals (strikes), but Kerala High Court held them to be two sides of the same coin. The only difference is that a bandh impacts the freedom of the masses, while a strike is used more in the context of trade unions seeking to exercise their right to protest by striking work collectively.
There is, therefore, need for political leaders to evolve new system of protests which do not inconvenience the public as well as avoid economic loss to the nation. A bandh is not the only means of protest. With the internet, cell phones and other technology available, there are certainly better ways of demonstrating against the establishment. Bandhs and hunger strikes belong to different era which if continued to be utilized only would expose the bankruptcy of the organizers. A protest can be effective without being disruptive. It just needs political imagination to make it so.