Bandh, strike or hartal - the word dreaded by the common man especially if he is a Mumbaikar or rather an Indian. Come to think of it, only an Indian is a common man because he is the one who is always taken for a ride by the Government, Mafia and the Judiciary.
The Opposition recently called for a nation wide bandh to protest against the upward spiraling prices. I guess that was the only issue. Or rather we have been made to believe that this was the only issue. The bandh has caused a loss of 20,000 crores to the nation. Probably, this is the best way to get the prices downwards.
Incidentally, the Hindi word ‘hartal’ comes from two Sanskrit words, namely, hatta and talaka. Hatta means shop or market and talaka means a lock. Thus ‘hartal’ literally and etymologically both means closure of shops or market. Protests in the form of closure of shops or halt of public transport are forced on to the people. Therefore, the success of such a bandh cannot be attributed to public opinion as it may not have been observed voluntarily and may have been done out of fear.
I would like to focus on two aspects:
First, though strikes have been declared illegal and unconstitutional by the courts, forcing someone to join the bandh is yet to be made an offense.
Second, state governments and administration have genuine practical problems in enforcing the orders of the courts to ensure that complete normalcy is maintained during a strike.
The legal catch is that even if they have hundreds of thousands of people with them, it does not mean that every single member of the society is with them. Even if there is a single individual who does not agree with a man or party registering its protest, his rights are as sacred as the rights of millions. He has as much right not to take part in a strike or ‘bandh’ as the other person has to take part in them. Hence the ‘bandh’ supporter does not have the right to encroach upon the rights of others in the exercise of his right to protest. The moment he does so, he commits a crime. Forcing someone to join the bandh is akin to forcing a female to having sexual intercourse against her wishes.
The bandh supporter has the right not to go to work or keep his shop closed. He does not however have the right to force others to do so. That’s why forcing others to join strikes or bandhs is illegal and unconstitutional. By the same logic it must be made into a substantive offense.
Why would a group or political party want to enforce a bandh? The answer is very simple. If normal life were to continue as usual, they might have as well not bothered to give the bandh call in the first place! The reality of life is that the call for a strike, bandh or ‘hartal’ is essentially a show of strength and the parties would fail in their purpose if normal life were not to be affected.
Whenever a ‘hartal’ or a general strike is called, the government must take adequate measures to see that normal life of the citizens is not paralyzed. That is to be done not by declaring holidays or postponing examinations; but, by giving effective protection to those who are not participating in such ‘hartals’ or strikes.
What are the measures to be taken by the state governments to ensure normalcy? If the strikers do not heed to police advice, the latter have three means of using lethal and non lethal force. Tear gas is the mildest form followed by ‘lathi charge’ and the stun grenades and stinger grenades. The lethal form is firing. The tear gas option is generally ineffective if used in large areas. The police during a lathi charge may be outnumbered easily and this decision may then backfire. So, the only effective way to disperse unruly mobs is by firing. Every police firing results in a judicial inquiry. They are then criticized for using disproportionate quantam of force.
The underlying fear of a judicial inquiry and all the trauma that accompanies it, is actually responsible for the reticence of the police officers in using lethal force to good effect.
The state government finds itself in a fix. If they fail in maintaining complete normalcy, they may be accused of disobeying the court and failing in their constitutional duty; and if they start shooting people down and shed blood on a large scale, they will still be accused of using excessive force and being inhuman. The only solution therefore, seems if the courts press for making the forced imposition of a strike or bandh into an offense and also assure the state governments that their use of force in maintaining normalcy would be viewed with due concessions in mind.