KOCHI: In July 28, 1997, after hearing a petition by the Ernakulam Chamber of Commerce, a full bench of the Kerala High Court passed a landmark verdict that declared bandh “illegal and unconstitutional”. “The state government cannot shirk from its responsibility of taking steps to recoup the loss from the sponsors or organisers of such bandhs,” the court observed.
In November that year, turning down pleas that argued people had the right to protest, the Supreme Court upheld the high court verdict, and noted: “There cannot be any doubt that the fundamental rights of the people as a whole cannot be subservient to the claim of the fundamental right of an individual or only a section of the people.”
It’s been 25 years. The only change that Kerala saw was the term ‘bandh’ being replaced by ‘hartal’. A rough estimate shows there were over 600 shutdowns (including regional and statewide) in the state between 2005 and 2020.
There, of course, are people who love a ‘good hartal’ break. The joy doubles when it falls just before or after a weekend. On the other side, however, a majority of the people have been fed up with enforced shutdowns and traffic disruptions.
While observing hartals is a matter of individual choice in other states, in Kerala, the people are forced to ‘obey’ party diktats. Notably, in 2000, the HC had ruled hartal enforcement by “force, intimidation—physical or mental—and coercion” was unconstitutional.
The two-day shutdown in March saw Malayalis, perhaps for the first time ever, defying the strike call in groups and clashing with political activists. Amid the current political tumult at the state and the Central level usually ‘ideal weather conditions’ for a hartal! one wonders if the state has, finally, put a ‘bandh’ to shutdowns. Well, the debate continues.
“I am not against hartal but it should be held without causing inconvenience to the public,” says C J George, president of Ernakulam Market Stall Owners Association (EMSOA). “Among traders, people who deal in goods like vegetables and fruits are the ones who are the most affected. The least that can be done is exempting perishable goods from hartals, like in the case of milk, newspaper.”
Meanwhile, some groups believe Kerala should root out the idea of hartals, considering the way they are organised. ‘Say No To Hartal’ is one such campaign group founded in 2010 by Kochi resident Raju P Nair. “We aim to unite the youth against this social evil (hartal), which is destroying the interests of the state,” says Raju.
“The court banned bandh 25 years ago. But it was replaced by hartal, which should ideally be voluntary. But here, it is enforced like a bandh. Just like parties have the right to protest, people have the right to not join the protest. We are not against calling for a strike. But when you force others to participate, it becomes an offence. That is against the basic principle of democracy.”
‘Progressive protests, please’
Eldho Chirackachalil, a member of ‘Say No to Hartal’ and president of All India Professional Congress’s Infopark chapter, notes: “Enforced or not, protests should be in the form of shutdowns. Parties should come up with ‘progressive protests’ that don’t harm the public or the economy. Society’s ideas of protest should change.”
Kerala Hotel and Restaurants Association president G Jayapal agrees. “Most hartals do not benefit the general public,” he says. “We are tired of hartals. Due to the sudden hartals called in the state, the restaurant and the hotel industry always suffer. This situation has to change.”
‘Govt fails to take action’
Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi president Manoj S S blames the government for not taking “any action” even when the economy suffers huge losses due to strikes. According to reports, a hartal causes a loss of at least Rs 200 crore to the state.
“Shutting down is not an ideal way to conduct a protest,” adds Manoj, who is also the national secretary of the Confederation of All India Traders. “Public should also stop seeing hartal as a time to ‘celebrate’ at home.”
Infopark techie Nirmal V G quips IT professionals never get to enjoy a good hartal. “I have been working in the IT industry for several years, and we have been working even during hartals. However, there have been times when my vehicle was stopped by the protestors. I don’t think that right, protests should not be thrust upon the people.”
Thiruvananthapuram-based forest officer Gopika Surendran concurs, pointing out: “Every hartal day, we see reports of people caught in emergency situations suffering. Even students have been hit badly.”
Kerala’s image takes the worst hit, believes E M Najeeb, president of Confederation of Kerala Tourism Industries. “Hartals affect the business community as well as educational and public institutions,” he says.
“Moreover, such protests paint a bad picture of our state, at a time when we are trying to project a business- and tourism-friendly state.”
With inputs from Shainu Mohan