Are Bandhs Justified?

Tue, Sep 14, 2010

In Focus

“The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.” – Thomas Jefferson.

When we talk about Bandhs, we immediately relate to an image of desolate streets, hooligans and vandals forcing down shutters, a hapless police looking on and a helpless common man getting torn between his responsibility towards his work and his safety considerations. Over the years, we have been witness to numerous bandhs on a variety of issues affecting some sections of society. Be it the union workers of Mumbai mills, the ruling CPI (M) in West Bengal, the Gujjars, the Gorkhas, the Sikhs; there have been countless strikes or bandhs for innumerable reasons bringing the nation to a grinding halt. But are all bandhs bad? Should they be disallowed? Are bandhs just called by vested interests and cause only inconvenience to all? This sticky issue has led to complete polarization of opinion in recent times so let us understand the matter further.

Historical Perspective:

This form of agitation takes its roots in the pre-independence era Civil Disobedience movement which successfully brought even the mighty British Rule to a grinding halt. In the years that followed independence, the disillusionment of the common man with the incumbent government led to the first few strikes in India. With its unquestionable success in putting a spanner in the works and shaking the government machinery back to work, the country found an extremely potent form of protest to be used when all else fails.

Changing Facade:

The use of Bandhs to corner the government was a rare occurrence till the 90s when it suddenly became the first choice rather than the last choice of protest. The seductive power of bringing the entire nation to a standstill, its media coverage, its impact on government credibility and its vast reach of spreading awareness among people were few prominent reasons for this weapon to be used more frequently.

‘Bandh’ literally means ‘to close’ in Hindi and it is represented by the closure of all businesses and normal life for spreading awareness and cornering the government on certain issues. The issue here may be small or big but the impact of a bandh on everyday life is definitely not minor. If we take a look at the reason for a bandh being successful, it will almost entirely boil down to the impact on daily life of the common man and the full scale of its implementation. Desolate streets, downed shutters, empty buses and trains, empty offices all lend credence to a bandh and put additional pressure on the government to play ball with the striking party. This form of protest loads the dice heavily in favour of the striking party since a prolonged bandh will be more damaging to government reputation than a compromise. The backdoor thrashing of a solution is given a step up when such an extreme step is taken. Since this mode of protest is highly impactful on regular citizens, hence it is encouraged to be the last resort in a standoff. Generally, this step used to be taken after petitions, appeals, re-appeal, interventions were unsuccessful. Only when apathy of the authorities is proven and there are no further ways of applying pressure for a fair hearing and just decision, the weapon of a bandh would be taken up. While this is true in principle, bandhs nowadays are used and abused quite frequently to arm-twist a favourable solution.

Labour unions are attributed with the ability to wield this weapon and force management to compromise. The main reason for management buckling under a bandh is the huge loss in revenue for even a day. The complete stoppage of production brings manufacturing to a total standstill, affects orders, impacts inventory management, crowds warehouses etc. Similarly for a government, a day’s loss of output from its industries not only affects it monetarily but also brings a big loss of credibility. The loss of output means lower revenues, greater liabilities, loss of orders and more importantly a loss of perceived authority. That is why the mere mention of Bandh can strike fear into management who will try to avoid it at all costs.

Legal Stand:

This was the prime motivator for the Honourable Supreme Court passing an order declaring Bandhs as unconstitutional in 1998. This particular ruling of course polarizes the argument further. Declaring a popular and sometimes necessary tool of agitation as unconstitutional seems like a severe and rather simplistic diagnosis for a complex problem. Any form of agitation is ultimately a tension between the ruler and the ruled, haves and have-nots. The means of relieving this tension definitely are numerous but we must realize that bandhs per se are not the issue here. The issue is more about when to enforce a bandh and to what level should common people be inconvenienced. If bandhs are used as a path of last resort after exhausting all legal structures of protest, it seems fair to allow this to proceed. If they allow only voluntary participation, then it seems to be perfectly constitutional as an extension of freedom of expression.

Cause of Bandhs:

However, here lies the true catch. Who can determine whether all possibilities are exhausted? Who will truly stand up united for a noble cause and choose to oppose the authority at considerable personal risk? If our general intuition is true, answer to the first is hard to determine and answer to the second is almost always ‘No one’. Our ‘Chalta-Hai’ attitude is one of the main reasons for conflicts coming to such a head. Personal responsibility generally ends with self in our society. Until the whip is cracked, no one wants to stick his neck out for others or even his own good. A classic case to this effect is the price rise bandh called by the NDA government. It was a last resort to bring together the people against an increasingly apathetic government showing very little effort at reigning in prices in the short term. The petitions, the questions raised at zero hour, the numerous efforts at confronting the government all seemed to have failed. During all this, the common man who was the worst hit did not even raise a whimper. There was no collective outcry by the suffering people even after inflation reached impossible levels and government gave atrocious comments about growth being high. At such times, a bandh does not seem like such a vile and underhanded means of protest. Stripping away this form of protest does not seem like a correct decision.

The issue is a very complex one and there are no true solutions to this matter. What can be perceived as arm twisting on one hand can be a last ditch attempt at garnering some leverage. Ideally, a true democracy would not require such crude tools. However, we all are well aware that India is not too close to an ideal democracy. There is still concentration of power in the hands of a few and there aren’t as many patriotic and selfless individuals as needed to drive the nation in a unified manner. There is definitely merit in the argument that a bandh ultimately hits the common man the hardest. The organized sector is hit due to their inability to work and its possible repercussions on their jobs. The unorganized sector or daily wage workers are the worst affected since their livelihood is lost and hence their ability to feed their stomach. Add to this the cost of shut operations and damaged infrastructure which again lies heavy on the purses of the tax payers. In fact, the recent bharat bandh called for petrol price hikes cost the government more than the cost of subsidizing petrol for an entire year. This cost to the exchequer is sometimes used by governments to lower the credibility of the bandh and justify its disapproval to a compromise.

Time to Change:

The first change which needs to be made to bandhs is the destruction of property which does not result in good to anyone. This is a direct burden on the exchequer and lowers the moral pedestal of the agitator. Arguments can be made that pressure is not applied till there is some collateral damage but this does not take away the sense of lawlessness in this action. Secondly, there needs to be some manner by which the decision to enforce a bandh should be made as a last resort. We unfortunately live in a society where such bandhs are very common despite it being declared unlawful. Such bandhs done at the drop of a hat not only reduce the credibility of the cause, but also undermine the entire democratic structure of the nation. We, as a nation, must always remain committed to furthering the vision of our founding fathers into the future generations and never step back from the path of progress. This can only be attained by remaining committed to working inside the system and changing it from there. Using unconstitutional methods is the last resort and must be used very judiciously. This is the third point which concerns a change in the involvement of the common man in such agitations. A completely voluntary participation in such bandhs obviously works only in an idealistic environment but there needs to be a focussed attempt at reducing the burden on the common man out there and ensuring his well-being, safety and the preservation of his freedom. If this is not considered, then the very reason for the bandh is defeated since the people who are supposed to be benefitted are the same who are oppressed. It is true that the greater common good outweighs personal good but there needs to be a demarcation that ensures that such bandhs are minimal and their impact is marginal on the lives of the citizens.

Such efforts are already encouraged through the mushrooming of numerous action and vigilance groups which aim to organize the clamour of the society into one resonant call to the government. The presence of NGOs and the incorporation of RTI acts are steps in the right direction to ensure transparency and strengthen the pillars of democracy in our nation. The future needs to be a movement towards ethical, moral, social uprightness and the time for sowing the seeds of change is now.

Nabarun Sengupta

Nabarun Sengupta

MBA, IIT Kanpur

( Batch of 2010 – 12)

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