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Columns - Coming to Terms
People can't be compelled to participate in bandhs

D. Murali

In July 1997, the Kerala High Court delivered a path-breaking verdict declaring forced bandhs illegal.


THE USUALLY crowded K. R. Circle in Mysore wore a deserted look on Wednesday as the city observed a total bandh. — M. A. Sriram

Karnataka shut down on Wednesday. The consequent financial hit was about Rs 2,000 crore. All because of a 12-hour bandh called by pro-Kannada organisations to draw attention to a border dispute with Maharashtra. `Good response,' chime the organisers, while Peninsula On-line, Qatar, reports, `Bangalore logs out as Belgaum row intensifies'.

Well, even as the nearly 2,000 IT (information technology) and ITeS (IT enabled services) companies in Bangalore come to terms with millions of dollars of lost business, let us look at `bandh' in depth. But, first, right click to add the word to your dictionary, lest Word auto-corrected it to band!

Bandh appears sandwiched between banderole and bandicoot, in Concise Oxford English Dictionary. "A general strike. Origin via Hindi from Sanskrit bandh `to stop'," explains the entry. However, a search on www.onelook.com finds `English definitions that include the word bandh' in only two dictionaries, of which the first, viz. Encarta draws a blank, and suggests instead, `Find out how to improve your word search.' The second, though, is helpful, because it is Wikipedia.

General Strike

"Bandh, originally a Hindi word meaning `closed', is a form of protest used by political activists in India," begins http://en.wikipedia.org.

"During a bandh, a large chunk of a community declares a general strike, usually lasting one day. While often it means the closing down of a major marketplace of a city for the day, there have been instances of entire metros coming to a standstill."

Usual signs of stillness are empty roads and offices, closed schools and banks, symbolic perhaps of grinding abruptly almost the entire economic activity to a halt. Almost, because the IT industry seemed to have a way of keeping its wheels running, by adopting a three-pronged approach. One, they deferred what could be put on hold; two, work was routed to other centres; and three, shifts were extended.

Civil disobedience

Bandhs are powerful means for civil disobedience, explains Wikipedia.

David Thoreau introduced the idea of civil disobedience to the modern Western political theory almost 150 years ago, writes Ruben G. Apressyan on www.mkgandhi.org. "Since that time civil disobedience has been considered as a mechanism of working democracy, one of the ways of expression of citizens' disagreement with the authorities and a minorities disagreement with a majority, a mode of citizens' inclusion into the functioning of democracy."That civil disobedience is the assertion of a right, which law should give but which it denies, reads a quote of Gandhiji `painstakingly researched and categorised by Sunanda Gandhi' on www.indiaspace.com. "Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the State becomes lawless or, which is the same thing, corrupt.

Civil disobedience means capacity for unlimited suffering without the intoxicating excitement of killing. Disobedience to be civil has to be open and non-violent," are among the other quotes on the topic. Despite the Gandhian diktat, bandhs can, and often do, turn violent.

For instance, at the time of writing, news reports inform of violence in Nizamabad district, both before and after a bandh.

"Traders' bandh in Delhi turns violent; three killed," reads another news, dated September 20.

Forced bandhs banned

"Bandhs have been criticised because of the disruption of everyday life caused by them," is further gyan from The Free Encyclopedia. "The Supreme Court of India has banned bandhs, but political parties still organise them." It was almost a decade ago, in July 1997, that the Kerala High Court delivered a path-breaking verdict declaring forced bandhs illegal. People cannot be made to participate in bandhs under duress, the court had said. Organisers of bandh "trample upon the right of the citizens protected by the Constitution," observed the court. "In simple terms, the judiciary laid down the rule that political parties and trade unions have a right to protest, but the citizens have an equal right to not support their action," explains K.V.A. Iyer on www.harthal.com.

"The Kerala High Court has twice in a span of four years, delivered judgements curbing the right of trade unions and political parties to call for bandh. The Supreme Court in November 1997 in the Communist Party of India vs Bharatkumar and others upheld Kerala High Court's order making bandhs illegal." Kerala-watchers know how the bandh and hartal (strike) jinx has cost the State dearly in terms of lost investments in BPO, and unhealthy impact on health tourism.

The Bombay High Court went one step further, when on July 23, 2004, it imposed a fine of Rs 20 lakh each on two political parties, viz. the BJP and the Shiv Sena, for organising a bandh in Mumbai on July 30, 2003, as a protest against bomb blasts in the city. The petitioners had claimed damages of Rs 50 crore on the basis of GDP (gross domestic product) loss to the city for one day of stoppage.

Another case that drew upon the strength of the apex court's ban on bandhs was that of the residents of the Gulberg Housing Society in Ahmedabad, in 2005.

They claimed damages of Rs 64 crore for the loss of life and property sustained by family members during the Gujarat bandh called by three organisations, viz. the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). You may remember that the VHP called for the Gujarat bandh soon after the Godhra train incident of February 27, 2002. Bandh, as an issue, isn't closed. It may remain open, as long as citizens continue to take up the legal route and claim compensation for compulsory stoppages such as what happened on Wednesday in Karnataka.

ComingToTerms@TheHindu.co.in

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Karnataka shuts down; loss pegged at Rs 2,000 cr

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