Musings for a responsible society

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The Festival of Bandh

For ages, protest is considered as an affirmative action for change. Groups and collectivities across the world have fulfilled their demands through protests. Strikes, boycotts, demonstrations etc are some of the common forms of protests globally. Protests have taken various desi versions in India. Dharna[i], satyagraha[ii], gherao[iii] etc are widely adopted by protesters in India. Social protests have brought about radical changes in the social structure of Indian Society. In fact many such protests and social movements were the embryos for many political parties and organizations. Sociological relevance of protest movements are historically recognized as they ensured civil liberty, fairness and justice when the states were ruled by benevolent dictators and autocrats. Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy of non-violent passive resistance was considered to be the most successful. Such strategies of passive resistance have been transformed to active resistance and different forms of violence have become an essential ingredient of protests.

In recent times, two modes of protests have become very frequent in some parts of the country. They are bandhs[iv] and hartals[v]. Though they have their legacy in the Civil Disobedience Movements against colonial rulers, they have literally transformed into Civil Disturbance Movements in contemporary India. Communist bastions in India viz. the states of Kerala and West Bengal compete for a world record in witnessing maximum number of bandhs and hartals round the year. Every hartal, bandh, and strike result not only in loss of productivity for the country but also in damages for both persons and properties. They also result in mental agony, uncertainty, insecurity and helplessness for the people. At the same time, some people love such bandhs. For employees, they are surprise paid holidays to idle away time watching TV and other entertainments. Statistics show maximum sale of bottles of liquor just on the eve of the bandh.

It is quite appropriate to evaluate the efficacy of bandhs, hartals, dharna etc in contemporary times. All over the world, dissent and conflict on issues, policies, rules and regulations are essentially anti-establishment in nature. Protesters resort to strategies to draw public opinion and to put pressure on respective establishments. Thus blocking roads, disturbing public service delivery, striking work, damaging public property etc are thought to gain immediate attention to the demands. However, in the present era of communication technology, conventional forms of protests would not only be redundant but also invite public wrath. Protesters need to explore strategies such as strategic negotiations, discussions or parleys with the establishments to resolve dissent and to fulfill demands.

Do bandhs and hartals imposed on the public by particular groups generate enough public sympathy? Even where larger public cause is involved, protesters hardly get emotional support for their actions that disturb the civic affairs of the public. Whether they take up general issues like price hike, poor infrastructure or social issues, many times majority of the population show tacit disapproval for bandhs and hartals. Thus such protests do not evoke much response in several states. However, states like Kerala, West Bengal etc are different. With a strong communist base, bandhs and hartals are common political strategies for all types of political parties. There are forced disruptions of normal life for a range of causes from trivial issues such as a lesson in 7th grade school book to global issues such as international fuel price hike, War on Iraq, Israel’s occupation of Gaza strip etc.

In an era of advanced communication technology, issues can be better taken to the authorities concerned through well formulated representations and proposals. Several institutions are in place to ensure that justice is done to affected persons or groups. There are commissions set up by governments which play active roles in ensuring human rights and to protect the interests of various communities and groups. Judicial activism and the social role played through public interest litigation have proved to be very effective in ensuring justice and to settle grievances. Right to Information Act and corresponding institutional structures has brought about transparency and efficiency in policy formulation and implementation.

It would be sensible to fight for one’s rights through the institutional structures in the society. If there are no favorable institutional structures, it is still possible to present his views and petition the needs directly to the high authority or through the widely present media. These are the blessings one enjoy in a democratic polity. It is sheer foolishness to adopt strategies of civil disturbance to achieve the goals, if one is really sincere about their fulfillment. This does not mean that social movements and revolutions are redundant in modern society. They do still play the role of change agents, especially to ensure fairness and justice from authoritarian governments and institutions. However, they can succeed only if they convey their goals with clear strategic plans and proposals at the appropriate decision making levels rather that firing the gun wild. Protesting groups and organizations need to harness public opinion through innovative methods that would not disturb the civil rights of people and the executive activities of the state.

(Another version of this article can be seen in my blog )


[i] Means squatting in front of an office or building to realize demands. Hindi word

[ii] Concept of satyagraha was rooted in the scriptures of several eastern religions. Literal meaning is ‘holding on to truth’. Developed as a successful non-violent strategy in the India’s freedom struggle by Mahatma Gandhi

[iii] Hindi word , means encirclement (mob or group of people surrounding a person or building)

[iv] Means ‘closed’ in Hindi

[v] Means closing down of shops and business establishments

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