Frequent shutdowns over Sabarimala verdict despite judicial intervention fuel debate on hartal culture in Kerala

The 28 September verdict of the Supreme Court lifting ban on the entry of women between the ages of 10-50 in the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala has not served its purpose so far but it has spurred a fierce debate against hartal, a popular mode of protest in Kerala that even judicial intervention has failed to stop.

Protest against the strike that brings life to a standstill started brewing in Kerala after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called a flash statewide hartal on 17 November at 2 am to protest the arrest of K P Sasikala – leader of the Hindu Aikya Vedi, a constituent of Sangh Parivar – on her way to the hill shrine.

It reached a crescendo on 14 December when the saffron party called for a similar statewide hartal after a 49-year-old man set himself ablaze – reportedly when he was in an inebriated condition - near the party’s Sabarimala protest venue in Thiruvananthapuram.

 Frequent shutdowns over Sabarimala verdict despite judicial intervention fuel debate on hartal culture in Kerala

Representational image. PTI

People stood up against the hartal after the dying declaration of the deceased Venugopalan Nair recorded by a magistrate contradicted the party’s claim that he had sacrificed his life for the cause of Lord Ayyappa. There was no mention of Ayyappa in the declaration, which was available before the BJP took decision to call the hartal.

After the declaration stating that Nair had committed suicide due to disillusionment in his life were flashed by television channels, there was a clamour for withdrawing the hartal call. However, the BJP stuck to its decision and invited the ire of the people.

The decision was widely viewed as part of the attempt by the saffron party to take maximum political mileage from the Sabarimala issue. Raju P Nair, state convenor of ‘Say No to Hartal’, an anti-hartal movement, described it as a desperate attempt by the BJP to create a ‘balidani’ (martyr) to rally the Hindus constituting about 55 percent of the state’s population.

The party had made a similar attempt on 1 November, when a 60-year-old person was found dead in a forest near Sabarimala. Claiming that the deceased, Sivadasan, had died in police action on 16-17 October, the BJP called for a hartal in Pathanamthitta district, where the hill shrine is located. The party dropped Sivadsan after his family members clarified that he had left his house only on 18 October, a day after the police crackdown.

People have not taken kindly to the latest hartal, which is the sixth one to be called by the BJP since the apex court verdict. The BJP, which initially welcomed the verdict, came out against it after women in large numbers took to the streets against the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government’s attempt to implement the order.

Netizens bombarded the BJP websites terming hartals cheap politics. The party was trolled heavily on social media. Taxi and autorickshaw drivers, who usually keep off the roads during hartals, defied the BJP call and operated service in many places. The traders also opened shops in some places.

The debate kicked off by the recent hartals has made political leaders to rethink on hartals. Leaders of major political parties agreed to evolve a consensus on restricting hartals at the ‘Kerala Tomorrow’ Development Summit organised by the Malayala Manorama group of publications at Kochi on 6 December.

Ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishan offered to take the initiative in this regard. BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai and Congress president Mullappally Ramachandran said they would cooperate with the move if other parties agree to avoid unnecessary hartals.

However, anti-hartal activists are not optimistic about the exercise since similar efforts in the past have failed to yield any result. The previous Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government had even attempted a legislation to curb hartals affecting normal life. The bill introduced in the Assembly has not seen light of the day so far.

The initiative came on a direction from the high court, which sought legislative remedy after judicial interventions did not make any effect on those calling hartals, particularly political parties. Judicial intervention against strikes affecting normal life started in 1997 when the Kerala high court banned bandhs. Political parties responded to the court order which was ratified by the Supreme Court by replacing "bandh" with "hartal".

When hartal assumed the form of hartal, the high court declared the enforcement of a hartal call made by a party or association or organisations by ‘force, intimidation - physical or mental - and coercion’ as 'unconstitutional'. The court also directed the Election Commission to de-register or cancel registration of registered parties in case of violation of the directive.

As this too went unheeded, the high court issued a direction in 2004 to the state to take measures to ensure that normal life is not paralysed and that those who call hartals or strikes should not compel anyone to participate in it. The direction for legislation came ten years later.

Both the government and the political parties continued to ignore it and enforced shutdowns paralysing life. The state witnessed as many as 97 hartals so far this year. Of this, the BJP accounted for the highest number of 33 hartals, followed by UDF with 27 hartals. The LDF, which was in power since May 2016, called 17 hartals, most of which against its own government.

The BJP had also stood first in 2017 by organising 41 hartals. The share of the UDF and the LDF was 27 and 16 respectively. The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) had ten years ago estimated the losses by every state-wide hartal at around Rs 1,500 crore to the trade and industry alone, besides human sufferings and job losses.

K Chandrababu, general secretary of the Anti-Hartal Front, a state-wide association based in Kannur, said the loss now was Rs.2,500 crore per state-wide hartal. He told the Firstpost that hartal should be totally avoided as the state cannot afford such a colossal loss.

“Kerala is the only state where hartal brings life to a total halt. Calling hartals on issues affecting the people as a whole is understandable. However, hartals in the state are called by political parties and their feeder organisations at the drop of a hat,” he said.

Chandrababu said that the menace would come to an end if three groups of people -traders, bus operators and the media-join hands. He said that his organisation was trying to bring the traders and the bus operators together for a joint action.

“They have been stopping services due to fear of the consequences of defying hartal. There is no need for this fear as the Supreme Court has made those calling the hartal responsible for the losses they cause to the property. If the bus operators and the traders make use of this provision none will force them to stop their operations and think twice before calling hartal again,” he said.

Chandrababu said that the traders and the bus operators in Kozhikode had agreed to experiment this in the city during the next hartal. He has also urged the media to join the initiative by stopping coverage for the hartal.

“Other forms of protest require effort to mobilise public support. All it needs to make a hartal a success is a press statement and a few musclemen. While the role of the latter has come down drastically since all service providers including the government switches into a shutdown mode after a hartal is called, the media make them shut down by creating a fear psychosis,” Chandrababu added.

He said that the Anti-Hartal Front would also try to take the media on board in the fight against hartal. Meanwhile, the Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi, the largest body of traders in the state, is gearing up to defy the hartal. Samithi secretary K Sethumadhavan said they had called meeting of their state committee on 20 December to discuss the strategy.

“The flood has devastated the trading sector. Enforcing hartal on the traders when they are struggling hard to recover from the calamity is cruel and inhuman. We will not take this lying,” said Sethumadhavan.

The raging debate has not made any difference to the BJP, which continues to justify the extreme form of protest. Rather they are boosted by the backing they have got from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who justified the 14 December hartal saying it was forced on his party.

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2018 10:18:12 IST