Kerala High Court finds PFI in contempt: What’s the legal status on holding a flash hartal?

The Kerala High Court has initiated a contempt case against the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its general secretary for holding a dawn-to-dusk hartal in the state. The ‘flash bandh’ by the Muslim outfit in response to the nationwide raids saw widespread violence and stone pelting

FP Explainers September 23, 2022 14:26:29 IST
Kerala High Court finds PFI in contempt: What’s the legal status on holding a flash hartal?

A broken windshield of a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation bus after some miscreants threw stones on it, during the 'hartal' called by Popular Front of India in Thiruvananthapuram. PTI

After facing a probable nationwide ban, the Popular Front of India (PFI) is now facing the Kerala court’s ire too.

The Kerala High Court observed that, prima facie, the dawn-to-dusk hartal called by the radical outfit in the state amounted to contempt of earlier high court orders on the conduct of bandhs.

Catch all the latest updates from PFI’s bandh in Kerala here

Justice A K Jayasankaran Nambiar said despite its 2019 order, a call for a flash hartal was made on Thursday by the PFI. “The action of the aforementioned persons (PFI and its state general secretary) in calling for the hartal without following the procedure contemplated in our earlier order, prima facie, amounts to contempt of the directions of this Court in the order aforementioned,” the court observed.

Kerala High Court order by Roshneesh K’Maneck on Scribd

Kerala saw widespread stone pelting at public transport buses, damaging of shops and vehicles, and incidents of violence in many places during the statewide bandh called by the PFI in response to the raids that saw the arrest of 106 of its members and activists.

Hartal supporters took out protest marches, blocked vehicles and forcefully downed the shutters of shops in various places, where the outfit has a strong presence.

Besides police personnel, some bus and lorry drivers and commuters suffered injuries in stone pelting and other related incidents. In Kannur and Kozhikode, a 15-year-old girl and an auto-rickshaw driver suffered injuries in the stone pelting allegedly by PFI activists.

The flash hartal — from 6 am to 6 pm — by the PFI was being observed a day after multi-agency teams spearheaded by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had arrested 106 functionaries of the outfit in near simultaneous raids at 93 locations in 15 states for allegedly supporting terror activities in the country.

Even as the court finds PFI in contempt for carrying out a hartal, we take a look at what is the legal status of bandhs. Here’s a look at the constitutionality of bandhs and what it means to carry out a hartal in the country.

The right to protest

Before delving into the constitutionality of a bandh, here’s what a bandh means. Bandh is a protest that is used mainly by political activists in South Asian countries like India. It is a form of civil disobedience.

The right to strike exudes from Article 19 (1) (c) of the Indian Constitution, which gives the citizens the fundamental right to form associations or unions. Article 19(1) (a) secures every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Article 19 of the Constitution doesn;t explicitly give any fundamental right on a resident or citizens to organise a hartal, bandhs or chakka jam.

The Supreme Court has many times asserted that demonstrations can be considered a form of freedom of speech unless they violate the public order.

What the courts have said

In 1961, the apex court held in Kameshwar Prasad v State of Bihar case that even a liberal interpretation of the Article 19(1)(c) would conclude that trade unions would guarantee the fundamental right to strike.

However, later in the All India Bank Employees Association case, the Supreme Court rejected the contention that right to ‘form associations’ guaranteed by Article 19(1)(c) carried with it a right to strike.

In 2003, the Supreme Court in the TK Rangarajan vs Tamil Nadu government case made it clear that government employees cannot go on strike and that such an act is illegal.

The order had read: “Coming to the question of right to strike — whether fundamental, statutory or equitable moral right — in our view, no such right exists with the government employees. Law on this subject is well settled and it has been repeatedly held by this court that the employees have no fundamental right to resort to strike.”

Justice MB Shah added in his order: “Apart from statutory rights, government employees cannot claim that they can take the society to ransom by going on strike. Even if there is injustice to some extent, as presumed by such employees, in a democratic welfare state, they have to resort to the machinery provided under different statutory provisions for redressal of their grievances.

“Strike as a weapon is mostly misused which results in chaos and total maladministration. Strike affects the society as a whole and particularly when two lakh employees go on strike en masse, the entire administration comes to a grinding halt. In the case of strike by a teacher, entire educational system suffers; many students are prevented from appearing in their exams, which ultimately affect their whole career. In case of strike by doctors, innocent patients suffer; in case of strike by employees of transport services, entire movement of society comes to a standstill; business is adversely affected and number of persons find it difficult to attend to their work, to move from one place to another or one city to another. On occasions, public properties are destroyed or damaged and finally this creates bitterness among public against those who are on strike.”

In 1997, a full bench of the Kerala High Court had banned bandhs, which had been vehemently opposed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its partners in the Kerala government.

The court had also held that organisers of the bandhs are liable to compensate the government, the public and private citizens for any losses they suffer on account of destruction of property during the bandhs.

The Supreme Court also upheld the order banning bandhs later that year.

Bandh organisers eventually started calling mass strikes hartals instead. The Supreme Court in 2004 stated that inconvenience could not be caused in the name of hartal either.

But, confusion continues over the constitutionality of a bandh as the courts haven’t clarified the difference between a strike, bandh and hartal.

In April 2017, a bench of Chief Justice JS Khehar and Justice D Y Chandrachud had noted in a case that “hartals could never be considered unconstitutional”.

“The Right to Protest is a valuable constitutional right. How can we say hartals are unconstitutional,” they had said.

On 7 January 2019, amid the protests over the Sabarimala issue, the Kerala High Court passed an order banning hartals in the state without a notice of seven days. Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice AK Jayasankaran Nambiar had said that a ‘flash’ hartal was unconstitutional and that it needed to be announced at least seven days in advance.

The matter had come to the court based on a PIL filed by Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which stated that such actions had a staggering effect on the economy.

Time and time again, it has been noted that bandhs have a staggering effect on the economy.

In the past, business chambers have pegged the loss to the economy at a staggering Rs 25,000 crore and have said such “disruptive” actions can hit India’s image as an attractive business destination.

With inputs from agencies

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