Kerala has been witnessing a series of hartals (strikes) ever since the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its allies came to power last year and, strangely, the ruling parties enforced more shutdowns than the main Opposition Congress party.
Every hartal creates a warlike situation with vehicles keeping off roads and shops, hotels, schools and factories shut and even more strangely, the authorities declare a holiday for educational institutions and cancel public exams and job interviews.
The state-run Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) calls off its services, and the shutdown enforcers attack the vehicles daring to venture out or shops or eateries keeping open.
This year, there were 63 hartals – both statewide and regional – and 25 of them were called by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is trying its level best to position itself as a third force in the state's largely bipolar politics since Narendra Modi came to power.
The CPM, which leads the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), enforced 18 and the Congress party-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which brought legislation to ban forced hartals when in power last year, 11.
Even smaller groups like the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) of Muslim extremist Popular Front enforce shutdowns.
Hit hard by these strikes, traders in Kerala, the primary source of funding for politicians, have resolved to defy their calls and keep shops open during the hartals unless they are provided with enough time to take precautions.
They took out a protest march in the northern city of Kozhikode, which was shut for the second consecutive day on Saturday, this time by the BJP protesting attacks on its offices during the hartal called by the CPM.
"They are cowing us into silence, and we don’t let them anymore. We are losing crores of rupees, and they are driving tourists away," T Nasruddin, president of the Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi, an apex body that claims a membership base of a million traders, told Firstpost.
"These flash strikes called at the drop of a hat mostly hit small traders who have no refrigeration facilities. They lost all the perishables stocked for the Ramadan sales. Who will compensate for their losses?" he asks.
The CPM has been conducting "beef festivals' throughout the state, successfully instilling fear among the Muslim and Christian minorities of an impending "food code", at the cost of the traditional Congress vote bank since the 2015 civic polls.
The two parties are engaged in a series of violent incidents, including targeted killings by their hit squads, to establish supremacy in their strongholds – since BJP started attracting CPM cadres systematically. They engage in "night raids" on homes and offices of rivals almost every day.
The latest provocation was the Hindu Sena protest at CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s press conference at AKG Bhavan in New Delhi last week.
There was widespread propaganda that Yechury was manhandled by Sangh Parivar men who intruded into their party headquarters on Wednesday.
"We will not be cowed down by any attempts of Sangh's goondagardi to silence us. This is a battle for the soul of India, which we will win," he tweeted.
Violence erupted in Kozhikode district that night with workers attacking each other’s homes and offices. Even libraries were not spared. Both enforced local hartals in many places on Thursday, and past midnight, a crude bomb was hurled at the CPM office by an unidentified man.
The CPM soon alleged that it was an attempt on the life of P Mohanan, its district secretary, whom the court had earlier acquitted after spending one and a half years behind bars for the 2012 murder of TP Chandrasekharan, a "renegade" who floated his outfit – Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP).
"This is absurd and an attack on citizens who vote for them," said Raju P Nair, who leads a campaign, Say No to Harthal, against the forced shutdowns for the last few years.
"They are in power, and they should bring the culprits to book. Why they take ordinary people hostage to score their political points?" he asked.
Say No to Harthal members volunteer to help people stranded at airports and railway stations, mostly expatriates arriving on vacation, tourists and patients heading for tertiary care hospitals in cities.
They also come under attack often.
"They are all partners in crime," Nair told Firstpost. "The politicians, largely of the CPM and the BJP, are trying to incite riots and create fear among ordinary citizens."
Frequent shutdowns also drive investors away; despite the state topping the human development index and often being compared to developed nations, and having abundant human resources.
More than two million of its educated youngsters now work abroad, a vast majority of them in the Gulf, and almost an equal number in other Indian states. And the steady outflow continues.
The NRIs alone sent back Rs 148,074 crore in foreign exchanges to the state's banks last year, despite the oil crisis, sustaining the consumerist state's economy.
Though it had the early bird advantage of setting up its first software hub in the state capital, Technopark, nearly three decades back, it lags far behind its southern neighbours – Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Last year, Kerala exported software worth Rs 3,000 crore as against Karnataka’s Rs 1,25,419 crore, Tamil Nadu’s Rs 33,900 crore, Telangana's Rs 41,480 crore, Maharashtra’s Rs 64,063 crore, Haryana’s Rs 19,265 crore and Uttar Pradesh’s Rs 16,450 crore, as per STPI figures.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan came to power last year on the promise of creating 2.5 million jobs, including half a million in the IT sector. But he could not initiate any major project with large-scale employment potential so far.
On 5 September, the national strike called by trade unions against labour reforms turned into a bandh in Kerala, with Vijayan himself making a call to make it a success.
On 28 November, Kerala again witnessed another state-sponsored hartal, this time against the scrapping of high-denomination currencies, putting people through more hardships. They also laid a siege to the Reserve Bank of India (RB) office, hitting the cash flow further.
Earlier, he and his ministers staged a sit-in before the RBI office, with jurisdiction over Kerala and Union Territory of Lakshadweep, true to its policy of "agitation and administration" carried out parallelly.
The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) estimates the losses by every statewide hartal at around Rs 1,500 crore to the trade and industry alone, besides human sufferings and job losses.
Tourists, mostly backpackers, desperately searching for food and water is a common sight during hartals.
"Any excuse for a hartal from the party that claims to stand for development. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has called 22 hartals in Kerala already this year!" tweeted Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who had spoken against his own party holding people to ransom.
The Congress party-led United Democratic Front (UDF) enforced a state-wide shutdown on 6 April, accusing the police of assaulting a woman petitioner at their headquarters.
"In a democracy, everyone has the right to protest or air their views. But you have no right to restrict freedom of others to work and move freely," said former chief minister Oommen Chandy.
In 2013, while in office, the Congress leader was hurt on his forehead and chest when CPM workers pelted him with stones in Kannur, the hotbed of political violence and home to many CPM leaders, including Vijayan.
The mob was led by CPM district leaders. But he asked his party to refrain from calling a shutdown or protest.
His government’s legislation banning shutdowns affecting normal life, which has not seen the light of the day, says those blocking roads and closing shops and offices will attract six months in jail and a fine of Rs 10,000.
Those who block the staff and individuals visiting offices, hospitals, schools and hotels were also to face similar punishment. Flash strikes are completely banned, and those who want to use hartal as means of protest should inform the public at least three days in advance.
They should avoid issuing calls to shut hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and medical stores and distribution of milk, newspaper, fish, water, food and other essentials.
"The ruling parties, at the Centre and in the state, are competing against each other for enforcing local hartals every day," Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala, who piloted the Bill as the home minister, said.
In 2004, the Kerala High Court ruled that the state should take measures to ensure that normal life is not paralysed and that those who call hartals or strikes should not compel anyone to participate.
Rejecting the then Left government’s claim that people enjoyed shutdowns, the court had even asked it to call in the Army if necessary to see that normal life is not hit and its order is carried out in its real spirit.
Ten years later, in 2014, the high court intervened again and asked the state to bring in legislation to control the menace.
But both the government and the political parties, big and small, continued to ignore it and enforced paralysing shutdowns at will.
Kerala High Court was the first to ban bandhs in India way back in 1997, which was later upheld by the apex court and made applicable to the entire country.
But soon, politicians began calling hartals to enforce shutdowns. The name made no difference.
The high court again intervened and held the government responsible for the free movement of people, which now comes to the aid of individuals who seek legal solace, with little support from the authorities.
"The problem here is that there are people who love hartals so that they can stay home and enjoy their drinks," says historian MGS Narayanan.
"And during the hartals, the criminals, even those who do not have a party affiliation, engage in violence. They are waiting for an opportunity to turn violent."
Updated Date: Jun 12, 2017 19:08:01 IST