Two days of general strike in India was violence-ridden. Reportedly, it cost over Rs. 25,000 crore. The ‘Bharat Bandh’ of February 20-21, 2013 evoked a mixed response as has been happening with every other ‘Bandh’ by the political parties or the trade unions that in turn, are affiliated with this or that political party or ideology.
It can be said from the places where the ‘Bandh’ saw establishments shutting down, it was more from the fear of vandalism and not because of the camaraderie to join the brotherhood of ‘Bandh’ supporters.
It is always easier for the government employees to participate in such ‘Bandhs’ as they can easily go to avail an off day but most of the private sector entities, vulnerable to their balance-sheets and unfriendly towards employees, usually abstain from such practices unless and until there is a great call, something that the country has not seen post the call by Vinoba Bhave or the Jayaprakash Narayan Movement or the Lohia Wave, when there could be a complete shutdown on mere a call from a leader for a cause or a cause itself.
Also, the February 20-21 ‘Bharat Bandh’ had not any immediate precursor like some fuel price hike or introduction of a controversial policy like the Retail FDI. The country has already seen mixed-response ‘Bandhs’ over these issues.
The September 20, 2012 ‘Bharat Bandh’ to protest the fuel price hike and the Retail FDI decision evoked a mixed response, claims and counterclaims. The ‘Bharat Bandh’ called by the political opposition on May 31, 2012 to protest the steep hike in petrol prices was a similar story. The country saw similar developments during the July 5, 2012 ‘Bharat Bandh’ called again by the political opposition to protest the fuel price hike. Then there was yet again ‘Bharat Bandh’ called by the trade unions in February 2012.
So, there wasn’t any ‘newness’ in the factor to call the strike. But the general strike was called.
But was it really civil disobedience?
Mahatma Gandhi, who introduced (or invented) ‘Bandhs’ or ‘civil disobedience through complete halt of work’ in India had certainly different thoughts and commitment about ‘Badhs’ as means of protest.
The following conversation from the movie ‘Gandhi’ beautifully explains it. (Text sourced from the Internet.)
JINNAH’S DRAWING ROOM
PATEL: Well, I’ve called you here because I’ve had a chance to see the new legislation. It’s exactly what was rumored. Arrest without warrant. Automatic imprisonment for possession of materials considered seditious…Your writings are specifically listed.
KRIPALANI: So much for helping them in the Great War…
JINNAH: There is only one answer to that. Direct action – on a scale they can never handle!
NEHRU: I don’t think so. Terrorism would only justify their repression. And what kinds of leaders would it throw up? Are they likely to be the men we would want at the head of our country?
His stand has produced a little shock of surprise. Holding his tea, he turns to Gandhi with a little smile.
NEHRU: I’ve been catching up on my reading.
JINNAH: I too have read Mr. Gandhi’s writings, but I’d rather be ruled by an Indian terrorist than an English one. And I don’t want to submit to that kind of law.
PATEL: I must say, Panditji, it seems to me it’s gone beyond remedies like passive resistance.
GANDHI: If I may – I, for one, have never advocated passive anything. I am with Mr. Jinnah. We must never submit to such laws – ever. And I think our resistance must be active and provocative. I want to embarrass all those who wish to treat us as slaves. All of them.
He holds their gaze, then turns to the immobile servant and with a little smile, takes the tray from him and places it on the table next to him. It makes them all aware that the servant, standing there like an insensate ornament, has been treated like a “thing,” a slave. As it sinks in, Gandhi pours some tea then looks up at them with a pleading warmth – first to Jinnah.
GANDHI: Forgive my stupid illustration. But I want to change their minds – not kill them for weaknesses we all possess.
AZAD: And what “resistance” would you offer?
GANDHI: The law is due to take effect from April sixth. I want to call on the nation to make that a day of prayer and fasting.
“Prayer and fasting”? They are not overwhelmed.
JINNAH: You mean a general strike?
GANDHI: I mean a day of prayer and fasting. But of course no work could be done – no buses, no trains, no factories, no administration. The country would stop.
Patel is the first to recognize the implications.
PATEL: My God, it would terrify them . . .
AZAD: Three hundred fifty million people at prayer. Even the English newspapers would have to report that. And explain why.
KRIPALANI: But could we get people to do it?
NEHRU: Champaran stirred the whole country. (To Gandhi) They are calling you Mahatma – the Great Soul.
GANDHI: Fortunately such news comes very slowly where I live.
NEHRU: I think if we all worked to publicize it . . . all of the Congress . . . every avenue we know.
Now that is the concept of ‘Bandh’ as the Mahatma had proposed and yes, it was not at all a passive act. It terrified the British as Sardar Patel had reacted on Mahatma’s proposal.
It was beginning of Mahatma’s experiments with civil disobedience as the tool to reorient and direct the Indian freedom struggle that ultimately led the country to the Independence.
It is not that the civil disobedience movements called by the Mahatma didn’t have any violent incidents. It is about how the Mahatma reacted on it. It is about the countrywide support on Mahatma’s call.
The ‘Bandhs’ in India of today are in stark contrast to what a ‘civil disobedience’ movement ought to be (and certainly, the Mahatma’s way is the most powerful one).
A friend whose office was in Noida, called me up on the first day of the ‘Bandh’. Panicked, he informed me the glass façade of his office was broken, many cars in the parking lot were damaged and the office furniture was thrown out and some of it burnt. The ‘Bandh’ guys had threatened to come back again if the office was not closed to support the general strike.
As usual, the call to the police for help proved to be a futile exercise. Instead of registering the complaint and coming for help, the policeman on the phone said the force was helpless as there were so many cases of violence and advised to close down the office.
Many of the corporate honchos and the trading class businessmen, who had decided to remain open on the days of the general strike, closed down their operations on the day-2 of the ‘Bharat Bandh’. My friend’s office was one among them. Incidentally, it was not due to the fear of harm to the employees but to the property that drove them to day-2 shut down.
The two-day ‘Bharat Bandh’ evoked a mixed response as reported. It was successful in states like Kerala or Tripura where the Left parties have strong presence (most of the trade unions follow the Left ideology). In West Bengal, the plains saw a complete ‘Bandh’ while the hills remained open.
Elsewhere, it was varying in terms of success. Banks didn’t function at all as the strike was supported by the unions of the bank employees. Many state transport unions as well as the auto unions of Delhi and Mumbai had also called strikes or had decided to participate in the ‘Bharat Bandh’. Government offices and other establishments saw less attendance due to the poor public transportation.
Had it been this (peaceful protests where people who participated had volunteered for the ‘Bandh’), this could have been indeed called a success.
But the ‘Bandh’ saw many incidents of violence, arson, loot and damage to property. Factories were attacked. People not conforming to the idea of the ‘Bandh’ met with bloody treatment. In West Bengal, the ruling TMC party workers chopped off the ear of a panchayat worker who did not come to the office on day-1 of the ‘Bandh’.
To crown the success in their ‘terms’ the Left parties warned of a bigger general strike if the demands were not met immediately.
It was akin to endorse the violence during the ‘Bandh’. It was not what the Mahatma had proposed.
A case of ‘Chauri Chaura’ violence hurt the Mahatma so much that he called off the hugely popular and successful Non-cooperation movement of 1922 and went on to observe a three-week fast to repent for the violence that killed 22 policemen. The Mahatma thus set an epoch-making example giving India totally successful and absolutely peaceful non-violence civil protests or Satyagrahas including the Salt Satyagraha and the Quit India Movement that pushed the British to leave India.
It was only the power of the Mahatma’s Satyagraha that he conveyed through his fasts that could end the violence erupted in the aftermath of the India-Pakistan partition in 1947.
That was the civil disobedience practiced by the Mahatma. The current culture of ‘Bandhs’ is contrary to that. Gandhiji was a call. Gandhiji had become a cause. Gandhiji is still the call the country needs to take. Gandhiji is still the cause the country needs to follow.
Yes, civil disobedience is a way to protest the government apathy, to oppose the anti-people policies.
Yes, it has to be active and provocative like the Mahatma said during the meeting in Jinnah’s house.
But forcing people to protest the government apathy is not civil disobedience. It will only promote fear and hence an atmosphere of distrust that will ultimately kill the cause, even if it was the most pressing need of the time.
And that is already happening with ‘Bandhs’ of India. Though, the ‘Bandhs’ evoke mixed response based on the political affiliation and area-wise political influence, these are now the distorted tools of protest disrupting the normal course of life without producing any desirable result.
The country has not seen any response by any of the governments, from states or the union, on the demands of the ‘Bandh’ supporters.
Because a violence-ridden ‘Bandh’ lacks the moral sanctity to press, even for the rightful demands!
It is well known by now that when the ‘Bandhs’ are called by the political parties or when the election time is not near, the ruling political group doesn’t care much about it.
The ‘Bharat Bandh’ on May 31, 2012 didn’t see the prime minister appealing the concerned parties to call-off the ‘Bandh’. Similar was the story during the July 5, 2012 ‘Bharat Bandh’. The prime minister didn’t make any appeal even during the September 20, 2012 ‘Bharat Bandh’.
Then, elections were still pretty far away.
During this ‘Bharat Bandh’, it was the time, to seriously think about the elections which are just some quarters away. So, even if there was not any immediate spark, the government was looking at it with watchful eyes.
Also, the call this time was not by the mainstream political opposition. Involvement of the central trade unions as well as the banking and transportation unions, which represent a considerable segment of the population, was enough to make the government feel nervous in case the ‘Bandh’ got a widespread support.
And so, we had, our comfortably-numb prime minister appealing the trade unions to call-off the strike.
But the violence during the ‘Bandh’ gave the government the necessary counter-points to hit back and questioning the authority and morality of the ‘Bandh’, two factors a must for any civil disobedience movement – authority of non-violence and morality of rightfulness – as the Mahatma has shown the way – as we saw in the massive public protests during the anti-corruption movement called by Anna Hazare or the leaderless massive but peaceful civil protests against the Delhi gangrape of December 16, 2012.
These movements were active and provocative enough to awaken millions and bring an arrogant government to the talking table. Whatever has been the outcome; there were moments when millions felt it was their duty to be the part of the protests to raise the voice against the System and the systemic corruption.
This ‘Bharat Bandh’ or to say any other in the recent past, has been an utter failure on being active and provocative to motivate and mobilize masses for a cause because they were not peaceful and lacked in moral authority.
©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/