Legislation will formalise harthals

Harthal at ChalaiThe Government is proposing a legislation to bring restriction on organisation of harthals. However, it could very well end up being a piece of legislation granting political parties and other organisations a right to call for harthal. It is proposed that the organisers of harthals should announce it three days in advance.

The government could ban it if it is convinced that there would be the possibility of violence. Forced closure of shops and blocking of movements of people will attract imprisonment of up to six months or a fine of Rs. 10000 or both.

Harthal was a form of direct action devised by Gandhiji to protest against the colonialists and that too against acts like the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. The Congress and its leaders, at that time, were totally committed to non-violence. Only a non-violent organization has the right to call harthal (none of today’s political parties could be classified as one). It is a non-violent mode of protest.

Nobody joins harthals willingly these days. Harthal, called by even minor political parties, is a ‘success’ because there is a threat of violence behind it. So, provisions in the proposed legislation such as one empowering government to ban harthals, if it is convinced that there would be violence, ignores the fact that harthal is inherently violent today. Such a provision will only be a political tool in the hands of successive governments. (Will a ruling party/front in the State ever be ‘convinced’ that there would be violence if it is a harthal against the policies of a Central government under a different party/front?)

So, action should be mandated against any political leader who makes a call for a harthal since threat of violence is inherent in such a call. If some people locally and spontaneously observe a harthal on their own free will over a murder or something like that, let it be countenanced. That is, harthal as such need not be banned, but making a call for harthal through mass media, public address systems and the like should be banned.

This automatically rules out proposals like announcement of harthals three days in advance. Even if such announcements are made, the hardship of people will only be diminished and not eliminated. Even for a journey to Bangalore these days by bus, one has to book a week in advance. (Train/air reservations are made months in advance). Harthal is not a suitable mode of protest in cities that work 24×7. The loss of lives, property and production caused by harthals is significant and will not be mitigated by a notice.

Forced closure of shops and forced restriction on movement of people are actually violation of fundamental rights. There are already provisions in the IPC and other laws to check such acts. Bringing fresh laws is not answer to failure of the government to enforce existing laws. In fact, there is a need to prune the statute book; but recommendations made by law reforms committee and commission are gathering dust.

The Supreme Court and the High Court, which are empowered to enforce fundamental rights even in the absence of laws, have already banned bandhs. The problem now is that the police are not taking cognizance of bandhs masquerading as harthals.

If at all a new law is to be enacted, it should be to define harthal/bandh and ban calling of harthals by political parties and other organisations with its inherent threat of violence. Fine of Rs. 10000 is insufficient as the damage caused by harthals is much more. Victims should be able to claim compensation separately for death, injury and loss of property. Express provisions should be included for this purpose. Provision should also be there for traders to claim compensation against those forcing closure of shops by violent means.

The Government should not formalise a ‘right to call harthals’ by providing for a notice procedure.