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Disrupting democracy

india Updated: Jun 04, 2007 23:50 IST

The Delhi bandh called by the Gujjar Mahasabha in solidarity with the community’s agitation in Rajasthan has once again brought out the inherently disruptive nature of such actions. Yes, taking to the streets may be within everyone’s democratic rights. But, blocking commuters from reaching their workplaces, preventing the movement of food and essential commodities, or destroying public and private property cannot be seen as a “right” by any group, whatever be its grievance. Such actions claim their origins in the civil disobedience tactics of the freedom movement. But that struggle, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was against a colonial master and emphasised non-violent action.

Bandhs and hartals have been claimed as a democratic right in independent India. But most have been accompanied by coercion, violence and massive dislocation of life. In October 2006, a bandh against the Mahajan Commission report on the Karnataka-Maharashtra boundary cost the state an estimated Rs 2,000 crore as the entire IT and BPO sector was compelled to shut shop. Such protests should be used judiciously and those organising them should be mindful of the fact that their freedom to protest cannot impinge on another person’s right to livelihood, life and property.

There are enough mechanisms within our democratic system to solve disputes. A bandh should only be a last resort when all else has failed but then too should be within the limits of civilised conduct. The governments of the day do not even bother to contest such actions and the efforts of the courts have been fitful. In July 1997, the Kerala High Court declared forced bandhs illegal, an action that was upheld by the Supreme Court in November 1997. But the very next year, Kerala was at it again when the ruling Left Democratic Front called for an allegedly ‘non-coercive’ hartal (strike) instead of a ‘coercive’ bandh (shut-down) against the NDA’s move to dismiss Lalu’s government in Bihar.

Many bandhs are now called by "action committees" that are difficult to penalise. Where the bandh culture can lead us is apparent in what is happening in Rajasthan and now Delhi where the allegedly democratic right of protest is widening the scope of a sectarian conflict. A country that stands on the edge of greatness is being engulfed in a maelstrom of violence all under the name of upholding the right of each citizen to make his demands heard.