Monday 24 April 2017 News Updated at 09:04 AM IST
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Debates continue over right to protest - Deccan Herald
Debates continue over right to protest
R Krishnakumar, Thiruvananthapuram, DH News Service
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Volunteers of the Say No To Hartal campaign help a woman during a hartal in Kerala.
The movement has picked up pace over the years

Standard news on television channels on hartal days in Kerala is people stranded at railway and bus stations, unable to reach destinations because of the shutdown and at times, even unaware of what the hartal is about.

For many years, state-run buses and the police have been operating special services for passengers during hartal. But beyond the scope of providing transport to the affected public, it’s a Kochi-based civic campaign that promises to make a start in efforts against forced shutdowns in the state.

Seven years since its formation, the Say No To Hartal campaign may still not be a strong deterrent to political parties from making hartal calls, most of them at short notice. The campaign, however, has continued to mobilise support against hartals and with volunteers in different parts of the state, is providing alternative transport options for people stuck in the shutdown.

It was in November 2015 that the then home minister Ramesh Chennithala initiated what appeared to be a decisive step toward the proposed Kerala Hartal Control Act, legislation aimed at restricting the shutdowns. A year later, his party - the Congress - held a hartal in Thiruvananthapuram in connection with a fee hike in self-financing medical colleges. Something, of course, had happened in between - the Congress was in opposition.

Chennithala said the hartal was "unavoidable”, even as supporters of the shutdown were damaging public property. The Left parties have often been identified with these shutdowns that disrupt life; with the BJP rising in relevance and taking more assertive political positions, there could be no corner of comfort for those who believe that protests for public causes should not involve coercion or cause distress to the same public.

"The biggest hurdle here is the fear factor that comes with these shutdowns. The campaign has been a sustained effort to make people overcome it but ultimately, these efforts have to be backed by strong legislation. The proposed act to regulate hartals was a positive step but it hasn’t taken off,” says Raju P Nair, founder of the Say No To Hartal campaign. Nair, himself a Congress activist, acknowledges that political compulsions could undermine good intentions and says he has been critical of "hypocritical” stands taken on the issue by leaders of his own party.

"There has also been a tendency among the public to succumb to presumed fears over possibilities of violence or tension during the hartal. By declaring holidays to institutions or cancelling examinations scheduled for the day, we are only feeding these fears,” says Nair.

In July 2010, Nair and some of his friends started the anti-hartal campaign in response to two hartals within a short period - one in Kerala and another across the country - called in connection with the same issue, a hike in fuel prices.

The campaign, launched by eminent jurist late V R Krishna Iyer, had the activists take cars out on Kochi’s roads in a show of dissent, a first of sorts in a state known to recline indoors on hartal days. The movement has picked pace over the years and Nair points out that the number of state-level hartals has come down from 10 or more a year to about two or three. "The problem, however, is that there are a lot more district-level hartals being called now in response to local issues. We are now spreading out to more districts and over the next couple of months, will be holding district-level conventions,” says Nair.

The campaign now has over 4,000 registered volunteers, including students, businessmen and doctors. When a hartal is called, the volunteers go active on social media platforms and plan for the day, rolling out vehicles to ensure that the impact on public is minimal. In Ernakulam, on any given hartal day, the group transfers over 1,000 passengers from two railway stations to their destinations. The volunteers come in with their own vehicles, with an assurance from the campaign’s promoters of compensation on any possible damage.

The Kerala High Court had, in July 1997, declared forced bandhs as illegal; the HC order was later upheld by the Supreme Court. A bandh, in legal terms, may involve use of force on others to back the shutdown while a hartal is held with voluntary public support. Political parties across the spectrum have contended that hartals or strikes in any form are expressions of dissent and the right to hold them should not be denied.

"Though there have been incidents on hartal days, it’s dangerous to look at these shutdowns solely on the basis of what they return as immediate results. Curbs on such protests also mean moving closer to an apolitical, even apathetic society,” says Sreenath Raghavan, a state government employee.

The shutdowns, however, directly violate basic human rights and indirectly impact many lives, points out Nair. "The hartal supporters make cursory exemptions for hospital services. But there are thousands who travel to towns for treatment for terminal and other serious ailments; they can’t afford to hire private vehicles to the hospitals,” he says.

According to conservative estimates, the state suffers a loss of over Rs 900 crore on a hartal day. Nair believes that the way forward is in addressing the shutdowns as an issue of public interest and getting the courts to treat them as one, leaving no room for manipulations based on technicalities. "The Supreme Court now says hartals are not unconstitutional. There are problems due to a lack of clarity in legal terms but we have to keep the fight alive,” he says.