Bharat Bandh: In My Opinion

A bandh is a Hindi term which means ‘closure’ or ‘closing’. As a political tool, it’s a form of protest that involves striking from work and shutting down places of business for the duration of the bandh. It can last from a couple of hours to, in case of highly popular bandhs, a week. Bandhs gained popularity in India in the sixties as a form of spontaneous protest against the pressing issues of the day. As the years progressed, they came to be used increasingly by political parties to draw attention to various issues.

The 5th July, 2010 bandh was nation-wide, christened Bharat Bandh. A 12 hour strike was called by the BJP (at the fore front of the NDA) and the Left Parties in protest of fuel-price hikes. Daily life was thrown out of routine with public transport getting halted, shutting down of schools and colleges in the capital and delays in air and rail traffic.

The idea for a Bandh was proposed by JDU chief Sharad Yadav on 26th June.

The whole ball was set into motion on 25th June after the de-regulation of fuel prices was announced by the UPA government which led to an increase of 3.5 rupees per litre of petrol. De-regulation would also mean that the door was open for future price increase. LPG used for cooking would also cost 35 rupees more per cylinder. According to the Oil Secretary S.Sundareshan, gasoline deregulation would likely add 190 rupees a month to the average fuel bill for cars and 30 to 35 rupees a month for two-wheelers.

What the government failed to mention is how common people who do not own, or make use of private transport will be affected. Students like us who take buses and auto rickshaws to college, would be fleeced everyday because of the increase in fuel prices. Daily expenditure is expected to rise by at least rupees 20, if not more. It was only recently that price hike for buses was rolled out in the Capital.

In response to nation-wide protests and the intention to call a Bharat Bandh, the Ministry of Petroleum took out advertisements in newspapers. The ads said that Bharat Bandh was not a solution and that the government would have to bear a financial burden of Rs. 53,000 crore even after this price increase. Volatility in international markets was bound to affect domestic oil prices, it said. This is a fact. However, it’s also a fact that average citizens do not know about the economics of international markets. We have no choice but to take the government at its word.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), India’s largest and oldest business organisation has urged the government to figure out some way — perhaps through tax policy — to help protect the country from spikes in global oil prices.

On Monday July 7, it was reported in the Times of India that figures of losses caused by the Bharat Bandh might not be accurate. Initially, FICCI had announced economic losses of Rs. 13,000 crores. However, Assocham said the losses were Rs. 10,000 crores and CII pegged them at Rs. 3,000 crores. FICCI estimate follows the assumption that the bandh was absolutely effective, shutting down all economic activity in India for a day.

Though it is impossible to calculate the losses with 100% accuracy, it’s the opinion of JNU Economist Prof. CP Chandrasekhar that the actual figures may even be less than the CII estimate.

The chain of events that started unfolding on 25th July has divided people in terms of opinion. Areas where Congress is in power generally stayed away from the Bandh, giving it a lukewarm response. Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala and West Bengal participated fully in the strike. Assam, Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Delhi experienced a partial bandh.

It’s not just state lines that divide people’s opinion but also ideology. Are Bandhs populist or really necessary? Although the Supreme Court of India tried to ban Bandhs in 1998, they are still organized by individuals and political parties. I feel that, taking various factors into consideration, bandhs are not a bad idea. They are an indicator of the political climate in a country and raise awareness among the masses about sensitive issues. During a bandh, opinion leaders from both sides of the spectrum discuss pertinent concepts in the mass media. If conducted peacefully, a bandh is a good thing. India was built on the concept of peaceful protest, best exemplified by the great Mahatma and his Civil Disobedience and Non-Cooperation Movements. The right to strike and stage protests goes back to the French Revolution and the concept of a Government for the people, by the people and to the people. Ultimately, financial losses caused by protests have to be borne by the public itself. If the mass of national sentiment does not have a problem in going without a day’s salary in order to look forward to a long term gain, then obstacles should not be put in their way. Of course, institutions like Hospitals and Police Stations are exceptions to the rule. Civilized society cannot function without them.

To give an example from the past, Reservation for OBCs in educational institutes saw a furore in many sections of society, including the youth not less than two years ago. Dharnas were staged and processions were carried out, not all of them peaceful.  In my opinion, the viability of Bandhs and other forms of protest would get a great boost with some changes in legislation. If a Bill is vehemently opposed by the people of India it should be passed on to a Committee comprising of intellectuals, economists and other persons of interest including private citizens. Taking the recommendations of said Committee into consideration, there should be a re-vote.

A Bandh, if it mobilizes people to just action and a true democracy, is about more than compliance and an unquestioning acceptance. Even if the root cause for protest is not rolled back, the principle of the matter should be held up. Dissenting voices should never be drowned out in the cacophony of the majority.

Akanksha Sharma

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