Op-Ed: Whose Bandh Is It Anyway?

The problem with bandhs, no matter which party organizes them, is that once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no way it can be put back. The party leadership may lay down the ‘rules of the game’ but there is no way it can force cadres to play by those rules. And that is precisely what happened during the Bharat Bandh organized by the Congress in protest against the steep rise in petroleum prices on Monday. The bandh saw the contrasting spectacles of one section presenting roses and chocolates to commuters and requesting them with folded hands to cooperate in making the bandh successful in true Gandhigiri style while another went about merrily smashing car windshields and two-wheelers, assaulting commuters and raining abuses on them. [This columnist experienced both kinds of bandh enforcement on Monday.]

The advantage that political parties have is to flatly deny that their workers are involved in case there is violence during the bandh, as the Congress has done in the case. The stock explanation of every party in such cases is that the vandals are ‘anti-socials’ or ‘workers of the other party’ out to discredit it. But one wonders whether the party organizing the bandh has no responsibility to ensure that the bandh is peaceful. Odisha Congress did well to set up a ‘control room’ where people facing hooliganism could lodge their complaint and promise to act against those responsible. But that did prevent the people’s miseries. PCC President Niranjan Patnaik’s promise to exempt emergency services was violated in spirit, if not in letter, when an old woman suffering from breathlessness and in immediate need of medical attention, was prevented from being taken to hospital by his son by Congress workers in Bhubaneswar. The son’s desperate pleas citing Patnaik’s promise fell on deaf ears. And this was certainly not the only case, either in Bhubaneswar or in the rest of the state, where the people faced difficulties – or had to contend with matters of life and death.

After every bandh, the party organizing it claims that the bandh was ‘total’ and received the ‘spontaneous’ support of the people. Try telling that to those who face the nightmare of bandhs. I have no doubt the party leader would receive a ‘spontaneous’ smack on the face! No matter how worthy the cause – and petroleum price hike is certainly a worthy cause – I dare say no one supports a bandh on the issue. Leaders of the earlier generation came up with innovative ways to lodge their protest: Atal Bihari Vajpayee coming to Parliament on a bullock cart or Biju Patnaik cycling his way to the secretariat to protest fuel price hike. Why can’t present day political parties and leaders come up with something as innovative? I wonder. They will make their political brownie points without inconveniencing the people at large – and earn their lasting gratitude in the process.

In any case, does a bandh achieve anything? Are petroleum prices set to come down as a result of today’s bandh? [Rubbing it in, oil marketing companies (OMCs) hiked prices even on bandh day today!] Bandhs, when called, should be a means to a stated end and not an end in itself. As we have seen in the past, bandhs are invariably called not to achieve the purpose for which they are called in the first place but as a show of strength. And this one was no different. The last thing the Congress – and the 20 parties that supported the bandh – expected out of today’s bandh was that a worried Modi government would rack ts brains to find a way to cut fuel prices. It was more an exercise in forging Opposition unity ahead of the next general elections.

Political parties have justified bandhs in the name of the right to protest in a democracy. But what about the rights of free movement of the people and their freedom to go about their business without dreading the prospect of being waylaid by hooligans masquerading as workers of a political party?

It is time for political parties to start thinking about these questions.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).