The Bane of Hartals in India Today

Anyone residing in modern India is well aware of the term ‘hartal’ and the implications that it brings forward. From long desolate streets to public spaces marred with unruly mobs, hartal today is a symbol of anarchy, chaos and rampant destruction. This puts forth a question for the need of the existence of such an act in current society. Hartal, which is supposed to act as a voice of dissent, has traversed across boundaries and been transformed into a tool now employed by various political players and hooligans. It is now detested by much of India’s common populace, so much so that in many states there have been anti-hartal petitions filed in courts. It is, in fact, disheartening to watch a technique, created and mastered by the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi,  be put to such feckless use.

The term ‘hartal’ comes from Gujarati, signifying the closing down of shops and warehouses with the object of realising a demand. Mahatma Gandhi used this term to refer to the anti-British general strikes, effectively institutionalizing the term. The concept was used by Gandhi and later followed by his Congress counterparts to protest against the atrocities committed by British in a non-violent manner. In fact, initially, though hartals supported anarchy and recalcitrance, it was more of a peaceful affair in comparison to the ones we see today. Even thought they did halt and put public life into standstill, they at least had support of the Indian populace and genuinely contributed to a meaningful solution. We can thus differentiate the hartal that occurred then with the ones that occur now by noting that the former occurred due to the will of people and the latter occurs due to the will of vehement political parties and other organisations.

After Independence, strikes were a common occurrence, led by the labour unions and leftist parties for the the fulfilment of their demands. Such bandhs or hartals usually resulted in the ceasing a particular public utility, which hampered the daily public life until the demands of the strikers were met. Unfortunately, nowadays there are various issues that could spark a hartal- from petty issues to nationwide conflicts. Sadly, more often than not,  it is done for the sake of some vested interests and usually do not obtain a satisfactory conclusion. One can look at the bandhs due to petrol price hikes as an example of the same. There have been hundreds of hartals and bandhs due to the price hikes call forth by various political parties yet none of them have found a closure to the problem, making such strikes redundant.

Another factor that affects these strikes is the depth and uniformity. Strikes may find more resonance in some regions of India and perhaps be enforced with great adherence there whereas in some other regions we would not find even a trace of bandhs as the the streets would be teeming with life, oblivious to the happenings in the rest of the country. Usually, this situation arises due to various political parties and their call for action. It is shown that the states ruled by the ruling party have lesser chance of going to hartal when compared to the ones ruled by the opposition. For example Kerala and West Bengal are some states that have seen the most number of hartals in India. In these places, hartals are used by parties as a means of coercion whose excessive use causes the state’s expenses to increase multifolds every year.

In the present day, hartals, rather than acting as a voice for the people have turned into mouthpieces for certain political parties, employing anti-people actions, thereby hurting the very people they intend to serve. There is a huge loss for public property and life, which takes crores for reconstruction. The wreckage was usually so serious that laws had to be framed to make parties accountable for their actions. Though this has led to a decline of rash behaviour and actions by political parties, the term hartal has become a maleficient symbol in the eyes of Indians. In the current context, a hartal is a tool that hurts the government and the public. It either needs to be brought back to its more authentic and peaceful form or be disbanded entirely to make way for newer and innovative ways of protest where the interests of people are heard in a more civilised manner, causing minimum damage and procuring maximum results.

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