Wednesday, September 15, 2010

India’s Protests Are Cherished and Maligned

CALCUTTA — This kaleidoscopic city of 15 million people stopped dead last Tuesday. Flights were canceled at the airport. The streets, ordinarily throbbing with traffic and humanity, were almost empty. And thousands of shopkeepers like Wazeed Khan shuttered their stores in observance of a familiar Indian ritual — the shutdown strike.

The shutdown was called by trade unions to protest inflation and privatization, but these sorts of strikes have become so frequent that the specifics hardly mattered to many Indians has come to regard them as little more than a nuisance, if a costly one.

Few democratic rights are more cherished in India, or considered more essential as a release valve for societal pressures, than the right to protest. India won independence from Britain on the strength of the civil disobedience campaigns led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, and has taken great pride in how this peaceful freedom movement created the world’s largest democracy.

But as India’s clamorous politics have steadily fragmented with a proliferation of political parties, the shutdown strike, known as a bandh, has increasingly become an object of public scorn and disillusionment. Political parties, competing in a crowded political field, often use bandhs to flex their muscles or carve out turf by proving they can shut down a city or even the whole country.

Today, many Indians see these bandhs as symbols of dysfunction rather than of political vitality. Unlike other forms of protest, the bandh can inflict huge economic losses, often to the common working person in whose name such strikes are called.

No corner of the country is spared. Strikes, large and small, are conducted across India’s social spectrum, from Maoist insurgents in the countryside to bug sprayers in New Delhi. At one of New Delhi’s most prestigious universities, professors have disrupted classes for weeks to protest plans to shift to a semester system.

This month, in the state of Rajasthan, doctors at government hospitals, angry about an episode with the local police, stopped treating patients; they called off the strike last week after national criticism, and the deaths of some patients.

But it is the political parties that can paralyze a major city, or even the entire nation. In February in the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, a right wing party, the Shiv Sena, called a bandh to block the opening of a movie, a move interpreted as a challenge to the state’s Congress Party government. Congress leaders, their political prestige as well as civic order on the line, dispatched thousands of riot police officers at great public cost to ensure the movie could be shown.
In July, opposition parties, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., staged a nationwide bandh to protest fuel price increases by the government. Opposition leaders, having effectively shut down much of the country, proclaimed victory, even as critics saw the strike as a politically motivated effort by the B.J.P. to demonstrate its national relevance. Business groups estimated that the economy suffered roughly $650 million in losses, with much of the burden falling on the low-income wage earners most vulnerable to inflation.

Beyond strikes, the same shutdown ethos has also spilled into the Indian Parliament, where disruptions and opposition walkouts forced repeated adjournments in the recently completed session. Meira Kumar, the speaker of Parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, warned that “the trend of disrupting the proceedings days on end is alarming, and if not checked, will ultimately lead to unforeseen consequences.”
India’s Supreme Court has issued rulings against bandhs and, in certain cases, has fined political parties for conducting them. Yet the bandhs continue. Critics do not argue that India needs to curb protest, and such a step seems unlikely, given the central place of free speech and dissent in India’s democracy.

India boasts its own protest vocabulary: there is the sit-down strike (sometimes a hunger strike) known as the dharna; the protest march, or virodh pradarshan; the blockade of a government or political office, known as the gherao; and many others. But the bandhs, which call for the closing of businesses and government offices, and for a public boycott of work, cause the most disruption and seem to have lost the most public favor.

No place is subjected to more strikes than the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, whose capital is Calcutta, also known as Kolkata. West Bengal is the heartland of leftist politics in India, and bandhs have been a favored tool for decades among the different parties jockeying for power.

Moreover, West Bengal has two continuing insurrections — one by the Maoists, the other a statehood movement in the Gorkha region — each of which spawn regular bandhs blocking roads or shutting down businesses.

In Calcutta, the trade union bandh seemed to induce a citywide nap. Some people said they had little choice but to obey the bandh because the unions are controlled by the governing Left Front political parties and defying the strike call could bring harassment from goons or the police. In Millennium City, the city’s high-tech office region, employees in some companies slept overnight inside their buildings because night-shift bus services were canceled. Outside the Reserve Bank of India, a handful of union members of the All-India Reserve Bank Employees Association sat lazily on the steps until jumping up at the sight of a reporter to chant slogans against globalization and privatization.

But union leaders, sensing public displeasure, had lifted the bandh in certain Muslim neighborhoods, in recognition of the holy month of Ramadan.

At the headquarters of the Center of Indian Trade Unions, which is tightly aligned with local Communists, Kali Ghosh, the union secretary, knew the criticisms of bandhs, but said they were the most effective way to counter “anti-people” policies by the national government.
International Herald Tribune

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