For Kerala, 2019 has begun with a ‘strike’ turning into a ‘Harthal’. Since 2018 closed on a score of 98 State-wide and local Harthals, it appears that Kerala sees no relief from this mode of protest
By Rejimon K
In Kerala, private and State-run buses, autorickshaws and taxis, are off the road. Trains are running slow as they were blocked by protestors at different points.
Shops and hotels have downed their shutters. Schools and colleges are not functioning. Government offices are deserted and private establishments are closed.
In effect, the 48-hour all-India strike – announced by all trade unions barring the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh – has become a Harthal in Kerala, which will continue till today bringing the entire State to a standstill.
The 48-hour strike is a call from a workers’ union; however with workers from all sectors joining the strike, the State has come to a standstill akin to what happens during a Harthal.
Thanks to frequent bandhs in Kerala, a full bench of the Kerala High Court banned ‘bandhs’ in 1997. The Supreme Court shot down the then Left government’s petition to get the order reversed.
Bandhs were then promptly renamed ‘Harthals’ to get around the law.
In 2000, the Kerala High Court ruled that the enforcement of a Harthal by “force, intimidation – physical or mental – and coercion” was unconstitutional. This, however, has not deterred Kerala’s politicians. And now, Harthals, which bring the state to standstill are observed repeatedly in Kerala.
Jeejo Nedumkallel, a member of an anti-Harthal group based in Kochi, the business capital of Kerala, said that every Harthal or strike steals one day each from the 30,000 days of a man’s average life span.
“This is a criminal activity. The most affected are business houses and daily wage earners,” Jeejo said.
According to Jeejo, most often, it’s the State which fails to defeat the Harthals. “The moment a Harthal is being announced by someone through a social media post, the State will stop operating the public transport system and postpone exams,” Jeejo said. And this is exactly what has transpired now, turning the 48-hour all-India trade union strike, into a State-wide Harthal.
2019 has begun thus; taking off from last year, which alone saw 98 local and State-wide Harthals being observed in Kerala.
According to V. Venugopal, president of the Cochin Chamber of Commerce, if a Harthal is considered ‘100% successful’, it takes away Rs 900 crore from the State’s overall GDP of Rs 7.76 lakh crore.
In 2018, there were nine State-wide Harthals which were ‘100% successful’ and it has ‘eaten up’ Rs 8,100 crore from the State’s GDP.
And during the end of 2018, there was a spike in the number of Harthals as the Sabarimala women’s entry issue created tension in the State.
From September 28, 2018, the day when the Supreme Court said that women cannot be denied entry to Sabarimala, there were five local and State-wide Harthals held in Kerala.
Following the disruption of life due to Harthals, people from all walks of life came out opposing the protest.
Some of the trading associations also declared that 2019 will be a ‘No-Harthal’ year. But on the third day of January itself, Kerala witnessed a State-wide Harthal observed by Right-wing parties, to protest against the entry of women into Sabarimala.
According to police statistics, properties worth Rs 1,04,20,850 crore was damaged during the Harthal on January 3 and till Monday afternoon, 2182 cases were registered and 6711 people arrested.
Interestingly, on Monday, while hearing a plea from traders on Harthal, the Kerala High Court passed a fresh order banning Harthals in the State which are held without a minimum notice of seven days.
The bench comprising Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice AK Jayasankaran Nambiar said that a ‘flash’ Harthal was unconstitutional, and that it needed to be announced at least seven days in advance. During those seven days, the bench added, any citizen can challenge the declaration of the Harthal.
If we break down the month-wise statistics of Harthals in 2018 (shared with The Lede by the ‘Say No to Harthal’ group), we see that of the 98 Harthals that took place, 77 were on political issues, mainly due to tensions between political parties.
In 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party called for 33 Harthals, the Congress-led United Democratic Front organised 27, while the ruling Left Democratic Front observed 16 Harthals.
In January 2018, there were eight Harthals. All were local, held in constituency, district or Panchayat levels. None were State-level Harthals. While six were based on political issues following tensions between political parties, two were observed by traders.
In February, there were 15 Harthals. All were local ones. However, of the 15, only four were non-political Harthals. One was held on a development issue, the second was held by traders in a Panchayat to protest against the excess fee charged by a market, the third one was observed by traders to mourn the death of well-known trader; and the fourth was held by traders to protest the suicide of a trader. The rest were political Harthals.
In March, there were three local Harthals, of which two were political and one was on water issue.
In April, there were 12 Harthals. Of them, three were State-wide and the rest were local. Only one Harthal, which was a State-wide one observed by trade unions to protest against central government’s anti-worker policies, can be seen as a pro-people one. The other Harthals were all political ones.
Interestingly, April witnessed the State’s first call for a Harthal on WhatsApp too. A Harthal was announced via WhatsApp to protest the death of the Kashmiri shepherd girl, Asifa. No one knew who had declared the Harthal; however, it was observed and rioters created chaos in the State.
In May, there were seven Harthals. All were local. Of the seven, one was to mourn the death of a football federation member, one was to protest the delay in disbursement of Ockhi relief and one was against the privatisation of Hindustan Newsprint Limited. The rest were all political Harthals.
In June, there were eight Harthals. All were local ones. One was to protest the attack on an elephant and one was for road development. The rest were political.
In July, there were 10 Harthals. Nine were local and one was State-wide. Of the 10, one was to protest the delay in disbursement of Ockhi relief and one was observed by a Christian group to protest against a court verdict. The State-wide Harthal was observed by the Ayyappa Karma Samithi to protest the Sabarimala women’s entry issue.
In August, there were four Harthals. All were local. One was to protest the negligence towards a coastal area. The rest three were political.
In September, there were five Harthals, including a State-wide one. Other than the State-wide one which was observed to protest against the fuel price hike, the rest were political.
In October, there were 10 Harthals. Only one was State-wide, which was to protest the Sabarimala women’s entry issue, and the rest were local. All Harthals in October were political, except the one which was observed to protest against an attack on a hotel.
In November, there were 10 Harthals. Only one Harthal was State-wide and it was again on the Sabarimala women’s entry issue. The rest were local Harthals. Among the 10 Harthals, eight were on political issues.
And finally, December witnessed six Harthals. Only one was a State-wide one. It was again on the Sabarimala women’s entry issue. Of the six, five were political.
Jeejo Nedumkallel told The Lede that the anti-Harthal group is garnering people’s support. “We will create awareness among the business people not to shut down; and also help Harthal victims fight legal cases,” Jeejo said.
However, it seems, efforts from people like Jeejo are of no effect. Today, even though trade unions have declared that those who wish to keep shops open can do so, in north and central Kerala, traders who opened shops were forced to down the shutters.