SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Shut-down procedures

A look at the psychology behind the Indian way of protest.

ANIL DHARKER

... a striking contrast between the West and India.

... a striking contrast between the West and India.  

ON Thursday, September 26, Gujarat and most of Maharashtra were brought to a standstill. Many other parts of the country were affected too because there seemed to be general agreement between most political parties that a bandh was required.

Certainly some form of protest against the appalling massacre at Akshardham Temple was necessary. There was also a need to show solidarity with the victims and survivors of the attack. "We are with you," all of us wanted to say. "And all of us are against terrorism." Not many people in India will dispute that. What many will dispute is whether a bandh is the only way we have to register our feelings.

Bandhs are industrial strikes on a large scale. Strikes are a potent weapon in the hands of unionised workers; the threat of loss of production is pretty scary to owners and managers. But even here, it is meant to be used as the last resort, when all avenues of negotiations have been tried and found wanting. When strikes become unilateral and short-circuit the process, it's the beginning of the end. Either for that industry or for the union.

In West Bengal, strikes became not only arbitrary; they became common. To add variety, new forms of coercion, like gheraos, were invented. All of this had the tacit, or often the overt, backing of the Marxist government. We know the result: industry fled Bengal. The same situation was replicated in Maharashtra when Datta Samant's unions were dominant and industry got out of Maharashtra and moved into Gujarat.

That's what happens with strikes. So what happens with bandhs? Bandhs close entire cities and states and, occasionally, even the country. So where do the owners of these cities and states and this country — which means us, the citizens — go? Our offices, our shops, our industries, our businesses, our trades are all forcibly closed. So where do we move them to? Who closes them? Political parties. Not us. Who suffers a loss? We do. Not political parties. Who corners the glory for a "successful" bandh? Political parties. Not us.

There is an obvious imbalance here. A bandh is called on our behalf, at our expense by them. And it's always done so without consultations; and it is always done by coercion. You don't need to be a genius to see that this is anti-democratic. Yet, oddly enough, all political parties, without exception, justify bandhs in the name of democracy.

As it happens, bandhs are also anti-national. It's not clear how people arrive at these figures, but the All India Association of Industries has given us some: the bandh cost Mumbai, India's premier industrial city, Rs. 100 crores. It cost Maharashtra state Rs. 200 crores. It cost the nation Rs. 1,000 crores.

Even if these are ball-park figures (estimated on man hours lost, production halted and the like), they should give us pause. The real figures, for all we know, may be even higher. Even where it is possible to make-up lost production by an increase in working shifts, overtime costs will push up per unit cost without any change in the selling price; an obvious reduction in margins. In competitive areas, this can translate into very large losses.

But owners, share-holders and the middle-class are cushioned somewhat by various factors, including their higher earning power. But what about the daily wage earner? For him (or her), there is no compensation and no making up. A day's earnings gone is a day's earnings gone forever. Since most of them make a marginal living any way, frequent loses of this kind are disastrous. Fat cat politicians, in the meantime, get fatter because their avenues of earning are never shut by either bandhs or strikes.

If our politicians weren't so very busy stuffing their mouths, tummies, dhotis, kurtas, lengas, etc with their ill-gotten gains, may be they would reflect on the anti-national, anti-democratic, anti-people, anti-poor nature of bandhs and think of alternative ways of protest.

Perhaps — and they would love this — they should undertake a study tour of the West to see how political parties there organise these things. They could start with New York, a dream place for a junket. They could ask about 9/11. America's biggest national calamity since Pearl Harbour. How did Americans record their protest against their most traumatic moment? Not by organising a bandh, that's for sure. In fact, even on September 11, 2001, when all the mayhem was actually taking place, not one office was closed (except, of course, those evacuated in the vicinity of the World Trade Center complex). Even this year on the first anniversary of the event, there were no closures: offices gave their staff 15 minutes off to stand, either in silence, or in a candle light vigil, or some similar form of expression of grief and solidarity. Even more remarkably, many office goers and industrial workers had worked extra hours and donated their overtime earnings to raise a fund for the victims.

But will our fat cat politicians, having wined and dined during the junket, have learned anything at all? Not likely, since they are not used to listening to any voices but their own. If they weren't so deaf, they would have heard a remarkable statement from our country. In fact, from Gujarat. From the heart of the Akshardham Temple: the head of the Swaminarayan Sanstha made it clear that his sect was opposed to the bandh. If you must have a bandh, he said, make it last only a little while. That will reduce the economic loss to the nation. But, then, he is merely a spiritual head. What can he possibly know about politics?

Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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