Bundhs now symbolise dysfunction, not political vitality

Bundhs now symbolise dysfunction, not political vitality

Kolkata, this kaleidoscopic city of 15 million people stopped dead last Tuesday. Flights were cancelled 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 privatisation, but these sort of strikes have become so frequent that the specifics hardly mattered to Khan, who like many Indians have come to regard them as little more than a nuisance, if a costly one.

“This never helps the people,” Khan said. “Never. We are losing business. And this happens frequently. Some months it happens several times.”

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 Gandhi, and it has taken great pride in how this peaceful freedom movement created the world’s largest democracy.

But as India’s clamourous politics have steadily fragmented with a proliferation of political parties, the shutdown strike, known as a bundh, has increasingly become an object of public scorn and disillusionment. Political parties, competing in a crowded political field, often use bundhs 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 bundhs as symbols of dysfunction rather than of political vitality. Unlike other forms of protest, the bundh can inflict huge economic losses, often to the common working person in whose name such strikes are called.
“The bundh is no longer a symbol of the people’s angst,” wrote Suhel Seth on the morning after the Kolkata strike in a front-page column in ‘The Telegraph’, the city’s leading newspaper. “It no longer represents the frustrations of the governed. Instead, it is a symbol of our weakening polity.”

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.

But the political parties are what can paralyse a major city, or even the entire nation. In February in the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, the Shiv Sena, called a bundh 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 that the movie could be shown.

In July, opposition parties, led by the BJP, staged a nationwide bundh 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 BJP to demonstrate its national relevance. Business groups estimated that the economy suffered roughly Rs 1,000 crore 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 Lok Sabha speaker, warned that “the trend of disrupting the proceedings days on end is alarming, and if not checked, will ultimately lead to unforeseen consequences.”

An offence
The supreme court has issued rulings against bundhs and, in certain cases, has fined political parties for conducting them. Yet bundhs 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 bundhs, which call for the closing of businesses and government offices and for a public boycott of work, cause the most disruption and seemed to have lost the most public favour.

“Frankly, we don’t need any bundhs,” said Tarun Das, a prominent business leader who regularly consults with the government. “They disrupt economic life. There has to be another way of protest that doesn’t cost so much.”
No place is subjected to more strikes than West Bengal — the heartland of leftist politics in India, and bundhs have been a favoured tool for decades among parties jockeying for power.

Moreover, West Bengal has two continuing insurrections – one by the Maoists, the other a statehood movement in the Gorkha region — with each spawning regular bundhs blocking roads or shutting down businesses.

In Kolkata, the trade union bundh seemed to induce a citywide nap. Some people said they had little choice but to obey the bundh because the unions are controlled by the governing Left Front political parties and defying the strike call could bring harassment from goons or police. In Millennium City, Kolkata’s high-tech office region, employees in some companies slept overnight inside their buildings because night-shift bus services were cancelled. Outside the Reserve Bank of India, a handful of union members of the All-India RBI employees association sat lazily on the steps until jumping up at the sight of a reporter to chant slogans against globalisation and privatisation.
“This is our success,” said Sudipta Saha Ray, the local union secretary, motioning to the empty streets. “Is this not justification that our strike was right?”

But union leaders, sensing public displeasure, had lifted the bundh in certain Muslim neighbourhoods, in recognition of the holy month of Ramzan. At the headquarters of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, which is tightly aligned with local communists, Kali Ghosh, the union secretary, knew the criticisms of bundhs, but said they were the most effective way to counter ‘anti-people’ policies by the national government.

“This is the only democratic means,” Ghosh said. “Otherwise, what would happen? We would have to go and beat the employees? Is that desirable? This is the most peaceful, organised, democratic form of protest.”

Yet in interviews around the city, public enthusiasm was scarce.
Janardan Mandan, 56, dripped with sweat from exercising in a city park. He had closed his garment factory for the day — the 10th workday lost this year to bundhs, he said. “Too much,” he said. “This is peak season for us.”
Not far away, Tapas Das, an employee of a public sector insurance company, laughed when asked if the public supported the strike.

“In Kolkata, with any problem, the parties call a bundh,” he said. “The bundhs are only to show their power. And by doing their bundhs, they are further away from the common people. The common people do not like these things.”
The New York Times

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