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Above: United Trade Union Congress activists on a strike in Thiruvananthapuram /Photo: UNI

By asking the state youth Congress chief to cough up the cost of the damage suffered by the public on account of a recent bandh, the Kerala High Court has sent a strong message

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

It was way back in 1997 that the Kerala High Court, in a first of its kind verdict, banned bandhs, a decision that was later upheld by the Supreme Court. Political parties, ever on the lookout for opportunities to highlight their myriad grievances, were quick to find a way around the ban. They simply stopped calling for bandhs and instead began organising “hartals”.

According to one estimate, between 2005 and 2015, Kerala lost an equivalent of two years or approximately 700 mandays due to “hartals”. Last year alone witnessed 97 “hartals”, bringing life to a standstill and bleeding the state of approximately Rs 200 crore a day, enough for the Kerala High Court to step in. In early January, the Court passed an order banning flash “hartals” and decreed that any group that wishes to call for a “hartal” should give seven days prior notice; any citizen can approach the Court, challenging the “hartal” during the seven-day notice period.

Last week, the Court showed that it meant business when it asked the Kerala Youth Congress president Dean Kuriakose to pay compensation for the damages incurred during a flash strike that the junior wing of the Congress party had called to protest against the murder of two party workers in Kasargod, North Kerala, allegedly at the hands of Marxist goons. A division bench headed by Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy also ordered that Kuriakose be made an accused in all 189 cases registered across the state in connection with the “hartal”. The High Court directed the authorities to collect the amount equivalent to the total losses incurred by various sections of society from Kuriakose.

Strongly criticising the culture of “hartal”, the Court observed that the same punishment would be applicable to former DGP TP Senkumar, Hindu Aikyavedi state president KP Sasikala and other leaders of Sabarimala Karma Samiti for the losses suffered in the state due to “hartal” called by the Samiti in early January on the Sabarimala issue.

It was in view of the intense difficulties faced by the people due to the frequent “hartals” in the state, that the Court issued guidelines for calling “hartals” and mandated the seven-day notice. In the case of Kasargod incident, the state-wide “hartal” was called by the Youth Congress leader on February 18 through a Facebook post on the night of February 17. Last year, there were instances of certain fundamentalist groups calling for a “hartal” through a whatsApp message.

The High Court has initiated action against Kuriakose and others following a petition filed citing violation of the Court order. When Kuriakose took the position that he did not know that the Court had issued a guideline restricting “hartal”, the Court asked him whether he was not aware of the law being an advocate. The counsel for Kuriakose said his client has only completed his LLB and was not practising as a lawyer. Kuriakose has sought extension of time for filing a reply to the contempt of court petition against him and the Court has posted the case for further hearing on March 6. It slapped the “hartal” cost on him while hearing other petitions connected with it.

The Court also observed that United Democratic Front (UDF) leaders in Kasaragod, MC Kamarudheen and Govindhan Nair, should also be made to give compensation for the losses incurred in the district on the “hartal” day.

Meanwhile, Kuriakose said the Court has only stressed on the point that he should be made an accused in all cases associated with “hartal”. “I am yet to get the Court order stating whether I should pay the amount to compensate the losses. I will file an affidavit in the Court, explaining our point of view; but we will respect and comply with the court’s  directives,” he said.

The High Court approved the government’s request to hold the leaders liable for the violence unleashed throughout the state in early January over the Sabarimala issue. The government has also argued for recovering the financial loss from the political leaders who called for “hartal”. The government submitted before the Court that the public transporter KSRTC suffered a loss of more than Rs 3 crore in “hartals” called for by the Sabarimala Karma Samiti. Public property worth Rs 38.52 lakh was also destroyed. As many as 141 people were injured in the violence, apart from 150 policemen and 11 officers.

In the present situation, there is an irony that is inescapable. The CPI(M)- led Left Democratic Front that currently rules in Kerala has in the past been responsible for a majority of “hartals” and bandhs in the state, some on the flimsiest of grounds, and is now arguing for banning “hartal”.

During the last UDF government’s tenure, the then home minister and current opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala had tried to introduce a bill aimed at banning “hartals”. However, following stiff resistance from the then Opposition, especially the CPI(M), he did not press the matter. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in fact, wanted to call for an all-party meeting to arrive at a consensus to ban “hartal”.

A  few years back, CPM leader MV Jayarajan, who is currently functioning as the private secretary to the CM unleashed a scathing attack on a High court judge who ruled against organising public meetings on the road side. He went to the extent of describing the judge as “sumbhan” (an insolent idiot) and the Court booked him.

However, despite his strong resistance, the Court convicted him for one month’s imprisonment and he underwent the jail term at Thiruvananthapruam central prison. Congress leader MM Hassan is fond of taking to every available podium to wax eloquent about the perils of calling “hartals”; however it was under him as president of the Kerala pradesh Congress committee that the Congress led United Democratic Front organised the most number of “hartals”.

One of the reasons put forth to justify the act of calling for “hartal” is its spontaneous nature. “Nobody can restrain a mob resorting to violence in a hartal”. Moreover, the expression of anger finding a vent through “hartal” and spontaneous protests ultimately help to restore normalcy though with a little amount of collateral damage, says a social psychologist who prefers not to be named. There are many who share his opinion and feel that the Court’s tendency to cap all the vents of anger and protest of people will turn out to be counter productive. But the majority sentiment in the state now seems to be: “ No More Hartal’s Own Country”.

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