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Above: A protest against the hartal in Thiruvananthapuram/Photo: UNI

The Kerala High Court has cracked down on those who forwarded messages which spawned hartals  in north Kerala districts and led to massive violence. It is a lesson for others

~By India Legal Bureau

“The enforcement of a hartal by force, intimidation—physical or mental—and coercion amounts to an unconstitutional act. A political party has no right to enforce it by resorting to force or intimidation.”—A Supreme Court judgment in May 2002

Despite this clear directive from the apex court, it has done little to dampen the appetite of politicians and political parties to bring normal life in Kerala to a standstill by calling hartals at the drop of a hat.  But the hartal on April 16 in Kerala stood out for another reason—it was perhaps the first one organised online.

Exhortations for the hartal went through WhatsApp and Facebook and were propagated by activists of the SDPI and PFI, two Muslim outfits, to protest the Kathua rape. Thousands took to the streets in north Kerala districts, unleashing violence and clashing with the police. Prohibitory orders had to be issued to bring the situation under control. In numerous places, anti-social elements took the law into their hands and created mischief. When the police intervened, their orders were ignored and they were prevented from discharging their duties.

However, the Kerala High Court cracked down on them recently and rejected the anticipatory bail plea of five persons who feared arrests in connection with the violence during the hartal. Directing the accused to surrender, Justice Raja Vijayaraghavan V observed: “Hateful messages were spread through Facebook exhorting like-minded people to come out in protest. All these incidents took place in communally sensitive areas in the northern part of Kerala. The investigating agencies have obtained materials which have led to the conclusion that the whole incident was engineered for triggering communal strife and tension and to create enmity between two groups on the grounds of religion.”

As per the Home Department of the state, about 1,000 people were arrested across Kerala for the hartal violence and traffic obstruction. Around 350 cases were registered, while 250 people were booked for non-bailable offences and have been remanded. The police initiated a detailed inquiry to ascertain the source of the hartal which has foxed intelligence agencies too. But the needle of suspicion seems to point to certain radical Muslim outfits.

Later on, the police called five persons from Kollam and Kilimanoor in southern Kerala whom they think were responsible for the “hoax” hartal call. As per the police, the accused—Asharaf, Mahir, Ratheesh, Shamjith and Lalu—created a WhatsApp group called, “Voice of Truth”. Several sub-groups soon sprung up across the state. The police identified a 17-year-old Class X student as the admin of one of these groups.

The state has opposed the bail application of the accused and submitted to the Court that the applicants formed an unlawful assembly and committed rioting in a public place. They also denigrated and brought to contempt the Na-tional Flag.

In a Left-run state where hartals are a normal way of life, this judgment could well stem future disruptions.

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