Why hartals have become the punchline of many jokes

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It was in 2005 that I moved to Kerala with my family. Although a Keralite, I had not actually ever lived in the state until then. It was a challenge, to say the least. It took me a while to get used to an entirely different way of life, with its own customs, mannerisms and ways of doing things. Although I found some things puzzling, nothing baffled me as much as hartals, the God’s Own Country’s frequently occurring sacred holidays. At least 10 to 20 times a year, life as I knew it came to an end – for a day. Transport services stopped functioning, shops shut down, and even private vehicles of people who dared to actually do something productive that day were vandalised and pelted with stones.

And so, over the years, Keralites protested, vehemently and with great vigor, every single thing imaginable on the face of planet earth. There were protests over the low bus fares by the private transporters. And then, when fares increased, there were protests from passengers over the increase as well. You name the even and I’ll wager it was protested against. In fact, when I was in fifth grade, back when WhatsApp groups did not exist, “telechains” were constituted in each class, wherein any important message was passed on to one student by the teacher, who then went on to inform the student after her, and so until all children in the class had been informed. Ingenious. And can you guess what all-important news the telechain was used to pass? Yes, you guessed it right: “tomorrow is a Hartal. We don’t have class.”

In grade 9, when the students were asked to simulate what the voting process and elections look like, including campaign speeches, one of the questions asked to students imitating party members presenting the manifesto was: “What will you do to stop hartals in the state?” Slowly, what was constituted as a way of protest became the punchline of many jokes.

There was, however, a sinister side to hartals as well. What struck me as ironic was that a tool for making citizen’s voices heard was also, at the same time, being used to silence voices and instill fear in the minds of people. Very few people actually realised the intricacies of the cause being championed, let alone sympathising or agreeing with it. And yet, the roads of Kerala remained empty during hartals and shops remained closed, owed largely to a fear of violence and vandalism. I came to realise that it was out of fear and not dissent, that hartals prevailed in the state.

When I joined college for an undergraduate degree, my understanding of hartals changed, and I realised my understanding did not include another important facet -- the youth wings of political parties. When the communist party called for a hartal, the SFI (CPM’s student wing) enforced it in colleges across the state. When the Congress called for a hartal, the KSU enforced it. In fact, teachers and students were even forcibly evicted from classroom premises, using physical intimidation if necessary to achieve their aims: a complete shutdown of all activities in the state or district.

Now, having said all this, it certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise if I told you that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the various intricacies of hartals and where they went wrong.

And yet, recently Keralites managed to surprise me yet again. Slowly, people are beginning to resist this forced holiday. Shopkeepers and businessmen decided to keep their shops and businesses open during hartals. On one of the hartal days, some shops were opened with quite a lot of ceremony, with police protection, and with the collector in attendance.

Many worker’ unions across the country have gone on strike on two days in January. Yet, here in Bengaluru life did not come to an end. Shops remained open. Vehicles, including autos, plied the roads. Nobody was stopped, and neither were vehicles vandalised. Only the concerned workers groups, who wanted their grievances to be addressed, refrained from working. Was this because it was a national hartal and not a state-wide one?

It is high time for things to change. A strike where people who feel that their voices are not being heard protest against injustices they face. A strike where participation is entirely voluntary. Yes, this is the right way to protest.

I am now reminded of a question one of my friends asked me, in the midst of a raging debate on the use of violence in protest movements: “Is there a right and a wrong way to protest?” Yes, there is, I realised today. A right way of protest is one that does not, at the very least, force others to protest with them, regardless of whether or not they believe in the cause. The right way of protest does not, by means of fear and the threat of violence, force unwilling people into protesting. An instrument of protest is right, and becomes a success, when people speak out against an action or about an issue from the bottom of their heart, without being forced into compliance. Yes, there is indeed a right way to protest.

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