Mamata Banerjee’ two-day visit to Dhaka presents Bangladeshis with a golden opportunity to pick her brains about hartals, or bandhs. Mamata considers strikes such a bane that she plans to ban them. As shut-downs bring life to a grinding halt pretty often in Bangladesh too, her hardline views on hartals might just help the nation of 156 million deal firmly with a tool of protest which has acquired notoriety on both sides of the border.
The West Bengal chief minister will accompany prime minister Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh on September 6-7 on a state visit whose objective is to bring the two nations closer than ever before. Obviously the focus will be on contentious bilateral issues waiting for decades to be resolved to the satisfaction of both countries. But during breaks discerning Bangladeshis could quiz Mamata about her strategy vis-à-vis hartals which periodically cripple West Bengal and badly tarnish its image across India.
Frankly speaking, it would not be a bad idea at all for Bangladesh’s reigning Begum and the Bibi from Bengal to meet over tea and tel-bhaja for a quiet tête-à-tête while the ageing Dr Singh has an invigorating post-lunch nap; the two ladies could also consider inviting Bangladesh’s other Begum to the no-holds-barred brain-storming session on bandhs on the sidelines of the much-awaited summit.
But can Mamata really enlighten her hosts? Although she recently threatened to clamp a ban on hartals, it’s hard to fathom the depth of her knowledge. I think she is worth quizzing anyway. So Bangladeshis should not hesitate to take advantage of Mamata’s presence in their midst for a worthy cause.
Hartals have wreaked havoc in West Bengal — particularly during 34 years of communist rule — but the practice of shutting down businesses, schools and stopping trains by political parties has usually evoked only knee-jerk responses. Bangladeshis, in contrast, have even proposed holding a constitutional referendum to decide once and for all whether hartals inflicted on society by the political class are permissible.
In 2005 an irate Abdul Mannan, president of Bangladesh Sarkari Karmachari Samannaya Parishad (BSKSP) mooted such a referendum. Mannan was given a thumbs-up by then Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed – a barrister – who bracketed hartals with fundamentalism and terrorism.
Moreover United Nations Development Programme, Bangladesh, commissioned a study to highlight the negative impact of hartals. The 2005 UNDP report, running into 131 pages compiled by nearly a dozen academics and a market research firm, defined a hartal as “temporary suspension of work in business premises, offices and educational institutions and movement of traffic nationally, regionally or locally, as a mark of protest against actual or perceived grievances called by a political party or parties”.
Some of the findings of a nation-wide survey were contradictory, though. For instance, 95 percent respondents felt that hartals devastated the economy and hurt the interests of the common man. But 63 percent still believed that hartals, despite being associated with intimidation and coercion, were a legitimate political tool. One possible explanation for the paradox was the perfectly respectable origin of hartals: Mahatma Gandhi resorted to them to liberate undivided India from British colonial rule. The survey also revealed that 70 percent of respondents believed there are several alternatives to debilitating hartals.
But the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party still compete with one another to call strikes in Dhaka and other cities on any pretext. Anguished observers regurgitate the UNDP findings whenever there is a hartal. Just last month, the BNP subjected the country to a two-day strike after the system of holding elections under a non-partisan caretaker administration was abolished. Sooner than later, there are bound to be more hartals.
Mamata, who projects herself as a pro-development CM, was sufficiently enraged by a strike call in a tea-growing belt to lash out at hartals. Accusing communists of fanning unrest in tea gardens of the Terai and Dooars region after being voted out of power, she threatened to enact a law banning strikes in West Bengal. Without mincing words, Mamata said that even if workers of a tea estate were being denied their rights, no trade union had the right to disrupt the lives of millions of people inhabiting that region by calling a strike.
Mamata’s cabinet colleague, Subrato Mukherjee, confessed sheepishly that the last time a bandh actually reduced results was way back in 1953! Since then every single hartal in Bengal has been an utter failure. In mid-1953, serial bandhs organised by the Bus and Tramfare Enhancement Resistance Committee, an umbrella organisation of left parties, forced the tram company to roll back second class fares despite the government approving a hike. After that runaway success, bandhs have invariably failed to deliver.
If Bangladesh and West Bengal can jointly celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore and pool their resources to save the Royal Bengal tiger from poachers, then their top women leaders who relish the hilsa, jamdani saris and Nazrul Geeti, can surely explore ways to defuse the ticking bandh bomb.
S. N. M. Abdi is a consulting editor, writer, columnist and broadcaster from India.