In an unprecedented collective move, more than 30 organisations in Kerala on December 20 came together to form an ‘anti-hartal’ alliance. The group announced that they would no longer cooperate with hartals, or day-long shutdowns, announced by various socio-political groups in the state.
The organisations include those representing merchants, industrialists, hoteliers and bus and lorry owners. While the Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce also announced their support to the move, tourism organisations in the state made a separate move on similar note. Subsequently others, like doctors, also announced their support.
Individuals and organisations in different sectors are still coming forward to join the move, according to T. Naseeruddin, the president of the Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi (KVVES), which coordinated the formation of the ‘anti-hartal’ alliance.
The alliance is considered by many to be significant, as the KVVES, the largest trade and business organisation in the state, alone represents more than 10 lakh small, medium and large scale traders in the state.
Talking to The Wire over the phone, Naseeruddin said that many who were not originally part of the alliance, like petroleum dealers and fishing boat owners, are now wanting to extend support and be a part of the initiative.
The new alliance is a desperate effort by those who were silently suffering monetary and other losses due to hartals, which are often announced for reasons they have nothing to do with.
When asked about the reasons for forming the alliance, Naseeruddin said the business community in the state was “already suffering losses for several reasons, like GST, floods and Nipah fever”, and repeated hartals were only “adding to their woes”.
On hartal days in the future, it looks as though shops and commercial establishments as well as private bus services will continue to operate. For a state that has witnessed nearly 100 hartals in 2018 alone, this is significant.
In the past, criticism against hartals has come largely from those who identify themselves as apolitical. But recently, people with different ideological backgrounds have been questioning the way hartals are announced and observed in Kerala. This debate witnessed a turning point when the Bharatiya Janata Party announced a quick, controversial hartal on December 15, inviting widespread criticism.
On a usual hartal day in the state, commercial establishments including retail shops and hotels, public and private transport, and educational institutions are forced to halt their operations for an entire day. Those who defy the shutdown call often undergo verbal and physical abuse and threats. The new joint initiative is a move to address these concerns collectively.
In Kerala, reasons for a hartal vary from clashes between members of rival political parties to court judgments. This year, the state even witnessed a hartal that wasn’t claimed by any group. Repeated and unnecessary shutdown calls by different socio-political groups have been attracting public anger for a while now. The latest anti-hartal move by merchants and others, therefore, has already started to receive widespread support.
Hartal using force is ‘contempt of court’
A major activity of the newly formed ‘anti-hartal’ collective will be serious legal follow up in cases of hartal-related violence, according to Naseeruddin. “We will move against parties that announce a hartal…there are court orders against hartals…if a hartal becomes anti-people, then we will move legally against the party which announced the hartal, for ‘contempt of court’,” he said.
He said the alliance will extend financial support to those members of the collective who suffer hostile treatment and monetary loss because of hartal supporters. “If ten lakh people contribute Rs 10, it can raise a crore. That will be enough to help the needy,” Naseeruddin said, referring to the affiliated members of KVVES, which he heads.
Responding to a question on how the alliance plans to effectively challenge hartals on ground, Naseeruddin said, “All the shops in an area will be opened at the same time, so that we can avoid hartal supporters targeting someone particularly. Usually, different shops open at different times, but on hartal days we are planning to follow a particular opening and closing time for all shops.”
The immediate response to the ‘anti-hartal’ alliance has been generally positive, with leading newspapers endorsing the move. While Malayala Manorama, the state’s largest daily, called the ‘anti-hartal’ developments a “positive beginning for a new Kerala”, Mathrubhumi, another major newspaper, called the new alliance “an act of the public that is finding a means to survive”. According to Mathrubhumi, Kerala society has been “entangled by bandhs announced by political parties of all colours for both real and unreal reasons”. Madhyamam, another Malayalam daily, in an editorial said while hartals are still a democratic way of protest, “there should also exist a democratic space not to cooperate with it”.
The formation of the ‘anti-hartal’ alliance also attracted the attention of political leaders. E.P. Jayarajan, minister for industries and a senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, said “Hartal is being misused today”, making people “fed up” with it. He said, “Hartal is a way of protest that emerges at specific circumstances…there is no need for hartal in Kerala.”
The new anti-hartal collective has given political leaders in the state an opportunity to introspect, and redefine the state’s political culture. As Jayarajan said, Keralites will have to think about new ways to protest.
A significant portion of Keralites wants more meaningful, democratic and creative methods of protest to replace hartals. The anti-hartal alliance and the support it receives from different corners has indicated the popular mood. Now the question is whether politicians across the spectrum will heed this sentiment.
Muhammed Sabith is an independent journalist and academic.