We welcome the Gauhati High Court verdict of Wednesday declaring bandhs in Assam and Meghalaya illegal and unconstitutional. The court was hearing a PIL filed against bandhs in Assam after clubbing it with a similar petition against such undemocratic strikes in Meghalaya. Invoking the Supreme Court ruling on bandhs, the division bench of Chief Justice Jasti Chelameswar and Justice Arun Chandra Upadhyay directed both the governments of Assam and Meghalaya to strictly implement the apex court directive by taking all necessary steps for preventing infringement of various fundamental rights of citizens on account of various calls of bandhs given by different political parties and other organizations. The Supreme Court had in 1998 held that bandhs called by any political parties or organized bodies were violative of the fundamental rights of citizens apart from causing national loss, and therefore, were declared illegal and unconstitutional.
The crux of the court ruling — that bandhs violate fundamental rights — is beyond contestation. For, a bandh call is essentially an autocratic and criminal decree: ‘‘You must observe it, else you will be harmed to any extent because enforcers of the bandh will go to any extent to ensure that the bandh is total.’’ This cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be called a democratic form of protest. After all, we are not living in an ideal world where the bandh votary would have us make a choice in the spirit of democracy: that we can choose not to observe the bandh and yet be not harmed; that, for instance, no one will force the shopkeeper to down his shutters if he defies the bandh called because it is democracy and he has the right to opinion (against the bandh) and action (defiance of the bandh). The reality is that a bandh call is a categorical diktat to people to either fall in line or face the music. A bandh call, therefore, is sheer coercion — that is, it is blatantly violative of the very essence of democracy. Apparently, however, a bandh call would look democratic, the logic being it is only a call by an aggrieved organization to the people it has in mind to desist from routine activities or boycott the government that has failed to heed their just grievances. But this is twisted logic, rather total hogwash. How does an organization define its people? Take the case of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), one of the bandh veterans. Were it to call a bandh (of course for the sake of the student community, no?), would it ever restrict its observance to the students alone — its people — and let others freely do their business? Therefore, let us not have any pretensions about bandhs. Let us accept the fact that bandhs are an extremely undemocratic, as also uncivilized, form of protest that cannot be allowed to be perpetuated in an evolving democracy. That said, let us also not forget the worst victim of bandhs — the poor daily wage-earner. Does not a bandh call infringe on his very right to livelihood? In other words, bandhs are a kind of savagery. Modern societies have no place for them. Let now the Assam and Meghalaya governments ensure that no one suffers due to bandhs, and let every obstinate organization calling bandhs be made to pay duly. THE SENTINEL