Monday, September 01, 2008

Bandhs, Strikes, Protests and Holidays I

India’s romance with strikes and bandhs is quite unique. Gandhi pioneered the concept of non-cooperation. He had a principled stand on this issue. He reasoned that British Government that was ruling us at that time was not representative of Indians. They were not elected nor selected by the Indians to represent us. There were many instances which clearly indicated that rulers were a different set of people unrepresentative of India. He reasoned that Indians have a moral obligation to refuse to accept some of these laws since they are detrimental to the well-being of Indian people. There were some rules and impositions that were outright discriminatory, subjugating the Indians, affecting their dignity and moral. According to him, Indians have a conscientious obligation to contravene them.

Gandhi saw immense potential in this argument, but also knew its power and its extent. It can easily lead to anarchy if it goes out of control. Gandhi was still a believer in the system and tried his best to work within the system. He was careful enough to let people know that this non-cooperation has to be practiced with utmost restraint, within generally agreed principles that he laid out. Gandhi stuck to few key rules. He was not ready to inflict harm onto others. He was not ready to impose it onto others. His non-cooperation meant – ‘O! You ruler! You cannot touch me! You cannot make me do things your way!’ It did not mean – ‘I will harm you! I will take revenge! I will obstruct, destruct and attack you!’ He was clear that this non-cooperation is something you impose onto yourself – not onto others. You cannot force others to cooperate with you in your non-cooperation.

When Gandhi introduced this into India it was a revolutionary practice in the history of mankind. This principle was great in theory. But when put in practice, even Gandhi faced immense problems. Though his followers were trained in all the rules he clearly laid out on how to carry it forward, there were many occasions his movement went out of control. In one such case, 22 policemen were killed by the protestors in Chowri Chowra.

Whenever Gandhi saw that his followers took it beyond the scope he defined, he called off the protests and the entire movement to the utter dismay of many of his followers who were looking forward to deliverance of freedom from British. His common refrain was that Indians were just not ready for that freedom they are seeking.

We inherited many of his practices and continue to use them even after British were gone. In some way, Indians are obsessed with Gandhi. Even those who strongly detest him conveniently embrace his practices. We have rath yatras, fasts, and jail bharo programs. We have hadtals, and non-cooperating protests.

But we have diluted his practices conveniently to suit our purposes. Going to jail is not a shame, but it is a matter of pride – since Gandhi went in and out many a times. So, we see people going to jail gleaming in pride – even those who have killed an animal of endangered species, or got caught while taking bribes, or got convicted for tax evasion. They earn the respect and sympathy of fellow Indians, because they all see it as an act of great sacrifice, the way Gandhi and his followers did during British Rule.

One of the derivatives of Gandhi’s legacy is bandh. Though Indians are ruling themselves now by voting their representatives to power, we still think in colonial mindset. So while we embrace Gandhi’s practices, we completely forgot his rules. In fact, his rules died with him.

The modern definition of bandh is quite different. A bandh no longer means ‘we will stop functioning.’ It means, ‘we will also stop you from functioning!’ Gone are the days when we are not supposed to pull others to cooperate with us in our non-cooperation. These days we impose it on all and sundry causing lot of inconvenience to others assuming it is our democratic right to bandh.

Bandh is the most commonly used weapon in India to show one’s dissatisfaction with the way things are. A bandh calls for a stop on all work. The people who call for bandh feel it is their right to impose it onto others. Shops are forcefully shutdown, companies are shut, and government offices are closed, and so on. We have all kinds of bandhs- Bharat bandh, State bandh, Rail Roko, Rasta Roko, etc. Nowadays, any group can call a bandh for any reason whatsoever. Even the government in power can call bandh on itself! That’s the funniest thing I have witnessed lately. We have made a mockery of this instrument.



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