Nepali Times
On bandhs

Bandhs and general strikes are the ultimate weapons of citizens to express dissatisfaction in a peaceful and democratic way. They are protest methods we use to boycott work, march, make a speech or two and shout slogans to express our displeasure, instead of breaking each other's limbs or skulls. By providing a peaceful outlet such as that, a society channels protests into civilised and non-violent forms.
However, general strikes can be misused as they have often been in Nepal. After the spontaneous street protests during the 1990 People's Movement, most general strikes here have since degenerated into coercion, intimidation and violence. Streets are deserted and shops down their shutters usually because of fear of retaliation than genuine support for the strike call. This is counter-productive even for strikers, because the entire protest exercise leaves the impression that it is not voluntary even when there may be some genuine support for the cause. The organisers may claim that a bandh is "successful" because the streets were deserted, and the government may say it was "peaceful" because there were no "untoward incidents", but usually it is neither. Both are simply suffering from self-congratulatory illusions. Given a free choice Nepali people are smart enough to decide what they support and what they don't.

Numerous surveys in media have now proven that most urban Nepalis are fed up of bandhs, and want to see an end to them. So, why not declare a moratorium on all bandhs for a year and see what happens. Most people are going to welcome it because it will mean industry, trade, education and normal life will not be periodically disrupted. We have imported this form of protest from the north Indian heartland and Bangladesh, which have become famous for their violence-prone shutdowns. There still haven't been week-long hartals here, but, with the two-day strike last week, we seem to be getting there too. We have also imported a political culture that equates a bandh with the exercise of democratic rights, so it may not be possible to do away with them completely right away. But we can bring some order, accountability and common sense to bandhs. First we have to be clear on the definition of a bandh:

. it should be directed by legiti-mate demands;

. it should be voluntary; and

. it should be peaceful.

A bandh cannot be a cheap substitute for a programme of action to achieve something. But that is exactly what it has become-announce a bandh through a press statement and a three-wheeler going around town with a loudspeaker, and a conditioned public will comply by staying off the streets because they don't want their motorcycles smashed or their shops stoned. This violates the basic freedom of citizens and dilutes the importance of the issue because it is enforced by fear.

Our country has ground to a halt for 34 days in the past five years, with estimated cumulative losses to the tune of Rs 1.3 billion. Who paid the price? Besides the country's economy, manufacturing, tourism, shops and businesses, it is the ordinary citizen who faces immediate hardship. The sick and emergency medical cases, students who want to study, daily wage-earners, the self-employed, small shopkeepers, and tourists all suffer. The affluent can get by. Top government officials travel around under police escort, and the main organisers of the strike are generally under custody or directing it from off the streets. If they get their demands fulfilled they gain, though that has almost never been the case. About all they get to do is create a public nuisance to embarrass current rulers and massage their own egos. An opposition which calls a bandh is only returning the favour, because when it was in the opposition the present government perhaps did the same thing. This eternal tit-for-tat neither proves the righteousness of a cause nor does it imply the consent of the people. It is a cynical use of a threat of violence by politicians for whom the end justifies the means. We have to call a halt to the chain reaction of bandhs and counter-bandhs and arrest the epidemic of forced strikes before it tears the fabric of our economy beyond repair.

It has been argued that in a democracy, people have a right to protest. Fair enough. But, by the same token, in a democracy you cannot coerce people to protest for you either. Bandh organisers argue that their cause is legitimate and that a general strike is the only way to put pressure on a ruling party to listen to their demands. Again, that could be true if people closed their shops and didn't bring their vehicles out without fear of a reprisal. Most citizens or students groups that perhaps should be at the forefront of challenging the bandh culture because it disrupts their lives or affects their studies are either cowed down by the threat of retaliatory violence, or are in some way allied to one or other of the myriad political parties. The time has come, therefore, to adopt some basic norms and guidelines for bandhs in Nepal.

Only the political entities and groups actually calling the bandhs should be the ones to make the sacrifices and bear the self-inflicted pains for the cause they believe in - not the general public. If they are not prepared to make that sacrifice, then you can be sure that the cause is not worthwhile, and no one else should be made to suffer.

The target of a bandh should be the party in a position to do something about it, not innocent citizens, schools, colleges, trade and industries. Everyone not responsible for redressing a grievance should be left out. Why hold the entire country to ransom to further the aims of a political party? A right not to participate in a bandh is as important as the right to, and that must be respected. Not everyone agrees with every cause.

A bandh is a very serious expression of a group's opposition to existing policy or certain state of affairs, it is not a frivolous act and cannot be taken lightly. It is the bandh organiser's responsibility to keep it peaceful, be in complete control of the actions of its cadre on the streets, be accountable for the damage to private and public property, and compensate wages and earnings lost. A few public interest litigation cases will do wonders in hammering home the principle of accountability, and sending a message to all political parties.

Nepal's parliamentary democracy currently provides enough political space for everyone to be heard. There are alternatives to bandhs, and these should be explored since in most cases they will actually be more effective in addressing the grievance. Some suggested alternatives:

. Make full use of the media for public debate .

. Organise protest meetings and rallies of party members.

. Ceremonially hand over protest notes and memoranda of grievances.

. Hold press conferences, and issue media statements.

. Wear black bands, wave banners, flags and placards.

. Initiate boycotts and similar actions.

Even if bandhs are forced on the public, the following sectors should not be affected: pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, eating-places, hotels, public and private transport, electricity, water, garbage collection, communication and phone services.

And if bandhs there must be, why not have them on Saturdays? Seriously, this is not as crazy as it sounds since it is traditional here to have auspicious days designated for every milestone in life. It may be a good use of a non-productive day to further a cause one believes in. This will also bring some order into the lives of Nepalis dislocated by the epidemic of unpredictable bandhs and allow people to plan their lives.

Or take the matter of forced "chakka jams". These are not an acceptable form of protest, and a government that cannot ensure the smooth flow of vehicles and public transport probably isn't serious about governing. Nobody has the right to block the freedom of movement of fellow citizens-even in a democracy. The anarchy in our highways when traffic is blocked for days because locals take the law into their own hands after an accident only shows a breakdown in state authority and capability.

Any government worth its salt must develop an operating procedure to handle bandhs. The police, crowd control, information handling, emergency services like fire, and medical help-all need professionalism and training. Municipal ward representatives and officials should be included in these efforts. In the end, the maturity of a nation and its leaders is shown by the form protests take in that country and by the orderly process it has developed to address grievances. When our political leaders start behaving like anarchists, can you blame the citizens for following in their methods? A general strike is an extreme means of communicating grievances. Unfortunately, it is often the voice of a loud minority that purports to speak for the silent majority.

Nepal needs to tone down the decibel level of its protests so that the saner voices of our usually silent majority are not drowned out in
the din.

(Padma Jyoti is Chairman of Jyoti Group of Companies, former President of FNCCI and presently Vice President of SAARC Chamber of Commerce & Industry.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)