Civil Disobedience and Civil Liberties: The Curious Case of Hartal
A feature in the online edition of The New Indian Express dated December 15, 2018 listed 97 hartals as having happened in Kerala till that date. The article went on to observe with black humour that the State still had the chance of making it to the century mark given that there were two weeks to go till the end of the year! In the previous year, the ‘score’ was 120. The year started ominously with a few hartals called in the first month as a spillover of the ‘Sabarimala issue’ involving the entry of women into the temple.
In this article, I will try and examine the subject of hartal from the perspective of individual liberties, since the stand taken by parties and individuals of the Left has been that hartals are a legitimate form of protest, and should not be treated as illegal acts. The argument therefore is based on treating hartal as a form of protest within a democratic framework. If a hartal is understood to mean withholding of one’s work, then it will mean that the person concerned abstains from work, to register protest as a matter of principle. This could mean that the person, if he runs a shop, will down his shutters for the day. If she is a worker, she will walk out or not show up for work. There cannot be any difference of opinion that this is a legitimate means of protest of a citizen.
However, we run into difficulties in the case of the hartal as it is practiced in Kerala, and some other States in India. Declaring a hartal on a day means that citizens are served notice that they should not work on that day. If they try to go ahead and still work, they will be prevented from doing so, by all means including violence. While there have been many instances of violence on individuals and their families on hartal days, it is more the threat of violence that makes citizens think twice before venturing out on a hartal day.
What makes the hartal even more vexing is the fact that the government law and order machinery seems to take the view that their primary duty is to protect government officials and property during hartals. The police disappear from the streets, and confine their duties to providing armed escorts for ministers, senior officials, and convoys of government vehicles. There is almost no thought spared for the private citizens, who are left to fend for themselves.
The consequence is that most factories shut down on hartal days, so do all shops and establishments.
Pulling policemen off the streets and providing protection only for government vehicles and establishments send the worst possible message about the quality of governance. The legal responsibility of the government to provide full protection to citizens has been declared unambiguously by the courts. There have also been decisions by courts declaring hartals as illegal and banning them.
For the Left, it is clearly a case of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. They want business to grow, as that will mean more jobs. But they are not willing to antagonise their trade union rank and file, who see in the hartal a way to enforce their shrinking power over the hapless citizen. Those who suffer the most during hartals when all work comes to a standstill are daily wage earners, household domestic workers, street hawkers, small tea shops and many hundreds of small establishments like dhobies, those who iron clothes etc.
When an elected government fails in its Constitutional duty to protect the lives and property of the citizen, it has no reason to be allowed to function. If we are to develop into a rule-based and law abiding society, we must then accept that there are limits to the means available at our disposal to achieve our goals. We must be willing to follow the rules and procedures to get our grievances redressed. We must be made to understand that if we are not willing to abide by these standards of conduct and codes of behaviour, then we will be forced by the law and order machinery of the government to do so. We can never become a rule-based society otherwise.
So, what is the solution? Such inaction and collusion by governments during hartals must be challenged as breaches of Constitutional responsibility by organisations of civil society. Those who call for hartals should be sued using the available provisions of the law, and pursued to the legal limits, to ensure that they never repeat this mistake.