Kochi: Organizations in Kerala calling for a hartal, or strike, without the government’s permission may have to pay a Rs10 lakh fine or its leaders would face up to three years in prison if the Kerala law commission’s suggestions are passed into law.
(GROWING MENACE) The commission also plans to recommend that if a political party or organization makes an unauthorized call to protest, its principal office bearers would be liable to be tried and prosecuted by a district judge.
“In spite of judicial decisions and strict directions issued by the judiciary, the menace continues unabated,” said V.R. Krishna Iyer, head of the Kerala law reforms commission and a former Supreme Court judge. “Hence, it is only expedient to subject hartals to conditions statutorily prescr-ibed and make it an offence.”
While bandhs refer to a complete shutdown of economic activities and public transportation, often called for by political parties to protest, hartals are meant to refer to a milder form of civil disobedience.
In 2007, Left-ruled Kerala saw more than 200 hartals, most of them political. The most recent was on Sunday, with strikes called in Malappuram and Wayanad districts to protest the death of a schoolteacher after he was allegedly roughed up during an agitation against a controversial chapter on religion in a class VII social science textbook.
While the state government doesn’t have assessments of the impact of these strikes on trade and economy, in a recent submission to the Kerala high court it said losses to its vehicles and properties were about Rs1.4 lakh in cases registered after 28 May 2004 in seven out of 14 districts in the state.
The Supreme Court had in 1998 upheld a Kerala high court ruling that banned bandhs as a form of protest, saying these interfered with the fundamental freedom of other citizens. Organizations and political parties have responded by resorting to hartals instead, but creating a similar bandh-like situation.
In West Bengal, another Communist-ruled state, the Calcutta high court has had to repeatedly put its foot down on the frequent strikes. In June 2002, the court denounced political parties for promoting a culture of bandhs, and in the following year, it prohibited rallies on Kolkata streets from 8am to 8pm.
In November 2004, a division bench of the Calcutta high court warned political parties that they would be derecognized if they did not respect the Supreme Court’s stand on bandhs.
Iyer said if the Kerala law reforms commission’s recommendation eventually becomes law, no person or organization would be able to call or prepare for a hartal without the permission of a state committee at least a week in advance. The committee would comprise the state home minister, the opposition leader and a former judge of the Kerala high court, he said.
Organizers of protests would have to give an undertaking to the government to compensate for any material loss or damage to property, which would be determined by the district collector, Iyer said.
The panel’s recommendation will be submitted to the government soon, Iyer said.
Aveek Datta in Kolkata contributed to this story.