Senior Journalist CT Joshi asks why Bandhs, rallies and dharnas are held in the name of common man.

 

It is an irony of the first order. Or is it a tragedy? Bandhs, rallies, dharanas and other forms of public protests and demonstrations are held in the name of the common man. For his sake. Yet it is he who suffers most from most of them!

The common man has neither voice nor power. Not surprising then that often he does not count for both the authorities and the organizers. What is surprising is that there are instances when the poor participants of demonstrations do not count for the organizers as well.

Once a highly-egoistic and sophisticated leader had taken a large number of his followers to New Delhi for a massive protest show. He was all humility and humanity. They reached Delhi and made a huge success of the show of strength. HIS strength.

Then? Then he flew back to Bengaluru quietly, leaving his hapless and bewildered followers to fend for themselves in an unknown place. They managed to return by a train, ticket-less, occupying berths, unauthorized and edging out bonafide passengers.

There is the other side of the coin too. Rarely do the authorities show the least concern, at least, to the needs and grievances of the people until the situation threatens to go out of control.

A trade union activist recalled an incident while speaking with me. Some 150 passengers were waiting at a city bus station. No sign of any bus for more than half an hour. Then came one, in a jiffy it was crammed with 70 or 75 passengers and it left leaving the others behind. This trade union activist, who was among the stranded, pleaded with the authorities for a bus from among the few that were parked idly at the bus station. But no, they would not heed to him or to other passengers. He was forced, he said, to mobilize the harried commuters for a snap strike. Only then came another bus and carried the remaining passengers.

Bandhs, rallies, dharanas and other forms of public demonstration are an integral part of democracy. They can not be banned altogether, since they are accepted forms of expressing aspirations or expectations of people and through them to make the powers-that-be hear their grievances and redress them. More so, if the powers-that-be are indifferent and insensitive to the common man. They are a boon. But they can be a bane if the common man is made to pay a heavy price for them. Which is not rare.

It is indeed possible to have them without inconvenience to the people or with the least inconvenience, two trade union leaders once told me. A leading lawyer and a functionary of a political party agreed with them.

It is contended that public demonstrations should be held away from main thoroughfares, on by-lanes or less crowded streets. The demonstrators should march in small groups in files of twos or threes along one side of a road and facilitate smooth flow of traffic on the other side.

They should not be held during peak hours. There should be a limit on their number on any day and on the number of participants. Equally important, well-thought-out— and well-executed—norms should be evolved, listing Dos and Don’ts. The authorities should publish them and furnish them to the organizers.

It should be mandatory for the organizers to take permission from the authorized judicial officers of their areas after giving an undertaking, that the norms would be followed. They should be conducted under the strict vigil and guidance of a panel of citizens, specifically constituted during every bandh. Flouting of the norms and the panel’s instructions by the organizers or the participants should attract stern and exemplary legal action.

All this is more imperative in the case of bandhs. It is argued by many concerned citizens, since the bandhs can be more devastating than other forms of protests.

The Maharashtra High Court once imposed a hefty fine of Rs 20 lakh each on two outfits. Such  strict steps may be necessary to bring order and discipline on these occasions and make the organizers accountable for all consequences, the unpleasant ones included. And most of the public demonstrations have had unpleasant consequences.

In fact this sensitive issue has often come up before the judiciary, which has on occasions expressed its displeasure over its harmful after-effects. It came up for the first time before the Kerala High Court and later before the Supreme Court, the Kolkata High Court, the Maharashtra High Courts and now before the Karnataka High Court. Even so public demonstrations are being held merrily, as a routine, as a ritual, regardless of their avoidable and unwholesome impact.

There have been occasions, no doubt, when organizers have shown regard and consideration for the people. A leftist leader recalls that once, when a march had been organized to Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, the marchers had taken a side road avoiding the main thoroughfare so that there was no disruption of any kind. But rare are such instances.

The aggrieved sections of society have the democratic right of public protest. But it should be the last resort after exhausting all peaceful avenues of debate and decision, it is contended. The organizers should make public what were the avenues explored by them, and why an extreme measure was necessary.

It is also suggested that there should be a statutory and independent machinery with enough powers to consider and give relief whenever an organized section of society or a legally-constituted body officially presents problems and grievances of the public or a segment of it. This machinery should have the last say.