Hartals in Kerala: a shameful exercise in futility

By George Abraham

Perspective of a Non-resident Keralite

It was supposed to be just another ordinary day in the life and times of Malayalees who live in ‘God’s own country,’ as I arrived at Thiruvananthapuram for a short vacation. However, it turned out to be a day of Hartal, a tumultuous few hours, courtesy of the Congress Party and the current political dynamics in the State.

It is quite extraordinary that I had the dubious honor of facing another Hartal upon my return to the U.S. two weeks later. This time, I had to leave my hometown, Chengannur a day early, to escape the wrath and fury of the BJP and RSS loyalists for a timely arrival at the airport.

One picture in the newspaper explained it all: a man in the Khadi Shirt and Mundu (supposed to be a Gandhian!) deflating a tire of a KSRTC bus right in the middle of the Road in Palayam. There were other stories where people were dragged out of their private vehicles and some beaten up, transport buses were stoned and damaged, government offices were attacked,  and stores were forced to shut their doors including ATM counters. With protestors blocking roads and clashing with police, normal life came to a standstill on 28th September in Thiruvananthapuram.

What surprised me most about the first Hartal is that it was planned and staged by the Congress leadership in Kerala. It is quite amazing that the party which introduced a bill to curb Hartal has now provided guidance and cover in holding one. The party was apparently protesting the hike in the tuition fees in the Medical colleges and the alleged brutality of the police to the protestors.

The explanation by the Opposition leader Shri Ramesh  Chennithala is rather amusing as well. He stated that the Hartal could be held in emergency situations but struggled to clarify his evolving rationale. However, Mr. Shashi Tharoor, M.P. expressed his disagreement in tweeting. “we are right to express our anger and demand an inquiry against the police misbehavior but not to disrupt the lives of the public through Hartals.”

Hartal is one item that seriously concerns every Non-resident Keralite. Many have experienced it first hand by being held up at an airport or prevented from getting timely medical help. It is indeed a travesty of justice and infringement on the freedom of every citizen guaranteed under the constitution. Despite repeated promises to the NRKs to bring this draconian and antiquated practice to a halt, Congress has now given impetus to a whole new generation to go out and destroy public property and stop the daily lives of the ordinary people in its tracks.

The history of development in Kerala is replete with incidents involving Industrial leaders walking away from their investment plans in the State due to political instability. Communist Party has been the champion of Gheraos and Strikes and the flag bearer as the top disruptor against investment and growth opportunities. BJP is also feared for its communal angle and have used their intimidating style of operations to hold successful Hartals.

However, it is shameful for Congress Party to revert to this arcane form of protest that would have cost millions of Rupees in business and lost productivity. In the last five years, the party has prided itself as the party of development, growth and equal opportunity!  A senior Congress leader A K Antony quoted once as saying ‘ the public does not support calls for Hartals and Gheraos  but stand by those who bring about development.’ He implied at the time that the LDF failed to understand the people of Kerala who are exposed to progress through development and not by violent means.

However, after the recent severe losses in the election, it appears that the Congress party in the state seems to be in disarray and search of some new relevance.  LDF has consolidated its power, and they are digging in for the long haul. BJP has become the fastest growing political power in the State and obviously is a serious threat to supplant Congress party as the next possible alternative.

It is as if ‘when Rome is burning, the Ceasar is fiddling,’ the Congress leadership in the State at all levels is either out of touch with the aspirations of the people or simply too focused on their internal quarrels and pitiful rivalries to boost their self-development. They appear to be either so oblivious or merely unconcerned to so many serious issues facing this country such as Growing Intolerance, Rising Mistreatment and Discrimination of Dalits and Backward Castes, Eroding Civil Rights, Youth Unemployment, Environmental Degradation, Adulterated Food Supply, Rising Inflation and Falling Infrastructure, just to mention a few. It is no wonder then they have chosen the ‘rise in the tuition fee in medical colleges’ as the most pressing issue where students have already paid their dues that they could well afford,  and started their classes.

There is no doubt that the Education in the state has become a booming business. Undoubtedly, people with money stand to gain most from the current system. Most political parties also tend to benefit from it and exploit every opportunity that comes their way. I am told by someone closer to these negotiations that the Chief Minister initially warned the private school management representatives that the opposition would not accept these increases, but they persisted. It begs the question then, how they could agree to a change in tuition schedule now that the Opposition is ratcheting up the case!

It is time for the Congress Party, in particular, to level with the people of Kerala and go back to the grass roots and build up a faithful following with commitment if they are to play a meaningful role in the future. Perception of Corruption and lack of fortitude in fighting communal forces continue to dog the party and hurt its image.  It is probably time for the renewal of the Congress Party in the State with some fresh ideas outside the box and maybe, with a younger and more vibrant leadership!  A Youth Congress leader deflates the tire of a KSRTC bus as its driver and conductor look on at Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday. (Photo: A.V. MUZAFAR-Deccan Chronicle)

(Writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations and Chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress, USA)

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