The hartal legacy

Although hartal by virtue is the political and constitutional right of the people protesting government failures at keeping with its promises and decisions or actions contrary to people’s interest, much has been criticised due to the sufferings hartal causes to the economy and daily activities of people.

Although ideally hartals are considered to be a mass people’s movement or resentment, hartals in the past have often become an instrument of political vendettas that hampered the economy and society.

Justifying BNP’s call for hartal on November 30 hartal, BNP standing committee member, Amir Khasru said, it was BNP’s second hartal in the present government’s 22-month whereas Awami League had enforced 80 hartals in the first 22 months of BNP’s second tenure in government from 2001-2006.

Business leaders and industrialists urged the opposition leaders to call off strikes. A section of them also demanded the government ban hartal by passing a law in the parliament.

The net loss in one day’s hartal, according to a study published in the Chittagong University of Journal and Social Science, is around Tk 500 crore. The study further reveals that gross financial loss because of hartals during 1991-2001 was Tk 1,83,465 crore.

While there is no concrete parameter to identify the mass’s inclination, both the ruling government and the opposition make ‘people’ party to what they claim. While both the ruling party and opposition establish their claims, citing greater interest of the ‘people’, for most part they largely remain a passing ball between the government and opposition.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her exchange of views with Bangladeshi expatriates atBrusselsearlier this week said, Khaleda Zia had ‘no right to cause sufferings to the people by enforcing general strike just to save her illegally grabbed property.’

When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party called strike on November 14, the party’s secretary general Khandakar Delwar Hossain claimed even though the hartal will cause sufferings to the homebound people before the Eid festival, ‘the people of the country will spontaneously observe the hartal.’

While it is politically natural that the opposition BNP protest the illegal eviction of its party chairperson from her Cantonment residence, it is not morally sound for the party to enforce a hartal in protest against the eviction, when it did not do so against the governmental failures to honour its electoral promises like keeping the price of the essential commodities within the reach of low-income groups of people, adequate supply of gas and electricity, fighting against extortions and tender manipulations, restoring law and order, et cetera.

Two ministers of the present government refuted at the business leaders’ and industrialists’ demand at banning hartal by passing a law at the parliament.

Recently the FBCCI president AK Azad said they wanted to propose the parliament to pass a law banning hartal.

‘General strike violates the rights of the people in many ways as it hampers their movement and economic activities,’ said acting BKMEA president Habibur Rahman at a press meet last week. He requested the ruling alliance to adopt a policy that they would avoid calling hartal even when they would be out of power.

Rahman said the knitwear industry experienced a staggering growth of over 37 per cent in the first four months of the current fiscal year and the general strike would deal a big blow to it.

Bangladeshgained the confidence of foreign buyers over the last couple of years, as there was virtually no general strike during the period, but the hartal culture has staged a comeback and it would seriously jeopardise this business-friendly environment, he feared.

Interestingly, even Rahman pulls the people’s interest to defend his claim saying, ‘Give us a chance to accelerate the economic growth and create employment opportunities for our people by avoiding general strike. People want to see a ‘hartal-freeBangladesh.’

The textiles and jute minister, Abdul Latif Siddiqui, during the three-day BATEXPO 2010 asked the business leaders to refrain from giving provocative statements. While legitimising hartal as a constitutional right of the people rightly, Siddiqui told the business leaders of Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI) to show non-cooperation to hartal instead of infringing people’s right to protest.

Expressing dissatisfaction over the current situation, opposition leader and BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia said, ‘You all know what is happening in the country. I don’t want to deliberate on it. I will only tell you to be conscious of what would be the condition of the country’s industry, production and economy if such situation continues.’

On February 15, 1999, the High Court division issued a suo moto rule seeking explanation as to why enforcing hartal would not be declared illegal and a criminal offence. After hearing the case, on May 13, 1999 the High Court bench declared hartal a political and constitutional right. However, at the same time the court declared violence and coercion for or against hartal a criminal offence and ordered the law enforcers and courts to take legal action against any person who would force anybody in favour or against hartal.

The government appealed against the verdict. After eight years of the appeal, the Appellate Division on December 02, 2007 declared hartal a political and constitutional right, and overturned its declaration that violence and coercion for or against hartal is a criminal offence. As per Supreme Court observation, for legal action against any person for any law and order infringement, provisions are already there in criminal laws, including the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Penal Code; hence there is no need to declare such infringements separately as criminal offences.

Originally a Gujarati expression, hartal dates back to days of British colonial rule inIndia. It was a public protest against repressive actions infringing on human rights by the colonial British government.

Politics of hartal had played a decisive role in mobilising people on the eve of theBangladesh’s war of liberation. It became a very frequently used political tool for agitation from the 1980s. The fall of Hussain Muhammad Ershad was also a consequence of recurring hartals, called mostly on the issue of his regime’s legitimacy. Ever since, both the political governments of BNP and Awami League, during their terms have come under pressure and were resisted through hartals.

The study published in the Chittagong University Journal of Social Sciences reveals interesting information based on newspaper reports regarding hartals in various periods and regimes.

According to the study, only 15 days of hartal were observed during 1962-71 (East Pakistan). In 1972-75 there were only 5 days of hartal of Awami League regime and 59 days of hartal were observed during the Ershad regime between 1981 and 1987.

Interestingly, after the fall of Ershad and restoration of democracy the number of hartals has been on an increasing trend. Two-hundred and sixty six days of hartal were observed when BNP ran the government from 1991 to 1996 and 215 days of hartal were observed during Awami League regime in 1996-2001.


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