City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Bandh: Protest At Its laziest

When in doubt stop working. Even better, stop others from working – block roads, burn a few buses and get arrested on television. Return to television bathed and rested a few hours later and proclaim the success of your bandh. Go on to proclaim that the spontaneous rage of the people exploded in a collective desire for inaction and idleness. And pat yourself on the back for having taught the government a lesson. Then forget about the issue raised, and look for the next photo opportunity to disrupt something else.

Why exactly is a bandh considered a sign of protest? The government suffers little, it is only ordinary people who do. Those labouring under the scourge of high prices suffer the most as they lose a full day’s income. Children enjoy a day off from school, office goers watch television and news channels fulminate as they would on any other day. In theory, a bandh seeks to communicate that if the offending policy were to continue, normal life would come to a standstill. If practised spontaneously and driven by the people directly affected, it has some symbolic power. It forces the government to take notice and consider doing something about the problem. Used cynically by political parties as it has been over decades, the bandh is a now a sign as empty as the ideological equipment of most political parties.

Although they appear to be similar, a bandh differs fundamentally from its cousin, the strike. Going on strike is a powerful weapon, for it fulfils two purposes simultaneously. It disrupts the life of the users of the service provided by the strikers and it communicates the seriousness with which the strikers take their grievances, given that they take the risk of losing not only their income but their livelihoods. A strike is in most cases an implicitly fair mechanism for it seeks something and stakes something in turn. Other means of protests that depend on self-denial like the fast too put something at risk in order to communicate their dissent. A bandh on the other hand is in most cases, power used selfishly and purely for effect. The party calling for the bandh puts nothing at risk and suffers no discomfort; all the pain is transferred to the public, the very constituency it is allegedly representing. When an opposition party (and often the party in power, as in some states this time) ‘enforces’ a bandh it is an exercise in old-fashioned extortion, the only difference being that the price extracted in this case is our enforced idleness. The public is co-erced into downing shutters and staying at home without any elective choice. The bandh never becomes a sign of public disenchantment because it is never allowed to be; we are given no say in the matter. Little attempt is made to mobilise public opinion or to recruit more volunteers in the cause. Increasingly, a bandh does not seek to bring about any real change; it is aimed merely at signifying that the opposition is opposing the government visibly, in this case by making us all do nothing. The bandh is a redundant public re-statement of the existential responsibility of the opposition and is aimed more at communicating the fact that the opposition is alive and kicking, in this case quite literally and vigorously.

It is interesting how all symbolic protests in India have to do with not working. Screaming unparliamentary abuse and breaking things are the other weapons in this armoury. The opposite of agreement is not disagreement but noisy inaction. In the legislature, the opposition when upset does not focus on reasoned argument but on shouting down any and every speaker. It disrupts proceedings by overturning chairs, throwing shoes or even better by walking out. When it is really upset it boycotts the Parliament and sulks while on holiday. It is as if the Parliament which is designed as a platform for airing one’s views and debating differences, is not deemed sufficient when the real need arises. At its heart, we have no faith in the mechanism that we have evolved for governance. A sense of futility hangs over most debates, and the passage of bills is purely an exercise in political arithmetic.

The bandh is an adolescent tantrum, an orchestrated sulk that revels in its absurdity. Anger becomes glorified in its most inert form; the idea of a protest frozen in inaction. The symbolic one day bandh advertises the futility of protest as it detaches anger from any possibility of change. The bandh is not aimed at bringing about change, it exists merely to communicate one’s unhappiness at the current problem, in this case the rise in prices of petroleum products. The bandh advertises the advertiser, rather than the cause it represents and in doing so reveals its fundamental dishonesty. Enough has been written the loss of productivity that happens every time a bandh is called. But the lack of productivity here is a deeper one for the bandh is designed to yield no productive result, even for those calling for it. The bandh is protest at its laziest. No wonder, the successful bandh fails by definition.