In a rare moment of candour, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had once publicly admitted that among his major failures in 14 years at the helm has been his ibility ‘to stop the bandh culture’ in the State. Well, failure is one thing, but making peace with failure and living at complete ease with it is another thing altogether. On other occasions, Gogoi has sometimes warned of strict action and sometimes lamented the harm frequent bandhs are wreaking on the State’s economy, supposedly over Rs 10,000 crores in just the year 2012 itself. Overall, Dispur’s lenient attitude to the bandh culture in Assam has encouraged mischievous and lumpen elements to declare bandhs at the drop of a hat and go on the rampage. The brunt is not only borne by daily-wagers and small traders who have to earn daily to keep their families afloat, but by the public in general. The latest images of violence during the middle Assam bandh called by 26 organisation demanding Tiwa Autonomous Council elections in six council constituencies in Kamrup, have come as a shocker. The impunity with which bandh supporters beat up innocent people, smashed their vehicles, and set goods trucks afire — has once again set off a public outcry against the lax attitude of the administration to bandh violence. This seems to have compelled a sluggish State police to arrest a handful of vandals from Morigaon and gaon. How many such malcontents are eventually caught and punished remains to be seen.
In recent memory, bandhs called by Adivasi organisation AAASA, the minority students organisation AAMSU and the saffron outfit Bajrang Dal witnessed widespread violence, but timid response by the police and administration has encouraged other organisations to indulge in rampant bandh violence. One reason for the administrative machinery’s ambivalence to bandhs is that apart from rebel outfits, often powerful social groups and political parties give bandh calls to press demands. The excuse frequently trotted out is that in a democratic polity, voices of protest or dissent cannot be throttled by force. But as seen during the bandh on Wednesday last, it is mostly social and political groups which behave in blatantly undemocratic manner to victimise common people going about their daily work. Even people carrying critically sick or injured people to hospital are not spared. The basic motive is to terrorise people to stay indoors with threat of bodily harm; if vehicles are vandalised, the owners will surely suffer because it is then nearly impossible to press claims from insurance companies. So bandh supporters are not spontaneously venting violence for demands not met — rather they are calculatingly using violence as a weapon to enforce a complete shutdown. The idea is that once all people are corralled inside their homes, there is nothing the government can do, so the bandh becomes a fait accompli, a ‘complete success’.
It is instructive to keep in mind that while the Supreme Court has allowed strikes and hartals as legitimate forms of democratic protest, it has made it absolutely clear that bandhs are ‘complete shutdowns’ and hence illegal. The apex court clarified this legal position back in September 2007, ten years after it upheld a Kerala High Court ban on bandhs. It had said parties cannot pass off bandhs as strikes or hartals, which are ‘directed against specific organisations or institutions’. The Guwahati High Court too in 2010 declared bandhs ‘illegal and unconstitutiol’, being a violation of the fundamental rights of citizens. It had then instructed the Assam government to act sternly against organisations or individuals calling bandhs. This year while hearing a PIL against ‘bandh culture’, the Gauhati High Court again directed the Assam government to inform about what actions it has taken so far on the proposed legislation ‘Assam Prevention of Unconstitutiol Bandh Act 2013’.
A backward state like Assam losing on an average Rs 900 crore every year because of bandhs, as revealed in a report by Industries and Commerce of North Eastern region (ICNER), is not a situation that can be tolerated. A special case is the State’s oil industry, losing a whopping Rs 200 crore in just one fincial year 2012-13 due to an unbelievable 290 bandhs called in Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts. Such are the consequences of leniency to the pernicious bandh culture, forcing the premier and oldest industry in the State to its knees. Is it then at all surprising if some top oil companies are beginning to shift their focus elsewhere from their Assam assets? If such are the losses the oil sector is suffering, the overall loss to trade and commerce in the State through frequent bandhs can well be imagined. Besides, the ripple effects of bandhs in Assam are felt in other Northeast states too as foodstuff, fuel, medicines and other essential commodities transported via road or rail become costlier. The State government must take a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to bandhs, get FIRs lodged in police stations under which bandh violence is perpetrated, fine and throw unceremoniously behind bars both leaders and activists of organisations calling bandhs. The task force constituted by Dispur to devise means to combat bandhs at the grassroots must be made to submit its recommendations at the earliest. The draft bill for stringent pelties against bandh callers needs to be passed as law by the Assam Assembly in its next session.