October 17, 2002


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Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

Scourge of the 'bandh'

When terrorists struck and brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Centre last year, New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, took instant charge of the situation. Within hours he had established a command post within a short distance from the site and from that office he coordinated the rescue operations, organised the clearing of the site, and comforted the relatives of the victims.

Within a record time of a few days the population had returned to work and resumed daily activities. President Bush returned to the capital and led the national response and reaction to the attack. Within a short time, he had put together an international coalition. Less than a month later the attacks in Afghanistan commenced and, subsequently, the Taliban were overthrown.

Apparently they had it all wrong. If he had any sense at all, the first thing Giuliani should have done was to call for a New York bandh "to express the spontaneous feelings of the people of New York". Not wanting to be upstaged by a mere mayor of a city, George Bush should have followed that up with a call for a US bandh. And finally both should have appealed to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for a world bandh.

That is what Indian leaders would have done. The bandh (general closure) is India's unique contribution to the political and economic management of a country. When disaster, natural or man-made, strikes, other countries work that much harder to make up for lost time and production. But Indians declare bandhs.

Until a few years ago, leaders used to be modest in their demands. They called for a city or at most a state bandh. No more. Now it is a Bharat bandh. That too on the flimsiest of excuses. Karnataka refuses to give water from the Cauvery to Tamil Nadu --- Tamil Nadu bandh. Veerappan kidnaps an actor from Karnataka --- Karnataka bandh. Terrorists mount attack on a temple --- Bharat bandh.

The entire proclamation and execution of a bandh has now become standard operating procedure. A political party, normally the opposition, calls for a bandh. They proclaim that the bandh will be entirely voluntary and peaceful. The state government announces that they will not allow any lawlessness. On the day of the bandh, shopkeepers automatically down shutters. A feeble attempt is made to run local trains and buses, but after a few incidents of stone throwing, they are promptly cancelled. There is a holiday atmosphere. Children pour out on to the streets and play cricket. By evening, the political party claims complete success: the bandh was total. The state government also claims credit: the bandh was peaceful. Everyone is happy until the next bandh.

In Pune recently, a political worthy had the following to say about the recent bandh. "The bandh was entirely spontaneous. As soon as Balasaheb gave the call, the Sainiks were out on the street enforcing the bandh." He was too dense to see the irony in his remarks.

India is a developing country. The economy is in the doldrums. When China has boasted of a GDP growth of above 10 per cent for the past many years, India has continued to crawl at the Hindu rate of growth of about 4 per cent. With liberalisation, the nineties saw a jump to a reasonable 6 per cent. Yet so much needs to be done to increase production and improve productivity. Enough number of bandhs each year has put a full stop to our aspirations.

Enough has been written in the past about the economic ill effects of bandhs. What is less well known is the effect the bandh culture is having on our institutions and on our security. It is beginning to spread like wild fire. A most ominous development in recent times is the state-sponsored bandh. If the establishment which is supposed to prevent a bandh itself organises one for its political well-being, we are in serious trouble.

Bandhs are the first cousins of strikes, except that everyone is forced to join in. In the recent past, the police have had bandhs and one keeps hoping the nation's armed forces do not catch on to the idea.

If any adversary wishes to launch a pre-emptive attack on the country, all he has to do is to organise an Akshardham type of attack, and sure enough the whole country will observe a bandh, making it easy for the main attack. An enemy spends crores every year with one aim: to cause chaos, disrupt production, and promote instability in India. The bandh sponsors do his work for him.

When bandhs began many years ago, there were a few courageous fellows who tried their best to defy the fiat. Even the state governments in those days took more action to continue production than they are doing today. It took the storm troopers of the political warlords to enforce bandhs in those days. Today if a bold shopkeeper wants to open his shop, the police consider him a troublemaker and advise him to shut down.

By now the hoodlums have so totally emasculated the will of the people that no one dares step out into the street when a bandh call is given. The greatest crime of the proponents of the bandh is that they have turned a once brave population into a collection of unwilling but timid allies who want to avoid trouble.

A series of pusillanimous governments and a docile and inefficient police force whose main aim is to "avoid trouble" make it impossible to break the scourge of the bandh. But make no mistake. It is indeed a scourge that has grown like a cancer over the past two decades.

Can India ever get rid of the tyranny of the bandh? Certainly not with the present dispensation.

The first requirement if we are to get rid of the coercion is a government worth its name, headed by a Sardar Patel or a Morarji Desai. Morarji had many faults and did not particularly mind if he was loved or hated. But he never lacked the courage to do things that he considered right.

We primarily want a government to re-establish confidence in the people. A government that will proclaim unequivocally that it will not allow a bandh to succeed and will not hesitate to take extreme measures, including calling out the army, to enforce law and order.

It is axiomatic that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Once the people's confidence in the government's ability to keep business open is restored, one can be absolutely certain that neither a bandh will be called nor enforced.

Consider the following for a minute. Will a bandh be ever called in, say, Berlin or Paris or London? Or will any government in these countries allow it to succeed? Then if our government continues to proclaim that India is not a soft state, why does it allow a bandh to be called and to succeed?

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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