“The calling of hartals (shutdowns) at the drop of a hat by political parties is the single biggest deterrent to Kerala’s progress”, said Kerala Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy in a recent media interaction. When I heard it, all my memories of hartals came flooding back to my mind. Born and brought up in Kerala, I was used to this hartal syndrome of frequent shutdowns and holidays. After having moved to Orissa, for the last one year I was feeling this hartal withdrawal syndrome. Simply put, here there are no holidays due to hartals. In fact it is not just the case of Orissa. It is the case of other states as well where people defy the hartal calls and life moves peacefully. In Kerala the political parties have created a fear among the people that no one ventures out on a hartal day. Thus any hartal called by any political party becomes a success.
You can go on lamenting the problems the hartals can cause. Every service of the state gets affected. But there is another side to this story too. For many it is the time to relax at home, an excuse for not going to work, or to just chill out. The day before the hartal, the shops and the marketplaces will be crammed with last minute shoppers which will resemble some ongoing festivity.
If you are a school kid, the number of holidays you get, is normally twice or thrice the holidays you find in your calendar. For students, these are the times of joy. One fine morning you feel lazy to go to school and suddenly you hear, ‘Today there is a hartal called by so and so political party and the educational institutions of the state won’t be functioning’. Wow! it’s time to wish each other “Happy Hartal”. You can’t thank the party enough. In another instance, tomorrow you have a math test and suddenly you hear rumours of a hartal. Then prayers will be held in full swing for the hartal so that the test gets postponed. When the hartal does happen, there is a huge sigh of relief. But if the hartal gets cancelled, then you are in trouble because your study time was dedicated for prayers for a hartal. In fact, if you go to a temple and pray for a hartal with some offerings to the lord, there is a very good chance that you will be blessed by the lord. Hartals means official holidays for all educational institutions. The school I went to is in the vicinity of the Secretariat and a small protest can result in suspension of the class. Then there are education bandhs, where only the schools and colleges remains closed, called by the parties like SFI, ABVP, KSU, the student wings of different political parties.
In Kerala, any reason, right from big political issues to small, many at times, trivial non issues can bring the life to a standstill. The petrol price rise, food price rise, arrests of leaders, dispute in the construction of flyovers and even food poisoning can evoke hartals in Kerala. Hartals are actually the handiwork of some unemployed lumpen elements who just wants to destroy the peace of the state. During my school days there used to be a long standing dispute between the management of engineering and medical colleges, and the government regarding seat sharing and fee structure. So the admission months of June to August were also the hartal months. I remember once there was a time when for at least two months, a week would consist of three working days and four holidays. Each day each party will have its quota of hartals.
After I moved to Orissa, for the past one year I never heard of such a thing called hartals, other than some rare instances of all India bandhs. The evidence is there in Google search. You type in ‘hartals in’ and the first option that comes up in auto complete is Kerala. Even ninety percent of the Youtube video on hartals are related to hartals in Kerala. Out of curiosity to find out how alien the hartal is in here, I typed in ‘hartals in Orissa’ in google which showed an error asking whether it is ‘hotels in Orissa’. I guess no extra holidays for me to enjoy in here.
But I have to admit that in reality hartals are not that hunky dory. Hartals means no shops, no buses, no private vehicles, and total shutdown of all services. Of course you can enjoy the holiday but if some emergency arises then you won’t have any choice. In Kerala any Tom Dick and Harry can call for a hartal and make it successful. Is it the passive nature of the society that makes the hartals a success? The political parties need to introspect what exactly they have achieved by organizing these hartals. It’s time to save the Gods own country from these hartal happy politicians, or else the tourists who come here would feel that they have taken a wrong turn and reached the devil’s own country. Kerala has become a place for the hartals, of the hartals, by the hartals. So in hartal terms what about organizing a hartal, to protest against the hartals, since it causes too much inconvenience to the common man? Are you in?