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CPM gets a bill for bandhs

Thiruvananthapuram, Dec. 5: The day an exasperated Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was looking for a doctor to treat the bandh disease, a strong medicine was being tried out on his comrades in Kerala, Bengal's fellow-traveller on shutdowns.

Compensation notices were slapped on three stalwarts of the Kerala CPM and 100 others for destruction of public property during shutdowns called by the party or its affiliates.

The Kerala government order was issued on Friday, the day Opposition Trinamul Congress supporters organised a bandh in Bengal.

CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, former Speaker M. Vijaya Kumar and Left Front convener Paloly Mohammed Kutty and the others have been asked to pay Rs 3 lakh for destruction of public property during the 13 strikes called after the Congress-led government came to power in 2001.

The collective compensation demand of Rs 3 lakh is but a drop in an ocean of Rs 10.52 crore Kerala has lost over the last three years in bandhs. But this is the first time anywhere in the country that a government has moved on its own to claim damages and pin responsibility on individuals.

The order also imposes vicarious responsibility on the sponsors of hartals, after forced shutdowns were declared illegal by the Supreme Court. This closes the escape hatch for political leaders who deploy ranks in the streets and disclaim any personal role in the resultant violence.

Early this year, when the Shiv Sena and the BJP were fined Rs 20 lakh each for destruction during a Mumbai bandh, the order was passed by the high court in response to a petition moved by a group of concerned citizens.

Like in Bengal, the CPM and the Congress are sworn enemies in Kerala, though they are allies at the Centre. However, the ruling Congress in Kerala ' though not lagging in calling bandhs when out of power ' has not yet found common cause with the Opposition on bandhs, unlike the Bengal CPM which has sent feelers to Trinamul on the need to join hands.

Vijayan called the move 'sheer fascism', saying the 'repressive measure was meant to stifle popular agitations against the government's wrongdoings'.

But the government has warned in the notice that civil cases would be registered and revenue recovery proceedings initiated if the money was not remitted in the name of the chief secretary within 15 days.

The notices have also been sent to several leaders of the CPM's youth and student wings. The state secretary of the BJP's student arm and eight others have been asked to pay Rs 2,000 for damaging a police vehicle during a protest.

Before sending the notices, the state government assigned a deputy superintendent of police in every district to assess the destruction.

A tricky issue so far had been how to hold the leaders accountable as they themselves usually do not take part in the destruction and rioting. The Kerala government got over this problem on the basis of a high court order in 2002.

Kerala High Court had said that even if the hartal-callers do not directly destroy property, 'they would be liable for the damage caused to public property and we do not see why they cannot be sued on the principle of compensation or on tort'.

'Obviously, the officers of the state have the duty to protect and preserve public property. The performance of that duty also involves the recovery of compensation when a public or state asset is wantonly destroyed. So, in addition to initiating action under the penal law, including the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, the state can also sue wrong-doers and their instigators for recovery of damages,' the court had said.

Trade and industry welcome the compensation notices, as did most participants of an opinion poll on a government website.

'Such a strong action was needed to create an atmosphere for attracting investments. It's good news for all of us,' Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) spokesman Shivdas B. Menon said.

In the online poll, close to 80 per cent participants said they would back banning the hartals.

If remains to be seen whether the Congress-led government -- whose ability to enforce controversial decisions has often been enfeebled by perennial feuds and Opposition onslaught ' will show the resolve to stick to its decision.

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