The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In one thing, West Bengal can always be depended on. In fact, the more the blight on the state, the firmer its commitment to this particular principle. This is, of course, the principle of protest — one of the most crucial expressions of the cherished “freedom” guaranteed by a democracy to its people. Bandhs, rallies, demonstrations and sundry other forms of disruption could claim to be the channels through which West Bengal’s creativity, collective enterprise and political imagination flow most abundantly. This was proved one more time by the grand success of yesterday’s trade unions’ strike. Most major trade unions had called for a nationwide strike, to protest against the Centre’s “anti-worker” policies. Almost everywhere in the country the strike remained a strike, leaving people free to ignore its cause and get on with their everyday lives. But in West Bengal, and in Kerala, through a concerted effort of the political will, the strike became a bandh, paralyzing most normal activities in a triumphant display of democratic freedom. In fact, to invoke the distinction between between a hartal or strike and a bandh would amount to legal nitpicking, since such a distinction, once endorsed by the nation’s highest court, does not exist in West Bengal. Every strike ends up as a bandh, defining both the political culture and the general work ethic of the state.

The common factor between Kerala and West Bengal is, of course, the communist ideology which provides the rationale and inspiration for such disruptiveness. But in Bengal, this culture has now become quite non-aligned, affecting the modus operandi of every political party. Last year, the Calcutta high court dismissed a public interest litigation seeking an injunction on a bandh called by the Trinamool Congress. The court was sparing itself the indignity of passing an injunction that would never be implemented by the state government. The Kerala high court had also ruled bandhs illegal and unconstitutional, proposing that political parties which use coercion during bandhs should be derecognized. This had started a largely judicial debate which had even reached the Supreme Court. Yet, this important debate within the judiciary remains fairly distant from the level at which the deeply ingrained culture of disruptive protest operates in a polity like West Bengal. But investors should not give up on West Bengal too easily. The bandhs spare “essential services”. Perhaps the state should tout something like an “essential services sector” — water and milk supply, hospitals, fire brigade, newspapers and news agencies and burning ghats — to potential investors. These are the only things here that never shut down.

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