The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Twin strikes on bandh

Calcutta, Nov. 17: Two arms of the state combined today to deal a double blow to the practice of observing bandhs.

The judiciary moved towards punishing a political party for calling a bandh by threatening to recommend derecognition. The CPM-led government in Bengal proved that bandhs cannot succeed if the full might of the administration is arrayed against it in the absence of a groundswell of popular support.

In observations in the context of the bandh called today by the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), Calcutta High Court spoke of the possibility of recommending its disqualification as a political party.

'The apex court has declared bandhs unconstitutional. Let the SUCI come to us and declare its intention not to abide by the Supreme Court order. Let them say they will hold bandhs again. We will not hesitate to direct the authorities concerned to derecognise the party by cancelling its registration,' the division bench of Justice Pratap Kumar Roy and Justice Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya said.

Although this is the first time such a threat has been voiced, in two cases earlier, the Supreme Court has said if political parties or organisations call bandhs, they can be penalised.

The penalty Calcutta High Court referred to can be imposed only by the Election Commission. The commission said it could comment only after it received an order from the high court.

Parties have to submit affidavits while they seek registration committing themselves to observing court orders. The high court sees calling of bandhs as violation of a Supreme Court order and the offender liable to be punished with disqualification. That order did not ban bandhs, but prohibited those that are forced on the people. But it also said force is implied in the words bandh and hartal.

The SUCI, which was absent from court today to the anger of the judges, was asked to submit its views on Friday when the petition against the bandh by the All India Minority Forum will be heard again.

'It is a serious matter and we will not like to comment without getting a copy of the court order,' SUCI secretary Provas Ghosh said. He, however, added that his party would call a bandh again 'if the people of Bengal really want it'.

Both Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress and the CPI(ML), which have called bandhs on December 3 and November 22, said they would go ahead with their decision.

'Bandhs only serve the purpose of political leaders.' The rich and middle class people enjoy bandhs as holidays. But the downtrodden, basically daily wage earners, have to starve on bandh days,' the judges said.

It was not quite clear if the 'downtrodden' did earn their bread today, but Writers' Buildings, the administration's headquarters, was close to full. The officially declared attendance of 90 per cent was testimony to the effectiveness of the threat of punishment.

The high court had ordered the government to cut the salary of absent employees. Chief secretary Ashok Gupta said pay would be cut if the high court did not allow casual leave.

For the first time in recent memory, the administration made a serious effort ' with public transport and security ' to ensure that people who wanted to go to work could do so.

A stunning example was the provision of 30 auto-rickshaws hired by police for employees of infotech companies based in Salt Lake where attendance was close to normal.

'It's a watershed bandh. Attendance has been very good in offices and there's a lot of transport on the roads. If the state government claims that its arrangements ensured that the bandh had no effect, it only goes to show that it can do so every time if it wants to,' said Amitabh Khosla, the regional director of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

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