THE Kerala High Court ruling on July 28 declaring bandhs "illegal and unconstitutional" has brought to the fore the divide between the political establishment and the public vis-a-vis demonstrations that bring normal life to a halt. It has also raised the question whether the three-member bench's order takes away the fundamental right of political parties and citizens to protest. All political parties feel that the judgement is "unfair"; but sections of the business community hailed the ruling.
The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front government has already announced that it will appeal against the high court ruling. Says Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar: "The people of the state hold the view that the court ruling infringes upon the freedom of expression as well as the right to organise and protest." This is a view echoed by other politicians as well. According to Atul Kumar Anjan, national secretary, CPI: "The judgement has far-reaching complications for a democratic society like ours. The people have the right to express their pain and anguish in a non-violent way and by breaking prohibitory orders. All political parties should challenge the judgement." The BJP's parliamentary board member O. Rajagopal says the judgement would hinder "reasonable protest".
But public opinion in states like Kerala and West Bengal where there are frequent bandhs has been supportive of the judgement. An opinion poll conducted by a Kerala daily shows a 90 per cent swing in fav-our of the court order. Since the LDF government assumed power in May last year, Kerala has witnessed 11 bandhs. In addition, there have been numerous district-level and taluka-level bandhs. In Calcutta, Chamber of Commerce president Gaurav Swarup described the verdict as "most sensible", and said it is time to do away with bandhs.
A section of lawyers also agrees with the Kerala High Court judgement which has observed that political parties and organisations which call for bandhs "are liable to compensate the government, the public and private citizens for the loss suffered by them." Notes Shanti Bhushan, constitutional expert and Supreme Court lawyer: "I am in entire agreement with the judgement. Even though it is a fundamental right to dissent, it cannot violate other people's right to work. The poor man loses his daily wages because of these bandhs. They are contrary to constitutional democracy. I think the Supreme Court will uphold the judgement."
Political groups in Kerala committed to the use of ban-dhs as a means of self-assertion are now wary of attracting the more severe provisions of the verdict such as contempt of court and the payment of compensation for losses incurred by the public. Attempts are on to arrive at a consensus within the political community on how best to meet the new challenge posed by the judiciary. Argues KPCC chief Vayalar Ravi: "Bandhs inconvenience only those sections of the public who can afford to possess cars. The poorer sections, especially in the rural areas, are not affected."
A fitting counterpoint to the view held by political parties is provided by former Supreme Court judge V. R. Krishna Iyer: "I have always stood against bandhs. Bandhs put people to great inconvenience, depriving them of the freedom of movement and expression. Bandhs go against the very right to life, denying people access to health care and hospitals. What political parties mean by a bandh is paralysis of the life of the people and that, to my mind, is contra-constitutional." The judgement has already had the effect of quietening political parties in Kerala. The court's ruling came even as the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) planned to picket trains across the state in support of the demand to dismiss the Maharashtra government. The protest was called off. Similarly, a state-wide bandh scheduled for Independence day called by the Adivasi
Action Council has been dropped. If the Supreme Court upholds the verdict, it is bound to rattle the politicians. Now, the ruling is applicable only in the state but PILs can be filed in courts elsewhere to bring about similar strictures. The Kerala verdict was passed by a full bench on writ petitions filed by, among others, the Ernakulam Chamber of Commerce. Stumping the political class which finds itself at the receiving end of judicial rulings.