The High Court of Kerala today passed an order banning ‘flash’ hartals.
The Division Bench of Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice A K Jayasankaran Nambiar ordered that hartals can be declared only after giving prior notice of seven days. The Court held that within the 7 days, any citizen can challenge the declaration of hartal.
The operative portion of the Court’s order said :
“Hartal without 7 days notice is unconstitutional and within those 7 days any citizen can challenge Hartal”.
The Court was considering a PIL filed by Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry against hartals. The petition stated that in last year 97 hartals were conducted in the Kerala, which had a severe impact on business and livelihood of workers, leading to a loss of crores of rupees. Normal life was paralyzed on all these days, with even public offices and educational institutions compelled to shut down.
All prominent political parties of the State- CPI(M), Congress, CPI, BJP, IUML and Kerala Congress(M)- were made respondents in the petition.
The petition also sought for police protection for shops and commercial establishments during hartals.
The Court expressed strong disapproval at the practice of calling for hartals at the drop of a hat.
On hearing the arguments of Dr.K P Satheeshan, Senior Advocate appearing for the petitioner, the Court also ordered that the Government should take adequate steps to ensure that the workers’ strike scheduled to be held tomorrow will not affect the public.
The Court also held that the damages to public and private properties caused during hartals will be realized from the party or association which called for it.
The Government was also directed to explore the option of regulating hartals by appropriate legislation.
The High Court of Kerala had earlier declared “bandh” unconstitutional way back in 1997 in Bharat Kumar v State of Kerala. This judgment was affirmed by the Supreme Court as well. However, the practice of hartals continued on the understanding that they are voluntarily shut down of work in protest.
But in reality, hartals operate with an element of coercion, as people are forced to refrain from work due to fear of attack from protesters. So, despite the ban on ‘bandhs’, public shutdowns continued to be forced on the public by political parties and associations under the euphemism of ‘hartal’.
Of late, merchants and tourism operators have been airing their objections against this practice. Last December, the merchants’ association of Kerala had declared that they will not co-operate with hartals from 2019 onwards.
However, a hartal took place in the first week of new year itself, when Sabarimala Karma Samithi declared it on January 3 to protest the entry of two women in Sabarimala temple. The hartal on January 3 witnessed widespread violence and vandalism across the state.
Though hoteliers and merchants had declared that they will not shut down on January 3, most of them could not keep up with the promise in the face of threats of violence, and inadequate police security.