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THE recent order by Justice Lala of the Calcutta High Court banning processions and rallies on the main streets of Calcutta between 8 am and 8 pm has generated a furious debate. If many common citizens, regularly inconvenienced by ensuing traffic snarls, some extending to the better part of the day, voiced relief, political activists and leaders of all hues slammed the order as an unjustified curb on their democratic rights. The Left Front, self-assumed messiah of ‘progressive’ causes, unsurprisingly saw this latest move as part of the growing assault on the labouring poor by a capitalist establishment.

That not so long back Jayalalitha had declared strikes by public servants illegal, even managing approval from the Supreme Court, only strengthens this view. So does an earlier decision of the Kerala High Court declaring bandhs as illegal and unconstitutional. In an environment foregrounding competitive efficiency, and with all administrations (including the Left Front) vying with each other to attract private, including foreign, capital, it does appear that the rights of the working classes enjoy low salience.

It would, however, be erroneous to paint all these situations with the same bursh. Justice Lala’s directive has since been stayed by a larger bench of the High Court. Nevertheless, the concern raised by his order – counterposing the rights of the common citizen against those of protesting activists – merits serious consideration. Can the dislocation caused by rallies not be handled by administrative authority through specifying routes and timing and rigorously implementing a prior permission clause? Possibly though, in the case of Calcutta run by the Left Front, itself a major violator of civic convenience, this does not appear likely. Was this why the honourable judge was constrained to pass, suo motu, this remarkable order?

It has often been suggested that rallies and processions should only be permitted in earmarked sites, preferably some distance from the city centre. The Boat Club in Delhi and subsequently even the grounds behind the Red Fort, now stand proscribed as legitimate sites of protest. Political and labour organizers point out that such moves are only another reflection of the marginalization of the labouring poor. No one, for instance, dares to ban religious processions (including the Durga Puja), which too create serious disruptions, from the city precints. Would anyone take rallies on the outskirts of a city seriously? Protests, in this view, acquire a hearing space only if they manage to inconvenience the interests of the powerful.

A similar debate had taken place in Kerala with the proscription of bandhs. Once seen as an expression of civic non-cooperation with state authorities, bandhs over time have degenerated into a competetive demonstration of clout by rival political formations, little else. For active politicians to claim representative status without adequate concern about those who lose their daily earnings, citizens who cannot access hospitals or travel, or major losses in enterprises, is surely unacceptable. More so, since a vast majority of those forced to stay home do so only out of fear of violence, not ideological sympathy with the cause being propounded.

The Tamil Nadu ban on strikes by government servants constitutes a different genre of regulation. The Supreme Court understanding that strikes are unnecessary, given multiple alternative fora and mechanisms of dispute resolution, hardly takes account of official obduracy. If the state filibusters and refuses to negotitiate, what other option do affected employees have? Hopefully, this blanket ban will be heard by a larger bench of the Supreme Court and a reasonable via-media found.

In all this, there is little running away from the larger shifts in the social and political environment signalling a move against the interests of labour. Undeniably, this shift is in part occasioned by short-sighted, unthinking and insensitive actions of the political class, where the interests of organized workers are posited as non-negotiable. It is justifiable to try and hold onto hard won rights and privileges, even seek to extend them. But to do so without sufficient regard for either the many more not covered by protective social legislation, even less to the fate of their own enterprises, is in today’s times, an exercise foredoomed to failure.

Of course, none of this can be taken as a defence of Social Darwinism, where instead of extending protection to those who currently remain uncovered, the greater effort is towards weakening the rights of labour and further dismantling the emaciated social safety nets in the interest of capital. If such policies/trends go unchallenged, our claim as a social democracy will be seriously undermined. How both our political masters and those organizing the labouring poor reach a new social compact remains the challenge.

Harsh Sethi