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Bandh, the trusty old political device that has lost its edge, writes Smruti Koppikar

02:30 AM Oct 15, 2021 | Smruti Koppikar

After ages, Shiv Sena workers displayed their most recognised skill during the bandh on October 11: threatening shops to down shutters, forcing autorickshaw and taxi drivers off the roads, indulging in arson and violence. It was a state-wide bandh call given by Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) comprising Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party, but its impact was most felt – to the extent that it was – in cities.

In Mumbai, indeed the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), the lukewarm response underscored the fact that the enforcement of a bandh and the city’s response had dramatically changed in the last few decades. Despite a few Sena workers flexing their muscles and the Mumbai mayor vociferously protesting on a pavement in Worli – which happens to be Thackeray scion Aaditya’s legislative constituency – Mumbai and its neighbouring cities did not grind to a halt or tremble in fear. There are event-specific, as well as transformative reasons for this.

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Power play

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Political power play between the MVA and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominated the bandh call, unlike similar calls in the past which had to do with issues directly affecting common citizens, such as price rise. The bandh was called to protest the mowing down of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh, allegedly by the son of a junior minister, Ajay Mishra, in Narendra Modi’s cabinet.

The accused was arrested only after opposition parties, especially the Congress and the sister-brother duo of Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, turned it into a national story. The father is yet to resign from the Union Cabinet. Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah did not say a word about the shocking incident on their otherwise busy social media timelines or at any venue they spoke since October 3. Modi visited Lucknow later that week but did not head to Lakhimpur Kheri, a two-and-a-half hour drive. Much as the BJP’s media managers tried, they could not prevent the videos from going viral on social media. The BJP, both at the Centre and in UP, was on the backfoot.

The MVA constituent parties saw an opportunity to add to the BJP’s discomfiture. What better than to shut down – or attempt to shut down – India’s commercial capital? If there was awkwardness about parties in power calling for a bandh, it was quickly brushed aside because the BJP had indulged in this behaviour elsewhere too.

Scattered incidents

Mumbai and other cities in the MMR did not completely cave in to this bandh though traffic was sparse and pavements were desolate in some areas. About nine BEST buses were damaged, there was arson on some streets. The Shiv Sena flexed its muscles in scattered places, as did the NCP and Congress. Mumbai Police registered at least three FIRs and detained more than 200 people with party affiliations.

Beyond the politics lie the ground-level reasons for Mumbai’s tepid response to the bandh. These have to do with the transforming nature of the city, its workforce and the use of bandh as an instrument of socio-political negotiation or power.

George Fernandes era

The first recorded bandh in then Bombay was in July 1958, nearly two years before Maharashtra was formed with the city as its capital. This was when the young and fiery trade unionist George Fernandes, decades later a Union minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet, had organised a bandh to assert the right of automobile workers to form a union of their choice.

The next eight years saw four bandhs, on issues ranging from price rise to unemployment, which successfully shut down the city and sent a strong message to the Congress then in power at the Centre and in Bombay. The strikes and bandhs in the early 1970s helped cement his image as ‘the bandhman’.

The issues that Fernandes took up brought him into confrontation with those in power but they also resonated with a large section of people in the city. Bombay was a working class city, its millions were employed in mills and factories, politically educated and unionised by strong left-wing unions and associations. And Fernandes targeted the nerve of the city – its transport network – by forming or encouraging unions of taxi drivers, railway motormen, BEST employees and so on. When workers in the transport sector struck work, others had no option but to sit out the day at home or participate in the strike. Mill sirens went silent and the city’s streets saw cricket matches on such days.

Violent Sena bandhs

When the Shiv Sena adopted this tactic, replacing the strike with a bandh or shutdown, to push its ideology, it also reinterpreted the role of violence in enforcing it. The 1980s and 90s saw the worst kinds of vandalism, arson and violence by the party’s loyalists, ironically against the working class of the city.

Those who suffered Sena’s violent tactics were the hawkers, daily wage workers, small shop owners, street-side food vendors, and the like. Mumbai witnessed more spontaneous – less enforced – general shutdowns after the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and after the March 1993 serial bomb blasts. The city went silent and indoors after Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012 too but it was unclear if this was driven by respect for the leader or fear of Sena’s infamous violence.

The changing nature of strikes and shutdowns has also to do with the changing profile of Mumbai’s economy and its labour, which transformed from a manufacturing and commercial centre to a service-driven economy. Workers used to be employees in the older system, unionised and collectively bargaining for better conditions, and equally willing to engage on larger issues such as price rise. In the post-liberalised Mumbai, workers are on contracts and therefore not unionised into a collective through which they can participate in the larger debates.

As for the Sena, its appetite for violent bandhs decreased after the judiciary levied a fine of Rs 20 lakh in 2004-05 for a bandh in2003. Under Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership, it has tried to shed its old character though the change holds little appeal for a cadre raised on violence. The muscle-flexing on October 11, in partnership with parties it disliked before 2019, was also to energise its cadre for the forthcoming election to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

Its place and purpose in the city has changed but the bandh continues to be a political instrument.

Smruti Koppikar, journalist, urban chronicler and media educator, writes on politics, cities, gender and development. She tweets @smrutibombay

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