What is a Bandh in South Asia?
Posted by n3wday on April 26, 2010
As the revolutionary movements of South Asia grab more and more attention — the word bandh is appearing. There are currently a number of major bandhs going on in Nepal — led by Maoist forces — including a new bandh of students shutting down thousands of schools in support of the revolutionary movement.
Jed Brandt has written from Nepal:
“April 25 — Revolutionary students allied with the Maoists today shut down 8,000 private school across Nepal demanding fee hikes be immediately withdrawn. Business offices were padlocked at major schools last week. When negotiations between the student union and school owners broke down, several buses were torched. As of today, an indefinite closure was ordered as Nepal approaches the Maoist decisive May First mobilization.”
And also recently:
“Indefinite bandhs are paralyzing large parts of the country after the arrest of Young Communist League (YCL) cadre in the isolated far west and Maoist student leaders in Pokhora, the central gateway to the Annapurna mountain range.”
Bandh is the word used in South Asia for political shutdowns (of whole areas, neighborhoods, factories or sometimes schools).
But what exactly is a bandh?
Sometimes it is translated “general strike” — which has led to some confusing debates among forces who have very particular ideas about “general strikes” (and how they should be conducted). Other times, it has been seen through the prism of north American experience (with particular kinds of formalized strikes of trade unions and workers).
One place we can (perhaps start) is simply to share the entry in Wikipedia and have some discussion here:
Bandh (Hindi: बंद), originally a Hindi word meaning ‘closed’, is a form of protest used by political activists in some countries in South Asia like India and Nepal. During a Bandh, a major political party or a large chunk of a community declares a general strike, usually lasting one day.
Often Bandh means that the community or political party declaring a Bandh expect the general public to stay in their homes and strike work. The main affected are shopkeepers who are expected to keep their shops closed and the public transport operators of buses and cabs are supposed to stay off the road and not carry any passengers. There have been instances of large metro cities coming to a standstill.
Bandhs are powerful means for civil disobedience. Because of the huge impact that a Bandh has on the local community, it is much feared as a tool of protest.
The Supreme Court of India tried to “ban” bandhs in 1998, but political parties still organize them. In 2004, the Supreme Court of India fined two political parties, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena for organizing a bandh in Mumbai as a protest against bomb blasts in the city. The state with the maximum Bandhs in India is Communist Party of India (Marxist) controlled West Bengal where the average number of bandhs per year is 40-50 (ranging from a couple of hours to a maximum of 2 days per bandh).
A bandh is not the same as a Hartal, which simply means a strike: during a bandh, any business activity (and sometimes even traffic) in the area affected will be forcibly prevented by the strikers. However, in states where bandhs are banned, Hartals may be identical to bandhs except for the name.
Note: Bandhs are often associated with partisan political forces — and are also used by reactionary parties in India (the Hindu chauvinist and communal elements).
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The following interesting commentary on Ben’s Blog appeared last year. Ben Thurley is part of a Christian NGO (TEAR Australia) in Nepal, and (as you will see) not particularly sympathetic to either the bandhs or the revolution emerging in Nepal:
There have been an increasing number of bandhs across Nepal lately, some quite serious. Bandh or banda (बन्ध in Nepali) means “closed” and this common form of civic action is part strike, part blockade, part demonstration. An aggrieved group takes to the street to publicly protest about an issue of concern, and to apply maximum pressure they aim to literally close down as much regular life and work as possible.
During bandhs, markets and businesses are closed. Transport is halted through affected areas – walking might be ok, you may well be able to wheel a bicycle past (no guarantees, though) but anything with an engine is fair game. Students miss a day at school. The blockade is generally maintained through coercion and intimidation and, sometimes, more than just the threat of violence.
Bandhs range from relatively small-scale and local events to blockades that affect whole districts or that even occur nationally. The immediate and local effects include lost income for businesses, disruptions to work and study for workers and students, and sometimes damage to vehicles and property. If the bandh causes significant stoppages, it will generally be the poorest people who suffer disproportionately. People with little capital and few resources don’t have any buffer to tide them over a day without work, or without access to market. But the bandh is pretty indiscriminate in who it affects.
People are sometimes killed too. The current bandh in the terai (Nepal’s broad, southern plains region) has seen two protesters and one police officer killed. Earlier in the year, a person died in a bus that was set on fire during a bandh.
As well as the immediate and local impact, there may also be wider and longer-term effects, particularly where important transport routes are affected.
They are called by all sorts of groups and for all sorts of reasons:
- by employer’s groups, protesting the business impact of power shortages or politically-motivated labour disputes
- by unions and labour groups, calling for adequate pay and conditions
- by student associations, or by various affiliates of political parties,
- by sector-specific workers or entrepreneurs,
- by relatives of people killed or hurt in political violence or as a result of lawlessness,
- by relatives of people killed by motor vehicles, or who have died in hospital,
- by committees representing a particular cause, such as relief for victims of last year’s Koshi floods, or the current bandh of the Tharu Welfare Council protesting the reclassification of the Tharu people as part of a broader Madesh (plains) ethnic identity…
Understandably, there are periodic calls from governing politicians for bandhs to be restricted or banned. These calls don’t tend to result in much action and in a combative political environment, bandhs are easily exploited and manipulated for political ends by all parties.
There have been attempts at creating bandh-free zones. Dhankuta was declared one in December, and an all-party meeting in Chitwan district did the same November last year. That didn’t last long though, and Chitwan District is now the epicentre of the indefinite bandh called by the Tharu Welfare Council.
More hopeful, possibly, is that some groups have pledged not to utilise bandhs in pursuit of their interests. There are any number of less destructive methods of public protest, so let’s hope that civil society gets more creative.
Addressing the “supply side” of bandhs is one thing. However, the “demand side”, the underlying conditions that lead to bandhs must also be addressed – whether that is institutional incapacity or failure to address grievances, or it’s ongoing insecurity and violence, or the failure to equitably and efficiently deliver services and allocate public goods.
Government, communities and civil society all have roles to play in tackling these underlying conditions. My feeling is that bandhs don’t help much here. They don’t help civil society contribute constructively to public debate. They don’t help build thriving and peaceful communities. And as for government – sure authorities may sometimes concede the bandh’s demands. But far better than having merely reactive authorities, is to have accountable and responsive ones.
All easy enough, right?
Other links (given by Ben’s Blog):
- Nepali Times calls for a bandh ban
- NepalBandh lists all current and scheduled bandhs across the country
- OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Nepal maintains situation reports and maps of bandhs and other security situations around the country.
- The World Food Program has a report on bandhs in Nepal, Struck Out – the everyday economic and livelihood impact of bandhs and strikes in Nepal
- UNDP Bangladesh released a report in 2005 called Beyond Hartals (.pdf) which has a lot of relevance to Nepal’s situation. (Hartal and bandh mean essentially the same thing, though this document describes differences in their legal and constitutional status in India and Bangladesh.)
I should make it clear that we haven’t been personally affected by bandhs in a major way. There have been a few in Kathmandu over the last few months that have required us to postpone meetings, or shopping, or choose a different route to travel. But this has really only been a minor inconvenience and we haven’t been anywhere near any of the periodic confrontations between protesters and police. However, for many of our colleagues, particularly those on the Terai, bandhs are a major impediment to effective work and everyday life.