On April 24, Idukki district in Kerala virtually came to a standstill. Shops and commercial establishments downed their shutters, government offices were closed, vehicles kept off roads, and people took the day off work and stayed home. It was all in response to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance’s call for a dawn-to-dusk shutdown to demand the resignation of Kerala Electricity Minister MM Mani for his sexist remarks against women tea plantation workers from the district’s Munnar region a day ago. In the evening, the alliance leaders claimed the shutdown was a success and thanked the people for supporting it.

Hartals or strikes are the favoured mode of protest for everyone in Kerala, from political parties and trade unions to people’s collectives and merchant organisations. Their reasons for striking, though, may vary, from protesting attacks on their members to criticising the government’s policies. Little wonder then that the state has observed 27 hartals since January.

According to statistics compiled by the Hartal Virudha Munnani (anti-hartal front), Kerala witnessed 363 hartals in the seven-year period between 2005 and 2012, 184 of those in 2008 alone.

The Confederation of Indian Industry estimated in 2013 that the state economy suffered a daily loss of Rs 900 crores with each successful hartal.

This year, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is working to find a foothold in Kerala, has already called for 12 shutdowns, the most by any political party. The Congress, which leads the Opposition United Democratic Front, accounts for four while the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the Left Democratic Front, has three to its name.

Many point to the irony in the Kerala BJP’s use of shutdowns as a mode of protest when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing his development agenda. But BJP state secretary VV Rajesh insisted the actions of the state unit do not contradict Modi’s focus on development, and pointed out that hartals are imperative in a healthy democracy. “We might have organised the maximum number of hartals in the state so far, but we don’t have any other option but to protest the attacks on our workers,” he said.

A deadly and violent rivalry between the BJP and the ruling Left party, especially in Kannur district, has left scores of political workers from both sides dead, leading to frequent calls for strikes to register their protest.

Reasons: Dengue to waste treatment

But the reasons for a hartal could be anything. On April 20, the United Democratic Front called a strike in the Mattannur municipality limits in Kannur over dengue fever. It accused the Left Democratic Front, which rules the municipality, and the health department of failing to check the spread of the mosquito-borne viral disease.

Then, on February 24 in Malappuram municipality, traders and hoteliers observed a shutdown to protest the alleged failure of the municipal authorities to find a solution to the area’s solid waste treatment problem.

And on February 1, all political parties requested the people of Kannur and Mahe in the Union territory of Puducherry to observe a hartal to mourn the death of former Union minister and Indian Union Muslim League MP E Ahamed.

From bandh to hartal

Kerala was the first state in the country to ban bandhs. The Kerala High Court declared bandhs illegal in 1997 and the Supreme Court rejected the then Left Democratic Front government’s petition to reverse the order. But the state soon found a way to get around the court order by renaming bandhs as hartals.

In 2000, the High Court ruled that the enforcement of a hartal call by a party or association or organisation by “force, intimidation and coercion” was “unconstitutional”. But the court orders did not change the state’s hartal culture.

As late as 2015, the United Democratic Front, which was then in power, sought to bring in a legislation to curb hartals. The then Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala said the aim was not to ban but to curb unnecessary hartals. However, the Left Democratic Front vehemently opposed the bill, calling it anti-democratic, anti-people and against the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. The bill was later referred to a select committee for consideration.

Changing trend

With Kerala’s hartal culture becoming a hot topic of discussion, there has been a decline in state-wide shutdowns. On the other hand, hartals at the district and municipality levels have seen a spike.

According to Sushanth, founder member of the Hartal Virudha Munnani, these shutdowns are an anti-democratic mode of protest as “they restrict people’s right to movement”. He added, “Those who call for hartals impose their will on the people. People don’t have any choice.”

The organisation suggests alternative ways to protest – such as hoisting black flags or putting up posters. “Protests should enrich the democracy,” Sushanth said. “We should understand that people can protest without shutting down. It is high time we thought about alternative protest methods.”

Raju P Nair, state convenor of Say No to Hartal, said his organisation is currently thinking up ways to tackle the growing number of local hartals.

One way in which they show their opposition is by taking their vehicles out on the streets on hartal days and ferrying passengers stranded at train stations, bus stands and airports. “It is the best way to defy hartals,” he said. “We have more than 4,000 volunteers across the state.”

Nair said it was wrong to presume that only those who are apolitical are against hartals. “I am the secretary of the Ernakulam District Congress Committee and have been in politics for the last 15 years,” he said. “So it is wrong to say that only apolitical people support anti-hartal movements. I believe that no hartal has achieved its aim in Kerala. That is why I oppose it.”

Nair had defied his own party’s call for a hartal in Ernakulam on April 5 by ferrying stranded passengers in his car. “I will not support a hartal call even if it is given by Congress leaders,” he said.