If Kerala’s shopkeepers and transporters have their way, strikes won’t inconvenience the public much in the new year.

“We have decided to observe 2019 as anti-hartal year,” said Raju Apsara, a leader of the traders’s association Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi. He was relaying the decision taken by 36 organisations of traders and transport operators at a meeting in Kozhikode on Thursday. The Samithi had taken the lead in organising the meeting.

Six statewide shutdowns in just three months in the wake of the Sabarimala agitation seem to have created an “anti-hartal mood” in Kerala. The latest was on December 14, when the Bharatiya Janata Party called a strike to “pay homage” to a 49-year-old man who had immolated himself outside the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram the previous day. Venugopalan Nair was not a member of the BJP nor had he participated in the Sabarimala agitation, which the party and its fellow Hindutva organisations have been leading. In his dying declaration to a judicial magistrate, Nair said he had immolated himself because he hated society. But the BJP claimed Nair had committed suicide because he was hurt that the state government was destroying the traditions of the temple by attempting to implement the Supreme Court’s judgement of September 28 allowing menstruating-age women to enter the shrine.

In all, Kerala saw 97 shutdowns in 2018. Of these, according to the campaign group Say No to Hartal, the BJP organised 33, the Congress-led United Democratic Front 27, and the ruling Left Democratic Front 16. The majority of them were “local in nature”, the group said.

Clearly, then, the traders and transport operators need to win over political parties if their anti-hartal pledge is to have a tangible impact. That is precisely what they plan to do, said Apsara. “No political party can ignore our plea,” he said.

Referring to the minister EP Jayarajan’s remark that it was time to abandon all forms of protest that disrupt daily life, Apsara added, “It seems political parties have begun to think differently.”

On Thursday, Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala also called for curtailing shutdowns. Speaking to Scroll.in, he contended that frequent strikes have broken the back of the state’s economy. “Kerala is the only state in India where hartal is called at the drop of a hat,” he said. “This should change.”

Kerala can achieve a “hartal-free culture”, Chennithala said, if all its political parties come on board. “Congress is all for it,” he added.

Asked if the BJP would support such a move, the party’s state chief PS Sreedharan Pillai said he could comment only after discussing the matter “in the party forum”.

From political parties and trade unions to civil society collectives and merchant associations, hartal is the favoured mode of protest for everyone in Kerala. According to data compiled by the Hartal Virudha Munnani, or anti-hartal front, Kerala endured 363 strikes between 2005 and 2012, with 2008 alone accounting for 184, the highest of any year.

The Confederation of Indian Industry has estimated that each successful strike cost the state’s economy Rs 900 crore per day.

Bandh to hartal

Ironically, Kerala was the first state in India to ban bandhs. The Kerala High Court declared bandhs illegal in 1997 and the Supreme Court subsequently rejected a plea to reverse it. But the state soon found a way around the ban by renaming bandh as hartal.

In 2000, the High Court ruled that enforcing a hartal through “force, intimidation and coercion” was “unconstitutional”. But the court’s order had little effect.

In 2015, the previous Congress-led government brought a legislation to curb hartals. Chennithala, then home minister, claimed the aim was not to impose a ban, but to curb unnecessary hartals. The Left Front vehemently opposed the bill, however, calling it “anti-democratic, anti-people, and against the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution”. The bill was eventually referred to a select committee of the Assembly, where it remains.

‘Right move’

Anti-hartal groups have hailed the business community’s initiative as a move in the right direction.

Sushanth, a founder member of the Hartal Virudha Munnani, said his group will support “all anti-hartal movements”. “This is a big step forward,” he said. “Hartals can be defeated if the business community stands firm on their position.”

He urged the government to ensure protection for commercial establishments and vehicles that defy hartals and, if they are damaged, hold the organisation that had called the strike responsible.

Sushanth noted that the Bombay High Court had fined the BJP and the Shiv Sena Rs 20 lakh each for calling a general strike on July 30, 2003 to protest against a series of bombings in Mumbai that killed 15 people. The court had upheld a petition claiming the strike cost the city’s economy Rs 50 crore. The petition also argued that the strike defied a 1997 Supreme Court order prohibiting political parties from organising strikes.

“We will help organisations to fight legal battles for damages,” Sushanth said.