Published in The Independent on 15 July 2011

April 24 2012 - a photo taken on the third consecutive day of a hartal called by BNP. Location: Karwan Bazar, Sonargoan  Hotel intersection. Photo credit: Shahnaz Parveen

April 24 2012 - a photo taken on the third consecutive day of a hartal called by BNP. Location: Karwan Bazar, Sonargoan Hotel intersection. Photo credit: Shahnaz Parveen

More than 100 years have passed since the world’s first hartal was staged.  It took place in South Africa and was lead by the person who conceived the idea, Mohandas K. Gandhi, to protest The Black Act in 1906.  Following the first successful “pilot,” then known more loosely as satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, Gandhi deployed the tactic again, this time in India in 1918.    A year later, Gandhi initiated another hartal (a word derived from Gujurati that literally translates to “closing down shops” or “locking doors”) to protest the Rowlatt Bill, an act passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in 1919 to curb terrorism.

According to a 2005 UNDP Bangladesh report, ‘Beyond hartals – towards democracy in Bangladesh,’ “… for Gandhi, hartals were an important instrument of passive resistance.”  He used the “extremely innovative instrument of non-violent political protest” time and time again, but to his bitter disappointment, “from the 1930s it was often the case that sporadic violence occurred and it was not possible even for a leader like Gandhi to steer it above the turbulent waves of violence.”  Nevertheless, hartals and other forms of non-cooperation played a hugely significant role in ending colonial rule in India.

And as we are all well aware, the phenomenon of hartals continues with persistent regularity in present day Bangladesh.  According to the report’s figures, between 1947 and 2002, an estimated 1,172 hartals were observed.  Yet, as ‘Beyond hartals’ points out, the nature of hartals has changed a great deal with each passing decade, for a variety of complex reasons.

The report states that, “During the first three years that Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, there was only one hartal.  It was called by Tamaddun Majlish and the East Pakistan Muslim Student League on 11 March 1948 to demand the recognition of Bangla as a state language.”  The Language Movement of 1952 triggered many more hartals, ultimately ending with success. Yet as the report states, “Far from what might be expected, the number of hartals has not decreased since the ushering in of Independence in 1971. Although there were relatively few hartals in the early years following Independence, the number of hartals began to escalate sharply from 1979, particularly during the Ershad period. There were about 100 hartals between 1979 and 1986. The number of hartals rose sharply after 1987 with some 245 hartals between 1987 and 1990.”

Furthermore, since the advent of parliamentary democracy in 1991, the number of hartals reached an all-time high.  Between 1991 and 2002 there were 827.

Why is this so?

UNDP Bangladesh carried out a public survey to uncover the answer, which is provided in the report.  Although the 2003 data is somewhat dated, many of the findings echo sentiments expressed today.  When respondents were asked why hartals have remained a prominent feature in Bangladesh, the major reason was a lack of political unity (46%).  Illiteracy was also regarded as a factor (14%), “perhaps indicating that less educated citizens are more easily swayed to participate in or support hartals.”

According to the reports authors, today’s hartals involve, “The temporary suspension of work in business premises, offices and educational institutions and movement of traffic nationally, regionally or locally, as a mark of protest against actual or perceived grievances called by a political party or parties or other demand groups.”  Violence and vandalism are also frequently present.  This may be due to the fact that, “ the success of hartals often rests on coercion, or even the use of payment to ‘hired hands’ by hartal organisers to mobilise support.”

Thus the biggest difference between the hartals of the distant past and those of today is that the majority are initiated by political parties against rival parties, rather than the general public.

South Africa, by contrast, abandoned hartals and adopted the “strike” – which continues unabated, causing widespread misery in much the same manner as hartals.  As an Al Jazeera journalist notes in an article called ‘Not again – another strike in South Africa,’ “It’s the same grievances time and time again – workers want a pay increase, their government says it does not have the money to give them what they want.  Irate public sector workers try to force government into giving in by shutting down government departments and bringing the country to a standstill.  Frankly it’s getting tedious.”

Regular Dhaka traffic congestion. Photo credit: Photo: M.A. Taher

Regular Dhaka traffic congestion. Photo credit: Photo: M.A. Taher

Yet for those of us in Bangladesh, the fact that hartals are instigated by political parties (as the study points out, no single party is a “worst offender”) provides an added source of public resentment.  Such feelings are not new.  In 1956, a journalist from the Daily Chasi wrote, “The Englishmen, it is true, were driven out, but the hartal has remained in this country…. It is undeniable that our leaders of different parties have been skilled in imposing hartals, if not in anything else. If anything does not suit the interests of a political party, there is no escape…  We advise the leaders to articulate discontent or protest in alternate forms. There is no lack of open fields in Dhaka…. they can assemble people and voice all their discontent there. We request them not to stop the sources of daily income for the innocent laborers and disrupt the livelihood of people by deploying the weapon of hartal.”

Whilst there is undoubtedly a lack of open spaces to stage protests in modern day Dhaka, the business community clearly believes alternatives to hartals remain (as did 70 percent of the respondents surveyed). The president of Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry FBCCI A.K. Azad addressed a conference concerning the economic impact of hartals this week.  He said, “The business community will take to the streets against such a destructive mode of political movement…”  He warned that importers of Bangladeshi products will shift to countries where political stability exists.  Likewise, 95 percent of respondents believe hartals have a very negative or somewhat negative impact on the economy, and even more – 97 percent – felt that hartals had a very or somewhat negative impact on education.

Yet it is important to note, as ‘Beyond hartals’ does, “… if Parliament Members outside the parties in power find themselves repeatedly excluded from meaningful dialogue… and if Parliament does not serve as the primary forum for democratic dialogue on the nation’s future, it is hardly surprising that the centre of gravity of the political debate shifts to more unruly arenas—such as the streets.” Furthermore, the study concludes that “although political parties must take the key responsibility in ending the ‘hartal impasse’, all sectors of society have an important role to play to ensure that expression of views takes place in a responsible way that will allow the country to continue its development path…  This will require courage, determination and imagination to move away from the hartal tradition to embrace a new democratic culture of tolerance and responsibility.”

Click here to read UNDP’s report, “Beyond hartals: towards democracy in Bangladesh”