Hartal is apparently the most important tool of the political parties in Bangladesh. The concept of hartal generally denotes a mass protest or a general strike that involves a voluntary closing of workplaces, offices, shops, schools and court of laws as a form of civil disobedience to appeal to a government to change an unpopular or unacceptable decision. Hartal is a common word in South Asian region. Oxford Dictionary defines hartal as 'a closure of shops and offices as a protest or a mark of sorrow.'
The concept of hartal was originated in the Indian sub-continent. The word 'hartal' is derived from a Gujarati term that signifies the closing down of shops and warehouses with the object of realising a demand. Mahatma Gandhi, who hailed from Gujarat, used the term to refer to his anti-British general strikes. Such a form of public protest dates back to the British colonial rule in the Subcontinent against repressive actions infringing on human rights by the colonial British government and princely states.
'Harthal' in the Hindusthani (meaning: 'har'-'all'; 'thal'-'lock') denotes a general strike or demonstration and a mass protest involving closure of offices, commercial establishments, educational institutions and transport services. It is a mode of voicing dissent against an allegedly faulty policy adopted by the ruling power or administration, and is considered a powerful political tool. However, it is strictly supposed to be voluntary in nature.
All the above definitions of hartal denote a peaceful observation for achieving collective rights. These were the old and traditional concept of hartal which was used to serve greater public interest. These concepts have been changed recently. Today, by hartal we mean cocktails, bombs, fire, torching of vehicles, vandalising vehicles, violence, clash, unexpected deaths, sufferings of patients, academic loss of students, gross economic loss, etc. The people fear to go out because they are not secured outside during hartal.
Hartals had a glorious tradition in our political culture but with the passage of time they have lost their appeal. The mass people are being exploited and harassed by hartals now. During the British period such agitation was launched for the greater cause of the country, but hartals that are imposed now do not serve any good of the people. They only serve narrow partisan interests. A single-day hartal causes a huge amount of loss to the national economy.
Some people claim hartal as their fundamental right as per article 37 of the Constitution that mandates freedom of assembly but they obviously forget the last portion of this article. Under this article, "Every citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meetings and processions peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of public order or public health". This right is subject to two limitations: the assembly must be peaceful and the member of the assembly must not bear arms. But, we often experience violence during hartals. Nobody is entitled to cause death, injury or violence in the name of hartal. Again, the right to peaceful assembly also involves the right to security against assaults when exercising the right. However, the authorities may impose restrictions on the exercise of this right in the interest of public order or public health, as mentioned above.
Again, article 39 of our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Freedom of expression also includes a peaceful demonstration to protest against governmental actions but it is subjected to reasonable restrictions. The term 'reasonable restrictions' to these rights are elaborated in laws which include the Penal Code, the Special Powers Act (1974), and laws to deal with terrorism. For example, section 124(A) (sedition), section141 (unlawful assembly) of the Penal Code 1860 and section 2(f) (prejudicial acts) of the Special Powers Act restrict the right to freedom of expression and assembly.
The International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR) also recognises the right of peaceful assembly under article 21 subject to certain restrictions which are provided by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputation of others and the protection of national security, public order public health and morals. All these laws provide some reasonable restrictions but the recent activities during hartals clearly violate these restrictions.
The High Court had declared hartal a constitutional right in 1999 [Khondaker Modarresh Elahi vs. The Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh (WP No. 1216 of 1999)] but the scenario of hartal has changed now. Although hartal is a constitutional right but the present exercise of hartal violates our other fundamental rights also mandated by the Constitution as to protection of right to life and personal liberty (article 32). In India, the Supreme Court has given some extraordinary interpretations on 'Bandh' or 'strike' [Communist Party of India (M) vs. Bharat Kumar and others (1998) 1 SCC 201].
Hartal, which is brutal and inhuman, can never be democratic and constitutional. So, the political parties should find out other methods of protest and our apex court should make proper directives to stop this bad practice.
see more at: http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/2013/11/07/2649/print