Of all the proposal made by the state government in recent times, the one two days ago in the current state Assembly session to legislate a new law to not only ban bandh and blockades but to introduce deterrents including imprisonment of frontrunners of these disruptive agitations up to three months, is welcome. Nobody in Manipur today would disagree that the need of the hour is for such a legislation, having had to live with the hardships and damages to the state’s as well as household economy caused by these protests, which are in many ways a victimisation of the ordinary men and women, holding them as hostages so as to pressurise the powers that be to bend to their wishes. Daily wage earners and small enterprises which do not have the capacity to absorb the squeeze in market liquidity have been the worst sufferers, and they more than anybody else would be the ones to rejoice this new government intent. Ironically, most of these bandh and blockades have been imposed on behalf of the section of the population which would almost always end up as the worst victims of these very agitations. It has been long overdue to call this spade a spade, but better late than never.
It is very well for workers or sections of the society to call a strike when they perceive they are being subjected to unwarranted injustice by their employers or the administration. This is also a fundamental right guaranteed even by the UN Charter of Human Rights. However, to strike and to impose bandh and blockades are two radically different things. While strikes imply voluntary and non-violent participation in a protest against perceived injustice, bandh and blockades are about coercion of neutral and uninvolved sections of the society into either joining the protest or else suffering its consequences. In Manipur, at least this would need no explanation. Here in essence, even so called boycotts are coercive, and leaves the ordinary men and women on the streets facing the now very well known challenge of former US President, George W. Bush, epitomising brutal coercion like none other: “you are either with us or against us.” Anybody who does not boycott the event the boycott callers want to be boycotted are labelled traitors and made liable to face consequences, and sometimes these are extremely violent ones as well. So in Manipur’s violent environment today, boycotts are actually diktats which inspire the fear of death and are meant to be obeyed unconditionally. There is nothing in these which suggest they are voluntary expressions of dissidence by the public. It is a surprise boycott callers are not aware of the fact that they surrender the credibility of their claims of public support using the response to these so called boycotts as alibi precise because they have ensured there is nothing voluntary or spontaneous about these boycotts. Even the call for a plebiscite to settle Manipur’s long standing issues with the Indian Union suffers from this same stigma.
Leaving aside bandh and boycotts called by underground organisations, for they are outside the purview of the law, the government must ensure the law it intends to make on the matter is enforced strictly on those within the law by the application of the rule of law. The law must not be allowed to be diluted because extra legal concessions are allowed. Equally, it must also not be allowed to become a draconian tool to victimise opponents of the government. This can be only by strict adherence to the procedures laid down by the law while it is being formulated. This entails a lot of thoughts and discussions must go into its making. There is one clause the law could look into. Bandh callers have today come to use the media as their propaganda vehicles. Even organisations with only a handful of supporters have been made paper tigers by the media by force multiplying their actual strength in publishing their bandh announcements without the application of editorial freedom to decide the veracity of the claims. Perhaps the new law could also include a clause to make the media organisations more discerning so as not to give unwarranted publicity to habitual bandh and boycott callers. While it must be acknowledged there are dangers involved in imposing such restrictive measures on the functioning of the media, it must also be equally acknowledged that a great section of the media often jump their briefs of public responsibility. This responsibility to the public, in the present context must also be about lending support to the effort to make the protest culture in the state more sensible and sane.