One is never clear about a Bandh these days. Gone are the days when a Bandh used to have as much monopoly in India as a Public Sector Unit. It used to be a national movement, with everyone adhering to it, resulting in no movement on Indian roads. But that’s no longer the case.
With liberalisation, it’s become a competitive field. If one group is demanding for a separate state, the other is in a state of paranoia. If one state opposes the setting up of an industry, the other opposes unemployment. Because of this, our strikers are rather confused folk. They don’t know when it’s a working day (a bandh in their case) and when they could get up late in the day, get plastered all afternoon, and cause a riot at night. Because of this confusion, they don’t know what they’re fighting for, and end up getting crushed under a hard rock or heavy metal, depending on their weapon of choice.
The reason for this, as participating groups have confirmed is demand exceeding supply. With several employment options today, young boys with a striking background are lured into other fields like engineering, banking, IT, ITES and even media. And add to it the number of projects, the small number of strikers who still retain a passion for their craft are relocated to different states, and each one is now accountable for the work performed by many more strikers in the past.
Case in point is the state of Bengal. For 34-years they enjoyed a golden era of Bandhs, but suddenly when the reds were ousted from their seat of power, many strikers have lost their jobs, and hence have had to move down south to either further their careers or look for jobs in booming industries. Some even go west. To go as far as the Middle East and North Africa with the kind of prospects there currently.
The few strikers who remain in the country are now savvier with demands of the times. They expect recruitment straight from college. They feel they’ll be more battle-ready after a three-month orientation, where they are trained to hone their many cross-functional skills, from pelting stones, to shouting slogans, to talking to the media, to even setting a bus or two on fire. They expect their working day to end before 6, so as to beat the peak hour-traffic. They expect a five day week when on a project, and warm the bench when there’s no work at hand. They are also more secure with the knowledge that their CTC (cost-to-cause) covers several benefits like daily conveyance, medicare, free-food and on special days, as-much-as-you-can-steal grocery allowance. And because of the demand, complacency has crept in, owing to the fact that they cannot be fired(even literally).
Says Bhombhol Bandhopadhyay(roughly translates to Leader of Bandhs), a product of the 70s emergency school of protesting – “Boys today have taken their roles for granted. They do not have any loyalty towards the cause they are fighting for, because if they don’t enjoy it, they can always join another cause who will also give a considerable increment in remuneration. So as a result, they don’t mind taking a few days off, even when the project deadline approaches. As a result, one of the project seems to be stuck for 15 years, and there is no momentum whatsoever. In our days, a Bandh getting postponed, or even called-off for Diwali, Christmas or India’s Boxing Day Test Match at Melbourne was completely unheard of.”
Gone are the days of the Rockstars – the 70s, when the strikers were ever ready to give a demonstration of their skills. Rallapalli(roughly translates to village of stones)Raghavendra Rao, who true to his initials, hailed from a village that specialized in stone-pelting. He’s been involved in this profession of striking since the 60s, and he turns teary eyed when he talks of the exciting times in the 70s, when he was perpetually stoned. “Those were really great days. We were hungry for work. If it was not in AP, we’d catch a train and head up North to UP. And shortly after departure, we’d organize a rail-roko. Years of inactivity have killed that spark in these youngsters. They have no idea of striking with iron rods when the sun is out. Sadly, the boys today have turned soft. They organize a protest like a bunch of old cheer-leaders who have just been replaced by younger girls. Surely it’s the effect of having witnessed four seasons of IPL.”
Clearly, a Bandh is not what it used to be. Its days are numbered. And we as a country might never ever get enough of a critical mass to stage a Bharat Bandh anymore. It’s perhaps time that we light a candle at the Gateway of India in memory of the last successful Bandh, which was sometime in 2000. As Frank Sinatra once sang – When I was 17, it was very good year.