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Hartal originally a Gujarati expression signifying closing down of shops and warehouses with the object of realising a demand. Though essentially a mercantile practice, hartal acquired political significance in the 1920s and 1930s when MK Gandhi, the Indian national leader from Gujarat, institutionalised it by organising a series of anti-British general strikes by the name 'hartal'. In Bangladesh, hartal is a constitutionally recognised political method for articulating any political demand.

Theoretically speaking, every normative society has some ways and means to ventilate its grievances collectively. The modality of such collective action may differ from system to system, and from age to age. The style of protests must also vary with the differences of the mode of governance. For example, Nawab Murshid Quli Khan's Chakla System, which put all smaller zamindars and talukdars under the revenue jurisdiction of the newly created territorial chakladars, met collective resistance from landholders. But the resistance was organised in the form of arjee (petition) to hukumat (government). They called their action hukumat-i-baiyat by which they meant that they would not recognise any intermediate authority between themselves and the hukumat. Similarly, the raiyats of Rangpur organised a ding (1783) against the oppressive revenue farmer Raja Devi Singh and others. The supporters of ding stopped paying rents and cesses to the farmers till their grievances were redressed. They expressed their loyalty to government, but not to the local farmers appointed by the government. What was ding to the Rangpur raiyats, danka was to the indigo cultivators of Bengal districts in 1859-60.

All peasants unwilling to cultivate indigo united against the European planters, and as a rallying cry they beat danka, a kind of trumpet, which was to be repeated by their supporters hearing the sound. The anti-indigo action programme thus came to be known among the participants as danka. The members of the Faraizi sect in the 1850s and 1860s refused to pay illegal abwab and cesses imposed by zamindars and other landholders, and in forcing them to accept their demands the peasants had organised themselves into many jotes (combined groups) which were established in every pargana with a central council consisting of the regional jote leaders. The organisers of the famous pabna peasant uprising (1873) coined the word dharmaghat of today. The raiyats in jotes took the vow touching the dharmaghat (a pot which symbolised the family god of Hindu peasant households) that they would never pay any rent beyond the rates established by customs and practices.

Thus, protestation is nothing new in the Bengal society. Only its forms varied from place to place and from time to time. Influenced by European trade unionist movements, the industrial workers had been observing occasional dharmaghat since the first quarter of the twentieth century. The industrial strikes were conveniently extended to the political arena, and political strike styled interchangeably as hartal or dharmaghat was called to oust the British colonial rule. During the period between the 1920s and 1950s, strikes, dharmaghats and hartals were used interchangeably. From the 1960s, political activists were increasingly organising hartal instead of dharmaghat which by then appeared to them to be a weaker political weapon than hartal. Politics of hartal had played decisive role in mobilising people on the eve of the Bangladesh war of liberation. It became a very frequently used political tool for agitation from the 1980s. In the face of recurring hartals, called mostly on the issue of legitimacy, the regime of Hussain Muhammad Ershad (1982-1991) collapsed. The government of Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-1996, 2001-2006) was put under tremendous pressure by the calling of relentless hartals by Awami League led opposition. Similarly, the government of Sheikh Hasina (1996-2001) was also not immune from the politics of hartal.

Politics of hartal have been consistently looked down upon by successive ruling parties, and a large section of the public is also of the view that hartal as a political weapon, however effective it might have been during colonial times, is inconsistant in a modern national state. But most politicians in the opposition camp still prefer hartal to maximise pressure on the government. According to them, in the existing socio-political environment hartal is still a powerful weapon to generate public opinion in favour of a national issue.

But hartal is economically damaging. Calling a hartal means organisational preparations at a huge cost at both central and grassroot levels. On the government side also matching preparations are usually taken to contain hartals. Private and public properties are often damaged during hartals; work hour is lost, and communication disrupted. The cumulative effects of such losses cannot but be very alarming for the national economy and social order. Viewed from this angle, hartal is now considered by many as a baneful political right. Hartal is an extreme measure and socially and economically unsustainable if it is restored to too frequently. It has long outlived its purpose. Hartal, though a right, is apt to curtail the rights of people not willing to participate in it. In that sense, hartal is viewed by many as a coercive political right.'

Table Statistics of hartal in national, regional and local levels (1947-2011).

Year National Dhaka and Regional Local Total
1947-71 47 13 24 84
1972-75 5 5 12 22
1975-82 6 9 44 59
1982-90 72 56 200 328
1990-96 81 69 266 416
1996-99 37 41 166 244
2000-2002 332 332
2003-2006 130 130
2009-2011 11 11
Total 721 193 712 1626

Source The Politics of Hartal in Bangladesh (News Network, 2000), p. 22; UNDP, Beyond Hartals : Towards Democracy in Bangladesh, March 2005.

[Sirajul Islam]