According to some political party, Hartals is a right guaranteed in the Constitution of Bangladesh. Explain and illustrate the right to “Hartal” in the light of Constitution
“Nothing is good or bad. Thinking makes it so”
– William Shakespeare
This is the very problem in assessing hartal. Hartal, in its original sense of the meaning, is in fact noble. The first hartals the world has seen were part of the movement led by M. K. Gandhi against colonization. They were peaceful protests, sometimes accompanied by hunger strike.
Today’s hartals are by no means similar to the ones held during those times. A hartal in Bangladesh involves major violence and disruption of normal life pattern. Hartal brings major economic loss too.
Hartal is a democratic right. The Constitution surely gives the right to hartal. But, the issue we need to address here is whether the Constitution gives right to perform hartal the way political parties in Bangladesh do so. Are the politicians correct when they justify hartal by pointing out that it is their democratic right?
This is a key object of this Report: to justify hartal, putting light to the Constitution of Bangladesh, but at the same time, taking into account the hypocrisy and manipulation involved in taking hartal as a democratic right and performing economic damage and legal offenses.
This Paper is written with the help of secondary data; the findings are based on desk research. The secondary data have been obtained mainly from the Internet. The web sources include articles from newspapers (such as The Daily Star and The Independent) and journals.
A 2005 UNDP report, called “Beyond Hartals: Towards Democratic Dialogue in Bangladesh”, was extremely helpful. The report, written by Bangladesh experts, can be safely renamed Hartal 101: it was a comprehensive study on hartals in Bangladesh. This Paper has heavily borrowed ideas from the UNDP report.
The Constitution of Bangladesh was also a source, since the topic directly deals with the Constitution. The Penal Code of Bangladesh also came handy.
The author has taken all these sources to develop a proper and effective conscience about hartals to resolve the hartal dilemma: whether Bangladeshi hartals are justified or not.
Definition of Hartal
“Hartal” can be a very tricky term. To start with, many people confuse the term “strike” with hartal. Strike actually refers mainly to the labor force. “A general strike is a strike action by a critical mass of the labor force in a city, region, or country.” The motive can be political, commercial, etc.
But a hartal goes beyond general strike. It does not only include labor force (sometimes labor force may not even participate in hartals) only. Various other entities (such as hired hoodlums) participate in hartal. Therefore, we cannot simply call a general strike “hartal.”
The word “hartal” literally means “closing down shops”. But, unlike what used to happen in India during M. K. Gandhi’s time, here in Bangladesh hartal restricts the usage of motor vehicles as well.
To put hartal under the scrutiny of the Constitution, it is vital that the term itself is not vague.
Following is the definition of hartal in contemporary Bangladeshi concept:
“The temporary suspension of work in business premises, offices and educational institutions and movement of vehicular 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.”
We have abided by this definition of hartal throughout this Research Paper.
Historical Background of Hartal
Before we move on to analyzing hartal in light of the Constitution of Bangladesh, this section gives a picture about the genesis and evolution of hartals.
The first hartals took place during the colonial period, under the leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi. These hartals were completely nonviolent. They often took the form of hunger strikes and boycotts. Also, unlike the hartals today, the general public also participated those hartals. Such hartals had resulted in raving successes. Therefore, it can safely be concluded that Mohandas K. Gandhi had invented a peaceful and effective device to conduct peaceful protests.
Postcolonial period has seen a dramatic increase in the number of hartals. In Bangladesh, the Language Movement of 1952 gave way to a number of hartals. Till 1969, the frequency and duration of hartals were very less. The number surged in the Liberation War Movement. It surged even more during Ershad regime. “Although there were relatively few hartals in the early years following Independence, the number of hartals began to escalate sharply after 1987 with some 245 hartals 1987 and 1990. There were about 100 hartals 1979 and 1986, particularly during the Ershad periods.” The figures continued to rise after 1990. Also, the contemporary hartals have transformed from being nonviolent to totally violent.
Current Nature of Hartals in Bangladesh
The days of “saints” like M. K. Gandhi are long over. The entire spirit of hartal- the one of non-violent yet persistent way to influence the government has faded. The hartals of Bangladesh are very much different now.
Participation of general public in hartals: The number of members from the general public taking part in hartal is very low. Most people are simply locked in their homes, unable to go to work.
Hired hands: Political parties therefore pay for manpower in the hartals. The poor people (including street children and local hoodlums) are paid and sometimes even treated with a meal in exchange of their taking part of hartals. Cadres are also assigned to hartals.
Use of violence: The hartals are violent and break into massive riots. This doesn’t just occur on the day of hartal. The previous night before the hartal typically sees riots as well. Windows of shops that are open during hartal are smashed. Many cars, buses and other vehicles are set on fire. Arms and bombs are frequently used.
Paralysis of movement of the general public: Such actions take place mainly in those areas that are the most important. “Those most often selected include the Shahbagh and Nilkhet intersection, the street adjacent to Dhaka University campus, the Press Club, and the Secretariat, and some streets in Motijheel, Mohakhali, Farmgate, Rampura, Mouchak, and Old Dhaka.” The areas chosen are not simply by chance, but with the intention in mind that people will not be able to work or study outdoors if such major hubs are under their control.
Impact of Hartals on Bangladesh
During hartal, all institutions (with an exception of a few, such as health care services) are closed. The entire pulse of the country or city is cut off. Workers do not need to come to work and students see canceling of their classes. The economic impact of hartals, therefore, is massive.
In the world of globalization, a day of hartal hinders the coordination of Bangladesh with other nations. For example, the RMG sector severely suffers when deadlines are missed due to days off work.
Many vehicles are damaged during hartal. This is yet another cost the general public bears. The government, on the other hand, has the cost of organizing a force to see that the hartal stays under control.
Shops (especially those in shopping centers) remain closed.
“The net loss in one day’s hartal, according to a study published in the Chittagong University of Journal and Social Science, is around Tk. 500 crore. The study further reveals that gross financial loss because of hartals during 1991-2001 was Tk. 1, 83, 465 crore.”
Right to Hartal in the Constitution of Bangladesh
True, hartals bring enormous financial and various other losses for the country. The negative impact of hartal is indeed scary. But political parties (except the party who is in power during that hartal!) are oblivious to the damage done to the country. Instead, politicians take a different road and try to prove that hartal is not bad. They claim it is a democratic right. The right to hartal is enshrined in the Constitution. This section discusses the rights to hartal in the Constitution of Bangladesh in detail. It also talks briefly about the international laws that support the idea of hartal.
Two Articles in the Constitution of People’s Republic of Bangladesh are referred when political parties argue that it is their right to perform hartal. These two Articles are under the Fundamental Rights (Part III) of the Constitution. The importance of logic behind hartals is therefore extremely strong, since “the Constitution states that all existing laws that are inconsistent with fundamental rights shall be declared void, and that the state is forbidden to make any law inconsistent with the fundamental rights.”
Article 37 of the Constitution of Bangladesh
The fact that hartal is a right mentioned in the Constitution may be argued to be supported by Article 37, called “the freedom of assembly”. The Article says that “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 health.” This Article therefore gives political parties the right to gather citizens, join together, who can involve themselves in demonstrations, protests of various forms, etc.
This Article indeed gives the right to “hartal”. But it all depends on the definition of the term “hartal” used. As we have mentioned before, the word “hartal” is not equivalent to “assembly” or “strike” in general. The Article gives the gives the right to collectively make protests, but with certain “reasonable restrictions.” These restrictions are given on moral grounds and also make sure nothing goes against national interest at large: public order and health. “Public order is considered to be the absence of all acts that are a danger to the security of the State and absence of insurrection, riots, turbulence or crimes of violence.” From that ground, it can be said that political parties are incorrect when they claim that they have the right to perform hartal. This is because hartals in Bangladesh always include riot and unrest. As mentioned in the previous sections, a hartal sees blazing vehicles, unruly fights between political parties as well as the police, etc. A hartal abiding by the Constitution needs to be peaceful and must not include the usage of weapons.
A political party has full right to carry out protests, but in a nonviolent fashion. Since hartals do not follow this, hartal- in the true form that exists in current Bangladesh- is not a right.
Article 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh
This Article of the Constitution, called “Freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech”, gives people freedom of expression. Following is the first part of the Article (i.e. Article 39 (1)):
“Freedom or thought and conscience is guaranteed. Freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech.”
The Article beautifully encourages free thinking. An individual in Bangladesh has the right to think and form conscience of his/her own. Citizens can share their thoughts, opinions, etc- not just orally but through media as well.
This is another right a political party talks about when it requires rationalizing their call for hartal: when a political party wants to protest a government decision for example, the political party surely has the right to criticize and even perform protests.
However, the nature of hartals in Bangladesh violates the immediate words that come after Article 39 (1). Article 39 (2) imposes certain conditions that a citizen (and political parties) must conform to. Following is Article 39 (2):
“Subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests 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-
- the right of every citizen of freedom of speech and expression; and
- freedom of the press, are guaranteed.”
Hartals- considering that they are a mode of expression- must therefore be decent and moral. A hartal must not be by any means disrupt public order. Political parties, before screaming about hartal being a democratic right- ought to heed Article 39 (2). Again, a strike or protest or demonstration is not bad literally, but hartal- when violence is added- is not righteous.
Hence, rights are restricted. There are some boundaries. These parameters also take the form of laws. Section 124 on Bangladesh Penal Code restricts expressions of views that brings “hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite dissatisfaction towards the Government.” Unlawful assembly is also not entertained in the Penal Code. The Special Powers Act curtails freedom of assembly and expression.
Freedom of expression and assembly is also internationally recognized. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)’s Article 19 stipulated that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion expression.” Article 20 (1) says “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also entertains these rights.
Before even beginning to question whether hartal is justified as a right or not, we should ponder on the frequency of hartals. Hartals may be a solution, but is it correct to call hartals frequently? If we look at it neutrally, it should be very alarming that a region shuts all its activities down so many times a year. Hartal should only be called for the gravest of issues- it should be regarded as the last resort.
The spirit of hartal has indeed seen a major shift. Among many other things, it points out the way politics is done in Bangladesh: the medium of political activities- the whole notion of politics- is based on violence. Hartal is a classic example that shows how dirty the political arena of Bangladesh has become.
Nevertheless, hartal is totally legal in our country. It is a democratic right indeed. Political parties are fully right when they claim that. However, these shrewd political parties are using this right as a double-edged sword. Hartal, per se, is legitimate. However, the activities they conduct in the name of hartal are not. As we have discussed in this Paper, a hartal can in fact be argued to be a series of criminal offenses.
Here, poverty and lack of education have a role to play. A hartal is made successful by hoodlums and those living on the poverty line. The political party who announces the hartal pays them money and also treats them with a meal in exchange of participating in the hartal. Only those who are poor, uneducated and unemployed can be lured by such offers.
Hartal, with paid “soldiers”, weapons and what not- is like a “mini-war”. It is said that a war is a failure of diplomacy. The hartals are repeated failures in diplomacies between the government and other political parties, mainly the Chief Opposition Party.
Political parties talk about their democratic rights. What about the democratic rights of the general public then? Their rights to work, mobility, etc are restricted by these political parties who preach about democratic rights themselves. There is a serious conflict of rights and interests when hartal is called.
If not anything else, the political parties should take into account the huge economic damage done to the country due to day-offs.
Hartals don’t just affect the region financially, but mentally too. Hartal is very stressful for the general public and causes trauma for the direct victims.
The current situation is of course not a healthy one. The political parties continue to exploit the right to hartal as a democratic right whilst the citizens of the country are suffering. Here are some suggestions to improve the situation:
· Issues should be resolved in the parliament: We have the parliament where parties can sit together to resolve any conflict that’s taking place. In the past, there have been several cases where the opposition party walked out of the parliament and took refuge in hartals. This is a major failure for a civilized democracy. Therefore, parties must not quit the parliamentary debates; they remain a very important tool to solve issues peacefully.
· Peaceful protests as a part of political party’s strategy: The general public is fed up of hartals. Businesses have suffered a lot due to hartals. Given this situation, if a political party devises peaceful protests instead of hartals, the citizens will be benefitted. It will build popular support for that political party. A political party positioning itself as a non-violent one in the minds of its people is likely to win the election.
· Continue movement against hartals: The media and business leaders should continue to come forward and raise their voice against hartal.
Article 37 and Article 39 collectively makes hartal legal. Citizens can exercise their rights of assembly. They have entertained freedom of thought, conscience and speech. Therefore, political parties do actually have that right to call hartal. The Constitution of Bangladesh gives them that right.
But the legality of hartal is questioned when it is accompanied by other criminal offenses. Therefore, although hartal is not banned, the actions committed during the hartals in Bangladesh are.
It goes almost without exception that hartals called by political parties are violent and break many laws. If that is what a hartal is, then, by default, hartal, in the Bangladeshi context, is already banned. The Constitution doesn’t give any room for hartals- taking the context of Bangladeshi hartals strictly.
“A right can be described as a claim of an individual or a group that has received wider social recognition and is politically recognized by the state. The right of assembly and the right of expression are continually recognized fundamental human rights. The fact that both the main political parties practice extreme behavior in both expressing the right to dissent (through hartals), and in clamping down excessively on demonstrators, impedes an effective functioning democracy in Bangladesh.”
Therefore, hartal must be stopped. This cannot be done by a ruling of courts that will snatch away the freedoms allowed in the Constitution. It is the political parties who can come forward to amend the situation. The culture of hartals must cease to exist.
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United Nations Development Programme. (2005). Beyond Hartals. Retrieved
Hammadi, S. (2011, June 15). The hartal legacy. Hardlines. Retrieved
The Constitution of Bangladesh. Retrieved