Time to Rethink Hartals is Now

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“Hartals have now become a routine and nothing productive has come out of it,” said the hardline Dukhtaran Millat chief Asiya Andrabi in the thick of the protests and shutdown last week following the death of five civilians in Handwara. The statement was surprising considering  Asiya has been a fervent supporter of the shutdowns in the past and has often competed with other separatist outfits and alliances in calling for them in protest against the killings and the other atrocities.   Asiya called for a new well-devised strategy “so that our youth get a direction which will lead us to the desired goal of freedom.” Though she didn’t elaborate on the new strategy, Asiya’s call for rethinking hartal is very significant. More so, at a time when the Valley was observing hartals against Handwara killings.

But the real question, as rightly pointed out by Asiya, is whether  hartals do serve any purpose. And whether anyone outside the Valley even knows or is bothered about the hartal in Valley? Or whether it any longer spotlights the conflict in the state for the world. The answer to all these questions is none. The truth is that hartals are now little more than a separatist political ritual often resorted to for their own sake.  They are now so devoid of the meaning and the objective as to not even express the collective grief following killings of the people. Instead hartals have become exercises  in forgetfulness. People observe a day or two of hartal and emerge relieved of their distress  for the departed. And also of any sense of obligation towards the shattered families left behind. For nobody enquires  about their well-being, a week or so after their loved ones have been killed and the hartal or hartals have  been observed.  

There are thousands of such families who have been left to fend for themselves while we moved on after observing shutdowns for each one of them. Hartal no longer symbolizes the strategy but its absence.   But even while there is a consciousness of this reality among a section of the separatist leaders, no new strategy has come up so far. Earlier, even Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had started a social media debate on the “alternate forms of protest” in Kashmir.  Mirwaiz had sought opinion and constructive ideas on “alternative protest strategies, other than frequent hartals, from youth and other stakeholders”.  

Ironically, the state government didn’t even allow Mirwaiz the opportunity to discuss the issue in a joint meeting of pro-freedom leaders, religious scholars, students, lawyers, journalists and other civil society members. In nightly raids, Government detained several separatist activists and placed Mirwaiz under house arrest. But now after five more days of hartal over the five killings in Handwara,  the need to rethink protest strategy becomes even more urgent. For this time not only did the India’s media not bother about the hartals they didn’t even show the least concern about the killings. The primetime television presenters who went into hysterics over lathi blows to the outstation NIT students  pretended to be ignorant about the killings in Handwara. Hartal is a ritual of self-flagelation. By resorting to it at the drop of the hat, we inflict a grievous damage to our economy and deprive thousands of our daily-wage workers of their livelihood. We have heard this argument before but from the side of the government. So we generally don’t buy into them. But nobody can deny the fact that hartals bring zero political advantage in their wake, either for the organizers or to the people who regularly observe them.  The least we can do is to become more conscious of our collective obligation to the families of the victims.

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