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Bandhs have increasingly lost their support, everywhere. The other day people of Assam, especially capital Guwahati, paid no heed to a bandh called by Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a party that ruled the state for two terms. Elsewhere, there are incidents of burning tyres, stone-pelting, road blockade, damaging shops, and assault on bandh ‘violators’. All these indicate an increasing public resistance against bandhs.

Violent acts would not have taken place had there been ‘total support’ of bandh, as is the case in Meghalaya, so far. Bandhs are always ‘peaceful’ here, because there is least public resistance against such calls. Police and administration cannot take credit for such peace. The credit goes to people who ‘support’ the bandh, for whatever reasons. As long as the bandh is against the government, which is normally the case, there is no chance of any conflict. None has called any bandh against violence perpetrated by militant outfits in the state.

While, of late, the state government has been able to convince its employees to turn up at least in some major departments, most Central government offices gloriously remain under lock and key during bandhs called by any group. An office picketing by a regional party of Meghalaya recently fell flat as very few responded to the call, compelling the party to ‘withdraw’ it a couple of days later.

Amid the struggle by state government to fight bandhs in the state, the Meghalaya High Court passed its landmark order on May 28. The order is significant in many aspects as it sought to take action against many establishments and services.

The order passed by a full bench comprising Chief Justice Uma Nath Singh, Justice SR Sen and Justice TNK Singh directed the government to serve show cause notices to medical stores, hotels and taxis for not operating during the bandh hours.

The court also asked the media, both print and electronic, not to publish any report calling for bandh by any organization.  “…we direct that the statements of HNLC or any organization which may disturb the even tempo of day-to-day public life and cause violation of Fundamental rights of citizens in particular under Article 19 and 21 of the 12 Constitution of India relating to strike, bandh, hartal, road blockade and holding of rallies with unlawful design shall not be issued by any of the print and electronic media,” the court order said.

While passing the directive, the court referred to nine orders passed by the high courts of Kerala (4), Calcutta (2), Bombay (2) and Gauhati (1), in this regard. The first order cited by the high court was that of Kerala High Court in 1998. But, there is no mention of any such ban on media in any of the texts of orders of various high courts, as quoted in the Meghalaya High Court order.

There are a few concerns regarding effectiveness of the High Court order in curbing adverse impact of bandhs on normal public life. While the mainstream media – print and electronic – are still dominant means of disseminating information to public especially in backward regions like the Northeast, the prevalence of social media cannot be overlooked.

In fact, there is a new trend of mainstream media sourcing information from social media! Every other day, there are reports in mainstream media about controversies surrounding social media.

Militant organisations, for obvious reasons, are very active in social media.  The police have never been able to crackdown on them on the basis of their activities on social media. So, if not mainstream media, the call for bandh will spread through social media, SMS, phone call etc. And, we know that negative news like bandh – of course most government employees do not think it’s negative – always spreads like wildfire. Will government be able to stop it?

Significantly, the High Court order restricting media from publishing bandh call reports is based on a ‘request’ made by the state DGP. His request comes in the wake of a recent boycott of chief minister Mukul Sangma by the local media after he had stated in the floor of the Assembly that media are ‘publicity houses of terrorist organizations’.

The chief minister made the accusation while expressing his concern over ‘undue’ publicity given to militant organizations and their statements especially calling bandh and accusing the government machinery or any elected representative. The High Court order will ‘address’ this concern of the government too.

The order asks for ‘criminal proceedings’ against the media if found publishing such reports of calls for bandh, hartal, strike, blockade and rally. The order would be a tough challenge to comply with by the media in a north-eastern state like Meghalaya where such happenings are the order of the day.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on May 29, 2015)