Saturday, December 1, 2012

How to travel during 'Bandhs' in India

'Bandh' is the Hindi word for a general strike declared by political parties and local trade unions.

Hospet Bandh, Karnataka 1 Sep, 2012 during my Hampi trip
Shops remain closed. Public transport is severely affected. Medical services run on minimum support. Roads are empty. The city comes to a standstill as no one reports to work. General public remains indoor due to fear of arson, attacks, stoning, instances of violence and fire harm.

Started as a mark of civil disobedience supporting a protest against unfair practices, these days most of them are forced on the public by the political parties and local bodies.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are backpacking/passing through/visiting smaller towns and just find out that they are on strike -

1. It is the unwritten law but the Bandhs last usually from sunrise to sunset in Northern/North Easten India or 9:00 am to 5:00 pm in Western/Central/South India. You should tank up your vehicle and buy food items before that. 

2. If traveling by train or bus - Check out the area that will be affected during the strike (village/town/district/state/nationwide). It doesn't matter if you manage to board the train at 6:00am, but if the train is going to be somewhere in the same district at 8:00am you need to be prepared for a lock-down as it will be stopped on the tracks.

3. Bandhs are usually not called on the weekly day off of local markets. So that's your subtle hint for the day the strike will not happen. This is because the political parties will not have any leverage on local day-offs as their threat of disrupting business/lives will be ineffective. Everything will be closed anyway. 

4. If staying in a hotel - Plan day trips so that you can come back to hotel by sunset but carry your luggage and clear your bill before you leave. Sometimes Bandhs turn ugly and there might be a curfew that you might not want to come back to. Keep the hotel room but tell the staff beforehand that you might not come back in such a scenario. I went through this during my visit to Hampi as Hospet was closed on Sept. 1, 2012.

5. If you land at a place and find out that the place is on strike, it is best to stay put at a public place (railway station/bus stand/post office/hospital). Spread out a sheet, sit down with your luggage and do not leave until the Bandh is called off. Don't be embarrassed, you will have a lot of company doing the same. Private vehicles promising to drop you at escalated charges are risky.

6. This will be apparent from the actions of the locals but for your knowledge do find out which political party has called for it. If it is a national party, you shouldn't worry about it too much as they do not want negative publicity. Local party Bandh is likely to be more violent.

7. Usually Bandhs are not called upon for two days in a row but if it is a strong two-party town, be rest assured that the following day another strike will be called for by the opposite group. In case you are to leave you must try and get out of the town on evening of the Strike 1.

I had prepared myself for an exit on the evening of the JMM bandh in Mayurbhanj district, Odisha as there were rumours of BJD calling another one the next day. Luckily BJD didn't call for it as it was the day off for the local markets.

8. If alone, carry snack bars and water at all times. 

9. Dress down during travel. That will help you strike up a conversation easily with locals. 

10. Look out for undercurrents when you visit a sensitive place. You can usually tell about such things before their public announcements. We were lucky to get a flight out of Jorhat just 2 days before ULFA called for the upper Assam Bandh. 

11. Inform people at home of the situation. It might not be on national news. 

12.Keep an eye on the phone battery. Charge it if it is low. Small towns usually have daytime power cuts for long hours. You don't want to be stuck without a phone.

13. Do not get into a heated political discussion or click too many pictures unless you are a photojournalist.

Forced Bandhs are an ugly truth. It is banned by the Supreme Court of India for a political party to call for a Bandh (they can be registered under section 188 of the IPC for violation of it). It upheld Kerala High court's decision to ban them and call them illegal in 1997.

But the fact is that they happen. To the utmost inconvenience of common public and travelers they remain a stark reality.

It is better to be prepared about a Bandh than treat it like an elephant in the room. Do not let it dampen your travel spirit.

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