At one time, it was synonymous with life in Kerala—a deathly stillness on sun-burnt roads, even schoolchildren scurrying back home happily, citing a sudden 'samaram (strike)'. National shutdowns that elicited a tepid response everywhere else would see the coastal state come all too readily to a bodily paralysis. But have Malayalis at long last lost their appetite for strikes and hartals, and the disrupti ons of everyday life they brought? It would seem so, going by the widespread condemnation of the twoday strike organised by 22 central trade unions on March 28-29. Scuffles were reported from some places where people tried to get shops opened—unthinkable in another era. It's almost as if the experience of pandemic-induced lockdowns has brought down the threshold of tolerance for shutdowns.
"Kerala is fed up with hartals and flash strikes. What do we gain from them?" asks renowned Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia. "Those who organise them may have their views, but the common people suffer without any choice in the matter." However, Zacharia draws a distin ction between routinely disruptive hartals and the more imaginative campai gns for gender and ecological justice. He approved of the Vanitha Mathil (women's wall) for instance—a spectacular 620-km human chain women formed on January 1, 2019, from Kasar god to Thiruvananthapuram, in defence of gender equality.
Not just the leaders, even emp loyees in Kerala retain faith in the ageold mode of protest, as seen in their massive participation in the recent strike despite the declaration of 'dies non'
But the good, old shutdown via bandhs and hartals is setting teeth on edge. Crusty champions of the old-fashioned ways are still around, of course. CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan feels abandoning the culture of protest will make Kerala "just like any north Indian state where atrocities are tolerated". He thinks agitations have played a key role in developing Kerala's socio-political consciousness. "We resist the exploitation of workers and can't let them be treated like slaves. When their rights are under threat, we have to protest," says Balakrishnan, who blames the media for fomenting public hostility against trade unions.
The strike affected life across the state except four villages—Nadayara in Thiruvananthapuram district, Kummankallu in Idukki, Kooli madu in Kozhikode and Ambalappady in Ernakulam—that have been defying hartal calls for almost 25 years. Now, more and more of the state is getting persuaded by that way of thinking. Kerala itself is evolving culturally, with a globalised generation growing up post- Gulf boom. But protest is in its blood too. If what were historically the most popular forms of agitation are on their way out, perhaps innovations in the vocabulary of dissent are on their way.