An Indian policeman removes a burning a tyre set alight along a national highway during a nationwide strike, in Guwahati on September 10, 2018 Image Credit: PTI

Nationwide protests against record high petrol and diesel prices shut down businesses, government offices and schools in many parts of India on Monday, and in some places protesters blocked trains and roads and vandalised vehicles.

A market seen closed during the nationwide 'Bharat Bandh' strike called by main opposition party Indian National Congress, in Bhopal on September 10, 2018

Gearing up for a general election less than nine months away and provincial polls expected in some states later this year, opposition parties banded together to organise their first protest action in a joint campaign to stir discontent with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government.

The protests turned violent in some states. Television images showed protesters breaking car and bus windows in the Patna, the state capital of the northern state of Bihar, and protesters blocked roads with burning tyres there and elsewhere, including in Modi's home state of Gujarat.

Incidents of violence have been reported from Pune and Bharuch as well. While MNS workers vandalised buses in Pune, protesters in Patna (Bihar) and Gujarat’s Bharuch district burnt tyres on roads.

Taxes on fuel drive the economy

Taxes on petrol and diesel (central and state-level tax), which account for more than a third of retail fuel prices, are one of the biggest sources of income for the government, and one of the most emotive issues for voters. 

Petrol and diesel prices hit record highs of INR 80.73 (Dh4.09) and INR 72.83 (Dh3.69) per litre in Delhi on Monday. Mumbai is worst affected out of the lot with petrol and diesel being sold at INR 88.12 (Dh4.47) and INR 77.32 (Dh3.92) per litre. 

Past governments have usually lowered taxes whenever international oil prices shot up, but Modi's administration has made little concession so far.

Also read: UAE fuel prices for September

"The Modi 'govt.' is stealing from the people of India with excessive taxes on fuel," the main opposition Congress party said on Twitter, posting graphics on many how prices of many commodities have risen under Modi.

"Not just fuel, even day to day essentials are skyrocketing." Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accuses its opponents of "unnecessarily politicising" high fuel prices and the weakening of the rupee currency, which it blames on external factors like the economic woes of countries such as Turkey.

Nevertheless, Modi's popularity has come down in the past few months and his party is likely to face a tough challenge in three BJP-ruled states - Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh - expected to vote this year, and at the general election expected early next year.

No fire without smoke

The BJP Monday dubbed the 'Bharat Bandh' call given by the Congress and several other parties as an attempt to spread rumour and confusion among the masses and said people will "puncture the grand alliance balloon" floated by the main opposition party.   Union minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi took on the Congress, saying it has been a "history-sheeter" on the issue of price rise whenever it was in power and is now shedding crocodile tears.

Accusing the opposition party of trying to create a "negative atmosphere" in the country since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, he wondered if some "invisible hand" gave "supari" (contract) to destroy the progress India has made.

"The Congress is a cruise of corruption and whichever party joins it will sink with it," he said, adding this is the reason several opposition parties have kept away from the 'Bharat Bandh' call given by the opposition party.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over in May 2014 inflation hovered around 11 per cent and he has now brought it down to around four per cent with his policies and honest work, Naqvi said, expressing the hope that it will come down further.

*With inputs from agencies

Reactions on Social Media

As India’s Congress party called for a shutdown across the country to protest the rising fuel prices, social media users went online to express either support or criticism of the bandh.

Bharat Bandh [India Shutdown] and #MehangiPadiModiSarkar [Modi government proved to be costly] were the top two trends on Twitter in India as people spoke out against the rising fuel prices and how it was affecting the common man.

Posting a comparison of the prices of diesel and petrol from the current Modi government to the previous one led by Economist Manmohan Singh, tweep @JitinPrasada wrote: “Unprecedented hike in petrol, diesel prices has affected every household in India. Joining my voice in protest in Haridwar against an unsympathetic government that refuses to provide any relief. #BharatBandh #MehangiPadiModiSarkar”

 

Supporting the bandh, Twitter user @deepsealioness wrote: “I don’t know honestly how anyone can justify the 88.12 Rs/L petrol in Mumbai today.  Support India, jumlas can wait. India’s pride lies in Indians living a dignified life.  Why would you support a megalomaniac who doesn’t care about Indians is beyond me #BharatBandh

Another tweep @ameytirodkar spoke about how the bandh showed that politicians should focus on the real issues that affect an Indian’s life instead of riling up religious divisions. He tweeted: “As Ganesha Festival is going to start this week, BJP supporters tried to give a spin, calling #BharatBandh anti-Hindu. But, no support for them either on Twitter or on the ground!! What is the lesson for the opposition? Raise the issues related to economy. All of BJP's spins will fail!!”

Another Twitter user, @SalmanSoz, posted a cartoon of a child crying as his father took his toy car to work. The mother is seen consoling the child by saying, “Dad will give it back when petrol prices come down.” @SalmanSoz added: “Who comes up with stuff like this??? #genius #BharatBandh #MehangiPadiModiSarkar.”

 

Many Twitter users also decided to dig out old tweets of supporters of the current government and highlight how they had spoken out against petrol price hikes under the Congress government.

@AtomicBlow shared a picture of a 2013 tweet by Textiles Minister Smriti Irani, which read: “Chinese ncursion, petrol prices rise again, rupee falling, 60% of Indians struggling for food and all they speak about is cloak of secularism.” The tweep, @atomicblow, simply wrote: “What an accurate prediction, ma'am. #respect”

 

Other users posted tweets by Bollywood celebrities who are apparently silent on the price hikes now. Bollywood star Akshay Kumar was particularly targeted for deleting a tweet from 2012, in which he wrote: “Guys, I think it’s time to clean up your bicycles and hit the road! As per sources, expecting another petrol price hike”

@kavita_krishnan tweeted: “.@akshaykumar why did you delete your old 2012 tweet on 'cleaning up bicycles' to counter rising fuel prices?! Does this mean you don't REALLY care about rising fuel prices, you support Modi Government because it is bigoted, communal?”

Satirist @akashbanerjee tweeted: “Is #BharatBandh the BEST that the Congress can think of? What about out-of-the-box thinking that would put government on the mat? Like going to petrol pumps with 1lt. fuel coupons and holding contests and recording people's frustration with prices. Best answers win free fuel (+social media content).”

Journalist @sardesairajdeep tweeted: “20 BJP ruled states in the country; only one, Rajasthan, announces cut in VAT today. Reason: elections in Rajasthan in two months!! What about remaining states? And why can’t all states agree to bring fuel under GST? Or will no one slay the golden goose? #BharatBandh.”

But there were those who were unhappy with how the bandh was being carried out.

Tweep @rishibagree spoke out against the violence and vandalism by Congress supporters that was a direct result of the bandh.

She tweeted pictures of school buses being attacked and wrote: “Congress goons targeting innocent school children, destroying public property and trying to instill fear in citizens for cheap political gains is really deplorable #BharatBandh.”

A sentiment shared by Congress member @SachinPilot, who also urged other party members not to resort to violence, writing: “@INCIndia called for peaceful  #BharatBandh today, to protest against government abetted soaring fuel prices. I appeal to everyone to join the movement for the sake of people of India. I request everyone to refrain from any violence and provocation. #MehangiPadiModiSarkar”

 

- Huda Tabrez, Community Web Editor