Anatomy of an Agitation

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The public protests on the sands of Colombo’s Galle Face Green, at times defying heavy rains, is unlike anything that the Nation has seen. It is only the second such apolitical protest in South Asia in recent years, after  the ‘Jallikattu agitation’ all across the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, in January 2017, for restoring the valorous bull-fight with an antiquity, history and sociology of its own. But comparisons should end there.

The Jallikattu protests were over perceptions of self
-esteem of a particular community that continues to take pride in its language and culture, within the multi
-layered Indian society.

 The Colombo protests are all about more basic, real-life bread-and-butter issues – and literally so.  Fuel, medicines and the rest of them are all add-ons, as have become in every
-day life in this 21st century of ours, nothing more, nothing less.

Two weeks on, and the GoGota protests are only growing bigger and louder. The protestors have come to focus on political demands without involving politicians, making it unique in the nation’s post-Independence history. In northern Jaffna, TNA politician M A Sumanthiran has appealed to the Tamil people of the North and the East to participate in the Colombo protests in large numbers though as politicians they all have to stay away.

This is another exclusive character of the Colombo protests, whose venue their faceless organisers have since named after the theme of their agitation, namely, GoGota Gama’, the Sinhala word ‘gama’ meaning ‘village’. For the first time in decades, people, men, women and children, cutting across ethnicities and languages, religions and castes have gathered with just one common cause – and there is no violence, hence visible police presence, either.

The UN has defended the people’s right to protest. After children were brought onto the streets in the early days, the UNICEF said the same thing of their rights, too. On such other occasions, the latter especially would be out to protect the ‘innocence’ of children and question the need and justification for involving them in what tantamount to politics and challenged the physical well-being of those children made to stand in alternating sun and rain.

Right to recall

As a process, it’s all good for national integration. But as a demand, calling for the exit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has its own consequences, for the nation and its constitutional scheme, whether or not it proves successful, ultimately.

Sri Lanka is the oldest electoral democracy in Asia. Throughout multiple crises, including the two JVP insurgencies (1971 and 1989) and decades of LTTE terrorism, the nation has ousted incumbent Governments and elected a successor only through the constitutional process, going beyond undefined chapters of democracy.

The people were shocked at the assassination of S .W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Ranasinghe Premadasa, and attempt on Chandrika Bandranaike Kumaratunga, not to leave out those of aspirants like her husband, Vijaya Kumaranatunga, and also Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake – but the nation held on to itself with aplomb.

Not this time round as the public have pushed the politicos out of their realm. They have also side-stepped the constitutional provisions by demanding an elected leader’s forced exit, still swearing by democracy, all the same. It’s not the kind of electoral democracy that the nation is accustomed to.

Should this people’s movement succeed, could it become the norm, and not an exception? Two, should it succeed or otherwise, is it time that the ‘Right to Recall’ is made a part of the Constitution, as in a few other nations? The underlying principle should be to check against mobocracy and anarchy, if not now, but in the future.

Demography and dynasties

There is no question that the Nation as a whole is upset, angry and frustrated at the ruling Rajapaksas, and possibly the existing systems and polity, wholesale. Yet, the demonstrable public angst against the incumbent rulers is focussed – though not confined – to the urban capital, Colombo. It’s not without reason.

Post-Independence, Colombo City has been a right-liberal citadel, voting the UNP earlier.

The two exceptions were the post-war re-election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the way Colombo voted to elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President in 2019, only months after the Easter serial blasts that shook the confidence of the city a decade after the LTTE’s extinction.

Even without the demographic composition of the city may have mattered.

As per 2012 Census, the last one as of now, only 41 per cent of the city’s 625,000-population is Sinhalese. Even if all of them were pro-Rajapaksa – which they definitely are not, but are traditionally against them – the majority in terms of ethnicity is on the other side.

Against this, Muslims comprise 31.4 per cent, Hindus 22.6 per cent (both Sri Lankan and Upcountry Tamils), and Christians 14 per cent.

The former two as also a part of the Christian community are also linked by Tamil language. They have reasons to hate the Rajapaksas more – though the Tamil-speaking Hindus and Christians especially are yet to explain what made them vote for war-time Army Commander Sarath Fonseka over incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential polls of 2010.  The Muslims were politically neutral all along until the post-Aluthgama BBS attacks since 2013, followed by their ‘branding’ after the 2019 Easter blasts. As if not to be left out of the anti-Rajapaksa bandwagon, the Catholic Church under Colombo Archbishop, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, too, has taken up cudgels against the self-anointed ‘first family’, which has only replaced the Senanayakes and Bandaranayakes, with Sajith Premadasa waiting on the wings, as if to take over from where the Rajapaksas may leave, now or later.

It is still not about Colombo city’s demography and dynasties. Instead, it is about what Government after the Rajapaksas, and what about the economy after the Rajapaksas! Is anyone out there, in Galle Face Green, listening?

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])

By N. Sathiya Moorthy