People’s Struggles: Between Hartal 1953 and Aragalaya 2022

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Now that the much-publicised ‘Aragalaya-4’ protests on 9 August have ended almost as a damp squib as against threats from those like Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to revive/continue stalling the Nation all over again, it may be time to settle down and take a closer and dispassionate look at what had gone wrong with politics and economy, and not necessarily in that order. To begin with, all this has meant that the Nation is willing to give time for the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to come up with short and medium-term solutions and devise models that would hold good for a much longer time.

That way, for those who may have forgotten it, today, 12 August, is the anniversary of the famous/infamous ‘Hartal’ of 1953. Looking back from the current ‘Aragalaya’ era, circa 2022, it is becoming increasingly clear that the more things change, they have remained unchanged for the Nation. Or, so it seems.

The first and foremost, the Nation was living a hand-to-mouth existence then, and it is so now. Ironically, food became available at the time of the Rice-Rubber Pact with China, and it came from rival India thus far this time. The Hartal owed to steep increase in prices – rice from 25 p to 75 p per kg — also of tariffs and withdrawal of subsidies for the poor.

Today, the Aragalaya protests willy-nilly have culminated in a situation where the Government has ended up increasing prices and tariffs – for electricity by 75 per cent, with the rest of them to follow – and there is a general consensus of sorts that individuals and families too have to shoulder the national burden. It was not theirs all these decades since the Hartal, not any more.

The Hartal was a voluntary or forced shutdown of shops and other business establishments. The Aragalaya was a product of the shutdown of shops, supermarkets and multiple business establishments and home hearths, forced down on the unsuspecting nation by the government of the day.

The irony is that but for fuel shortage – along with that for food and pharma products – that stalled transportation, the Aragalaya protest at the Colombo venue might have attracted more men, women, and children than it actually did. But then, if those shortages were not there, the Aragalaya would not have happened in the first place.

Possibly in the absence of the social media of the present days, the one-day Hartal ended up or withered away after a few more days. Thanks also to the social media, the Aragalaya not only spread across the country, but it also ushered in people to ‘Ground Zero’ at capital Colombo’s Galle Face beachfront.

Otherwise, the Hartal did not attract as much international attention as the Aragalaya did. No one also blamed any third nation for masterminding the Hartal as is beginning to be hinted at about the Aragalaya.

For the same reason, the Hartal did not get the kind of cheerleaders from across the world, in the form of diplomats, human rights outfits, international media, and of course the UN and its affiliates. Rather, the Nation, then christened as Ceylon, joined the UN only after the Hartal – also because it wanted to be globally mainstreamed.

Today, it can blame the ‘international community’ (read: West) and yet knock at the doors of the institutions that they have created, to help out – those like the IMF and the World Bank. This is despite continual anticipation that at the end of it all, the Nation would once again blame the IMF conditionalities for the poor remaining poorer and the rich becoming richer – and the overseas investor, if any, becoming profiteers.

Tricky issue

The political Left of the time, as divided as it is now but without a vote base to call its own, authored and owned up the Hartal. The Aragalaya, instead, was/is of multiple parentage – which might have made it bigger and better, and stay on longer.

The Colombo show had a genuine commencement in the urban middle class, who began with street corner 9-12 human chains and the like, all across. Not that the problems of the rural masses, or even the marginalised sections in urban Colombo was any less, but they were definitely better organised than the other group, which has had the individualistic approach of ‘I know better’ and ‘I told you so,’ approach.

Ultimately, this time, too, the neo-Left, purportedly in the form of the JVP and the breakaway FSP took over it, though not necessarily hijacked it, as the saying goes. They are eager to consolidate their organisational skills as displayed and/or acknowledged by the Aragalaya struggle into more consolidated vote banks.

They seem to be in two minds when demanding early elections. It is one way of keeping their flock and image together before it became too late. But there are those among them who may feel that they would require time to consolidate the Aragalaya-centric national sympathy for them into committed support – and votes. The conversion is a tricky issue. Hence, they are unsure, or so it seems.

Blind men and an elephant

That flags the question if the Aragalaya has heralded socio-political reformation, on which alone all sections of protesters from diverse backgrounds converged on. The answer thus far is a big ‘no.’ But will it trigger a political realignment? Maybe, yes. If so, what is new about such election eve realignments that keep changing, post-poll, too? Is it for which people were made to sit through rain and shine for days together? It would have come to them without asking, and even if they had not wished for.

Political reformation of the kind may be a product of the next round of elections, whenever due – or, that is the only hope. The question now arises if there is a real need for such reformation, and if so, in what ways and at whose say-so.

Socio-political reformation, if ever it happened from now on, should not end up as yet another tale of ‘Blind men and an elephant.’ That looks a real possibility. And unlike what the Aragalaya protesters now believe, there won’t be another struggle of the kind for a few more decades to come.

The time travel between the Hartal and the Aragalaya is more than two generations, or close to 70 long years. The previous generations did not learn their lessons from the Hartal, hence the present generation did not even know about the Hartal – and reinvent the wheel themselves, in the form and name of the Aragalaya.

And there are those who remember the Hartal, many among whom that strongly believe the post-Hartal failures of the society and polity alone facilitated and fed the birth of the militant JVP (now mainstreamed), and then fuelled the ‘First JVP insurgency,’ circa 1971.

Does anyone care anymore?

(The writer is a policy analyst and commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])

By N. Sathiya Moorthy