A Class Analysis of the Aragalaya

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“Despite their alliance on [Tiananmen] square, educational and class differences continually hampered their relations. The students were not, after all, laobaixin [ordinary].”

– Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xiaoxia, January 1993

Protests aimed at the toppling of governments, attract diverse crowds and different classes. Commentators tend to portray them as monolithic movements, united despite class and social differences because of their objective of regime and system change. Yet the failure to formulate an action plan after achieving that objective has usually revived those differences, putting an end to whatever unity they possessed at their inception.

The protests at Gotagogama were hardly an exception to this pattern. As demonstrations erupted in city after city, village after village, they were overwhelmingly portrayed as self-organised and sporadic, as a movement which brought in every segment of the population. Whatever differences that prevailed at the beginning, were sidelined and marginalised, to the extent that people no longer talked about them. To them, what mattered was their aim of evicting Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his much-reviled government.

It must be noted that there were protests before Gotagogama including the 31 March uprising at Mirihana. Farmers had been demonstrating against the Rajapaksa government’s fertiliser policy. Ordinary people had been agitating against rising inflation. Daily wage earners were angry at lockdowns depriving them of their upkeep. Garment workers were directing their anger at the government and their bosses, whom they felt were in cahoots with the regime in ensuring the operation of factories despite the risk of contagion among workers.

Yet none of these protests ever attracted the attention of the one social class which could rebrand them, take them to the country’s capital, and station them at a prime and exclusive location: the (overwhelmingly Sinhalese) middle-class. It’s hard to define this middle-class, let alone pinpoint where they hail from. At the risk of overt simplification, I include not just professionals engaged in fields like engineering and medicine, but also Colombo’s ‘precariat milieu’, that is, those employed in fields like IT and Advertising. This class has historically been opposed to ‘violent’ modes of protests and have opposed even the kind of demonstrations which groups like the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) have organised in the past.

The colossal failures of the Rajapaksa government brought them into contact with those agitating for a more radical uprising. They identified with the latter, but more crucially the latter became dependent on them. The Mirihana uprising, after all, at first, brought in the suburban middle-class before the urban poor entered it. As Shiran Illanperuma put it in his brilliant analysis of the protests in Jamhoor Magazine, “the upper crust of Sri Lankan society [had finally] taken to the streets.” If this was unprecedented, it was not because previous governments had properly resolved the burning economic issues of their day, but because their mishandling of those issues did not affect this segment of the population.

Dayan Jayatilleka has cited Lenin’s famous quip about revolutions being “the festivals of the oppressed” to lavish praise on the Gotagogama protests. I view the latter differently: to me. It symbolised the entry of a group, hitherto opposed to radicalisation, to a movement that, at its inception, called for the participation of radical elements and strategies. The fact that the middle-classes identified themselves with groups like the IUSF and the FSP, later on, did not belittle the point that, when things would record an improvement, they would abandon the alliance they had forged with them and exit. That, this is what has been happening since 13 July, should not surprise anyone, least of all those radical groups.

The shibboleths that Colombo’s self-indulgent middle-classes lavish on the protests, or their memories of the protests at Gotagogama – that ‘Gotagogama is not a place, but a people’, or that ‘Gotagogama will live on!’ – should not blind one to the inextricable fact that these classes have exhausted their radicalism, or what little of it they possessed. This is why, no one among them answered Sarath Fonseka’s call to come to the streets on 9 August. This is also why, none of them seem to be as agitated as one would have imagined them to be vis-à-vis the sweeping arrests being made of student leaders like Wasantha Mudalige. Again, this should not surprise anyone, least of all the New Left student leaders themselves.

The truth is that the Gotagogama protests themselves revealed the same failures of the State which the more sincere and radical elements among them were trying to combat. As Vinod Moonesinghe pointed out in an interview with John Maytham on 13 July, at a time when the country had been crippled by fuel shortages, the protest zone had turned into a veritable carnival, a parade reminiscent of those organised by Colombo’s (and Sri Lanka’s) elite schools. That several middle-class protesters themselves hailed from such institutions of privilege, obviously had a say in these developments. The result was the marginalisation if not side-lining of those other, more sincere, radical elements.

It is utterly predictable, what is happening at present. As sweeping protests are being made, Colombo’s middle-classes have retuned home, indulging in their pastimes, heaping praise on the new government, and basically getting on with their lives. Like most anti-government protests, the Gotagogama movement succeeded in concealing the fundamental class rifts within it – between the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry, and the urban workers – until the last hour. The rupture began to emerge on 13 July, only to finally erupt on 20 July. That not even Ranil Wickremesinghe’s crackdown on 22 July could resolve this rupture, tells us many things. More than anything else, it tells us about the lack of a radical political consciousness within the middle-classes. Whatever way you look at it, this remains as inescapable a fact as ever. The (student-led) New Left would do well to record it for the future.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected]

(Photo by Dhananjaya Samarakoon)

By Uditha Devapriya