By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
This week, a friend speaking to me on the phone, paused when I remarked that it took ordinary workers to teach this administration, its most telling lesson since it was returned to power post war, while the intelligentsia cowered under their beds, (metaporically speaking), except for some rare exceptions. I was then informed somewhat acerbically that there is nothing to be very surprised about this and further that ‘the intelligentsia has rarely challenged political authoritarianism at least in this country. Instead, it has been the workers, each and every time. These have always been watershed moments in history.’
Public sympathy over the plight of workers
There may be some who may disagree with this assertion, given that the university teachers are also on the warpath with the government in their demands for a better salary scale. Public reactions appear however to be slightly different in response to these two situations. Where the now (apparently) shelved pensions bill is concerned, the government is accused of trying to take away the hard earned money of workers who are anyway in desperate financial straits. In the case of the university teachers, agitation for increased pay is justified as being legitimately due to them. Certainly the desperation of both situations cannot be equated in any sense whatsoever. The one common factor is that it is ultimately a question of finance at the core of each dispute.
Public sympathy over the workers’ plight has been profound. The singularly dramatic protests at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone, the using of live ammunition by the police resulting in the death of one worker and scores of other injured protestors should compel us at least now to question the militarization of the police structures. We have seen retired senior police officers objecting vociferously to the 17th Amendment’s proposal of a National Police Commission. But have they had courage to protest against the extremely unhealthy militarization of the police? Is it not a reality that the police command hierarchy is of little practical use today and that orders are issued either by administrators or by politicians? Therefore, the resignation of an Inspector General of Police (IGP) is just a footnote in the grander scheme of things.
Assessing the demands of the university teachers
From an objective viewpoint, the university teachers’ demands have not been met with as much sympathy as that which was extended to the workers and perhaps we should ask ourselves why. Unquestionably, these demands (regardless of how meritorious they may be) have been negatively impacted on by the distastefully politicized colouring that had visited Vice Chancellors of universities, academic heads and lecturers during much of the previous year in particular.
When the country’s constitutional and legal systems were turned virtually upside down by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and entities such as the Department of the Attorney General was brought under the Presidential Secretariat, university academics were not only generally silent but some, in fact, supported such moves. Calls by Vice Chancellors who spoke out publicly urging people to vote for a particular Presidential candidate at the 2010 elections, resonate most unmusically in our ears.
Academics could have spoken out against the incredibly heightened politicization of the universities during the past few years. They did not with only a few significant exceptions to this rule, not so much from the field of law, (which one may have expected to be the case), but rather from other disciplines. So, after voting enthusiastically for this government and refraining from seriously challenging its policies, it is scarcely kosher now to protest in outrage that it is a law onto itself. Is it surprising therefore that when university teachers ask for better pay scales, there is either disinterest or a perception that this agitation is self concerned, self motivated and self serving? This is in contrast moreover to the desperation of the workers who are not asking for an upping of their pay scales but instead struggling to retain what they are already entitled to.
First and foremost therefore, the universities must return to their previous avatars of proud places of academic learning where there is vibrant academic freedom and development of academic research and thinking which actually challenges those who govern this country. To merely ask public university graduates in their professional fields to speak out in defence of the university teachers’ demands is not sufficient.
Dissipation of comfortable illusions
It is meanwhile a moot question as to whether the (apparent) withdrawal of the pensions bill will only be a temporary victory. This government, much like Houdini, has perfected the art of illusion to the extent that even the most discerning believe only what is not there and most emphatically refuse to believe what is in fact there, in disconcertingly plain sight. So for many, the most obvious evils of the 18th Amendment were ignored. Instead, their belief in the illusion of a benevolent monarchy was steadfast. These illusions are only now being slowly but surely dissipated.
It is true however that sustaining the workers’ struggle will, to a large extent, be dependant only on the movement being able to keep itself free from the clutches of opportunistic opposition politicians who have only now come out of the woodwork to make moving speeches on labour rights.
Questions meanwhile have been asked as to why the captains of the private industry stayed largely silent regarding the pensions bill. But is it at all feasible to expect the private sector which bows and scrapes in the most unseemly manner before the political establishment for big and small favours, to intervene? They have remained silent on so many other fronts, including the unceremonious removals of senior banking professionals from top commercial banks and their replacement by government representatives, some of whom are mere propagandists?
Rather than these proverbial ‘fat cats’, it took the courage of ordinary workers who had nowhere to turn when they saw their hard earned money being taken from them, to come onto the streets and risk their lives.
Risking ‘catastrophic violence’
On the government’s part, it is worth reminding President Mahinda Rajapaksa of a seminal instance in the early nineteen nineties concerning the Jana Ghosha case (Amaratunge v Sirimal, 1993, 1 SLR, 264).
One of the Jana Ghosha movement’s most prominent leaders was none other than the current President.
The movement had decided to oppose the then United National Party (UNP) government by a fifteen minute noisy cacophony of protests (Jana Ghosha), including the ringing of bells, tooting of motor vehicle horns, beating of drums and banging of saucepans. Along with others, the petitioner who was an SLFP party member voiced his protest by beating a drum.
When he ignored the police order to stop beating the drum, he was assaulted and his drum broken with a rice pounder. Tear gas and a baton charge were used against the other protestors. In a relevant aside at this point, it must be noted that unlike in the case of the FTZ workers, live ammunition was not used.
Responding to this situation, the Supreme Court (the late Justice Mark Fernando writing for the Court) penned what is easily the most definitive judicial pronouncement issued to an authoritarian government in that period, that ‘stifling the peaceful expression of legitimate dissent today can only result, inexorably, in the catastrophic explosion of violence some other day.’
These are classic words of warning that ring true even to this day. They ought to be heeded for the good of this country.