Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The vilification of protests and protestors

Victor Ivan once related a story to Malinga Gunaratne. He had been involved with the 1971 insurrection and had naturally been a wanted man. He was arrested, interrogated, and jailed, having masterminded attacks on police stations and other places of authority. This story is not, however, about Victor. It is about another person, who had launched an assault on the Kadugannawa police station. His name (real or otherwise, we can’t be sure) was Senerath. What Senerath had done, Victor had been intrigued by.

For he had acted out the part of a Police Inspector who had been in charge of the station he had attacked. He had acted the part so well, moreover, that he had given orders and run the show, sitting by the table reserved for that Inspector, until the real police came. Victor had naturally wanted to meet the man and ask him why, so he was naturally thrilled when he was given a lunch packet by visitors from his house. Owing to his background in sociology perhaps, he knew how to wring the truth from reluctant people. Having given him the lunch packet, he hence asked Senerath as to why he had done what he had done. The answer, Victor wrote later, had brought tears to his eyes.

Senerath came from the village. From an early age, he had wanted to go to school and join the police. He had a problem though. He came from the Dhoby community. Strange as it may seem, caste structures were sharply enforced in Sinhala society. For that reason, Senerath had to suffer. He was not allowed to go to a proper school. He had no one to support his application to join the police. Worse, he was shirked by other, more privileged boys. Having grown up shouldering this humiliation and seeing his dreams trampled on, he had done what most other boys, his age and from his background, would do. He had joined the JVP.

When the insurrection came and he was asked to lead the assault on the police station, Senerath had been thrilled. He led the assault, took over the station, and then, just like that, realised his life’s ambition by wearing the Inspector’s uniform. “That was enough for me,” he told Victor, “I didn’t mind even getting killed in it.” A few days later, he had got arrested. Victor doesn’t tell us what happened to Senerath after he was released. In any case, it does not matter.

More on the anti-SAITM marches

There are reasons for protests and protestors. They indicate that society is on the brink of collapse, owing to one issue or the other, and that unless these issues are sorted out, they will continue to draw up a dichotomy between the State and its citizens. Because of that, I am not opposed to protestors. They help us keep track of what ails us. They help us realise that we should care and help us understand why. More importantly, they help us comprehend the general direction our polity is taking. Whether or not we agree with their broader aims, there’s no denying that if it wasn’t for them, we’d probably have been a lot worse than we already are.

The March 9th protest against SAITM was the second such organised by the student movement here. Like the previous campaign (unveiled on February 17), there were four marches (from Dehiwela, Wattala, Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, and Kelaniya). Like the previous campaign, these ended up converging at the Fort Railway Station. The IUSF’s involvement with it was obvious. Given that three days before the February 17 march, more than 10 Teachers’ Trade Unions had pledged their allegiance to the IUSF, both it and its sequel last Thursday saw packed crowds and eloquent speeches. From what I know of the IUSF and the Medical Students’ Union, I would conjecture that they will follow this up with even bigger rallies.

I have tried to explore the social character of the movement behind these protests in earlier columns. To reiterate: it’s housed on the one hand by the nationalist resurgence (consisting of the Joint Opposition and, among other outfits, the Yuthukam Sanvada Kawaya) and on the other by the Radical Left. Not even in the late eighties did these two camps get together. I am, however, interested not in this, but rather in how the movement as a whole has been perceived, assessed, and vilified by the general public.

The attitudes to the protestors

There are two broad attitudes to the protest campaigns. They came to me the other day as I perused two articles, by two writers: one posted in a blog, the other in an online magazine. Both have valid points, but for me personally, they are significant because they reveal the prejudices which colour the SAITM crisis.

The first, authored by writer, poet, and in many ways thinker Vihanga Perera, is titled “’Proud to be from a Non-Government University’: Whose Pride? Why ‘Pride’?” and was posted on November 2015. The title says it all: subtly and carefully, Vihanga sketches out the main fallacy at the heart of the movement FOR SAITM: that there is no qualitative difference between private and state education. Wrong, Vihanga asserts, since the one is manifestly run on profit, the other on merit.

I think Vihanga made his point quite well: “... how can the 3600th in a list that only permits 500, bypassing the 501st on the back of a healthier purchasing power be ethically rationalised?” The counterargument to this, of course, is that the list was compiled for and by the State University system: in other words, the 3,600th gets into other institutions BECAUSE the list for him/her has been sketched out ELSEWHERE. The counterargument to the counterargument, however, is that Vihanga is not writing about those other lists: he is writing a reply to those who not only support private education, but also idealise a “healthy” and direct competition if not congruence between these two education sectors. Apt.

Merit versus opportunity

The second article is as direct, and goes a longer way than Vihanga’s in pointing out the prejudices that colour our dislike of the anti-SAITM protests. Titled “Dear State University Students” and written by Sachitha Kalingamudali (for Pulse.lk), it contends that the only option for those whose entry to private universities is discounted by the student movement is to go abroad, an infeasible problem. In other words, equity is assessed not only with merit, but also with opportunity. Whether or not you agree with the argument, you have to concede ground to the premise.

It is that same premise, however, which has empowered those against the protests and the protestors. It has empowered them to brand those leading the rallies as the real elitists, who have made merit the ONLY definer in our country’s education discourse. The reply to that line of reasoning, which the other side has spouted only too well, is that what is being protested isn’t the opportunity granted to the 3,600th student over the 501st, but rather the perks and privileges which form the bedrock of the private education sector, which are tweaked, abused, and mishandled for the sake of the student (and family) with bucks.  A pertinent point, I believe.

“We invested heavily in our studies, it’s time you got off the streets and followed us!” is the most common retort against those who sit and stand in the sun, on the road, howling against SAITM. While I neither subscribe to nor oppose the idea of PRIVATE education (which is qualitatively different to PRIVATISATION), I am against the conventional wisdom which states that protestors have better things to do than causing traffic and shouting slogans. Not because I am or have been where they are, but because in a context where the private sphere disproportionately defines the public perception of the anti-SAITM campaign, they are needed to unearth, unveil, and if possible undress the chicanery that’s going on in the name of freedom of opportunity.

The attitude to these campaigners, the way I see it, is pretty much the same as the attitude towards other Constitutional provisions which the private sphere (sadly) does not take note of. Constitutionally speaking, there is a right to protest. Constitutionally speaking, there is a right to assembly. These rights, however, have been discounted by a society that is fast becoming middle-class, consumerist, and hybridly elite. Of these, the latter interests me immensely, not only because it indicates the dynamics our country has conceded ground to, but also because it forms up a veritable reserve which the same private sphere that disdains the Radical Left thrives on.

A debrief on the hybrid elite

In my column last week, I pointed out that the ONLY reason for the nationalist movement joining the student movement was the controversy over the judiciary and the SLMC, or how the latter (the “National Body”) is perceived to have been questioned and de-legitimised by the former. I am not a subscriber to conspiracy theories, so I don’t agree with what the protestors are saying about how the judiciary has privileged money over merit, but I will say this: I notice a dichotomy WITHIN a social class that, from my own experience, is BOTH for and against the IUSF, the GMOA, and the Medical Students’ Union. I call this the hybrid elite, hybrid not because they are part of a nouveau riche, but because they agree or disagree with the student movement on account of, or despite, their social conditioning.

I will write more on the hybrid elite and the many avatars of itself it has spawned in both mainstream parties later, but for the purposes of my article I will say this much: they come from a largely urban and bilingual background. I don’t know whether those who write for and against private education (in blogs, newspapers, or elsewhere) fall under this category, but in sociological terms they interest me because they are to be found in both sides of the political divide, sometimes within the same (immediate) family.

Those from this group who support the fight against private education belong to the professional nationalist class (lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants etc), who came together last week at a function organised in Boralesgamuwa (“Viyath Maga”). Those who oppose it come from more right-wing backgrounds. The former see it as having to do with a nationalist cause, while the latter are more often than not yuppies on the street, who enjoy an inherited lifestyle, travel in Prados, can always return to a life of luxury, and allege that the protestors want to remove opportunity from our education sector.

In this hodgepodge, the Radical Left, which absorbs students from all backgrounds, is the only political group that sees the issue for what it is: a turning point in our country’s education discourse. It is that Radical Left, after all, which bred Senerath and nurtured Victor Ivan.

One traffic block is all it takes

When I think of people like Senerath, I am reminded of Ranbanda Seneviratne’s immortal lines:

Paluwa dewanath karala
Naadan ula leno
Katath napuru da thanikama athiwenawa...

I was not surprised when I got to know that Ranbanda, who moved with the oppressed all his life, was writing about the 1971 insurrectionists. Like the ula lena, they too resorted to a lonely existence after their hopes, their dreams, and their aspirations were broken. The lyricist, in other words, spoke for all the failed insurrectionists and revolutionists, who had their representatives chopped down, murdered in broad daylight, and mutilated beyond recognition, by a State that was increasingly being defined by the private sphere. To date, that sorry trend in that State has not stopped.

So 40 years on, the attitude of belittling the protestors and their larger objectives, of condemning the marches and rallies they organise as “hell” (in comparison to the “heaven” which we who are of a more privileged though hybrid class are heir to) has continued. It will take more than one Senerath to show us how wrong we are. Until then, my fear is that the writing will be on the wall, and we will continue in our campaign of unjust, irrational, and disproportionate anger towards them.

I will end my piece with a question: if all it took for these students to get out their message was one traffic block, what if one traffic block was all it took to convince us of their vision (flawed as it is) for a better, more equitable tomorrow?

Image courtesy of: Roar.lk

Written for: Ceylon Today, March 14 2017