Kishali Pinto Jaywardene
There is a certain sense of sanctimonious humbuggery on our part when we raise our hands to the heavens to scorn the sight of mass crowds on Colombo’s streets agitating against policies of the Government which have dire impact on Sri Lanka’s poor.
Responsibility of the State for unjust policies
That too, when remaining (largely) silent as official and religious events occur with nary a thought as to covid-19 health protocols. So when health officials lecture the public on these matters, it is best that the finger of responsibility is first directed towards the Government itself. Timidity in that regard while holding forth on the perils of protests in covid-times is disingenuous at best and politically sycophantic at worst. And there is a larger question in issue here.
Which comes first, the political chicken or the (purported) agitators’ egg? In other words, when protestors gather or are brought out to the streets against political actions that use a global pandemic as a cover to heap untold miseries on the people, on whom must the responsibility lie? The protestors or ruling politicians?
There is an easy answer to those questions. When the State remains deaf, dumb and blind to the cries of people who have been pushed to the brink, there is little option for the affected but to violate the law, whether this comes through a court directive or not.
When that does happen, it is the State and the State alone that should bear the responsibility. These are not new notions. Martin Luther King perhaps said it best when he reminded powerfully in his letter from the Birmingham Jail (1963) that, ‘one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws, conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.’ So a Government which tries to fetter protests on the basis that these would lead to potential fresh waves of covid-19 must take a step back and ask itself; ‘when a human being is pushed to a starving point, what matter is it that a pandemic may rear its head again?’ Indeed death may be preferable to the agonies of the living.
Learning about ‘peoples’ protests’ from our neighbours
Consequently, pontifications by health authorities or accusations of endangering public health by those of us who have the luxury of staying aloof from the human pain of thousands facing a perfect storm of an economic catastrophe that is already upon us, are useless. And that principle is true whether these are political protests or ‘people protests,’ though the country has seen little but politically engineered peoples’ power movements, which the 2015-2019 failed ‘yahapalanaya’ experiment was all about.
Certainly aggrieved Sri Lankans have a lot to learn about ‘peoples’ protests’ from their neighbours, including in India where a Prime Minister hailed as a strongman of the Indian Ocean, backed down this week in the face of year long farmers’ protests against controversial ‘farm laws.’ If implemented,the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 would have brought the country’s farmers to destitution. Already vulnerable to low crop prices and frequent droughts, many Indian farmers had committed suicide.
Their opposition to the unregulated operation of the free-market was therefore very real and had continued without pause during the devastating covid-19 waves that struck India not so long ago. Braving both the pandemic and the bitter winters of Delhi to show their collective strength, many had suffered at the hands of the police, some had even died. But that painful cost was not in vain. In fact, Prime Minister Modi’s ‘apology’ to the farmers and his promise to withdraw the controversial laws came just a bare month after the Government blocked the farmers from protesting in Delhi, using police barricades.
The Government blinked in the face of pressure
Indeed, there was an uncanny resemblance to Sri Lanka’s main Opposition which was blocked a few days ago by the police in its first major rally against what they lampooned as the ‘abysmally failed agriculture policies’ of the Government. Here some courts refused to issue orders to stop the protests on the basis that people had a right to protest while others complied with the requests of the police. There, the Indian Supreme Court vacillated, weakly announcing the farmers’ freedom to demonstrate while at the same time warning that ‘roads cannot be blocked.’
This was a classic oxymoronic stand, unsurprisingly so given the deterioration of the apex court in the recent decade. Lawyers appearing for the farmers in the Court objected to this position, pointing to the ruling party’s rallies in the capital. The Court had, earlier in the year, stayed implementation of the farm laws in an attempt to reach a compromise between the warring farmers and the Government. But events on the street overtook developments in the courtroom. Attempts by the Government to threaten the protesting farmers, to label them as ‘anti-national’ or as tools of the Opposition, failed.
In the face of unrelenting pressure by the farmers’ movement, the Government blinked first. The withdrawal may have been compelled by election priorities perchance and the need to win back the disenchanted electorates of the Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh whose farmers had been badly affected. Even so, this was an unusual step for a Prime Minister not generally known for apologies. Indeed, the battle between the Indian State and the farmers is a good example of health warnings just not proving adequate to control a people moved by far deeper and more atavistic apprehensions than pandemic fears.
How to combat the arrogance of a State
India’s farmers came out against the Government to protect not only the economic sustenance of their communities but their ancient links to the land which had nourished them and their generations for decades. Sri Lanka’s furious farmers who are withdrawing from cultivation in the absence of fertiliser, either commercial or organic as the case may be, may well learn from what is happening across the Palk Straits. Increasingly, the commonalities of potential destitution that bind both farming communities are striking. Except of course, that in this case, our plight has been caused by a ruinous policy on the banning of commercial fertiliser thrust virtually overnight on hapless agricultural communities.
But the arrogance of the State that visits these penalties on the heads of affected communities without rational thought, scientific study or careful implementation is similar on all points. In India, the refusal of the Modi Government to reconsider the ‘farm laws’ persisted for over a year despite all the evidence showing that these legislative decisions had been taken without due consideration. A feeble Opposition and a cowed mainstream media had contributed to that political arrogance.
But all that did not suffice, finally the Government yielded, showing that even the most arrogant political administration can be taught telling lessons from the populace.
On Saturday, vegetable farmers of Nuwara Eliya pledged to stop sending vegetables to the capital city in an unprecedented move born out of sheer anger at what they see as Colombo’s indifference to their plight. Elsewhere, paddy farmers are growing only what is sufficient to meet personal needs. A few days ago, a casual conversation in the deep south with villagers brought bubbling anger to the fore; ‘do they want us to die?’ one man asked me, ‘this is truly a cursed land’ he said.
Perhaps his sentiments are true.