Despite its limitations and internal contradictions, the Janatha Aragalaya’ (people’s struggle) offered rare hope and idealism


By

Meera Srinivasan

Colombo’s seafront is lit up. Fairy lights, reindeer, and Christmas trees dot the stretch that leads to the Presidential Secretariat, the colonial-era building that served as the Parliament until the early 1980s.

On the steps before its 14 giant pillars, a choir sings popular carols — an initiative of the military and the tourism board — against multi-coloured beams projected on the brownstone facade. It is festive and cheerful, alright — that too coming at the end of what has been a particularly bleak year for Sri Lanka.

The adjacent plot of land, once a designated demonstration site for public protests and that became a tent city of resistance this year, has its share of Christmas cheer. A bright display of lights screams ‘Visit Sri Lanka’, not far from where a ‘Gota Go Gama’ name board stood some months ago.

Journalists who visited the island to cover its worst economic crisis since Independence, as well as those of us stationed here, spent much time capturing the sounds and sights on the same stretch. It was here that scores of angry citizens converged beginning April, mounting what proved to be the biggest show of public fury in the country’s history. Giving their rage creative expression, they lit up the same Secretariat with the slogan “Go home Gota”, while chanting in chorus for “system change”.

Badly hit by the downturn, citizens were grappling with acute shortages of essentials, spending days in long queues and, in many instances, starving. As part of its coping mechanism, the Sri Lankan government opted for a pre-emptive debt default, streamlined its imports, floated the rupee, hiked interest rates, and struck a deal with the International Monetary Fund for a potential loan.

India pitched in with significant support, totalling nearly $4 billion, that helped restore critical supplies. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka witnessed a change at the helm in extraordinary circumstances. The all-powerful President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was ousted, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had lost his parliamentary seat in the last election, was suddenly in the president’s seat. Each of these developments was a big news story. It was as if Sri Lanka had lived years in those months.

As reporters, we track news — good, bad, or dangerous. We jump from one story to another, dancing to the tune of current affairs. But occasionally, there are developments that unfold dramatically and dominate headlines for a while.

The ‘Janatha Aragalaya’ (people’s struggle) in Sri Lanka was one such story, spanning months. It had some dramatic twists, before the ruling Rajapaksa clan was dislodged from office in a staggering outcome. It defied easy characterisation and pushed us harder to listen. It challenged political soothsayers and kept lazy commentators on their toes. It drew sceptics, softened cynics, and rattled the indifferent.

Everyone in Sri Lanka had a view on the Aragalaya, ranging from ready sympathy to outright dismissal. But few in the island were untouched by the street protests of unseen magnitude.

Covering the many facets and stages of the predominantly peaceful agitations proved an unusual reporting assignment, not just owing to their scale and character. Despite its limitations and internal contradictions, the people’s uprising offered rare hope and idealism that years of reporting can dilute.

When you hear ordinary citizens articulate their desire for a better future and country, the message resonates across borders and contexts. At one level, Sri Lankans were resisting leaders who they held responsible for their economic distress.

At another, a mass uprising showed that no leader is invincible, and no might is bigger than people’s power. Not a new or novel message when you turn the pages of history, but certainly a valuable reminder for a reporter.

Courtesy:The Hindu