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Reconsidering the 13th Amendment

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by C.A. Chandraprema

The government has made an official statement to the effect that it’s reconsidering the 19th Amendment but no such official statement has been made with regard to the 13th Amendment. However opposition politicians have expressed the view that the government is trying to use its two thirds majority to do away with the 13th Amendment as well.

The government does not have to take the trouble to do anything to get rid of the 13th Amendment. It has been tied up in knots by the yahapalana political parties including the Tamil National Alliance so effectively that all that the government has to do to get rid of it for good, is to do nothing. If the government is to restore the provincial councils system, they will need a two thirds majority to do away with its predecessor’s 2017 Act which sent the PC system into the limbo that it is in at present.

 When the provincial councils system was functioning there was the oft heard complaint that it had not been made fully functional i.e. that the police and land powers of the provincial councils had not been implemented as originally intended. This has been a major bone of contention during the past three decades with the Tamil National Alliance calling for its full implementation and even demanding that the Sri Lankan government should go beyond the 13th Amendment in order to satisfy Tamil aspirations. One thing that we have to realize is that like so many other aspects of the 1978 Constitution, the 13th Amendment is a very badly drafted piece of legislation. When police and land powers were included in the 13th Amendment, they were copied wholesale from the Indian constitution with no consideration for its practicability in Sri Lanka.

 Land powers

In India, what has been said in the text of the Constitution in relation to the powers over land of the center and the states has been defined and interpreted by the Supreme Court. In the landmark 1962 case, State Of West Bengal vs Union of India, a majority judgment concluded that the structure of the Indian Union is centralized, with the States occupying a secondary position. Hence the Center possessed the requisite powers to acquire properties belonging to States. The Indian SC observed in this case that even under Constitutions which are truly federal and full sovereignty of the States is recognized, the power to utilize property of the State for Union purposes is not denied. Therefore the power of the Union to legislate in respect of property situated in the States remains unrestricted. This judgment was delivered in 1962. The provincial councils system was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1987. If the text dealing with land powers in the 13th Amendment had been formulated on the lines laid down in State of West Bengal vs Union of India, the Northern Tamil political parties would have had more realistic expectations with regard to powers over land. Instead, the text of the 13th Amendment on land powers followed the text of the Indian Constitution thus making it necessary for Sri Lanka to reinvent the wheel as it were.  

In 2013, Sri Lanka finally got its own version of State Of West Bengal vs Union of India which defined the extent of the land powers mentioned in the 13th Amendment. The 2013 case of Solaimuthu Rasu, vs The State Plantations Corporation was heard by a three member bench of the Supreme Court made up of Chief Justice Mohan Pieris, K.Sripavan, and Eva Wanasundera and each judge delivered separate judgments while coming to the same conclusion. Justice Sripavan observed in his judgment that ‘land’ is a Provincial Council subject only to the extent set out in Appendix II (of the 9th schedule of the Constitution). The Constitutional limitations imposed by the legislature shows that in the exercise of its legislative powers, no exclusive power is vested in the Provincial Councils with regard to the subject of ‘land’… a Provincial Council can utilize ‘State Land’ only upon it being made available to it by the Government. It therefore implies that a Provincial Council cannot appropriate to itself without the government making state land available to such Council. Such state land can be made available by the Government only in respect of a Provincial Council subject.

Justice Sripavan explained further that the only power cast upon the Provincial Council is to administer, control and utilize such state land in accordance with the laws passed by Parliament and the statutes made by the Provincial Council… Even after the establishment of Provincial Councils in 1987, state land continued to be vested in the Republic and disposition could be carried out only in accordance with Article 33(d) of the Constitution read with 1:3 of Appendix II to the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution. Despite such Supreme Court interpretations given in India and Sri Lanka, the Tamil lobby in Sri Lanka continues to demand exclusive land powers that even Tamil Nadu does not possess. They may point to the text of the 13th Amendment, but never to the interpretations given to that text in India or even in Sri Lanka. People pretend that they have neither seen nor heard of any interpretation given with regard to land powers and we keep going round and round in circles.

Police powers

When it comes to police powers however, what the 13th Amendment has is what India actually has in practice. The first item on the Provincial Council List of powers is Police and Public order. The extent of these powers are set out in an Appendix to the 13th Amendment according to which the Sri Lanka police force was to be divided into a National Division (including Special Units) and nine Provincial Divisions. The National division would have jurisdiction only over 11 specified areas such as offenses against the State, election offenses, offenses relating to currency, offenses committed against a public officer, a judicial officer, or a Member of Parliament, offenses relating to state property and international crimes etc. Other than such specified offenses, all other day to day police work such as crimes, traffic, drugs, fraud and maintenance of public order etc. were to be carried out by the provincial police forces.

Thus what we were to have under the 13th Amendment were in effect nine different police forces combined with a national police force all crammed into an area the size of one of India’s smaller states. A police system designed for a sub-continent is applied to a country only a little bigger than Himachal Pradesh. Furthermore the creation of separate police forces for each province would have given rise to a Tamil police force in the north, a Muslim and Tamil police force in the east and Sinhala police forces in the rest of the country – a sure recipe for disaster given Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic conflict. No leader in the past three decades since the 13th Amendment was passed has even considered implementing the police powers laid down in the 13th Amendment. Moreover, these police powers have been included in the 13th Amendment in a situation where some of the most important safeguards in the Indian Constitution against separatism have been left out.

 

The missing safeguards         

 

The Indian President’s veto power over state legislation: Even though some Indian states are much bigger than most nation states in the world, the Indian President can veto any legislation that comes to him from the states. According to Articles 200 and 201 of the Indian Constitution, When a Bill has been passed by the Legislative Assembly of a State it has to be presented to the Governor for assent. The Governor can either give his assent or reserve it for the consideration of the President. The President can either assent to the Bill or withhold assent therefrom and he does not have to give any explanation as to why he withholds assent. He does not have to consult the Supreme Court or any other authority. This veto power is exercised entirely at the discretion of the Indian President.  

 In terms of Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment however, every statute made by a Provincial Council has to be presented to the Governor for his assent, and the Governor may either assent to the statute or reserve it for reference by the President to the Supreme Court, for a determination on the constitutionality of the statute. If the Supreme Court determines that the statute is consistent with the provisions of the Constitution, the Governor is mandatorily required to assent to the statute. The Sri Lankan President is thus only a post box through whom the Governor sends the statute to the Supreme Court and receives its opinion! The Sri Lankan Executive President has no discretionary power over statutes passed by the provincial councils even though the supposedly ceremonial Indian President has such powers.

 

Taking over state legislative power in the national interest: According to Article 249 if the Indian Constitution, if the Council of States (the upper house of Indian parliament – the Rajya Sabha) has declared by resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting that it is necessary or expedient in the national interest that Parliament should make laws with respect to any matter enumerated in the State List, it shall be lawful for Parliament to make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India with respect to that matter while the resolution remains in force. Such A resolution shall remain in force for a period not exceeding one year, and so long as a resolution approving the continuance in force of such resolution is passed, it can continue in force for a further period of one year. This takeover of legislative power can continue indefinitely for as long as is required. (It’s important to note that it’s only the upper house of parliament that needs to vote on this matter and that too only with a two thirds majority of Members who may be present on that day, and not a two thirds majority of the whole number of Members of the Rajya Sabha.)

 Take over of state legislative power when a state of emergency is in operation: According to Article 250 of the Indian Constitution, Parliament shall, while a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, have power to make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India with respect to any of the matters enumerated in the State List. A law made by Parliament under this provision will lapse six months after the Proclamation of Emergency has ceased to operate.

 We have to recognize that what has been dished out to us in the form of the 13th Amendment is something of a much lower order than that which exists in India. For example, under Article 353 of the Indian Constitution, when a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, the executive power of the Union extends to the giving of directions to any State as to the manner in which the executive power thereof is to be exercised and further, the power of Parliament to make laws includes the power to make laws with regard to matters that are not on the Union list (i.e. items on the State list). However according to Article 154J of the Sri Lankan Constitution introduced by the 13th Amendment which is the equivalent of Article 353 of the Indian Constitution, when a state of emergency is in operation, the President may give directions to any Governor as to the manner in which the executive power exercisable by the Governor is to be exercised; but Parliament will not have the power to legislate on matters coming under the provincial councils list!

 

Shortchanged at every turn

 

It’s only with regard to the ‘President’s rule’ provisions that we appear to have got what the Indian Constitution has, but even that is merely an appearance and we have been shortchanged there was well. Article  356 of the Indian Constitution states that if the President, on receipt of a report from the Governor of a State or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the Government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may by Proclamation (a) assume to himself all or any of the functions of the Government of the State and all or any of the powers exercisable by the Governor and (b) declare that the powers of the Legislature of the State shall be exercisable by the authority of Parliament;

 The equivalent provision in the Sri Lankan Constitution which was introduced by the 13th Amendment – Article 154L – states that if the President, on receipt of a report from the Governor of the Province or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the administration of the Province cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may by Proclamation – (a)  assume to himself all or any of the functions of the administration of the Province and all or any of the powers vested in, or exercisable by, the Governor and (b) declare that the powers of the Provincial Council shall be exercisable by, or under the authority of Parliament. Thus we see that the President’s rule provisions in the Indian Constitution and Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment are almost identical. The difference however is that in India, President’s rule can remain in force continuously for a maximum period of three years, but in Sri Lanka President’s rule can remain in force only for a maximum of one year.   

 What was stated above was just the most obvious instances where Sri Lanka has been shortchanged. Closer scrutiny of the Indian Constitution and the way it operates, will reveal many more instances. If the Sri Lankan President had veto power over all statutes passed by the provincial councils, if the declaration of an emergency automatically gave the Sri Lanka Parliament the power to legislate on any matter coming under the provincial councils list, and if there was a system whereby Parliament could take over the legislative power of any province in the event of perceived danger as stipulated in Article 250 of the Indian Constitution, the entire attitude towards the devolution of power in this country would have been very different. As of now, people in Sri Lanka see devolution as a kind of creeping separatism, and they are right because the demands that we hear most often are for powers that even the Indian states do not possess.

 The 13th Amendment was drafted before India got into a confrontation with the LTTE and before Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. That was a time when some officers of the Indian army even thought that the LTTE would not turn on them because the latter had been trained and given refuge in India. Furthermore, because Sri Lanka was a small country, some would have thought that fewer safeguards would be required here. The Sri Lankan side may have thought that because India was guaranteeing the implementation of the peace accord, nothing can go wrong and they may have thought that a downsized version of India’s President’s rule provisions was all that was needed in terms of constitutional safeguards against separatism.

 Both India and Sri Lanka have learnt many new things since then. Even though the provincial councils system is supposed to be based on the Indian system, we don’t have any of the safeguards that India has. To expect police powers to be implemented in such circumstances is unrealistic. In the opinion of this writer, if legislation is to be passed with a two thirds majority in Parliament to revive the provincial councils system, the same legislation should be used to remove all references to police powers from the provincial councils list in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution for the reasons given above.



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Politics

PROPPING-UP THIS PRESIDENT IS A PRESCRIPTION FOR POLITICAL SUICIDE

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

In one dimension, Sri Lankan politics is a tale of cross-party political collaboration that should have taken place but didn’t, and those that shouldn’t have taken place but did.The two varying yet intermittently intertwining story-lines have widely discrepant endings, though. Collaborations that should have taken place but didn’t are stories of what might have been and wasn’t. What might have been is often better than what actually was.By contrast, stories of collaboration that should not have taken place but did, are stories of disasters that were avoidable but weren’t.

Sometimes the collaborations that should have been preceded those that should not have been but were acted upon. These are particularly poignant because an alliance or political equation that had the potential of leading to something positive, was immediately substituted by an equation which culminated in catastrophe.

There is another, inner connection. It is the causal link between the alliances that should have been made and weren’t, that led to lost potential, which was then sought to be offset by alliances that should not have been entered into but were, with worse consequences than the stagnation sought to be avoided or offset by entering into them.

The Left was never as strong as it was after the General Election of 1947. If the discussion at H. Sri Nissanka’s residence ‘Yamuna’ succeed and a bloc had formed of the three left parties—the LSSP, CP and the BLP—and the independent progressives, Ceylon would have had a left oriented Government which would have taken the country on a Nehruvian or ‘left-Nehruvian’ path.

Having rejected that option, the same leftist parties were later reviled, and correctly so, for having clung to “Sirima’s sari pota” and electorally decimated where they remain to this very day. Just recently, and incredibly, their residues voted for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Emergency under which the Aragalaya activists are being arrested.

After the magnificent Hartal of August 1953, the political parties that participated and supported it failed to unite in a single bloc. The result was that SWRD’s SLFP fell prey to the temptation of Sinhala Only, lobbied for by a civil society caucus led by Prof GP Malalasekara and the All- Ceylon Buddhist Congress he chaired, riding the surf of the Buddha Jayanthi and the ACBC report.

When SWRD tried to compensate by course-correction through the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact, the Left didn’t come forward to enter a bloc with him in support. Ironically the same left entered a united front with his far less progressive widow and enthroned Sinhala only in the 1972 Constitution.

The Left finally entered a United Front in 1963, accompanied by the unification of the left-led trade union movement. The united left won the Borella by-election that year. In 1964 the LSSP broke the left front and joined Mrs. Bandaranaike’s cabinet. In 1968, in place of a reunified Left, the CPSL joined the LSSP in a coalition with the SLFP, holding a joint rally in Bogambara.The resultant vacuum on the left permitted the birth and rapid growth of the JVP.

Fifteen years after the LSSP’s co-optation and nine years after the CPSL’s, the entire old left had been electorally wiped out, with Philip Gunawardena who had joined a UNP cabinet, having been electorally eliminated earlier in 1970.I could go on. The moral of the story is simple. Left unity is a good thing and left disunity is not. Left and the unity with progressive independents is a good thing and its absence is not. The Left uniting with a center party under left dominance is bad but doing so on an equal footing, isn’t.The Left uniting with a dominant center party, i.e., with the SLFP in 1964 and 1970-1975/’77, is a terrible thing.

A center-left or center party uniting with a rightwing or center-right party is a bad thing. President Sirisena and the SLFP learned that lesson the hard way and the current trend of the SLPP opting for Ranil Wickremesinghe over Dullas Alahapperuma, the SLFP and the 10-parties being drawn into President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s orbit, having voted for his draconian Emergency (the SLFP was absent), will prove electorally fatal.

TAMIL PARTIES

The Tamil parties have a sad history of supporting the rightwing UNP which inevitably winds up unpopular and the target of a huge backlash. The presence of the Tamil parties in a bloc with the UNP, unfortunately facilitates an utterly reprehensible entry of Sinhala chauvinism into the anti-government backlash.

It is utterly counterproductive for the Tamil parties to be in an elitist UNP bloc. It was the presence of those parties in the UNP-led seven-party national Government of 1965-1970 that facilitated the opportunistic or semi-spontaneous injection of Sinhala ethno-populism into the Opposition campaign of the second half of the 1960s, which even more horridly, culminated in the official Sinhala racism after it assumed office, e.g., media-wise and district-wise Standardization of university entrance, the hegemonistic status of Sinhala and Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution.

The Tamil parties should think twice before being enticed into an alliance, de jure or de facto, with the unelected, illegitimate president Ranil Wickremesinghe who will cause a further spike in unprecedentedly high social disaffection by his economic “shock therapy”. It could cause a toxic cocktail as Sir John’s Delft speech did.

TODAY’S OPPOSITION

What would have happened to any Opposition political party that joined, propped up or let itself be drawn into the orbit of the hawkish UNP administration of Sir John Kotelawala after the Hartal of August 1953?

What if SWRD Bandaranaike, having left the UNP in 1951, helped it in 1953, after chairing the Hartal rally on Galle Face Green, though the SLFP didn’t participate in the Hartal?

The answers of these counterfactual history questions are obvious. Any such party which became a de jure or de facto prop (“mukkuwa”) of the Hartal-hit Establishment which had a harder-line post-Hartal leader, would have been committing political suicide.Had SWRD Bandaranaike done so, he would not have been the beneficiary of the anti-Establishment tectonic shift caused or denoted by the Hartal and swept into office through the Silent Revolution of 1956.

Why then are the Opposition parties of today doing or contemplating something even more colossally stupid, of joining, supporting or collaborating with the UNP leader of the Aragalaya-hit Establishment? It is suicidal for two reasons:

Firstly, the leader in question is utterly unelected, totally devoid of a popular mandate, and is therefore a completely illegitimate (though not illegal) ruler.Secondly, he will drive through a controversial and polarizing economic program, which will sink any party associated with it.Meanwhile, the failure of the pro-Aragalaya parties, the JVP, FSP, SJB and TNA, to unite is a repetition of the failure of the pro-Hartal parties to do so in 1953-1956.

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THE SYSTEM CHANGE THAT CAN ENABLE SRI LANKA TO RECOVER FROM THIS MASSIVE CRISIS

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by Prof.Tissa Vitarana

The massive crisis that has affected the lives of nearly all classes in our society, specially the poor and middle, in Sri Lanka is not new to us or to most other countries. It is an inherent cyclical feature, occurring at about seven year intervals, due to ‘boom and bust’ nature of the global market driven capitalist economic system brought on by over production. Periodically it may get out of control, like the Asian crisis of 1997 when a whole region was badly affected.

The affected countries that overcame the crisis by their own effort have learned to tide over these crises with minimal disruption. At an international conference in Cairo I had the good fortune to have a lengthy chat with Dr.Mahathir Mohamed (facilitated by us both being doctors turned politicians). He advised against succumbing to IMF pressure at any cost. This was because it is committed to the Prof. Friedman neo-liberal doctrine which facilitates the exploitation of our countries through an import dependent open economy that USA-led Imperialism controls.

The loans given lead to a debt trap which is the root cause of our situation. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt has reached US$ 52 billion and debt servicing last year was six billion dollars and this year seven billion. Hence the shortage of dollars and of essential imports like fuel, gas, chemical fertilizer, medicines and food items. To ensure that at least six months of these imports are obtained the Foreign Exchange Reserve (FOREX) has been maintained at US$ seven to eight billion. Now it is down to zero, and thus causing this severe crisis.

The answer is the development of a national economy with maximum self-sufficiency which is Government regulated in the real interest of all the people, not a few super rich. This was done by Dr. N.M. Perera as Minister of Finance in the 1970/75 SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition government. Since the neo-liberal UNP Government led by J.R.Jayewardene took power in 1977 the country has gone into a situation of economic crisis. While the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer.

Now it is estimated by nutritionists that about 70% of all families are living below the poverty line and have inadequate food and other essentials. The level of malnutrition has gone up above 20%. It is with great difficulty that the adults of many of these families survive on one meal a day, and provide two meals for their children. Many go to bed at night hungry. The productivity of the economy has gone down and, due to the economic crisis the closure of factories and other work places, has led to massive pay cuts and job losses.

The farmers harvest outputs have dropped due to the shortage and high cost of fertilizer and other inputs. Due to the fall in the import of fuel the shortage and high price has disrupted the transport system, the operation of factories, and the use of machinery in agriculture and in the fishing industry. The economy is on the verge of total collapse.

In the midst of such crisis where the system itself is collapsing, clearly the country and the world requires a system change. Unfortunately those in power are content to tinker with the existing system and make both minor and some major changes, but the outcome has not been adequate. It is my opinion that there needs to be total change of the system that benefits the whole of society and not the few who can manage with the limited but expensive tinkering process.

Society itself needs to be driven not by the profit motive which largely benefits the rich but also by being re-organized to provide the needs of everybody. That is a society based on socialist principles. For instance the high cost of food (due to the massive food inflation) is an outcome of the profit motivated production, distribution and marketing system that exists today. Further, in Sri Lanka for instance due to the high cost of inputs the farmer has to take large loans to cover his cost. He gets into debt and at the time of harvest he has to pay the capital cost along with the interest.

The farmer generally takes big loans from the trader or from institutions (like banks) that provide credit. Many poor farmers in this country find it easier to obtain credit from the traders thereby avoiding the red tape they have to face when they go to institutions that provide credit. But this leads to further problems as the trader often demands that the produce is sold only to him at an amount below the prevailing market price. At times this does not even cover the actual cost of production. And the farmer gets caught up in a cycle of debt from which he has no escape. A majority of the farmers in this country are deeply in debt. They are trapped in a situation of perpetual poverty.

The same problem is faced by small and medium scale entrepreneurs. As a result value added industries too do not develop in the rural sector. There must be a new system which gives the farmers and the entrepreneurs the necessary credit, if possible at no or very low interest at the time that he needs it. This will have to be done by the Government which should ensure that bureaucratic pressures such as the taking of bribes is firmly eliminated.

The LSSP favours a truly cooperative system. There should be producer cooperatives and consumer cooperatives, and they should directly deal with each other without any intermediaries. In the prevailing private enterprise system the producer is exploited by a series of middlemen who jack up the price, so that the consumer has to pay a far higher amount than what the producer gets. This middleman system must be eliminated and the transaction should be directly between the producer cooperatives and the consumer cooperatives.

Thus the consumer will only have to pay the cost incurred in taking the produce between the two without any profit. Such a cooperative system is not a dream but it works in many countries abroad, specially those in Scandinavia. But this has already worked in Sri Lanka too, during the time that Dr.N.M.Perera was Finance Minister in the Government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Unfortunately the cooperatives that are still functioning in this country are cooperatives only in name operated by mudalalis. All the members of the producer and consumer cooperatives must meet and elect reliable office bearers who will function properly at all times. This system change is vital to bring down the cost of living and end hunger and poverty.

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Twisting the aragalaya into what it is not

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By Uditha Devapriya

Most analyses approach the crisis in Sri Lanka through the lens of human rights, democratic governance, and accountability. Many of them pin the blame on personalities and parties. Not surprisingly, the narrative has shifted over the last few months. From demonising the Rajapaksas, commentators and analysts now fault President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the country’s problems. More than anything else, they accuse him of trying to harness or tame protesters, citing the raid on Gotagogama in the early hours of July 22.

Internationally, these allegations have found a ready audience. Colombo’s civil society circuits have been given ample time and space on Indian and Western media outlets. The latter have been only too willing to amplify their concerns. In most cases, their narrative follows a set pattern: the government is oppressing protesters, it is using legal and extra-judicial methods to tame them, and it is resorting to militarisation to harness dissent. Such narratives reinforce Sri Lanka’s image as a militaristic State, more or less in line with what was churned about the country at the peak of the separatist conflict.

There is nothing inherently or fundamentally misleading about these claims. Sri Lankans are clamouring for democratic change and they perceive the State and its organs, which include the military, as an affront to their dignity. Yet Colombo’s civil society narratives tend to miss more than a few important points. For instance, they fail to note that while the army has been deployed against protesters, a significant proportion of the latter criticise the army, not for militarising the country, but for acting as vassals of the State. The “People vs Army” line, in that sense, does not really hold when considering how individual soldiers have also joined the protests, to be gleefully welcomed by anti-regime demonstrators.

As far as these analyses go, the military is just the tip of the iceberg. Other narratives include the view that anti-regime protesters all unified under a slogan – #GoHomeGota – because they all had the same demands. These demands included widening access to political power and representation for Sri Lanka’s deprived minorities, not just its ethnic but also sexual minorities. According to this reading, opposition to Rajapaksa brought together different groups, classes, and interests: a welcoming development that can be used to push forward important liberal-democratic political and constitutional reforms.

There is no doubt that, viewed from a certain perspective, and as far as opposition to the State went, the anti-Rajapaksa movement was progressive and liberal. Yet to contend that this alone made the protests progressive would be taking things too far. The truth of the matter is that Gotagogama, out of necessity, lacked a cohesive leadership. This enabled it to play host to different interest groups, not all of whom shared a liberal progressive stance on certain themes and issues. Probably the most important point to take from the protests at Galle Face was that former supporters of the outgoing president formed a significant section there: not really a crowd you’d count on as supporters of liberal causes.

I realised this myself when I paid a visit on July 12, the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa vacated his office. Towards the evening, when crowds began swarming into Galle Face and emotions were running high, the rhetoric from the centre of the protest zone escalated rather wildly. The centre stood a few feet from a campsite set up for members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ community. It was more than a little ironic, then, when an anti-Rajapaksa heckler began shouting slogans which were rather homophobic, throwing words like “butterfly” on the country’s leadership. It was hardly what you’d expect from a protest that was, in every respect, supposed to be aligned with civil society visions of progressive dissent.

In an intriguing essay on the Gotagogama protests (“Sri Lanka’s Next Test”, Project Syndicate), Priyanka Krishnamoorthy raises an important question: was, and is, the aragalaya “a mere marriage of convenience”? In 2019 more than a third of the country gave a whopping majority to Mr Rajapaksa and his party, essentially “endorsing the Rajapaksas’ brand of majoritarian politics.” It goes without saying that the fuel and gas shortages and power cuts have brought them into the streets. But will that by itself be enough to ensure their unity with groups, such as minority rights activists, who have been traditionally viewed with suspicion and tarred as agents for NGO and Western agendas?

In depicting the aragalaya as a swelling of progressive anti-State sentiment, liberals make the same mistake that their nationalist counterparts do: portray the protests as a monolith movement, which it is not. The simple truth is that the aragalaya has hosted gay rights and pro-democracy activists as much as it has homophobes and ultra-nationalists. Liberal outfits may be shy of admitting this, but it’s important to make such a point because the aragalaya needs to be recognised for what it is: a diverse array of political, social, and cultural views and perspectives which do not necessarily cohere with each other, but which came together to oust an unpopular regime: in its simplest sense, a popular uprising.

The same goes for the July 22 raid. By all accounts, the raid was unexpected and, from several standpoints, reprehensible. Yet as the President made it clear, it was his way of demonstrating the State’s commitment to law and order. One may disagree, as I do, with his use of force, and validly concur that it tilted mass opinion against Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. But then government supporters can claim, as critics like me do not, that in no country has peaceful protests entailed the occupation of public property. This is a deeply divisive debate, one that is yet to be taken forward and concluded.

Civil society and international, particularly Western, media have given the protests the spotlight they deserve. Yet they have also twisted the aragalaya into something it is not. If opposition to the Rajapaksas can be considered liberal, the aragalaya should certainly be lauded for its unyielding stand against the Rajapaksa. Yet to deny its multifaceted character and the complex nature of the situation in the country would be going too far. One must be nuanced in everything. Even when lauding criticism of the State.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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