Groundviews

Social Movement, Continued

Featured image courtesy Sri Lanka Guardian

A particular segment of the country was decisively committed to defeat the Rajapaksa regime and replace it with the present regime of Good Governance. This segment was motivated not by party politics or personal gain, but by genuine concern for the common good of the country, and threw their full weight into it. Nevertheless, the members of this social segment are now rather puzzled to witness the present course of the Good Governance regime. They are in a state of confusion and disappointment and wonder whether they have been cheated by the two leaders of the Good Governance regime. In terms of political consciousness, this segment of people can be described as the most advanced, informed section of Sri Lanka’s social hierarchy. If this segment is discouraged and become apathetic, invariably, it might have an adverse impact not only on the present, but also on the future of the country.

Social Consciousness

The growth of social consciousness is closely associated with the socio-political experiences of the people. It assumes a special pattern. The way that people thought when they were ruled by despotic feudal lords and monarchs is not the same way that modern people living under a capitalist system think. Their knowledge and level of artistic appreciation is not the same. Under feudalistic and monarchical regimes, people tolerated the tyranny of the ruler. They endured the tradition of slavery and put up with poverty and ignorance. But when the social organism gradually changed to a capitalist system, hereditary despotic rule was no longer tolerated and was replaced with a ruler selected by the people’s vote. Under the previous system, people were tied to the land. The caste system determined the occupation of people. Even the dress code was decided by caste. Yet, under the capitalist system, people were free to select a profession of their choice and all were treated equally before the law, irrespective of social division. Under the feudal system, education was restricted only to a privileged few. The capitalist system opened it for everyone. Thus, in comparison with feudalism the capitalist system proved to be more progressive and advanced. Even social consciousness assumed a greater height under capitalism than under the feudal system.

 Nation States and the emergence of the Nation

The emergence of nation states and the term ‘the nation’ is a fairly recent occurrence. It happened only after the transition of society into a capitalist system. There were states even under the feudal system, but they did not have clear cut and permanent boundaries demarcating them. They cannot be treated as states which were centrally controlled. The rulers of states frequently had little control over the territory ruled by them. Instead, local feudal lords had a great deal of power,  By the time the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, there were three separate centres of political power in the country . They were the kingdoms of Kotte, Kandy and Jaffna.

Except for irregular and intermittent boundaries, there were no permanent geographical frontiers demarcating them. Apart from ethnic groups, there were no nations. It was only during the British period that Sri Lanka was able to set up a nation state, having permanent geographical boundaries and a coordinated central administration.

For the healthy survival of a nation state, first of all there needs to be a nation. Building a nation is possible only for a society which can claim to have an advanced social consciousness. Neighbouring India can be described as a country which has been remarkably successful in building social consciousness to a level required to support the process of building ‘the Indian nation.’ Yet, Sri Lanka has desperately failed to achieve this level so far. It was through the struggle for independence from colonial rule that India was able to develop the social consciousness to a level required for building the nation and a common national identity for all citizens. Yet, unlike the leaders of India, those of our country did not possess a good social conscience. This resulted in their failure to contribute towards promoting social consciousness among Sri Lankan people to the level required to support the nation building process. This can be cited as the point at which the failure of our national leaders begins.

By the time Sri Lanka gained independence, society was relatively ignorant compared to present day. Even though, the political leaders of Sri Lanka were better educated than average, the level of their social consciousness remained far below the level achieved by their Indian counterparts. It is not an exaggeration that they did not have any sense or knowledge of the serious need for building the nation. It was primarily because of this failure on the part of national leaders that the country was plunged into an incessant bloodbath after 30 years of independence which persisted for another 30 years.

Violent struggles

The violent struggles and resultant fear of violent death that gripped society over a longer period caused an overwhelming stagnation and regression in the growth of social consciousness. In this backdrop, the nature and quality of politicians too, deteriorated drastically. Most of the politicians were uneducated, violent and corrupt people who did not care for rule of law. They were shamelessly bent on exploiting public property. This situation aggravated the process of degradation and the stagnation of social consciousness.

During the times in which society was intensely gripped with fear of violent death the people tended to distance themselves from rational thinking to a great extent, placing an undue weight on religion and superstitious belief. So much so, that when a child or husband disappeared, people tended to rush to astrologers, soothsayers and exorcists for relief. The media too, encouraged these beliefs. Incidents of terrorism were the main concern of people during this period. It held society’s complete attention. The media too, gave prominence to these narratives ignoring the importance of all other vital issues. These scenarios diverted the attention of people from being focussed on rampant corruption in the country and the rapid degradation of the political system.

However, the situation soon began to change in the aftermath of Prabhakaran’s defeat. The ending of violence and the removal of the immediate fear of death paved the way for people to see the corruption in the country and the criminal practices of politicians. When they realised that such incidents and practices were not rare but in fact frequent occurrences, a serious disappointment and mistrust was created in the minds of the people who had a heroic image of the President Rajapaksa. This led them to conclude that it was time to put an end to the violent regime of the Rajapaksa family. It was this protest of the enlightened segment of the civil society which ultimately found its expression in the “Movement for a Just Society” initiated by Venerable Sobhitha Thero.

The Progression of Social Consciousness

By the time the Movement for a Just Society was initiated by Venerable Sobhitha Thero, the country had witnessed a distinct progress in social consciousness compared to what it was during the period prior to the 2010 Presidential elections. The educated, now knew about the magnitude of corruption and malpractices of the ruling class to a considerable extent. The social consciousness which remained stagnant during troubled times began to move in a more progressive direction, slowly but steadily.

The level of social consciousness achieved was more than adequate for them to realise the urgent need for changing the government in power. Yet, it did not reach the desired level for a holistic understanding of the crisis the country was faced it. Grasping its true nature, therefore, remained rather limited and nominal. However, in spite of this limitation, for the first time in history since the country entered the modern era, the social consciousness of the educated reached a level which could be treated on par with the level of consciousness shared by political leaders.

As far as the level of social consciousness was concerned, there remained a big gap between these two groups at the time of independence which continued throughout the Seventies, the Eighties and the Nineties. Even at the beginning of the year 2000 the gap remained relatively wide. However after 2010 this gap began to disappear and the level of consciousness between political leaders and civil society (particularly the educated) reached an equal level.

In view of this development, political leaders realised that it was no longer possible for them to manipulate society at their whim and fancy in their trial for political power. They were compelled to abandon the old policy of thrusting their power on society and instead adopted a policy of listening to the views of educated society.

Limits of consciousness

This new development ultimately resulted in opposition political movements being compelled to borrow the formula invented by the civil society lobby group led by Venerable Sobhitha Thero for defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa. The social consciousness of the enlightened segment of civil society and the fact that it had reached a level which is par with that of political leaders was amply reflected in the “Movement for A Just Society”. However, it is important to note that it still has serious limitations. The “Movement for A Just Society” certainly had a clear idea about the need for defeating the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and the strategy to be adopted in achieving it. But it did not have a clear idea of the strategy to be adopted in restoring and rehabilitating the political system and pursuing the process of nation building. It was content with a simple program of constitutional reforms believing that it would be suffice to affect the far-reaching social transformation that they envisaged. Contrary to the expectation of the Movement for a Just Society, the objective of the political leaders had been limited to defeating the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and setting up of a regime of their own. They had neither the vision nor the intention to make far-reaching changes in the system of governance.

The enlightened social segment which constituted a strong lobby group had very high expectations that the program of action proposed by the common candidate will result in unprecedented social transformation. But except for the immediate object of defeating the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, the proposed program lacked the capacity to find a sustainable solution for the crisis of Sri Lanka. The abolition of the System of Executive Presidency was a major pledge in the proposed program of action which had a wide appeal for voters. The good governance regime has failed to fulfil even that promise.

The President assuming the leadership of the SLFP, failure to hold a General Election soon after the Presidential Election and instead favouring the entry of a group of SLFP MPs to the government, promising them various payoffs, laxity on the part of the government in taking legal action against those accused of serious crimes and wrongdoings committed during the Rajapaksa regime, imposing heavy burdens on the people while the Parliamentarians were accorded with maximum benefits has created serious disappointment and displeasure among those who resolutely and disinterestedly committed to bringing the regime of good governance into power with the genuine intention of ensuring the common good of the country.

On the other hand, in spite of the fact that Rajapaksa regime had been defeated, the good governance regime had not been able to defeat the strictures of its administration, thereby leaving room for the defeated political forces to raise their head again.

Initiation of a Social Movement

Evidently, the good governance regime has no capacity to effect the critical transformation Sri Lanka needs at this crucial historical moment. It has no true capacity to make amends and set right its own direction. Under the circumstances, it may only be possible to persuade the government, through appeals and demonstrations to make certain changes which are of course simple and relatively insignificant.Thus, in the absence of adequate institutional and political capacity to assist in and accelerate a dynamic transformation, the prospect of effecting in-depth and far-reaching changes in the larger picture remains rather remote. Paradoxically, there is no alternate third force either, for the voters to choose from. The possible damage may be enormous if the ousted regime is restored to power again. Such an eventuality will inevitably discourage the enlightened social segment that accomplished a crucial role in defeating the Rajapaksa regime and make them an inactive force. It might even cause the social consciousness that had been gaining rapid momentum in the recent past to suffer a relapse and gradual disappearance.

Therefore, the most important thing to do at this crucial hour of historical importance is to defend this social segment which represents a relatively high level of social consciousness and heighten its spirit, and ensure its active involvement as a strong lobby group. A stagnating government is of no use. Yet, in the absence of an ideal third force to move the country forward, the intelligent people may have to be content even with a stagnating government which at least respects democratic values rather than allowing the ousted government which was retrogressive to come to power again. It is only the people who can prevent the defeated force from coming back to power again. Is there a way to keep alive the spirit and the vibrancy of this enlightened social stratum?

As I see, the only way to prevent this social stratum falling into a state of passivity and ensure its active involvement in the political process of the country, while at the same time enhancing the level of its social consciousness would be to initiate a social movement aimed at enhancing the morale of this special social segment. Perhaps, this can be considered the ideal methodology that could be adopted to prevent this influential social segment from falling into a state of passivity and withdrawing from the political stream. This could also be considered an ideal method to solve the crisis of Sri Lanka. It is important that the following facts be taken into account in formulating the philosophical framework and activity plan of the proposed social movement,.

Understanding the situation from the correct perspective

Despite the drawbacks outlined above, the good governance regime has provided an unprecedented space for freedom for people, but it lacks the true capacity to work as a intermediary to find a solution to the crisis of Sri Lanka. The leaders of the good governance regime do not seem to have made a proper study or realised the nature of the crisis. They were not prepared to face this situation prior to being elected to power. Even after being elected to power, they have not studied the issue adequately.

Apparently, their main concern had been to come to power. They have not reflected signs of genuine sympathy or serious shock over the unfortunate incidents that happened in the past. We have not seen tears in their eyes when they talk and refer to the incidents of violence. Though the two top leaders of the good governance regime can be deemed free of corruption, they tend to turn a blind eye to the corruption of their colleagues. By that reason there can’t be a genuine or strong commitment in them to overcome corruption and fraud.

Another important fact to be reckoned with is that traditional political parties and their leaders are now reaching the stage of being rejected historically. All these political parties and their leaders should be held responsible to some degree for the acceleration of the crisis the country is faced with. All these parties have contributed to darkening the country’s prospects rather than bringing it a ray of hope. They have contributed more towards nourishing malice and hatred than promoting sympathy and compassion. What they have done was not to promote harmony among the people, but to divide them. We must not forget that none of these parties have exhibited the level of wisdom expected from a responsible political party. None of them have even published a good concept paper on any important political issue. The bankrupt situation the country is plagued with can be considered as a reflection of the bankruptcy of these political parties themselves.

The inability on the part of our political leaders in building the nation after the transition of the country into a capitalist system, which is an essential prerequisite of the healthy survival of a nation state, can be considered the main factor that shoved Sri Lanka into the present crisis. This has deprived the country of the ability to prevent conflict arising due to caste, racial and religious differences. Our leaders who spearheaded the independence movement were only concerned with capturing political power. Building the nation is a must for the healthy survival of a nation, the importance of which they failed to realise. They equally failed to realise the importance of building a society with an enlightened social consciousness, an essential precondition for healthy survival of the democratic system of governance. The leaders of Sri Lanka’s independence struggle whom we worship as national heroes can be considered as unwise leaders when they are compared with those who led the independence struggle of India

Independence

When the struggle for independence was on, there were two major social factions that were either not in agreement or were against the granting of independence to Sri Lanka. One faction consisted of the minority groups while the other was from the people of oppressed castes in the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. The leaders of these two factions made submissions firstly, before the Donoughmore Commission and later the Soulbury Commission stating that Sri Lanka was not yet ripe for the granting of independence.

The leaders of minority groups stated that independence might create a situation of Sinhalese domination in which they would be compelled to suffer. The leaders of the oppressed castes stated that it might create a domination of Govigama and Vellala Castes, the two leading castes in Sinhala and Tamil society respectively, thereby subjecting all other minority communities to the pressures of these two leading castes.

This issue should have been resolved by building the nation within a system that guarantees equal rights and ensures human dignity for all citizens living in Sri Lanka irrespective of parochial differences. The conditions for building the nation were not in place when Sri Lanka gained independence. Even after independence no one bothered to initiate action to build the nation. In addition, the policies adopted by successive governments that ruled the country since independence added more to the suppression of the oppressed community groups, creating a deep sense of mistrust and dissatisfaction among them.

The Uncivilised Era

Sri Lanka gained independence without shedding a single drop of blood. Ironically, the country after 30 years of independence, witnessed an incessant bloodbath which persisted for 30 more years on an unprecedented scale. It began in the Sinhalese South and ended in the Tamil North. Over one hundred thousand people were killed by the armed forces and the terrorists. A number much more than that has been subjected to torture. While an unprecedented number of people have been tortured and killed, those remained alive became  spiritually dead. During this long spell of uncivilised violence in which the fear of death became the order of the day, not only the people, but even the state and the state institutional system became corrupt and putrid. After the cessation of violence, the state and society should have been rehabilitated and reorganised. Similarly, those that suffered a spiritual death should have been restored to normalcy. The state and the institutional system which had become corrupt ought to have been reorganized and recreated. Sadly President Mahinda Rajapaksa had neither knowledge of the situation nor the intention to do any thing about it.

Though, the President Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to win the war he miserably failed in finding a solution to Sri Lanka’s crisis and also to lift the country from the swamp of degeneration. Both Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat and the victory of the good governance regime was an outcome of this scenario. But, even the good governance regime has not been able to manifest a practical vision or adopt a course of action to overcome the crisis except for dealing with it only superficially. In this backdrop, it would not be possible to prevent the good governance  regime too, being pushed into a bigger crisis. Thus the country has reached a stage in which the traditional political parties and the leaders are completely losing the confidence and recognition of the people – which points, historically, to their career being ended. This process is in operation in the absence of an alternative movement burgeoning to fill the resultant vacuum being created.The ultimate truth of this development would be that the country will inevitably be plunged into a state of anarchy.

What ought to be done

The possible damage of such an eventuality could be minimised only through the grasping of the reality of the situation and launching a vibrant social movement that is capable of marshalling and empowering citizen power of the enlightened social segment. The above mentioned enlightened social segment possessing a high degree of social consciousness is presently in a state of serious disappointment and displeasure. It is important that this social segment is utilised to form the mainstay of this movement.Its’main objective should be to orientate the government to act according to the needs of citizens. At the time of independence, there was a wide gap between the politicians who governed the country and the subject citizens as far as the level of social consciousness was concerned. Now, this gap is no more and has disappeared or reached an equal level. When the level of social consciousness and the organising ability of the people are fused into a strong social force that far exceeds the ability of politicians, a situation may soon emerge in which the citizens will gain the controlling power over the government instead of becoming a pawn in the hands of the government. This should constitute an important object of the Citizens movement.

The citizens can rally their neighbours and form them into small community groups in their localities. The prevailing social movements such as the “Saadharana Samaajayak Sandahaavana Vyaapaaraya” (Movement for a Just Society), the Puravasi Balaya (Citizens Power) and many other similar movements that operate in different names too, could become the stakeholders of this proposed initiative aimed at establishing an active Citizens Movement without sacrificing their identity and original aims and objectives. Professor Sarath Wijesooriya who succeeded Venerable Sobitha Thero is fulfilling his responsibility honourably and impartially. However, it is important for the social movements like “Saadharana Samaajayak Sandahaavana Vyaapaaraya and the other similar movements such as the Puravasi Balaya to make a fresh assessment of their activities seriously and see whether the changes that they envisage can be made more qualitative than quantitative. It is also important that a central organisation or an apex body is established with an upward hierarchy to co-ordinate both the existing organisations and the ones being formed newly. This organisation should be formed using a democratic structure and operated on democratic principles. It is important that it is developed as a model that can be cited as a best model of a democratic organisation.

The main object of the proposed new social movement should be to revitalise the spirit of Sri Lanka. This implies making a new start to rejuvenate the frail and corrupt social psyche and assist the inner strengths of people to blossom. It also should seek to unite the nation which remains disintegrated and divided. It is important that the recognition placed on caste differences is completely removed and the ethnic and religious disparities mitigated, and complete harmony fostered among them. Also cultivating a society of decent, cultured people of rational thinking and a considerable level of artistic appreciation should be a significant and important object of this movement. The proposed new movement should be based on a broad vision aimed at building a new Sri Lanka. It should necessarily be a secular and pluralistic vision and provide space for diversity and multiplicity.

If we are successful in initiating such a social movement capable of making a significant impact, it might positively help build an alternate social milieu that upholds new values and restore the frail spirit of the people thereby contributing to create a vibrant society. If this movement could be made a strong pressure group with an advancing tide that mobilises people not in thousands but in several lakhs, it would certainly turned out to be a potent social force capable of effecting extensive changes that the country badly needs even without resorting to capture political power. In the final analysis, it is only a movement of this nature and calibre that could dispel the darkness that overwhelms the country at present and bring a ray of hope to it.

If you enjoyed this article, you might find “A reflection on conflicts in Sri Lanka” and “Achieving durable reform in Sri Lanka” illuminating reads.