The Sunday Leader

Social Movement, Continued

President Maithripala Sirisena

by Victor Ivan

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.


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 with. 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 whims and fancies 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.

(Courtesy Groundviews)


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