Protest, the Theatrical Item and Protest, the Outlet of Grief

I

“As usual, Kandy wakes up late!” — this was my first response, as onlooker, to a  parade of protest was being queued along Dalada Veediya (the narrow, single laned main street of Kandy) on March 12th.  Kandy’s own protest against the USA / UN and their “conspiracy” against Sri Lanka at the Geneva summit was the battle cry; and the said summit was, by now, well into its third week.

On closer observation, however, I was to notice that the retarded lateness of the enterprise was not the fault of Kandy’s citizenry  — for very few of Kandy was in the protest to begin with. The greater part among the bearers of various placards and signs — placards of uniform size and of identical print — clearly bore signs of perturbation and loss: the kind of expression you see when someone has ended up in an alien town and in starnge environs, caught in an equally strange enterprise.  There was more than ample evidence to single out that this protest was orchestered by the government and its closest arms, even though the “People of Sri Lanka” label would be the selling line of this contrived product. 

The protest was being led along Dalada Veediya towards the Temple of the Relic Tooth, past the Queen’s Hotel. Eight buses, which most probably were the means by which the “protesters” were brought to Kandy, were stalled along the stretch of the Lakeside, in visible distance. This stretch — of one way traffic — is a strip where a vehicle, on other days, is not allowed to park for even a few minutes. The contingent of buses — most of them registered to the SL Army and others bearing the identification of a top ministry –, however, stretched 3/4 of the way and were facilitated by Police personnel deployed on duty.

The inevitable clash. The People vs. The VIP Guard in the Dompe Incident

The streets of Kandy, as I have observed before, are quite narrow. The constructions of yore have had very little of the future in mind that, at the city center, sideward expansion is an impossibility. For this reason, Kandy often finds congestion a telling issue at times of festivals….and protests. The morning flux of vehicles and people on this particular day was being held up from both the Peradeniya end as well as from the Katugastota side. By 8.30 AM — barely half an hour after ‘morning rush hour’ — the vehicles queued up at the Peradeniya end reached Katukele (where an exasperated cop was shouting at a perturbed coach driver to take an alternative route). I was told that the traffic on the Katugastota road were stalled up from beyond Nittawela, 2 KM off the city center.

As we know, the anti-Geneva propaganda is purely a governmental gimmick to divert public attention from more pressing issues arising from the hike of fuel prices. This is also a childishly begot (but, among people with a low political literacy, an immensely benefiting) trick to win some mileage for a government that has failed to deliver since re-election. The owner of Phone Kade — a phone and mobile accessories shop near Municipal Junction — tells me so, explaining to me that the prices of petrol are rumoured to go up in a week’s time, yet again. The collected and duly transported “protesters” were duly directed and set in line by the local Police chapter.

II

From what we can gather, there are at least two types of “protests” that take place in Sri Lanka at the moment — the (1) demonstrations which are orchestered by the state and its proxies and (2) agitations by underpressed elements (such as, for example, the unionists, journalists, students etc ) — the grievances of the latter are often directed as anti-governmental. The demarcator between demonstartion type (1) and (2) can be seen in the proximity taken in these processions by the Police and other power-weilding goons.

The university students’ agitations — their issues of concern having greater weight than freak shows and decoys — have almost always come under tear gas and boswer attacks. The activism that takes up a progressive cause to the street has been clubbed, remanded and even irresponsibly shot — wounding, maiming and killing without a backward glance of mercy. A killing would inevitably be followed by a face saving apology; but, the haught of the state and the arrogance of the machinary would make that by all means a bare minimum.

The recent shooting of Antony in a group of fishermen’s agitation against the hiked prices of fuel is the latest use of unwarrented force against a peaceful demonstrative space. This breach and unhesitant use of state arms against the non-VIP feeble has become more and more marked and leisurely dismissed in recent times. Memory permits that a similar death took place no more than a year ago, during the Katunayake Trade Unionist strike against a governmental pension scheme bill. While progressive fronts are prevented from voicing opinion and rallying around their causes — the Police, in recent times, have gone to the extent of obtaining court orders to withstand such protests — suppression has been maximized.

At one level, the law is often interpreted and read out to prevent the oppositional / alternative voices from taking the protestant stage. For instance, the fear the “law keeping forces” often cite of a demonstration causing impediments to public security is a ludicrous claim, when that “fear” is seen to be generated solely and distinctively by non-governmental protests alone. The state-engineered protest, on the other hand, is guarded and ushered by the Police to the extent where even the parking arrangements of buses that bring in the crowds to town is done through their intervention. If one is to represent the law and the ethic it has to be done so equally. 

A persistent issue which also reflects accelerated growth in recent times is the expanding VIP allowance for the “political class” and its multi-threaded band of proxies. The select oligarchy that propounds laws (the constitution) are those that do not necessarily come within the purview of the same laws, when practiced in privileged conditions. In other words, the validity of the law — which, in essence, is meant to “cover all” — are for the ordinary and the politically “represented”; between whose limited social and cultural allowances and the unlimited privileges of the VIP class the police and the hired military stand as a thickening fence.  

 The series of protests carroed out by the state proxies reinstations of hegemony. These “pleasure parades” merely replay for the body mass of its citizenry the rituals of submission. You watch, hear, get detained by — render willing or unconscious participation to — the programme and by doing so / being so you confirm your consent to the regime and the regimental definition of the world. You become thus immersed in the protestant myth — a protest which, already, is based on a myth which inculcates fear in you that the integrity of the nation is at stake.

The VIP Preserve. Do not protest.

The fear makes you half numb and makes you oblivious to the underlying politics of the protest; and as to the real actors behind it. Even if you are conscious of the mechanism — like the owner of the Phone Kade —  you do not have an activism in you to resist the hegemony. Either the potential to desent has already been neutralized (like in the case of the UNP or the JVP); or, you have been injected with an ennui and a convincing lethargy which tells you that to be an activist is “not worth the while”.

The “people” of the nation, then, does not protest. The people are more the witnesses of the theatricality which is ritualistically evoked by an oligarchical script. This is true not to the anti-US/UN protests alone; but to all state concoctions by the way of privileging the bid of the “political class”. The people are more the willing / unwilling appreciators of the aesthetics thus played out. In their aesthetic sensibility they remain immuned and de-activated.

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