The Army that Assaulted Peter’s Field Manchester, 1819 and the Army that Attacked Weliweriya, Sri Lanka in 2013

On the 16th of August in 1819, the saber and cavalry charge of a mass protest by British troops took place in Peterborough, in Manchester. This charge – dubbed by the authorities as an attempt at “dispersing” an insistent gathering that pushed for administrative reform in parliamentary representation – is since referred to as the “Peterloo Massacre”, a landmark in the universal struggle for rights and allowance. The anti-protest charge by the British military on the gathered (of which there is no documented statistics, but which is generally estimated to be 60,000 and above) resulted in over fifteen deaths and hundreds of casualties.

Public scorn against the military expressed through a banner during a funeral of a youth, who succumbed to the firing at Weliweriya

Public scorn against the military expressed through a banner during a funeral of a youth, who succumbed to the firing at Weliweriya

The protests at Peter’s Field were instigated by a dry reign of economic depravity and the parallel trajectory of the times which called for wider parliamentary representation. Democratic activists such as Henry Hunt (who were, in context, seen as “radical speakers”) were in the frontline of the protest and agitation which the troops were sent to crack down. While the tragic and abhorrent charge on the protesters at Manchester, in its critical aftermath, led to more committed dialogue and progressive reform, its bitter memory left in the hearts of the people remained a permanent scar against the reign of an old King George III.

Percy Bysshe Shelley – then a socially perceptive youth of 26 – reacts with bitterness and venom to the assault in question in a series of poems written between 1819 and 1821. The more famous of these poems, such as “The Men of England”, are written from Italy, attacking the self-indulgent arrogance of the aristocratic regime as well as the common people who with bent backs and the habit of servitude submit to the canons of their doom.

In a raucous poem titled “England, 1819” Shelley defines George III and his band of statesmen as

“An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race”

Their lives and offices are seen directed through “public scorn” and are compared to “mud from a muddy spring”. King George III at this point was 81 years old at this point and with half his senses and wit dulled by the senile dawn of old age. He was also known for recurrent bouts of a mental instability which became more frequent in his last years (George III died in 1820, a year following the Peterloo tragedy). Shelley attacks the monarchy and its proxies as

“Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow”.

Deployment of military as dispensers of a public protest

Deployment of military as dispensers of a public protest

In the meanwhile, the arms of the regime pointed at the general populace is condemned as an attack on “a people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field” by “an army, [who] liberticide and prey”. The British army and their “weapons of liberticide” are fresh from a “history making” triumph against Napoleon in 1815. This euphoria-evoking triumph – the Battle of Waterloo – saw a decisive strategic advantage won for the British monarchy (who was a leading force in the Seventh Coalition army that fought the French) over regional affairs as well as in consolidating its own end as a hegemonic authority. What is generally considered as a “peaceful fifty years” which the Waterloo brought about in European affairs is by all means a beneficial half a century for British imperialism.

In August 2013, in Sri Lanka, a mass protest in Weliweriya in the Gampaha district is counter-charged by the deployment of the state military machine. In May 2009, the same militant outfit was used in a military crushing of the LTTE, which was engaged with the Sri Lankan state on a protracted cessationist conflict for two decades and a half. The state military – valourized and canonized as the “vanguard of the nation” and other poetic definitions – has since been naturalized as a multifaceted cog into administrative, diplomatic, policy-defining and civil spaces at numerous capacities which range from ambassadors, institutional heads to sports association presidents, security guards and cement mixers at chosen construction sites.

Between 2009-2013 the government’s agenda has facilitated the founding of a “military buffer” as a block between the political class and the common people. This “in between” space assigned to the military is further enhanced by privileges, allowances and exceptions in the way of “rewards” and “incentives” – thereby, banking on a militarily trained work force that asks no questions and which is groomed along the principles of “loyalty”, “obedience” and “unwavering action”. These deposit well in a cement wall that can be used both as a cordoning off formation as well as a active defence system against your “enemy” (whoever that enemy may be).

Today, in Sri Lanka, the guns that were in 2009 aimed against the skulls of those who “did not matter” to the mass psyche of the Sinhala majoritarian South have been reverted. The pawn-pushers of the top offices (to whom the people do not matter) have proven through this single act of releasing their trained militant hounds among the civil protesters of a majoritarian Sinhala district (Gampaha) as to how the “enemy” is a mere variable – and as to how bloated with arrogance they are, in negotiating with a crisis.

Recorded photo footage during the Weliwetiya assault

Recorded photo footage during the Weliwetiya assault

The Peter’s Field protests for administrative reforms and the Weliweriya protests against pollution of drinking water as caused by factories run by mega businessmen (who have very close links with the regime) can both be defined within the broad frame of social welfare. The military offensive engineered against the LTTE between 2005-2009 was in essence promoted as a “salvation” mission: a mission of national deliverance. The same machinery is now re-deployed to sustain “order and rule” in a civil protest – and the discipline and tolerance of the soldiers (and/or the brass that dictates terms to them) is crystallized in the death toll and the injured due to military fire.

Shelley ends his poem by citing the Church, Senate (parliament), and the Law as either passive or as being bent to satisfy regimental fancies. But these dulled and tampered organs are prophesized as the

“graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day”.

This “phantom” is the spirit of social reform and transformative policy. In the ignorant and self-indulgent den we call Sri Lanka – what with its unpoetic, uncritical snowball of lethargy and mass idiocy – whether such a “phantom” is feasible in any near future is indeed a point to ponder. But, the un-learning student should take the cue from the Weliweriya tragedy as to how the militant (once undressed of all poetry and camouflage) is no more than what he is: a militant on the government payroll, deployed to mete out force and shoot as per authorial whim and fancy. To mistake him for anything more than that is sad illusion; the long term results of such illusion can be poignant tragedy.

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