By Malinda Seneviratne –
Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) came up with a classic re-quote (i.e. from Bertold Brecht): ‘Although the Government accuses us of falling pretty to the designs of various political parties, our union action is not about regime-change but affecting democratic social transformation, not of bringing a new government to power but to obtain a new public, a new people that can comprehend well the existing social injustice.’
The condescension about public intelligence aside, it is nevertheless an admirable stand to take. FUTA, for all its many flaws, has made a mark for itself, thanks largely to Devasiri’s leadership. The march from Galle to Colombo was disciplined and conducted with minimal inconvenience to the general public. This is all the more significant considering that the parties that marched with FUTA by both habit and intent wanted otherwise and moreover had the arm-twisting options of capital and numbers. Devasiri is reported to have said that if the lines were broken, they could leave. That is courage, conviction, the spirit of democracy and exceptional leadership. Salutations are in order!
The following Facebook status message is symptomatic of public angst and hope: I don’t care (if) FUTA is ‘sensational’ coz it is not just some Silva’s drama, but something worth ‘sensationalizing’ for publicity!’
This was my response: ‘True..it’s not some Silva’s drama, but drama nevertheless. Not a great script, poor acting, some shady ‘producers’ and all that…but still, there are good people, honest intention and decency. That’s something to cheer.’
This was endorsed: ‘What I meant was it is for a worthy cause’. And I elaborated, ‘”6%” is part of the sensationalism. That’s not ‘cause’ but ‘effect’. There is a lot of MIS-education about this free education business (but) the Government is the FIRST Respondent in this case.
FUTA doesn’t have much of a case when it comes to the salary issue. This is perhaps why it expanded the political ground by sidelining the legitimate pertaining to union action and choosing a wider platform, free education. They went further, or perhaps narrower, with the ‘6% demand’ (i.e. a 6% of GDB equivalent as allocation for education). Out went the details. Out went sober economic analysis. In came the matter of throwing more money into a flawed program, an eventuality that would most certainly exacerbate the problem. FUTA asked for the moon and called it ‘free’. Good for politics, bad for ethics. FUTA marketed ‘free education’ and kept mum on responsibility. Good for politics, bad for the future.
For all this (perhaps necessary) frilling, there’s something about this agitation that is solid. Hollow as the slogans are, the spark that might become a fire is real enough. That spark has been misnamed, but it is about policy or rather the lack of it. The Government is the First Respondent here. No question about it. Just as the 17th Amendment, flawed though it was, was nevertheless the best intervention at obtaining better governance in almost 25 years and therefore deserved salutation, FUTA’s position and action remains the best chance for getting the education policy right. Sparks can create infernos. They can also light lamp that dispel darkness. I don’t see the Government getting any lamps ready.
This is what makes Nirmal’s Brechtian an important sentiment that also points to crisis as well as solution. Politicians just won’t do it, and so the people must. It is a lovely idea of course. Where it falls flat is on the uneven map of the political. At least in this instance.
The March was disciplined, but coherence of objective was absent. There were UNP supporters screaming ‘Ape anagatha nayakathumaata jayaweva (Victory to our future leader)!’ That’s Sajith Premadasa. The front seats of the rally were reserved for UNP stalwarts. Nirmal had center stage of course and as a people’s and power-to-people kind of articulator one can stretch the point and say that the parties (UNP and JVP) were off-staged.
It also happened in the early 1990s, friends.
Academics, journalists, NGO personalities and other activists took to the streets. It was not Chandrika Kumaratunga’s party they attended. She was just one more party to the euphoria of the possible. In 1994, there was an election. The party-makers turned into voters. The ‘backers’ ran for election. They went to Parliament. End of story.
‘Making’ a ‘new’ people is not easy. Political parties don’t want people to be ‘new’. Nirmal has got the line right. He has to get the people right too. He is getting the Right people and they are not in love with anything but markets and capital. He has asked for pledges regarding free education. Chandrika was not asked to pledge, but she did vow to abolish the executive presidency. Nirmal can count on follower-naiveté but that’s not the way to go about making a ‘new’ people.
It is the ‘government’ after all that according to Brecht dissolves the people and appoints another one. Governments can do that. Insoluble people are rare. They will be there at the end. And they are enough. Innocence is a necessary ingredient in all this. It is not sufficient.