By Ashan Weerasinghe –
The brutal police attack on the HNDA student protestors on October 29 urges us to re-think of the fate of ‘citizen-life’ in a country with an unbelievably corrupt political system such as the “Democratic” “Socialist” “Republic” of Sri Lanka. Especially, this allows us to safely assume that the police is no longer the ‘agent of protecting law and order’, as it theoretically promises. Political thinkers including Marx, Gramsci, Foucault and many others have said enough about the role of state apparatuses like police, military etc., within hegemony and the SLDP has given concrete evidence at several occasions during the recent past to argue that it is non other than a repressive tool at the hands of the dominant/hegemonic group. Gramsci has already shown the importance of such repressive tools to the dominant group to exercise its hegemony when the subaltern masses do not ‘obey’ and when the ideological leadership alone does not work. (Gramsci, 2000: 420). Is the present government conveying the message that it is not the extinction but an extension of what I often call the corrupt ‘Mahinda Ideology‘? Needless to say, behaviour of government institutions such as the police is a manifestation of the state attitude towards citizens.
This is a critical incident where the basic human right of freedom of expression has been severely violated by the so-called ‘guardians of law and order’. In attempting to disperse the protest, police not only fired tear gas and water canon but also inhumanely assaulted student-protestors with batons. Brutality of the attack became a controversial issue especially after photos depicting violent police attacks were published on the websites and social media as well as in printed media. One of the photos that show the brutality of a police officer beating an unarmed female student with a baton even when she is on the ground, has already gained wider attention. Social media, especially Facebook, is still full of videos that include the “criminal” behaviour of the police.
Soon after attack took place, a special media briefing was convened to give explanations on behalf of the police, with the participation of Police Spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara and several other senior officers. Police Spokesman, as usual, claimed that the police had not involved in any ‘violent’ action other than using “necessary force” instead of “minimum force” to disperse the protest. However, he failed to define “necessary force” and its limits. According to his justification, police has all the powers to use almost any method, ranging from beating up not only with batons but also with “anything”, to even shooting. The primary objective of shooting for the Sri Lanka police, according to the Spokesman, is to “kill” (He used this word). Commenting on the photo that shows a female protestor being inhumanely beaten up by an aggressive police officer, SSP Champika Siriwardena interestingly said that the student protestors were never assaulted but were injured when they were trampled by each other. But the real photos are still available on the Internet. I do not know whether this officer was in good mental health in saying this, but I do certainly accept such a response from Police Spokesman, given the unpredictable nature of his post that has the capacity to make a good police officer a shameless lia!
Even though some politicians of the government including Rosy Senanayake, Mangala Samaraweera and Karunarathna Paranawithana have personally condemned the assault mainly by publishing statements on social media, the government in general has not yet opposed this brutal attack despite Prime Minister’s demand for a report. At least, the government must be careful enough to prevent its police from justifying the attack on media by using false information. President Maithripala Sirisena, beloved father of two children to whom “presidential protection” is also given sometimes, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, beloved husband of a high-feminist academic have an unavoidable moral responsibility to respond to such cases carefully.
Gramsci’s analysis of the organization of hegemony the dominant group has many things to teach us regarding the social-reality in which we live. For him,
“…the dominant group is coordinated concretely with the general interests of the subordinate groups, and the life of the State is conceived of as a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibrium (on the juridical plane) between the interests of the fundamental group and those of the subordinate groups” (Gramsci, 1971: 182)
It is by weakening/silencing these ‘interests of the subordinate groups’ that the fundamental or dominant group maintains its hegemony. The ruling group also likes to see that the worldview of the ordinary people is fragmented so that there are no chances of arising oppositional forces. Gramsci suggested that there are two ways of domination: (1) direct domination using armed forces; and (2) ideological and moral leadership. Gramsci stated that humans can best be ‘hegemonized’ once they are ideologically and morally subordinated or controlled by imposing the ruling ideology through ‘intellectuals of the ruling class’ (Jackson Anthony and Nalin de Silva under the MR regime are good examples for Gramsci’s particular use of the term “intellectual”. Everyone, capable of affecting ‘social-mind’ and hence with a specific social function is an ‘intellectual’, for Gramsci). But Gramsci was also aware that there could be certain situations where direct domination exercised by police and military is also necessary. Hence, hegemony of the ruling group needs to be understood as an ensemble of both forms of domination (direct and ideological). We know by experience that the police department is very much willing to serve its role to safeguard the dominant hegemony because of the politicalized hierarchy within the department itself.
However, police interventions do not always take plac as a strategy of securing the hegemony of those who are in power. Instead, it comes in the form of ‘disciplinary actions’ aimed at the wellbeing of the majority. It was on this basis that the said police officers attempted to justify the attack on the HNDA student-protestors by pretending that ‘they were just trying to prevent the protestors from disturbing the social life of others’. However, to be concrete, the sole operational logic behind such ‘disciplinary actions’ is this: ‘when you do not consent to the hegemony of the dominant, we are there to punish you for being ‘politically bad”. They have never been neutral welfare attempts throughout human history and Foucault has remarkably commented on the politics of disciplining in his book Discipline and Punish.
That is why it would be important to consider what Foucault has to say in the following text, especially if we are to make “real” sense of good governance:
“The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” Foucault (1974, p. 171)
Gramsci, Antonio (2000), The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, David Forgacs (Ed.), New York: NYP
Gramsci, A., In Hoare, Q., & In Nowell-Smith, G. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers
Foucault, M. (1974) in N. Chomsky & M. Foucault Human nature: justice versus power, in F. Edlers (Ed.) Reflexive Waters: the basic concerns of mankind. London: Souvenir Press