By Lakmali Hemachandra –
“History tells us that many of the fundamental rights we enjoy today were obtained after generations before us engaged in sustained protests in the streets: the prohibition against child labor, steps toward racial equality, women’s suffrage – to name just a few – were each accomplished with the help of public expression of these demands. If freedom of expression is the grievance system of democracies, the right to protest and peaceful assembly is democracy’s megaphone. It is the tool of the poor and the marginalized – those who do not have ready access to the levers of power and influence, those who need to take to the streets to make their voices heard.” – “Take back the streets” Repression and Criminalization of protest around the world October 2013
The Constitution of Sri Lanka declares that ‘We’ the people are sovereign, that the people’s sovereign executive power will be exercised through the office of Executive Presidency, people’s legislative power will be exercised through the Parliament and the sovereign judiciary power of the people is to be exercised through courts and tribunals constituted by the Parliament. We the people are very important it would seem when one reads the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. However, that is not the story that we hear from the Courts appointed by we the people’s sovereign powers, the courts are singing a different tune these days and it says that we the people are in fact criminals, that We the people do not have the right to dissent and protest using the roads built by the We the people’s money, because We are a danger to public property and public order.
This is the official reason given by the Police in applying for injunction orders against mass protests by students, that they are obstructing public order, creating public nuisance and posing probable threats to public property. Some of the bail conditions issued by the Courts in fact ban student activists from organizing and taking part in protests. Magistrate courts, including the Mahara Magistrate Court that issued an injunction order against the IUSF student protest march on 19th of March and later on arrested 14 student activists, have issued many an injunction orders to protect this ‘public’ from the ghastly nuisance of students and other dissenters. The public should be very safe in the hands of the police and the Magistrates, the way they issue order after order to protect the interests of the public.
However, what is happening in reality is that in the guise of public order and public nuisance, the very rights of the people, the supposedly sovereign people, are being violated by the institutions whose primary responsibility is to protect them. People are rapidly being converted into criminals. It is important for everyone to understand what this trend of criminalization of dissent is undermining and what the eventual outcome of these arbitrary and anti-people decisions would be. We the people are being usurped of our democratic rights, right under our noses. If we do not take action against it now, at the end of the tunnel we will lose all our democratic rights to engage in politics, to dissent and protest government policy. It is the very essence of democracy that the courts are restricting in the interest of the state, against the interest of the people.
Right to Dissent
People have the right to protest, against government policy that concerns them. People are the ingredients of a country, a society, therefore it is their right to know what is happening to them, what the outcomes of government policy means for them and it is their right to protest such policy if they believe that these policies are not in the interest of the people, that they serve the interests of a privileged crowd.
The question then arises how can the people express this dissent?
If you know the President or the Minister whose plans are in violation of your rights then of course you can personally inform them. If you are rich and your money is important for these important elected representatives of the sovereign people to run their election campaigns and prolong their stay in power, then you have better chances of having your way, of changing certain decisions. The most recent example of this is the reversal on the Round up Ban. People had to die in thousands for the President to ban Round up, a Monsanto pesticide that is linked to the kidney disease that killed more than 20000 people in the North Central Province. However, the pesticide companies did not need to protest along the streets of Colombo to reverse that ban. Unlike the suspensions on Rajarata studens activists, Round up ban was lifted, without the slightest reluctance, in spite of medical opinion and research that linked Round up to the deaths of thousands of people. Round up did not receive any injunction notice, from any Magistrate Court.
How can the people, the very people, who are being obstructed and whose property is damaged, express their dissent? How does the oppressed, the marginalized, the underprivileged who have no means, other than the power of the masses, express dissent? Protests, sit- ins, strike actions, these are the democratic weapons of the ordinary people. Therefore, when the government makes a policy decision to defund education, to privatize education, the students have the democratic right to protest it. When the four year degree they enrolled for is reduced to three years, halfway through the degree program, the students have the right to dissent, when the administrations are violating their right to unions, the students have the right to protest, when they are thrown out of the hostels, when the hostel fees are increased the students have the right to protest. Students have the right to protest and tell the government that they oppose these decisions, that they are violating the interests of the people.
These decisions have direct consequences for not only the students who are within the university system at the moment, but also for every student, every child in this country, whose right to education is being violated by the government, by the education policy of the government. The people have the right to say NO, when the policies are not in their interests.
Dissent as an expression of Democracy
Dissent, unlike consent, is a powerful expression of the will of the people. Politics of consent, like elections, make the people feel like mere onlookers; their votes are counted only at the last step of a long political process that consists of different politicians, spending large amounts of money to woo the people into voting for them. Politics of consent, excludes the people, from the policy making process, it transfers the power of the people to the hands of a few and decorates that process with big words like ‘sovereign legislative power of the people’. At the end of that process, people are left with no power at all to decide on the policy that is to be adopted by the representatives they have chosen.
President Mahinda Rajapakse in fact has vowed to protect and expand free education in, the Mahinda Chinthana. No politician ever claims on an election stage, that privatizing education is the government policy on education, that privatizing health service is in fact the government policy on healthcare. They run their election campaigns on entirely different policies and programs. The whole election process is like a black hole that absorbs the power of the people into the hands of a few powerful who are going to serve their interests and the interests of the rich.
Politics of dissent on the other hand, is the inverse of this process. Dissent arises out of the people against the policies of the governments who are using public money and public power to serve the interests of a few. Whereas elections transfer the power of the people into the hands of their fraudulent representative, protests, sit-ins, strike actions and hunger strikes bring that power back to the people. During the elections the roads are closed so that a few politicians can take the stage to address the audience of people in order to take their power. During a protest the roads are closed for the people to take to the streets to demand that they be heard. Protests and other expressions of dissent are tools of direct democracy, where people demand the audience of those in power.
Dissent, therefore forms the essence of democracy, the ultimate expression of the people’s power. One only needs to look into the history to understand, that it is through actions of direct democracy that people won their rights. It was only through mass movements that marginalized sections of the society like women and property less won the very right to vote at elections. Mass protests won the workers the eight our working day, the weekend, minimum wage and many other protections against the exploitation of their masters.
It is the duty of the courts to protect these democratic rights of the people to dissent, instead of colluding with the culprits in violating them. The real obstruction to public property lies in the destruction of the free education system and the free healthcare system. These are the true properties of the public. These are the public properties that should be protected by the Courts of the country. The real obstruction to public interest lies in the criminalization of dissent and the criminalization of grass root organizers and activists. The injunction orders issued by the courts, at the end of the day, are banning the people; the bail conditions are restricting the people, the political freedom of the people. The real nuisance to public lies in this criminalization of the people, this illegalization of the people and it is all done in the name of the people, through the exercise of the sovereign judicial power of the people!