This Sunday morn the minister in charge of the police, Sarath Weerasekera, will no doubt be patting himself on the back for a job well done to have deployed his police force and effectively kept the multitudes from thronging the city gates to protest over rising prices and shortages in the country: a country which [...]


Grassroots rumblings brought loud and clear to capital ear


PEOPLE POWER: Braving the rains and triumphing the barricades, they came in their thousands to mark their discontent at the Galle Face Green rally which was addressed by SJB leader Sajith Premadasa

This Sunday morn the minister in charge of the police, Sarath Weerasekera, will no doubt be patting himself on the back for a job well done to have deployed his police force and effectively kept the multitudes from thronging the city gates to protest over rising prices and shortages in the country: a country which his cabinet colleague Minister Johnston Fernando hails constantly as a land overflowing with milk and honey.

But though the mass voice had been stilled with their presence denied, those who  managed to slip through the police dragnet sufficed to give sufficient roar to rent the capital calm and – if any in the government was still listening – to bring louder home to governmental ears the distant but distinct rumbles pulsating in the heartlands.

An estimated 10,000 people braved the rainy weather to amass at the Galle Face Green in answer to the opposition’s call to protest en masse against the unbearable rise in the cost of living and the shortages of essential items due, as the Samagi Jana Balawegaya Leader Sajith Premadasa put it, “to bad administration, authoritarianism, cronyism and the arrogance of the Government”.

Though largely symbolic in its outing, the announced foray into the capital by Opposition led protestors was taken seriously by the government who strengthened the existing health quarantine laws last Thursday by issuing an extraordinary gazette empowering the Director General of Health Services with the right to ban public gatherings on grounds of public health to stop the spread of COVID.

Then on Monday, the Police beat began with a court-to-court trudge to obtain injunctions against the planned marches in the courts’ respective areas of jurisdiction. The police took no chances. Eighty one applications were made to courts by police stations, some of them far away from the route and the scene of the action such as Nittambuwa 47km, Weyangoda 45km, Minuwangoda 44km, Horana 44km and Padukka which is 33km to Colombo.

Some courts obliged and duly granted the sought injunctions but the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court along with the Fort, Maligakanda, Mt Lavinia, Gampaha, Panadura, Moratuwa, Attanagalla and Gangodawila Magistrates’ Courts refused to ban the opposition’s protest march.

Colombo’s Chief Magistrate Buddhika Sri Ragala in his refusal to ban the protest observed that though the Deputy Solicitor General had stated in his application that the holding of the protest will violate the directions made by the Director General of the Health Services Dr. Asela Gunawardena in respect of the COVID pandemic, no such direction had been found in the documents submitted to court. Furthermore, he said, it is a right of the public to protest to which the court cannot interfere.

As the police sheepishly left court empty handed, it became clear that someone somewhere had bungled.

That same night, realising that though Thursday’s extraordinary gazette had empowered the Director General to issue such directions, but no such directions had been issued, a new gazette was issued banning public gatherings from November 15 to the 30 unless prior approval for public gatherings had first been obtained from the Director General.

Coming on the heels of the failed police attempt to get legal bans issued by some of the courts that morning, the hasty gazetting of the Health Director’s order banning public gatherings for two weeks that same evening smacked of politicising the pandemic to ennoble narrow government ends.

The President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science, Ravi Kumudesh, warned on Monday night of the danger of using COVID as a political tool. He said: “People will not adhere to health guidelines and quarantine laws if they think they are tools of oppression. They will resist them in any way they can. Health officials always complain that people do not follow health guidelines. These officials must then stop being political tools.”

In Parliament on Tuesday, while the police in the provinces were giving a prime example in selective law enforcement by turning away busses carrying people to Colombo even though they all wore masks and observed the maximum capacity rules, the Police Minister Sarath Weerasekera waxed eloquent on the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID.

He told the House: “Police were only helping the health authorities to maintain guidelines which they have issued to contain the pandemic. What the opposition should do now is to assist the Government to battle the virus spread. However, they are only helping the virus to destroy the Government and the people.”

Impressive words, no doubt, portraying well the show of sudden action by a government which now pontificates health concerns in high tone but had totally ignored warnings on  August 3, when, with 200 dying daily of COVID, medical experts had called for an immediate lock down, citing the first two weeks of August as crucial to stop the crisis from going bad to worse.  But the Government had slept without stir and, in spite of mounting casualties, had imposed a lockdown only after the crucial two weeks had lapsed, possibly adding to the toll, deaths that may have been prevented.

Thus the opposition claimed that the Government had lost its moral right to use the pandemic as an excuse to clamp down on the people’s right to freedom of movement, especially when government occasions with large gatherings continue to be held without any qualm or restraint.

But what was the message from the grassroots those who converged on the capital bore that the Government so adamantly refused to hear?  Was it a secret they came to reveal in the capital air that would be anathema to the government’s ear? Was it to bring home to the government the hardship the masses endured each day? Of the struggle to survive, of the battle to make ends meet? Of the high costs of rice, of dhal, of beans, of every vegetable and crop? Of milk powder? Of shortages of diesel, of petrol, of gas, and other essential items?

If that was indeed the case — and it was — would it not have been all the more reason why the Government should have listened to their grievances rather than keeping the public woe exiled from earshot?

And if that wasn’t enough to pile on the agony or add another disfigurement to the already mutilated, Power Minister Udaya Gammanpila had announced on the eve of the protest march, a shortage of kerosene due to the sudden closure of the 50-year Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery due to a shortage of crude oil caused by a shortage of dollars for its import.

Extra gazettes conferring extra powers, the police and the barricades, the use of COVID as a political bogeyman to scare the masses to stay put in their rural warrens, may prevent visible protests from breaking out but it will not make the compelling reasons for the protests to conveniently disappear.

In fact, the Government could not escape the voice of discontent sounding on the streets that Tuesday from echoing simultaneously in Parliament when a former senior cabinet minister of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, now a State Minister in the present SLPP Government, Susil Premajayantha told the House that none can disregard the hardships faced by the public due to the rise in the cost of living.

“The ordinary masses,” he said, “face grave hardships. If we go to the village pola we know what the prices of food stuff are. Many reasons there maybe for its high costs. But it is to manage those problems that various government departments and institutions are there for. We must act with greater awareness of the high costs of living that the people are faced with. Can we address macro-economic issues with micro economic solutions?”

If the Government is not willing to pay heed to the voice on the street, it should do well to listen to the voice of dissent rising from its own ranks, not hark a sycophants’ choir sing ‘glory to the king of kings’.

Elsewhere in the country side, far removed from the tended green at Colombo’s Galle Face, farmers are bemoaning the lack of fertiliser and have downed their ploughs in protest. For the last five months they have been engaged in protests as they behold in dread the dim prospect of their toil and labour squandered reckless by irresponsible authorities; and, with their once fertile fields fast turning into waste lands for want of soil nutrients, they see their livelihoods threatened with certain doom.

Six months ago in April, State agricultural policy had arbitrarily banned the import of chemical fertiliser and decreed overnight that henceforth only carbonic fertiliser can be used.

Farmers and other agro experts had warned that such a radical shift will lead to a loss in yield but such warnings had been brushed aside. The Government had not budged from its position and the farmers had naught but to grudgingly comply.

But even the promised carbonic fertiliser had still not materialised. Nature and her monsoons do not await a friendly tide to bring the fertiliser ship necessary to be used during the October-November seeding season for the Maha crop to be harvested in February and March which accounts for 70 percent of rice produced annually.

Whilst they wait for promised fertiliser that never seems to come, while their fields go unsown and their hopes turn barren, the protests rising from the farmers grow louder, the wailings more wrenching, the anger more intense. And patience is fast running out. They’re not simply peeved with the government. They are absolutely livid.

Enraged farmers have sworn to storm the capital if demands are not met. If they carry out the threat and, with other groups on many fronts bearing their own crosses joining in  solidarity, descend  on Colombo en masse,  then the ‘rice uprising’ will make Tuesday’s SJB-led protest to the city seem like a boy scouts den outing.

DANCE OF LOVE: Husband and wife team, Vajira and Chitrasena, who became a legend in their lifetime

India honours Vajira, Lanka’s Muse of Dance

India honoured Vajira Chitrasena, Lanka’s own Terpsichore, by presenting her with one of the nation’s highest awards, the Padma Shri, in recognition towards her distinguished contribution to the Arts.

The award for 2020 was presented for ‘further strengthening the bonds of friendship between the peoples of India and Sri Lanka through the promotion of dance and blending the art forms of both countries, especially Kandyan and Odissi.’

However, since Vajira was unable to travel to New Delhi for the presentation ceremony on November 8, the award was presented to her on behalf of the Indian President by the Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay in Colombo on Wednesday.

It was another celebration for Vajira in her lifelong passion for dance.. Ever since she set eyes, at the tender age of ten, on her future dance master and husband, the maestro Chitrasena performing at the Kalutara Town Hall in 1941, she had been inexorably drawn into the world of dance.

VAJIRA: Honour

So inspired had she been watching him perform that she began to study dancing, music, singing as well as the dilruba and sitar. In 4 years she had become Chitrasena’s student. In a further 2 years, on the threshold of turning 16, she became his partner when, at the Independence Day Pageant, titled the Pageant of Lanka in 1948, they performed together in public for the first time.

It was not to be their last.

Chitrasena played Ravana at this public dance outing with Irangani Serasinghe playing Sita and Vajira as the deer. Irangani would later recall ‘Vajira: “… Chitrasena was very hard on her. She used to get mad with him when he whacked her and she would go off saying that she would not come back.”

Such was the tempestuous love they had, a love born of dance. A love that held them together. In 1951, their dance of love led them to marriage. But neither wedlock nor motherhood dampened Vajira’s passion to dance and the fire continues to burn even in her 90th year.

Take a twirl Vajira. You’ve done Lanka – and Chitrasena – proud.

NOTE: The late Prof. Indra Dassanayake was also conferred the Padma Shri’ for her distinguished contributions in the field of Literature.

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