The government seems to have softened its stand on the ongoing teachers’ protest campaign. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
is likely to meet the protesting trade union leaders with a view to sorting out teachers’ salary anomalies. Minister of Education Prof. G. L. Peiris is expected to have a discussion with them. But the salary matters are not the only reason for the teachers’ agitations. One of their demands is the withdrawal of General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University Bill, which, they say, is a threat to free education and an attempt to militarize university education. Among those who are flogging this issue really hard are also some political parties, and whether the President will be able to sort it out through discussions is in doubt.

Protests and coronavirus

Mass protests and coronavirus have some similarities; both come in waves and cause movement restrictions much to the consternation of the public. They are highly contagious and tend to snowball unless nipped in the bud. In Sri Lanka, the government is struggling to tackle both but without much success.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to demonstrations and even bloody uprisings. It has witnessed two youth insurrections, a hartal, which almost brought about a regime change, and countless protests so much so that President Rajapaksa has allocated an area adjacent to the Presidential Secretariat for public protests. The demarcation of this ‘agitation site’ has however drawn criticism from some human rights activists, who suspect it to be the first step towards the banning of protests in other parts of the city. But the past few days have seen some protesters even entering the Presidential Secretariat premises in their hundredswithout any resistance from the police. By remaining unprovoked, President Rajapaksa is apparently trying to disappoint his critics who expected him to order the police and/or the armed forces to crack down on them. Protesters do not consider their struggles complete without teargas, water cannon and baton charges.

Opinion is divided on public protests. Those who are sympathetic to the Opposition and trade unions consider them the most effective way of taming the rulers who are viewed as the agents of state oppression. Government supporters despise these events for political reasons. There are still others who are not aligned to any political party but view demonstrations as a public nuisance because they cause much inconvenience to the public and at present facilitates the transmission of the Delta variant of coronavirus.

Protests and laws

The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, in its 1993 ruling in a fundamental rights case (filed by an Opposition activist who participated in the Jana Gosha protest organised by the then Opposition MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 1992, and was roughed up by the police), said that speech and expression extended to forms of expression other than oral or verbal placards, picketing, the wearing of black armbands, the burning of draft cards, the display of any flag, badge, banner or device, the wearing of a jacket bearing a statement, etc.” The judgement quoted a previous observation by the same court: “The Constitution demands the protection of the right to think as you will, and to speak as you think (Whitney v California, subject to limitations which are inherent, as well as restrictions imposed by law under Article 15. Subject to that, the expression of views, which may be unpopular, obnoxious, distasteful or wrong, is nevertheless within the ambit of freedom of speech and expression, provided of course there is no advocacy of, or incitement to, violence or other illegal conduct.”

However, at present, the police obtain court orders preventing protests, and two months ago, a Magistrate rebuked a youth produced in court for having honked in protest while being kept waiting on a road, which was closed to make way for a group of Chinese dignitaries to pass, and encouraged other motorists to do so.

A judicial decision on protracted protests in public spaces in India is of interest. Maintaining that “democracy and dissent go hand in hand”, the  Supreme Court of India, on 07 October2020, frowning on the manner in which the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 had been held in New Delhi, ruled that roads and public spaces could not be blocked indefinitely and demonstrations expressing dissent had to be in designated places alone. “… while appreciating the existence of the right to peaceful protest against a legislation … we have to make it unequivocally clear that public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied in such a manner and that too indefinitely.”

In February 2021, the Indian Supreme Court dismissed a petition, which requested the review of its 07 Oct. judgment. A three-judge bench said: “We have considered the earlier judicial pronouncements and recorded our opinion that the Constitutional scheme comes with a right to protest and express dissent but with an obligation to have certain duties. The right to protest cannot be anytime and everywhere. There may be some spontaneous protests but in case of prolonged dissent or protest, there cannot be continued occupation of a public place,” a Bench of Justices S K Kaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari said in its February 9 order.

But the British Supreme Court, last month (06/21), maintained, “There should be a certain degree of tolerance to disruption to ordinary life, including disruption of traffic, caused by the exercise of the right to freedom of expression or freedom of peaceful assembly …” It quashed the convictions of four protesters who formed a blockade outside a London arms fair. They had been charged with obstructing the highway with some “lock-on” devices to block an approach road to the ExCeL Centre in Docklands, east London during the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair, 2017. This judgement has struck a chord with civil rights groups the world over as it has set a precedent.

However, as for public protests in the US, Associate Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Christopher Dunn in a column, ‘Occupy Wall Street and the First Amendment’, in The New York Law Journal, in 2011, observed that the First Amendment did not provide absolute protection for speech, and expressive conduct was no different. “Rather, when it comes to speech on public property such as parks and sidewalks (deemed traditional public fora), the Court long has held that the government can impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of such speech.”

Thus, laws in democratic countries lack universality as for street protests, but basically all of them recognize the people’s freedom of expression not limited to oral and verbal forms.  

Protests and democracy

Not everyone is well disposed towards public protests, which can become a real nuisance, if allowed to go out of control, but they are a necessarily evil in a democracy. It was a spate of popular protests that paved the way for democracy in ancient Greece. Historians tell us that the Athenians took to the streets, circa 500 BC, unable to bear oppression at the hands of aristocratic rulers notorious for corruption and abuse of power. Interests of the ruling class took precedence over those of the public. Popular uprisings enabled the ordinary people to have a say in the running of their affairs and making laws. Thus, the Greek democracy came into being. But for public protests the birth of democracy would perhaps have not taken place so early, or perhaps at all.

If not for the US workers’ protests in 1886, demanding an eight-hour workday, the International Workers Day would not have come about. About a dozen workers made the supreme sacrifice and a large number of others were injured in a brutal police crackdown, but the tragic events nourished democracy. Today workers have won a host of rights thanks to the courageous struggle initiated by the Chicago workers, and proudly mark May Day, the world over.

Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March (1930) against Britain’s Salt Act, which debarred the Indians from collecting and selling salt dealt a crippling blow to British imperialism. The 240-mile-march, which was a classic example of civil disobedience, the most potent weapons Gandhi used against the British, led to the arrest of over 60,000 protesters including Gandhi, but it accelerated India’s freedom struggle, which also benefited Sri Lanka and other British colonies.

It was also a wave of protest against an oppressive monarchy that paved the way for the French Revolution, which upended the French political, economic and social systems and had a lasting impact on Europe in the 18th Century. It marked a watershed in the world history, as well.  

Protests facilitated the restoration of democracy in the Philippines in 1986 after a lapse of 20 years. The People Power Revolution helped the people oust dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who had ruled them with an iron fist and plundered national wealth. His wife Imelda became notorious for her vulgar display of wealth while citizens were suffering serious deprivations.

Protests that erupted against the tragic death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a group of white policemen in Minneapolis on 26 Mar 2020 turned out to be a wake-up call for all those who detest racism across the globe. They came to be dubbed the Black Lives Matter (BLM) agitations. Protesters braved all repressive measures the police adopted to quell their struggle and achieved their objective of having justice served. It is from the BLM that taking the knee has become a statement against racism, at all international sporting events. (NEXT PART: Suppression of protests counterproductive)


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