The Year of 2022: The Democratic Turn

Sivamohan Sumathy

“with our bare hands we shape our story”

from, “the dialectic” by sumathy

The year 2022 draws to a close, a year that has been the hardest and the most glorious of the past 10 years. It has been the year of exploding gas cylinders, the fertiliser ban and women rising against micro finance. It has been the year of long queues. It is when Colombo erupted in protest as millions converged in its centres, and the President fled the country: the year of the Aragalaya and the year of the Poraattam and the Struggle. It is a year of victories, big and small.

Growing disenchantment with the Rajapaksa government’s policy, with its combination of rampant nationalism and rampant neo liberalism, galvanized the people against it at a critical moment, worst economic crisis of our postcolonial history. The protests were popular uprisings, and for a brief moment (at least) they cut across the many social faultlines.

Despite its Colombo and Sinhala centric focus, the protests were a truly mobilizational force. They were potentially mobilizing toward a national popular of a democracy movement, what Gramsci would have called, the National Popular – the coming together of large collectives of people – in a historic conjuncture of forces in a birth of a revolutionary moment. This fragile revolutionary moment, the protests, has been popularly dubbed the Aragalaya. Underlining this promise of a coming together, and in a spirit of celebration and anticipation of the truly mobilizational force of a national popular, I rebaptize the moment, the protests, and the democracy movement, Aragalaya-Poraattam-Struggle.

And the new year begins with ill tidings

The year is quickly closing in on us. As the dust settles on the Aragalaya and the people are faced with the twin burden of economic hardship and increased repression in the aftermath, we can only become aware of how fleeting the moment of protest has been. We are, alas, only too aware of the many defeats. Time and again, in this column and elsewhere, members of the Kuppi Collective outlined the major setbacks the economy is facing today and the progressive depletion of welfare measures. The Ranil Wickremesinghe budget of 2023 is seen by many, including this writer, as both a sop to the IMF and a fairy tale. It proposes widespread cuts to public spending in education, health, and offers little relief to the already suffering people. The proposal to privatise Telecom and CEB is an ominous sign of what to expect in the future. The retreat of the state from the important responsibility of ensuring the well-being of the people underlines the government’s economic policy.

We are at the cusp of change. But we are the fashioners of change, too. As Stuart Hall says the historical conjuncture has to be seized upon. This is the moment for us to create multiple moments of democratic action severally; holding them all together in a political and theoretical analysis; reflect on and refashion the relations between a) state and society b) state and the individual subject c) the state and the economy and d) the economy and the people.

FUTA and the Aragalaya-Porattam-Struggle

The year 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the FUTA’s historic trade union action of a hundred days, on the slogan of “6% GDP” and “Save State Education.” These rallying cries struck a sympathetic chord among the people, who had been long suffering under the deteriorating conditions of secondary and tertiary education. “Our Universities Are Under Attack!” said FUTA and called out to the people to support them. In the dark early post war days, FUTA’s action represented a pro-democracy movement, and became a catalyst for the campaign to oust the Rajapaksa regime in the years after. While one may quarrel over the authenticity of the democratic content of the Yahapalana government, and over whether we fought for change in vain or not, it is my considered view that the years of campaign and the movement for change and good governance not only represented a pro-democracy movement, but also opened up spaces for democratic action in the years to come.

Come 2022, 10 years after the 100–day struggle of FUTA. When the protests broke out in April 2022, it caught many people off guard. The University itself was a little slow to react, but it did seize the moment, and respond. Throwing their weight behind the protests, it joined the people in the streets. On June 12, 2022, it launched its proposals for economic and political recovery. However, unlike that decisive moment in 2012, FUTA was not able to offer any form of leadership to the Aragalaya-Porattam-Struggle. The pro-democracy movement was larger than anything FUTA had envisioned so far, for it embraced the concerns of the general public in its multiplicity and in open revolt in a way that FUTA, or its middle-class academics, never prepared for.

Just this week, FUTA and its “sister” unions observed a one-day token strike against increased taxation on their income, under the newly introduced progressive taxation scheme that the government has proposed. This same week, PAFTA, my own union, at Peradeniya Arts, observed an angry three-day boycott of duties, following student violence perpetrated upon a member of our staff and his family. The Union called on all parties to commit to a violence free campus. One may need to hold both these actions together to ponder the varied paths of action of FUTA and the Academic Community. On the one hand, FUTA’s action to protest the taxation policy may seem a highly conservative one, one that smacks of privilege and self-preservation, indifferent to the suffering of the general public; a far cry from the “one million signature campaign” of 2012, demanding 6% GDP for education, Of course the taxation policy is flawed. It lets the very rich off the hook, by capping progressive taxation at 36%, and making raw income the baseline. It also has to be noted that much of the tax revenue of the state comes from indirect, not direct taxes.

On the other hand, the action taken by PAFTA, to confront student violence on campus, is one of those rare occasions where the academic community has turned the lens of critique upon itself and condemned any incidence of violence on campus unequivocally. Student on student violence is a part of a larger and more general scene of undemocratic practices in the university. PAFTA has to be congratulated on the brave stance it has taken. On the other hand, state repression targets university students mercilessly. The state is on a spree of arresting protesting and non-protesting students and others, at will, clamping down on dissent. The Prevention of Terrorism Act continues to target minorities. The campaign for democracy is multiple and at times faces contrary directions.

The cause of free education, and the cause of Save State Education are lost in the muddle of all these competing claims on our attention and allegiances. FUTA and the academic community can play a significant role in this critical time, if it understands this complexity and works out a programme for democracy within it and against it. Given the relative political autonomy and relative independence from corporate structures the academic community enjoys as a social bloc, FUTA can once again perform a vital role in the pro-democracy movement. It will then remain relevant not just to people’s needs but to its own self.

Toward a Democratic Future

Facing privatization in its many insidious forms, the universities are under attack, again. The budget allocation for education for 2023 is roughly 1% of the GDP. Further, this government is accelerating neo liberalization of public education, commenced by previous governments. Privatisation is happening within the university system and is not just imposed from outside. With allocations hardly sufficient to keep our institutions running, universities are compelled to find their own funds. By default, the academic community becomes complicit in privatizing policies, happening mostly in the name of fee levying study programmes, PPP and Quality Assurance Frameworks. Taking a step back, we should explore our own identities and fraught identifications with the forces battering down on the ramparts of the state system.

In this collective mode of action and reflection, FUTA, and the academic community can join forces with those of the larger movement for democracy, in creating a moment of and for the national popular – the conjuncture. In doing so, we may reset the terms of the relations between state, society, subject on the one hand and the economy, people, and the state on the other. Can we do it again, the Aragalaya-Porattam-Struggle?