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Sunday, 15 January 2012

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Violent protests are counterproductive

Having defeated terrorism, the Government has launched a massive development program in every sphere of activities. As usual the opposition is picking peccadilloes to tarnish the image of the Government. If the intention is to make Sri Lanka a better place to live in, that is a laudable attempt. However, their target is to bring down the Government and come to power. In a democratic country such as Sri Lanka this type of activity is quite understandable.

What is disturbing to peace-loving ordinary citizens is the wilful damage to public and private property while conducting protests. The latest trend appears to be to use undergraduates to march in their thousands blocking roads and holding citizens to ransom. The recent march of undergraduates who came from Sri Jayewardenepura University to Kollupitiya on the pretext of meeting the President is a case in point. As a result of the protest march, the traffic on High Level Road came to a virtual standstill. People had no way of coming to the city and attending to their various needs. People could have understood the need for such a protest if there was a life and death situation. However, they were protesting against a proposed piece of legislation to set up private universities.

Although there are quite a few degree-awarding private universities in Sri Lanka, the university students are vehemently against private universities awarding medical degrees. It is unfortunate that they have overlooked the fact that there are private medical colleges in many other countries. Those who can afford the high fees send their children to these universities and most of them have come back to serve their motherland. But nobody is protesting against foreign universities awarding medical degrees to local students. When the Government tries to open private medical colleges, undergraduates, some university dons and doctors raise a howl of protests.

Right to protest

People have a right to protest against injustice, corruption and misuse of power. Can anyone place private universities under any of these categories? Certainly not. When there is no valid or justifiable reason to protest against the Government, certain opposition political parties use university students to achieve their ends. It is easy to provoke immature undergraduates to protest against imaginary acts of injustice or destroy private and public property. As a result of such protests most of the universities remain closed indefinitely. The protesters and their backers fail to see the injustice done to thousands of undergraduates who have come to universities for higher education.

Mahatma Gandhi who taught
the art of non-violent protest

In the 1950s and 1960s local universities were centres of academic excellence. University professors and lecturers were engaged in research and published many books that enriched literature and other areas of interest. However, universities no longer produce scholars or research publications. Almost all the universities have become hotbeds of politics. As a result, most of the undergraduates and a few lecturers have become pawns of political parties. Politics has ruined the university culture and discipline. Today undergraduates do not hesitate to attack their own teachers and hold them hostage to win their demands.

Time is ripe to find a better way of achieving what we want. If the undergraduates have genuine grievances, they can come to the negotiating table without blocking roads and resorting to violence. It is easy to deal with a democratically elected Government peacefully because the rulers are our representatives. They will always lend their ears to the genuine grievances of undergraduates and workers. By adopting an intransigent attitude neither undergraduates nor other employees can win their demands.

Personal space

The protesters and their political masters need to remember that all of us have a personal space. If anybody invades that space, we are bound to react sometimes in a violent way. Our culture and education have taught us that we need such boundaries to delineate and define ourselves. The personal space, unknown to many of us, extends to cover our beliefs, faith in democracy and desire to lead a trouble-free life.

In most of the developed countries workers demanding higher salaries do not resort to violence or sabotage. They come to their workplaces wearing black bands as a mark of protest. They know that blocking public roads and damaging private and public property does not produce any results. If they wish to go a step further, the workers would picket during the lunch interval.

Those who lead and take part in violent protests should take a cue from Mahatma Gandhi who awakened a sense of dignity in the hearts of the down-trodden people in India. In March 1930, Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy informing him that he proposed to lead a movement to defy the Salt Laws by non-violent means. On March 12 he set out from Sabarmati at the head of a band of followers from his Ashram on his famous march to the sea. The Sathyagrahis took one month to reach the coast at Dandi. On April 6, Gandhi picked up a piece of salt and by a symbolic breach of the law inaugurated the civil disobedience movement. It was a non-violent raid on a government salt depot. Gandhi in later years won world renown for his non-violent resistance.

Judging by what goes around us, we have to ask ourselves whether human beings are rational or irrational. As Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper say, we are both. According to them, we are smart and brainy people. But we still go for puerile, idiotic, prejudiced and selfish behaviour. Those who turn violent in protest rallies and marches fail to see how they are manipulated by self-seeking individuals here and abroad.

Somebody must take the lead in disciplining the rioters and instilling in their minds a sense of proportion and a desire to find a middle way between extreme emotions.

 

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