Yesterday’s ‘Hartal’ a change from racial and religious politics

In the face of our country’s unprecedented political and economic crisis -a result of government corruption and mismanagement- which led to the near bankrupting of the country, a majority of trade unions, agricultural workers unions and civil society, came together to call for a ‘Hartal’ on May 6.   

The adverse effects of the Covid pandemic hastened the financial crunch which was already in the making. Today large numbers of ordinary people have taken to the streets demanding the government resign.   

The resistance of the president, his government headed by his brother and their inability to understand the desperation of the masses demanding solutions to the sky-rocketing cost of living, shortages, rising fuel and energy costs, led to major trade unions calling for a ‘Hartal’.   

The word ‘Hartal’ itself signifies the closing down of shops and offices with the goal of satisfying particular demands. The term/word ‘Hartal’ was popularised by late Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi who used the term in reference to the general strikes he called during the India’s independence struggle.   

The common demand of the protesters and trade unions has been for the resignation of the president and government. The Hartal is a desperate measure these people have been forced to take in the light of the inability of the political leadership to provide a solution to ever increasing problems heaped on a desperate population. 

Today while basic salaries have stagnated at between Rs. 25,000/- to Rs. 30,000/- a month, the cost to a family of four for having only two basic meals per day costs over Rs. 30,000/- per month. This leaves no cash for children’s education, travel, clothing or for entertainment.   

Major professions such as doctors, immigration, and emigration officials and transporters have also extended their support to the call of the trade unions. However workers from major supermarket chains, workers from the electricity board and water and drainage boards have not been party to the call for a Hartal.   

The first Hartal in the country, was a country-wide demonstration of civil disobedience and strike action held in then Ceylon on 12 August 1953. The Hartal was called in protest against the then government’s reneging on its election promise of maintaining the cost of a measure of rice at .25 cents.   

The demonstration lasted a day, at least 10 people were killed and resulted in the resignation of the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. Subsequently during Sri Lanka’s long-drawn-out civil war, various militant groups in the north and east called Hartals against policies of the Sri Lanka government.   

While these ‘Hartals’ were successful –in that the work stoppage was complete in the north and east of the country- they were ‘Hartals’ which were imposed by different militant groups. The ordinary people played no part in the decision-making process. People were forced to participate in these work stoppages and/or civil disobedience programmes by armed gangs.   

Voices of dissent were prevented on pane of physical violence. During these ‘Hartals’ government used military force against the civilian population to open online shops like Shoppok and run transport services. In like manner the groups and organisations engaged in organising ‘Hartals’ used violence to enforce their edict.   

A number of unfortunate people were killed by both the military and the armed militants for either participating or breaking the Hartal. Anyone failing to abide, were harshly dealt with by one party or the other.   

In contrast the Hartal called by trade unions and civil society yesterday (6 May) is different in that they enjoy broad support and participation of the masses.  The capital Colombo came to a grinding halt with the main shopping area on Colombo’s Main Street and the central vegetable market completely closing down. Even daily paid manual workers -’Natamis’ cast aside their hand carts.   

Whether the long-term effect of the Hartal and civil disobedience will benefit the economy of the country is debatable.   

But as the saying goes “every dark cloud has a silver lining”.   

The common opposition to the president, prime minister and the government has cut across long-standing ethnic, religious, and regional divisions. It has brought the people together as Sri Lankans in demanding solutions to the spiraling cost of food and energy costs, demanding an end to the shortages of essentials and a common common call for the resignation of the government.     

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