THE RISING: NUGEGODA FEB 18TH
“Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight”
- Bruce Springsteen: The Rising
There was a WANTED poster out for Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday at Nugegoda, and it wasn’t one for crimes of corruption, human rights violation, dictatorship pasted by the JVP. It was a WANTED poster made of over a hundred thousand persons, which said that he was Wanted by the people, by the nation, as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
I must have attended an Opposition rally in Sri Lanka which was larger than the one in Nugegoda on February 18th but I can’t remember which, where and when. It must have been back in the 1960s, when my father took me for the United Front rallies of the SLFP-LSSP-CPSL. A more objective source, unrelated to the UPFA, told me on the phone last night that he saw parallels in the largest of the rallies of the DUNF when Lalith and Gamini led it.
Whichever the more appropriate parallel, Nugegoda was quite distinct in my experience, for a different reason. It was the most emotional, energetic and enthusiastic crowd I have seen at a public meeting in Sri Lanka, and that emotion wasn’t against anyone. It was for someone and something. This, together with the numbers, made the event a turning point, and potentially historic.
The main players at Nugegoda were not the personalities who organized it or addressed the gathering. It was the people. They were packed tightly together, spilling over and swarming the area, more enthusiastic than an American football crowd, waving Sri Lankan flags and posters of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
There was another main player at the Nugegoda meeting and he wasn’t even there. That was Mahinda Rajapaksa. It would have been the classic case of what Prof AW Singham named in his book “The Hero and the Crowd”, except that this time the hero wasn’t there and was there at the same time. The absent presence was of course, Mahinda, whose name was roared out by the crowd; welling up from its bowels.
It was as if the personalities on the stage were facilitators and conductors of that energy that came from the crowd. It was an energy that ran along an invisible circuit extending from Nugegoda to Medamulana and back.
The message from the rally had two intended audiences: Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The message was that Maithripala Sirisena was safe, unchallenged, acknowledged as President but that the same did not go for the unelected Prime Minister and his UNP government. The message was that the people want Mahinda back in the equation; that the 58 lakhs that voted for him and the 58% of the Sinhala majority that voted for him, will not go unrepresented; almost disenfranchised. The message was also that Mahinda Rajapaksa will not be allowed to enjoy a peaceful retirement and that his people have at least one more national service they expect from him, which is to defeat the anti-national Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and institute an SLFP administration.
It is not an attempt at overturning President Sirisena or putting the clock all the way back. It is not a restorationist attempt. It is an attempt at re-balancing, at pressing the re-set button in Sri Lankan politics, so that the 58 lakhs (and percent of the 74% majority) do not go unrepresented.
For me the most emblematic scene of the Nugegoda public meeting calling for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return to politics as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Sri Lanka freedom Party and the UPFA was that of a young man atop a billboard whose response to the drone camera eyeballing it with him, was to wave a lion flag and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s portrait into the eye of the camera. That was gesture of defiance and proud defiance was what the ingathering was all about.
One of the political highlights of the public meeting was the presence of a significant number of SLFP MPs and ex-MPs, Chief Minister Ranatunga, Provincial Councilors, and local government representatives.
Overall the speeches were of high political quality, with progressive veterans Podi Appuhamy, Vasu, and Dinesh giving classic performances. The younger stars, Wimal Weerawansa, a pure Jacobin orator and Udaya Gammanpila, seemingly softer and more humorous, if you ignore the glint in his eye, turned in superb performances. The senior-most speaker, Dinesh Gunawardena spoke last and appropriately evoked anti-UNP memories not only of 1956 but more emphatically of 1960, in which there were two elections, the first won by the UNP and the second by the SLFP under a new leadership which could bring out the votes.
The Nugegoda meeting seemed to me the birth of a national-democratic movement and the launch of a national-democratic struggle to establish a national-democratic government. It was profoundly democratic in that it refused to accept the legitimacy of a Government which had neither won an election nor obtained the confidence of the majority of the Parliament. It was democratic also in that it sought to question the appointment of the leader of the opposition by a President who installed an unelected Prime Minister and Government. Finally it was democratic as it sought to rectify the anomaly of 5.8 million voters (and the 58% of the 74 % majority of the population) going unrepresented in the power equation.
The movement is national in the senses that it is proud of the valiant victory over Tiger terrorism and separatism, stands for the defense of national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity against centrifugal forces and external pressures such as the genocide Resolution of the Northern Provincial Council and Foreign Minister Samaraweera’s written pledge to the UN Human Rights High Commissioner to “work together on developing a domestic mechanism on accountability”.
It is national also in the sense that it taps into a deep emotional wellspring of Sinhala nationalism in the service of a strong patriotism. It is Sinhala nationalist without being anti-Tamil or anti-Muslim in any manner, though it is against anything that is latently secessionist or of detriment to national security. This is a Sinhala nationalism that cannot but stand naturally at the center and in the vanguard of a Sri Lankan nationhood and Sri Lankan patriotism but in no way seeks to dominate the minorities.
This is a nationalism and a patriotism that is directed outward, against external threats and their domestic beachheads and agencies (most notably Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP government) but does not seek to dominate domestic minorities. It is a patriotism and nationalism that seeks to re-energize the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the UPFA.
This is not the patriotism that will be applauded by the cosmopolitan Colombo elite which is delirious that happy days are here again. This is a patriotism of the people; a people that refused, to give into terrorism and secessionism and remains determined to see through their guises and resist. The audience at Nugegoda was one of the masses; the people, those who fought in and supported the war; those whose sons and daughters went off to fight and die in defense of their country so that we could all live in peace. They are grateful to Mahinda Rajapaksa because it was he who gave the committed leadership that none of his predecessors, most conspicuously Ranil and Chandrika could not or did not. They are grateful for the peace we now enjoy.
These masses, from the middle and what Gramsci would call the subaltern classes, are not willing to be ruled by the unelected, anti-national elitist UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was a fusion of the nation and the people; what Gramsci terms the “national-popular”. Thus the Nugegoda mobilization was the birth of a popular movement of national—and nationalist– Resistance. It signaled a people’s national/ist Renaissance.
Throughout the meeting was the rising chant from the crowd, “Mahinda! Mahinda! Apata Oney Mahinda! (“We want Mahinda!”)”. So Wimal was probably right when he said to rapturous applause “Mahinda is not a name, Mahinda is a country!” The great Vietnamese leader Le Duan who succeeded the legendary Ho Chi Minh and led the anti-imperialist war to victory often said ‘Socialism and the Nation are One’. For the people who swarmed over Nugegoda in February 18th, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Nation are One.
It was veteran leftist Vasudeva Nanayakkara who struck the basic moral-ethical and even philosophical chord that unified everyone at the massive mobilization in Nugegoda, when he declared and repeated: “It is not defeat that is a disgrace, it is surrender!”
“’Cause we made a promise we swore we’d always remember
No retreat, baby, no surrender
Blood brothers on the summer’s night
With a vow to defend
No retreat, baby, no surrender”
– Bruce Springsteen: ‘No Surrender’