14 March 2016

'THE SQUARE' is still under occupation!

Independence Square: the easier 'square'
A protest was held at Independence Square on March 6, 2016. The ‘call to action’, so to speak, came in the form of a post on social media by unknown persons calling themselves ‘Occupy the Square’.  The issue was about a security guard taking issue with a couple for ‘inappropriate behaviour’ at Independence Square.  That ‘call’ was shared.  A fair number turned up including the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Harsha de Silva. 

Harsha came armed with the relevant circular.  He took it up with the security personnel.  The media picked it up.  Action was taken subsequently on the orders of the Prime Minister.  Freedom to love and be triumphed. 

Then came the discussion.  There was a lot of ridicule.  Comments such as the following:

It was a trivial matter.  There are more important things to protest/challenge.  It was an NGO affair. Just another protest by people determined to vilify Sinhala Buddhist culture.  A distraction, nothing more.  An exercise to dress up Harsha De Silva as Superman.  Harsha lambasted a security guard over limiting freedom but he won’t dare stand up to foreigners intent on wrecking the country’s independence.  I can’t wait to see Harsha take on Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching on Sri Lankan waters.  Harsha was addressing his constituency just as Akhila Viraj Kariyawasam was appealing to his in the case of the Kuliyapitiya ‘AIDS Scare’. 

Then there were also those who celebrated the ‘victory’. 

“This is a victory made possible by Yahapalanaya.  Even the fact that the security guard stood his ground against Harsh shows that things have changed – it would not have been possible under the Rajapaksas.  This is a body blow to the culture police not just at Independence Square but everywhere. 

Those in NGO circles would know, but I, for one, didn’t see any such people at Independence Square.  However, a group claiming to have launched the protest has written to the Minister of Cultural Affairs about relevant concerns.  An NGO in the making, one wonders.  Be that as it may there was little or nothing to indicate ‘NGO involvement’. 

There were people who have on occasions taken pot shots in social media and elsewhere against anything associated with ‘Sinhala’ and/or ‘Buddhist’ but there was no evidence of any such sentiments during the protest.  The triviality claim can be both defended and opposed.  Triviality does not forbid engagement, one notes, and engagement itself cannot be imposed on anyone. 

Sure, Harsh got to wear the Superman outfit.  Sure, his righteousness and courage when taking on a security officer is clearly absent in other engagements.  Sure, the media helped dress up the Deputy Minister.  Sure, he probably scored some brownie points among his voters.  All that is more trivial, if you want to go with the term. 

What is important is that the idea of ‘propriety’ and who gets to decide were addressed and continue to be discussed.   A discussion of any kind on these issues is a positive sign because we are not talking about laws and nothing else, we are also talking about things resident in culture which of course is never cast in stone.    In Sinhala we would call them ‘sirith’ or customs where propriety is not written down but nevertheless broadly agreed upon and whose violation carries a range of consequences again ‘agreed upon’. 

A simple example would illustrate the point.   If it is now ‘okay’ to hold hands, is it also ‘okay’ to kiss?  Which point of intimacy is ‘inappropriate’ and who gets to decide?  In Sinhala people talk about ‘thana-nothana’, referring to spaces (physical and social) that need to be taken into account.  Or, are we to say ‘anything goes’ and even ‘anything goes, anywhere’?  Would Harsha subscribe to such a position? 

It is always a grey area but they greyness should not forbid its discussion.  That discussion is taking place.  This is good.  In any event, it can be said, fairly, that was being affirmed was Victorian cultural norms (which, admittedly, sometimes comes wearing a ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ uniform) that are unpractical and even ridiculous.  The objection was legitimate, therefore. 

The drama took me back to December 2009.  The place, again Independence Square.  The issue, again, was freedom.  One of the protagonists, again, was a security guard. 

A friend of mine, then reading for a PhD in Chemistry in the USA, who was visiting Sri Lanka had been passing Independence Square.  He had wanted to look around and take some pictures. He was stopped by a security guard who politely told him that permission had to be obtained before hand, explaining that there was a security threat involved.  My friend had not complained, understanding ‘security concerns’.  However, he was shocked a few minutes later when a bus-load of foreigners arrived and started taking pictures.  They didn’t have any permission.  The security guard had said that there was an agreement between the Tourist Board and those who took care of security at Independence Square. 

This was my friend’s response:

‘There are all kinds of tourists. There are Europeans and there are also local tourists. Just assume that a man from Anuradhapura comes to Colombo and visits this place. It is not just another building but one that has historical significance. He wants to take a picture to show his family. He is stopped because he is a Sri Lankan, never mind the fact that he is also a tourist. The man is required by regulation to go to Sethsiripaya, wander around that huge office complex until he finds the relevant desk, obtain a document that allows him to take photographs, come back to Independence Square and click to his heart’s content.  What wrong has this citizen done that he is required to waste a couple of hours just so he can take a photograph that a foreigner can take without having to suffer any kind of hassle?  And what about South Asian tourists? You assumed I was Sri Lankan, but I could have been from South India. You ask me questions that you don’t ask a person who is light-skinned. You are racially profiling me, aren’t you?’

We don’t know if before this protest and subsequent action the security personnel ‘went easy’ on foreigners, especially those from Europe, but we do know that there are no-go places for locals, especially in the hospitality industry. We know that skin-colour can obtain service, cordiality and such (or else be denied these courtesies or at least result in locals being effectively sent to the back of the line). 

Independence and relevant freedoms are in fact ‘square’ and not necessarily in physical terms.  This was what the ‘Occupy the Square’ people objected to.  However, there are squares and there are squares, and not all of them are at Independence Square nor are they related to the issue of intimacy-license.  Independence Square was in fact occupied that Sunday and this helped to brush off the lines that made it ‘square’.  That, all things considered, was easy and even ‘trivial’ one might argue. 

There is another ‘square’ that is far more pernicious.  It is servility to the old colonial notions that did not disappear with ‘Independence’.  They are affirmed not by security personnel wearing uniforms, but a ‘cultural police’ that is heavily armed with ideology resident within ourselves, in our minds and thrive on the victuals of our practice, our diurnal affirmations, direct or indirect. 

That’s a square that is occupied, not as a form of protest, but as a form of conscious or unconscious enslavement.  Perhaps if it could be arranged for the ‘aggrieved couple’ to seek service in one of those all-but-in-name ‘locals not allowed’ public spaces, the true dimensions of this square and the fact of its occupation and the slavery it implies, will become evident.  Perhaps that’s also a site of contestation that the freedom-lovers who made it to Independence Square that Sunday would like to visit sometime. 

This article was published in the Daily Mirror on March 12, 2016.  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer whose work can be accessed at www.malindawords.blogspot.com