Jackfruit under jackboot



Tuesday 5th September, 2023

A poor man who recently walked along a road, carrying a jackfruit, in Gampola, while President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s motorcade was passing through the area is reportedly in trouble. Media reports say the police have initiated an investigation, claiming that he did so by way of protest. Even if he had protested by carrying a jackfruit, the police should not have taken any action against him, for the people have a right to peaceful protest. The man did not pose a threat to anyone. A father of three, he was with one of his little children when he was stopped by the police, we are told.

One may recall that Wickremesinghe, immediately after being appointed Prime Minister, in May 2022, appointed a committee to ensure the protection of the Aragalaya activists, who were demanding the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The committee consisted of the Mayor of Colombo, and representatives from the Urban Development Authority and the Ministry of Health. But one year on, a poor man cannot walk on a public road, carrying a jackfruit, while the presidential motorcade is passing!

Why should the police take any action against the poor man concerned? Dangerous prisoners including terrorists who destroyed hundreds, if not thousands, of lives and public assets worth billions of dollars, murderers, drug dealers and rapists have been given presidential pardons and released over the years. A few weeks ago, two LTTE cadres serving jail terms for their involvement in the Central Bank bomb attack (1996), which killed 91 persons, received a presidential pardon. The police and the Attorney General’s Department have lost interest in having former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran extradited from Singapore to stand trial here for the Treasury bond scams. No one has been arrested over the Sugar tax racket. The CID has baulked at arresting State Minister Diana Gamage as part of a high-profile questioned document examination.

A UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) study has revealed that more than one half of Sri Lankans are multidimensionally vulnerable owing to the current economic crisis. The study has found 55.7% of the population to be vulnerable across three dimensions – education, health and disaster, and living standards – and 12 indicators, including school attendance, physical condition, unemployment and indebtedness. So, can a poor person be expected to carry anything other than a jackfruit?

At this rate, the day may not be far off when even Sri Lankan professionals such as doctors, engineers, accountants, and university teachers walk about, carrying jackfruits thanks to unprecedented tax hikes.

In the late 1980s, the JVP coined a pithy slogan to highlight the glaring urban bias in the allocation of state resources and thereby incite the rural youth to violence—kolombata kiri, gamata kekiri (‘milk for Colombo and melon for the village’). But the SLPP-UNP administration has acted as a great leveller; today, both villagers and city dwellers have had to settle for jackfruit or kos!

It is those responsible for stealing public funds, cutting corrupt deals at the expense of the country, and bankrupting the economy who must be probed and brought to justice. Strangely, legal action is taken against their victims who take to the streets, unable to bear hardships.

It is popularly said in this country that a person who has been beaten with a firebrand is scared of even a firefly. What snowballed into a popular uprising that shook the country last year was a protest, where a group of irate people waiting in a milk food queue in Colombo greeted the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with a chorus of boos, while he was going past the place. So, the government is gripped by a fear that every protest has the potential to trigger a wave of agitations against it. But that is its problem, and its paranoia should not be allowed to affect the people’s democratic rights. Let it be warned that it is testing the people’s patience, which is wearing thin.