People’s Movements with Special Reference to Sri Lanka

by Fr. Paul Caperz



Some necessary conceptualization has, I fear, to be attempted at the outset. The results are shown on the chart that is annexed to these notes.

So People’s Movements may be defined as non-institutionalized, yet powerful, mass mobilizations of people in defense of a cause of significance for the masses and for the achievement of stated goals, with strong group motivation, spurred to action be democratic, dynamic and popular leadership.

Constituent Elements

The various elements need to be noted:

i. Organization of people as people, not as Christians or Buddhists or Hindus or Muslim, nor as UNPers or LSSPers or CPers or SLFPers, but simply as people.

ii. Some organization, flexible, sensitive to needs, yet strong in order to make mobilization possible.

iii. An identifiable cause and sometimes a clearly stated goal.

iv. Strong group motivation.

v. Correct leadership.

People’s Movements

The Exodus People’s Movement

We shall study the operation of these constituent elements of a people’s movement in the greatest such movement in pre-Christian biblical history: the movement of people in the Exodus from slavery in Egypt to liberation in Palestine.

i. Organization of people as people.

The key text: Exodus 3:7-11.

The Lord said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard their outcry against their slave- masters. I have taken heed of their sufferings, and have come down to rescue them from the power of Egypt, and to bring them up out of that country into a fine, broad land,’ it is a land flowing with milk and honey ... The outcry of the Israelites has now reached me; yes, I have seen the brutality of the Egyptians towards them. Come now; I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall bring my people to Israel out of Egypt... this shall be the proof that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall all worship God here on this mountain."

ii. Some organization, flexible, sensitive to needs, yet strong and of a mass nature.

Note the division into tribes: Numbers 1:1-4 and the appointment of leaders: Numbers 11: 16-17.

The Lord answered Moses, "Assemble seventy elders from Israel, men known to you as elders and officers in the community; bring them to me at the Tent of the Presence, and there let them take their stand with you. I will come down and speak with you there. I will take back part of that same spirit which has been conferred on you and confer it on them, and they will share with you the burden of taking care of the people; then you will not have to bear it all alone."

iii. An identifiable cause of mass significance and sometimes a stated goal.

The key text: Exodus 5:1.

After this, Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and said "These are the words of the Lord the God of Isreal: "Let my people go..."

iv. Strong group motivation.

During the night of vigil before the Israelites began their freedom march. See Exodus 15:1-3.

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the

Lord: I will sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph; the horse and he rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my refuge and my defense, He has shown himself as my deliverer. He is my God, and will glorify him.

Gandhi and the People’s Independence in India

We shall next reflect on a People’s Movement, the greatest that I can recall in my lifetime, where the actors, the dates and the times, the places and the actions have been precisely documented.

On 2 March 1930 wrote the Lord Irwin Viceroy of India:

Dear Friend, before embarking on Civil Disobedience... I would fain approach you and find a way out And why do I regard British rule as a curse? It has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation and by a ruinous expensive military and civil administration ... It has reduced us politically to serfdom. It has sapped the foundations of our culture ... it has degraded us spiritually.

He sent the letter through Reginald Reynolds, a British Quaker. Irwin did not reply. His Secretary acknowledged receipt by a four-line letter:

His Excellency.., regrets to learn that you contemplate a course of action which is clearly bound to involve violation of the law and danger to the public peace.

Gandhi said:

On bended knees I asked for bread and received stone instead.

Let Louis Fischer, Gandhi’s best biographer, continued:

On 12 March, prayers having been sung, Gandhi and seventy-eight male and female members of the ashram, whose identities were published in Young India for the benefit of the police, left Sabarmati for Dandi, due south of Ahmedabad. Gandhi leaned on a lacquered bamboo staff one inch thick and fifty-four inches long with an iron tip. Following winding dirt roads from village to village, he and his seventy-eight disciples walked two hundred miles in twenty-four days. "We are marching in the name of God," Gandhi said.

Peasants sprinkled the roads and strewed leaves on them. Every settlement in the line of march was bestowed and decorated with India’s national colors. From miles around, peasants gathered to kneel by the roadside as the pilgrims passed Several times a day the marchers halted for a meeting where the Mahatma and others exhorted the people to wear Khadi, abjure alcohol and drugs, abandon child marriage, keep clean, live purely and- when the signal came - break the Salt Laws.

Had Gandhi gone by train or motor-car to make salt, the effect would have been considerable. But to walk for twenty-four days and rivet the attention of all Indian, to trek across a countryside saying, ‘Watch, I am about to give a signal to the nation," and then to pick up a pinch of salt in publicized defiance of the mighty Government and thus become a criminal, that required imagination, dignity and the sense of showmanship of a great artist. It appealed to the illiterate peasant and it appealed to a sophisticated critic and sometime fierce opponent of Gandhi’s like Subhas Chandra Bose who compared the Salt March to "Napoleon’s March" to Paris on his return from Elba.

Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi
(London: Grafton Books,1 986), pp. 336-337.

In all between 60,000 to 100,000 political offenders were jailed. Early on 5 May morning, Gandhi himself was arrested by 30 Indian policemen, two Indian officers and the British District Magistrate of Surat.


People’s Movement or Class-Based Movements?
(The Gandhi vs. Marx debate)

Do we have a people’s movement in Sri Lanka?

Subject to correction by my Sri Lankan comrades, I submit that we do not. But what we do have are scattered groups that could eventually come together as a People’s Movement. What they need is "democratic, dynamic and popular leadership."

I recall a conversation with Yohan Devananda.

"What can two small groups like Devasarana and Satyodaya do in the gathering darkness?", I asked. ‘Two small groups like ours cannot do much," he agreed. "But what if there were a hundred or a thousand Devasaranas and Satyodayas scattered all over the island?". He replied, "Then we would by now have had a truly multi-goal People’s Movement in our country.

As Christians, I hold and believe that it is our task to contribute humbly and in the spirit of service so dear to Jesus to the building of this movement of the People of God in our country.

The Main Concerns of a People’s Movement in Sri Lanka

(i) Inter-ethnic peace-founded-upon-justice.

Blessed are the peace-makers, not the peace-keepers.

The way to make peace is to make justice.

Tamil grievances.

The response of the Sinhala Government.

The response of Sri Lanka Armed Forces.

The way of the Tam ii militants.

The role of the plantation workers in the resolution of the crisis.

The role of Christian churches in our religiously plural society.

(ii) The economic crisis

It is this which led to the rise of the Sinhala youth in rebellion in 1971 and again in 1983. The crisis is being aggravated today by the policies of the IMF and the World bank.

N.B. The two crises are two aspects of a single crisis: the crisis of an overacting Sri Lankan consciousness.

(iii) Being part of a whole Third World Movement of People for a New World Order.

Some would say that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the totalitarian regimes of eastern and central Europe, the world has made its final and irrevocable option for free market capitalism and that socialism is dead and will lie buried for all the remaining time in human history.

Will Truman’s dream that the whole world will accept the American way of life come true? Woe betide us if it does.

Remember, for instance, the American establishment’s (not the American people’s) role in:

  • upholding the killer military dictatorship in El Salvador

  • support of Marcos

  • using the UN system, the IMF and the World Bank to further its own political and economic interests.

The Opportunities of the Present Movement

It is a kairos for

each individual
each nation
each people.

We shall seize the kairos if:

(i) We live in real reality which is the reality that the overwhelming majority are poor or oppressed, or both.

(ii) Taught by the story of the Good Samaritan, we remember that to be human in the way that God wants us to be we have to opt for the side of the poor and the oppressed.

Camilo Torres, the Jesuits of El Salvador, Julia Elba and Celina and our own Michael Rodrigo took this option and paid for it their lives.

Archbishop Romero: I am very happy that priests are being murdered.

These are the new martyrs of the Church, even though John Paul II might never consent to canonize them.

The Church had its martyrs for the faith and for chastity: Lucy, Agnes, Agatha, Maria Goretti, Sebastian, Lawrence, John de Britto.

It now needs martyrs like Jesus himself- martyrs for justice.

[This paper was presented at the 23rd CCA-URM Committee Meeting, 11-15 February 1992, Colombo, Sri Lanka.]