The Bulwark of democracy is the people, however poor they may be, from different perspectives.
Most recently, Sri Lanka proved it. People’s power was exhibited in plenty.
Among all the processes, democracy’s greatest merit is representation of people by themselves. The representative form of governance makes democracy meaningful because anybody could participate in the performance of the government provided, they have the support of the majority in the collective of people. Equally important in the democratic form of governance is the establishment of a system of procedure for the representation of the people being checked from time to time as per the principles of democratic functioning of any set of people. Ultimately, the representatives are responsible for not only the day-to-day functions but also the checks and balances that are put into the systems of governance as per the principles of that particular democracy.
The popular uprising in Sri Lanka is to be specially noted for its gradual growth into a powerful movement. It is also to be noted seriously that there was a genuine cause, revealing both, the distress of the people and failure of the government, which resulted in the revolt. All resistances, revolts or rebellions have their own forms of expressions. These forms of expressions emerge from the collective consciousness of the people together. Among several symbols of resistance that the people of Sri Lanka pursued, the most powerful was their storming of the presidential office and residence. The spectacle of the common humans occupying the innermost recesses of the old ‘King’s House’, a colonial remnant of the past, represented people’s power alongside their determination to express their disapprovals and associated anger. It goes to the credit of the people that universal declaration of their culture that they did not destroy any part of the building or pieces of furniture during the occupation. From this perspective of non-violence in public resistance, the Sri Lankans have to be given not only a salute but also an ovation.
It will be useful to know a bit of the history of this president’s house. The Portuguese built St. Francis Church sometime in the sixteenth century during their occupation of the island. While the Dutch took over, they demolished this church and built a two storied residence on the site for the use of the Dutch Governor Johan van Angelbeek whose granddaughter sold it to the British Governor Frederick North. Thereafter, it was known as the government house and the residence of the Governor of then Ceylon. Subsequently, it came to be known as the King’s or Queen’s House depending on the monarch of the time. After Ceylon became independent in 1948, it became the official residence of the Governor General of Ceylon. In fact, in 1954, Queen Elizabeth II stayed at the house during her royal visit to Ceylon. By 1962, local Governor Generals started using the place and when Sri Lanka became a republic, the King’s House was renamed President’s House.
What followed the storming and overtaking of the President’s house located at Janadhipathi Mawatha, Colombo, built sometime in the beginning of the nineteenth century for the British Governors and Governor Generals till Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972, is specially to be noted. There were thousands of people who waited in queues to visit the President’s House. The orderly ways in which people queued up in front of the President’s House and their climbing up of the steps to go through the entire building, making a site-seeing tour, though not guided, were symbols of a cultural desire to have glimpses of their glorious past. They behaved as if they were all tourists who looked like they had come from another country to visit Sri Lanka and they were visiting the most important place in the country.
Sri Lankan uprising is a classic example of redemocratisation of a degraded system brought in by bogus and fake political leaders who functioned on the borders of corruption and vainglorious power mongering. These leaders thought that they would never have to face the wrath of the people who elected them. But they had been dislodged through peaceful means. This is an opportunity for cleaning up by the ordinary citizens not by the elites. Indeed, through a quiet and decent resistance, the citizens brought down a regime. All the same, it is yet a much more difficult task for the agitated citizens to discover intellectuals who can contribute to the development of a new system that will sustain their aspirations. The existing political parties may not match the truthfulness and the desires of the people of the ‘aragalaya’, the term in Singhalese for uprising.
Hence, it is worthwhile that in any democracy, the citadels of ancient glory have to be kept for its people to visit and tell themselves of their historic past. People’s representatives have no business to make use of the honour of prestigious majesty of the past. When democratically elected representatives of the people occupy the signs of past glory like famous fort, bungalows, castles or any ornate centres that represent past glory, they automatically disconnect themselves from the people.
A relevant question that can be asked here is whether the President of India, or for that matter, any governor or chief minister of a state should stay in a building that represents the days of the past glory. At present, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, built by Sir Edwin Lutyens who conceptualised an H shaped building covering an area of five acres on a 330 – acre estate, it has 340 rooms spread over four floors, two and a half kilometers of corridors and 190 acres of garden area, none of which are accessible to the people of the country easily. One only hopes that a situation will not come as what had happened in Sri Lanka. Built in 1929, as the residence of the Viceroys of India, the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a sign of imperial domination and power. Today, the President of India should not represent neither imperialism nor domination and power. He is the representative of people and should be accessible to them, not doubly removed from the people who made him occupy the position. Late Rajagopalachari, when he became the Governor General and occupied the building, finding the Viceroys’ room too royal to stay, shifted to smaller rooms for his personal use. Today, the Viceroys’ room in the Rashtrapati Bhavan is converted into a guest room for the heads of states and governments when they visit the country. From 1950, the Rashtrapati Bhavan is the abode of all presidents of India. In fact, evidently, they have no connection with the people. The Jaipur column which stands on the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt, gifted by Maharaja of Jaipur, represents and declares the grandeur of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. However, it is disappointing that the common people of India will not have a chance to witness the wonders of Rashtrapati Bhavan, especially the spectacles of the Mughal garden, Herbal garden, Musical garden and Spiritual garden with the proximity of Yamuna River.
After independence, the Rashtrapati ought to have lived in a normal house with necessary halls to accept foreign guests and other people’s representatives so that he will have enough space to connect with and remain the tallest representative of the ordinary citizens. The present Rashtrapati Bhavan could become a museum where people could visit and spend time, to know the history of the country and its freedom struggle, especially from 1929 when the building was built. Of course, quite a lot of other things have to be fitted into the halls and rooms to make it truly representative of the past.
It is relevant to write about the Blue House or what is called Cheong Wa Dae in the Korean language which has been the residence of the President of South Korea, situated in the capital Seoul. It is a complex of multiple buildings built in the traditional architecture style. It was one of the most protected official residences in Asia till recently. Built up on the site of the royal garden of the Joseon Dynasty, it covers approximately 62 acres. With a long history from the tenth century, the main palace was built towards the end of fourteenth century. Japan’s power over Korea made them build an official residence for the Governor General in the complex in 1939. As Korea became a republic in 1948, one of the buildings in the complex became the official residence of the President. The place became famous, when in 1968 North Korean infiltrators reached the building to assassinate the then president of South Korea and it is known as the Blue House Raid. Twenty-eight North Koreans, twenty-six South Koreans and four Americans are supposed to have died in the fights that ensued.
On March 20, 2022, South Korea’s President elect Yoon Suk-Yeol announced that he would not use the presidential palace, the Blue House. He decided to stay in the city in one of the houses in one of the districts of Seoul. He decided to open the Blue House to the public as a park. In May 2022, as per the orders of the president, the building officially was converted into a public park and was opened to public visitation for the first time in a 74-year history. Nearly 40000 visitors are allowed to visit Blue House everyday.
One deeply wishes that all the buildings of imperial power which are occupied by people’s representatives, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residences of the governors in different states and such other buildings and places, are converted into monuments that are accessible to people. People’s representatives may use ordinary buildings and use these historical buildings for two definite purposes. The first is that people of the country will have plenty to see to learn about their past once these people’s representatives vacate the places. If the Ministry of Tourism of the Government of India plans a network for visiting different buildings of glory of the past in different states to learn about the country through first-hand information, it will also help national integration. Today, the people of North India do not know much about South India just as South Indians do not know much about the North Indians. If the history and associated incidents of the country of the recent past are brought up in each of these buildings, may be of about a century; if it is made available to the common Indians with a subsidised circular tour through different states, mutual relationships can be built between north and south India.
The second and far more important matter is the need for staying connected with people by their representatives. By the structures and systems of representation that exist in our country, once a person is elected, she or he gets far removed from the people, especially because of the type of work that such representatives have to attend to. Simultaneously, they don’t entertain any system of consultation with the people who elect them. In fact, they become a beginning and an end in themselves for the next five years after the elections. So, every effort has to be put in to keep the people-connect of the representatives. Living in ordinary houses like that of anybody else or participating in performances of the people will keep them rooted in the soil of their representation. In addition, they will live on the common grounds of the people who would have elected them.
Both, storming of the President’s House in Colombo by the common people of Sri Lanka and the subsequent visit of more common people to the house and the giving up of the President’s House by the South Korean President to preserve his connect with people, are two sides of the same coin when it comes to preserving the purity of intentions of democratic representations.
Image by Shora Shimazaki