Teaching on the streets

Sri Lanka is set to celebrate International Teachers’ Day, which falls today (5), amidst countless debates about teachers.

On the one hand, unlike in the past few years, this year, this day is being celebrated in a context where teachers and principals are fighting a struggle for demands that have remained unaddressed for years, and on the other hand, teachers’ trade unions’ actions are not being seen in a favourable light due to the prevailing Covid-19 situation. Therefore, there is a need to reach some kind of common ground to address these concerns.

Whether the teachers’ demands are reasonable, and whether the Government has employed the right approach to address their issues, is a highly debatable matter, and we are not really in a position to pass judgment or suggest blanket solutions. However, as a country, we have a responsibility to acknowledge both the teachers’ fight and the seriousness of the country’s health situation.

As the pandemic situation worsened, trade unions representing teachers and school principals resorted to trade union actions that did not involve public gatherings, and took to cyberspace to raise their voice, which is a commendable step. The fact that they made that decision in a context where the allegations that their protests were causing a surge in Covid-19 cases had not been substantiated by either the Government or other parties that levelled the same allegation, also deserves to be acknowledged. 

However, with the lifting of the lockdown, they have now announced plans to hold more protests. They announced that over 300 protests would be held tomorrow (6), to which Public Security Minister Dr. Sarath Weerasekera replied with the warning that strict measures would be taken against these trade union actions. However, the post-lockdown protests, as vowed by teachers and principals, would be held in accordance with the Covid-19 safety guidelines.

To a great extent, the debate is now framed around the prevailing health situation, and a fear many have is whether the teachers’ and principals’ protests would exacerbate the prevailing Covid-19 situation, which has gotten better compared to the pre-lockdown period. 

In this light, the lawfulness of the teachers’ and principals’ protests has been questioned on many occasions, and as much as large public gatherings involving thousands are a big no-no in the eyes of the quarantine laws, the country’s supreme law, the Constitution, under Articles 14 (1) (b) and 14 (1) (c), has granted every citizen the right to engage in peaceful assembly and association, as well as the freedom of speech and expression under Article 14 (1) (a). 

However, the Constitution also provides certain exceptions under Article 15 (7), which states that the exercise and operation of all the fundamental rights recognised by several articles, including Article 14, shall be subjected to restrictions in the interests of several reasons including public order, protection of public health, securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, or meeting of the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society.

However, most of the time, courts have upheld the teachers’ and principals’ right to hold peaceful protests and have turned down the Police’s requests against these protests. Thus, the question has turned away from whether the teachers have the right to demand what they feel entitled to, towards whether their method of putting forward these demands will tip the scales on the country’s precarious health situation. Managing these two aspects, while respecting everyone’s fundamental rights, is perhaps the real challenge we are facing.

On the one hand, the teachers and principals have a responsibility to take the national health situation more seriously, not resort to physical gathering as much as possible, and continue to hold online protests as long as they can, and on the other hand, the Government has a responsibility to not label teachers as spreaders of Covid-19, and deal with the situation more diplomatically.

At the end of the day, securing rights and fulfilling responsibilities is a two-way process, and everyone has a certain role in this process. We have to wonder if our teachers can come up with a novel method of pushing for their demands – and possibly give us all another valuable lesson in the process.