By Dr Kumar David
The front page headline item in Sri Lanka’s Island newspaper of 29 September, reported that Lal Kantha, a leading member of the Somawansa Amerasinghe (official) faction of the JVP, had alleged that the rival dissident faction has been put up “by the Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)”. He also added, for good measure, that “some other forces” such as the Sri Lanka “government, the UNP or even the CIA could be backing the party rebels”. He did not, just to be catholic in taste and outlook, add the now defunct KGB, Pakistan’s ISI, and MI5!
The JVP’s schism is turning nasty, it seems irreconcilable and headed for an open split, it will not have immediate significant repercussions outside the party, but in the long-term it is an important turning point in the island nation’s politics, especially the left movement. The more militant dissidents, purportedly lead by the elusive Premakura Gunaratnam, allege that the official leadership faction has turned soft, compromising and been co-opted by the “system”. It sights coalitions with Chandrika Bandaranaike and current president Mhinda Rajapakse and alignment with Sarath Fonseka in the 2010 presidential elections.
There is a tussle for control of the party paper Lanka and for possession of the newspaper’s premises. The pro dissident editorial staff is sleeping-in refusing access to the official directors. There have been fisticuffs and arrests, about ten people are in custody. Both factions held meetings at venues less than a mile apart in Colombo on 27 September; to judge from participation, the dissidents seem to have won a substantial majority of the cadre. This is confirmed by reports of support for the dissidents by JVP youth, university students’ and women’s bureaus and federations.
The JVP is in the throes of the most profound disarray in its 46 year history. The events of 1971 and 1988-90 did enormous physical damage when the state, responding to the JVP’s folly, retaliated with greater ferocity, brutality and barbarity. But neither of these blows, from the outside, could destroy the ideological spirit and cohesion of the movement. What is happening now is far more serious; it could sap inner energy and demolish the faith of the movement in itself. This is why inner raptures of a deeply ideological nature are tsunamis; vide Martin Luther, the philosophical schisms in the church, and the birth of Protestantism. Are the present troubles in the movement as profound and fundamental, and, in the eyes of the contending protagonists, do they call in question the raison d’etre of party? It seems to be so.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna
The JVP is now the largest left party in Lanka; it pushed the LSSP out of pole position in the 1980s and has since also won enough allegiances to emerge as the biggest trade union combine in the state sector. However one must bear in mind that only 15% of Lanka’s workforce is unionised and that too only if one includes the huge Tamil upcountry plantation unions. The near erasure of the traditional left (LSSP and CP) in the working class is a matter to discuss another time. The point here is the significance that the JVP has now gained in the working class.
The JVP (founded in 1965 by Rohana Wijeweera) was born of the social crisis of tens of thousands of educated, but exclusively Sinhala educated and hence lacking exposure to the outside world, unemployed rural and semi-urban youth. It was born of the socially (including caste) and economically under-privileged subaltern village and small town classes. It was a product of the 1960s and 1970s ferment – the age of Vietnam, anti-imperialism and the heroic guerrilla, the much loved Che. Hence it was a movement of the oppressed, but it was also intellectually half-baked. It was cadre-based, radical, and militant petty-bourgeois. From its origin the JVP was immersedin the secretive mentality of the Narodniks; unlike Leninism which was strict on discipline but plural and free in matters of theory.
The mix of more than a little education, frustration in life and romanticism made a decoction that went straight to the head. It was not a world’s first, the Narodniks who cultivated secrecy and individual terrorism, were the forerunners of the early JVP. The 1971 Insurgency against Mrs Bandaranaike’s government was Narodnik style ultra-left adventurism. The state’s response was ruthless; about 10,000 young people were killed in cold blood by the state. Not the most ardent JVPer will now dispute that 1971 was a blunder rooted in the aforesaid heady mix which it mistook for Marxism with which it had but slim familiarity.
In the ensuing prison years (1971-1983), it was said, that these errors were debated and rectified, but the facts belie this. In 1988-90 the JVP went ahead with an armed insurrection that was the closest that the state in Sri Lanka ever came to being overthrown. It eviscerated Jayewardene as a traitor for inviting Indian troops (IPKF) into the country and sought to overthrow the state. The IPKF kept the LTTE tied down in the Tamil areas giving Colombo a free hand to focus troops in the South and slaughter the JVP – the estimate is that 60,000 were slain in retaliation for some 1000-plus politicians, policemen, academics and military men and families that the JVP had gunned down. Thereafter Colombo and the LTTE joined hands to humiliate Delhi (the citadel of those who never learn) and kick out the IPKF.
The founding blunders
The JVP has obviously not learnt from past blunders and possibly the new feud may lead one or the other faction to repeat a horrific bungle. The JVP is fond of quoting Lenin, so why not I?
“A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification — that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses”.
Foundational errors, embedded in its own class background, lay uncorrected through the 1971 defeat into the 1988-1990 debacle. They are again at the root of the present split. Now may be the JVP’s last chance to “thrash out the means of its rectification. There are two blunders; one, an addiction to armed struggle and arising from this a predilection to secrecy and conspiracy. The second is chauvinism, incomparably milder than the SLFP or the UNP (Sri Lanka’s main parties), but when one flaunts socialist colours the concomitant degeneration is weightier.
From its birth the JVP conceived of revolution as a practice that was devoid of political flexibility. It was Lenin, the movement’s purported guru, who dinned into goofy heads that seriousness of purpose and flexibility of method are not contradictory; they are inseparable. Use parliament and every forum; form principled alliances; never be sectarian in action; build a strong party – not conspiratorial cells – to raise the consciousness of cadres and masses; such was his core message. The IVP cannot with any seriousness say that it functioned flexibly, sure retaining its identity, but with practical and theoretical involvements that were open and wide.
Look at the way the current schism is developing; it’s like a clash between two splinters of a secret society. The consequence is that party cadres remain backward, unable to fathom the full meaning of issues or to understand them against the backdrop of modern day local and global reality. Had the JVP been more open in the past the stupidity of 1971 and its repetition as gigantic folly in 1988-90, would not have happened? The absence of openness now is rooted in the secret-society mentality of the past and could end in tragedy again.
Is the JVP a racist party?
If you mean does the JVP go around killing, raping and burning down Tamil homes, the answer is an unequivocal NO. This is the realm of the SLFP and the UNP; both have mastered the art of the pogrom over decades. But if you ask, is the programme of the JVP in respect of the national question a version of petty-bourgeois Sinhala-Buddhist ideology, I will not hesitate to answer ‘yes’. Taking into account the exclusively Sinhala background of the oppressed young people who came together to form the movement, this is unsurprising at the beginning. But leadership and vision could have lifted the JVP beyond these limitations, but such a leadership, Wijeweera included, never materialised.
Its intellectual chauvinism has dogged and haunted the JVP all the days of its life. Its role as cheerleader for a racist war, its anti-Indian stance (concealed antagonism to plantation workers), its refusal to allow tsunami aid into Tamil areas, its anti-Tamil deal with Mahinda in 2005; all of this has corroded the party.
It has been rumoured that the Gunaratnam faction wants to reopen the debate on the national question, albeit four decades belatedly. Well it’s to be welcomed but Pubudu Jagoda, spokesman for the faction (interviews in the Island and Daily Mirror of Sri Lanka on 27 September, and at the public meeting in New Town Hall, Colombo, on the same day) offers no more than the old rubbishy line; “too much devolution will be the first step in dividing the country”. Until the JVP both renounces and abandons its enduring errors on the national question, it will remain an archaic article in the world of modern Marxism. Let’s hope that a theoretically modern, open minded on the national question, militant but non conspiratorial movement comes out of the deep crisis now on show.