By Dr Kumar David
The Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) or People’s Liberation Front evolved into the largest left party in Lanka after the collapse of the old left (LSSP and CP) in the mid-1970s. Its founding ideology in 1965 was a variant of then popular Maoism but its founder Rohana Wijeweera was captured and shot by the UNP’s Premadasa government in November 1989. The JVP is best remembered for two uprisings, the 1971 Insurrection, a youth rebellion intended to overthrow Mrs Bandaranaike’s government that was crushed with the loss of about 10,000 lives, and the much more costly 1987-1989 full-scale uprising aimed at capturing state power.
The 1987-89 phenomenon is the closest a Lankan government came to being overthrown (the LTTE could never have taken Colombo and the Sinhalese south); the state put it down in an orgy of blood that, according to the most reliable estimates, cost the lives of about 60,000 young people, mostly in revenge killings by the police and the forces after the rebellion had been defeated. In view of these two events, the name JVP has been synonymous with armed struggle, just as the LTTE is associated with separatist war.
The participation of the LSSP and CP in coalition government (1970-75) with Prime Minister Mrs Bandaranaike, and subsequently her daughter President Chandrika Kumaratunga from the mid 1990s, created a vacuum on the left and opened the way for the JVP to capture the imagination of young radicals. Although first generation left leaders (NM Perera, Colvin R de Silva, Pieter Keuneman etc) entered coalitions for the purpose – however belied by the outcome – of achieving socialist transformations, the next (current) set are seen as opportunists seeking cabinet posts, sinecures and perks.
This finished off what respect remained for the traditional left and allowed the JVP to emerge as a force among radical youth and the left inclined petty bourgeoisie and also to capture a sizeable stake in trade unions. True, the JVP has not won a sweeping mass base like the old left sported for two decades after the war in the working class, intelligentsia and swathes of urban and semi-urban territory (western coastline, Kelani Valley and deep south); but it is the principal left force in Lanka at this time. The LSSP and CP can no longer have any illusins of winning even a single seat in parliament on their own, but the JVP won a dozen in 1994.
Beginning in 1994 the JVP entered parliamentary and constitutional politics; it participated in the 1994, 2001 and 2004 parliamentary elections, the last in alliance with the SLFP and briefly took cabinet posts in 2004-5. It backed Mahinda Rajapakse’s 2005 presidential bid, and carried General Sarath Fonseka’s 2010 presidential campaign on its shoulders. An internal conflict in 2008 resulted in the splitting away of chauvinist sections led by Wimal Weerawansa , but this not important.
A deeper and more seismic conflict has been brewing over the years. This is about the perennial question of participation “in coalition politics with bourgeois forces”. Meaning, the rebels decry participation in Chandrika, and Mahinda type governments and pandering to Fonseka. In the final months of 2011 the split splurged into the open; the radical wing, which I will call the New-JVP (the faction has still not chosen a name) has won a clear majority of cadres, district activists and student bodies, but failed to secure major representation in the trade unions. This long introduction is for the benefit of non-Lankan readers.
The first foundational error of the JVP
From its birth the JVP conceived of revolution as a practice that was devoid of political flexibility. Its guru Lenin dinned it into dotard skulls that seriousness of purpose and flexibility of method are not contradictory but inseparable. “Use parliament, use every forum, form principled alliances, never be sectarian in action, build a party not conspiratorial cells, raise the consciousness of the masses” such was his message. From 1965 to now the JVP displayed no such flexibility. Founded as a conspiratorial party, it inclined to futile terrorism.
The second foundational error of the JVP
The JVP never killed and raped Tamils, nor burnt down Tamil homes. This is the realm of the SLFP and the UNP which have mastered the art of the racist pogrom over decades. But if you ask, is the programme of the JVP on the national question a version of petty-bourgeois Sinhala-Buddhist ideology, the answer is ‘yes’. Taking into account the exclusively Sinhala background of the oppressed young people who came to form the movement, this is unsurprising at the beginning. But leadership and vision could have lifted it beyond these limitations, but such a leadership, Wijeweera included, never materialised.
This intellectual backwardness 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 this corroded the party. Now after the split Somawansa, the leader of the Old-JVP faction, declares that the rebels are on “an Eelamist agenda”. He and Lal Kantha, the trade union leader, allege the dissidents are “put up by India’s RAW and the CIA”. Hmm, the rebels must be doing something right; let’s follow up.
The interesting New-JVP
First is the question of terrorism. The events of 1971 and 1987-89 have not been forgotten and LTTE terrorism is fresh in people’s minds. Though the LLRC shamelessly whitewashed military atrocities it exposed LTTE ones, so people have been reminded of this anew. Understandably, when New-JVP and ex-LTTE cadres join, there is apprehension in the public mind of a return to bad old habits. The urgent task facing the movement is to dispel these doubts.
One of the leaders, Chameera Koswatte, has declared that the movement “has no intention of starting an armed struggle”, but next day there were reports of a Professor Shantha Hennanayake of Peradeniya University complaining he had been “assaulted by students belonging to the JVP rebel group”. There is still a long way to go before the radicals can dispel fears of futile violence. Not only dispel concerns about their own intentions, but more important, they must develop the maturity to cope with state violence, repression and provocation, which will increase as the movement gains strength.
The fate of Lalith Kumar Weeraraju and Kugan Muruganathan, two New-JVP cadres, is a taste of things to come. They were abducted in Jaffna on 9 December 2011 and have not been heard of since. Your guess is as good as mine; that is everybody knows that it is the forces of the state, or the paramilitaries who are behind these and other increasing abductions in the North. Bus loads of New-JVPers travelling to Jaffna for a protest rally against abductions have been harassed by the police and military at every point and turned back. When an authoritarian state gets jittery, it’s good news for the people. Forget the slander that terrorism is raising its head; that’s what the state always says when it is readying to unleash repression. “Terrorism” is well known code for admitting that anti-government movements are gaining ground.
The New-JVP and the Tamils
The New-JVP has confirmed that it is building connections in the Tamil areas and recruiting ex-LTTE cadres. If this is true, and if these efforts succeed, then this is the best political news in a long time. At last a left with sizeable involvement of both Sinhalese and Tamil young people is emerging. We have not seen anything like this since the left’s golden age in the late 1940s and 1950s. It is gratifying that New-JVP spokesman Udul Premaratne told it straight up front, just as it should be said:
“We must make it clear that former LTTE members are now with us. We should not be afraid to say it. We should announce it to the world come what may. We do not approve of separatist terrorism. We do not do politics with any separatist organisation. Yet we are with the ex-combatants”. (Daily Mirror, 13 January)
I have not heard such refreshing candour in left politics for a long time. There are a couple of points apart from candour in this statement that need comment. First, I interpret the rejection of separatist terrorism as not confined to this form of terrorism alone but a rejection of all terrorism; if so, excellent. If the New-JVP and its Tamil recruits do not eschew futile terrorist violence people will be justifiably fearful.
Because of the dichotomous, indeed virulently hostile positions of the Old-JVP and the defunct-LTTE on the national question, any collaboration that brings together cadres originating in these prior entities face a huge challenge in working out a shared stand on the national question. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of both sides in struggling to arrive at a common position but it’s not going to be easy. The New-JVP recently said it would support the ceding of police and land powers “if the Tamils want it”. This is welcome, but it sounds like Sinhalese agreeing to give something to Tamils. Good enough for rotten bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties, but not good enough for a Marxist party where there has to be a fuller multi-ethnic internal dynamic. Let me explain.
It is better if the New-JVP first enrols large numbers of Tamils and then engages in internal discourse where members of all ethnic backgrounds involve themselves. Then it will be in a strong position to finalise its programme on the national question. This may take time, but if the process is frankly explained to the people they will be patient so that the job can be done properly. For now, conceding police and land powers is sufficient till requisite organisational strength for a thoroughgoing theoretical discourse is acquired.
It is not enough that radical Tamil youth are merging into a Sinhalese left movement. Ex-LTTE radicals have a long learning journey in front of them before arriving at mature, democratic and well digested left positions. Therefore one must be cautious, it’s too early to predict if this unfolding will all prosper in size and nurture sound political positions worthy of support. Quite rightly, one is inclined to be cautious, but optimistic too.