‘‘Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.’’ - Albert Camus
OnApril 5, 1971, a political movement known popularly then as the Che Guevara Group, made an unprecedented and unexpected attack on all the Police stations and other crucial state institutions in a bid to grab political power in a single night. Their leader was Rohana Wijeweera, who after a botched scholarship course at the Lumumba University in Russia had started a political movement later to become known as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or the JVP. He like many of his comrades, belonged to the Sinhala Buddhist rural petty bourgeois and agrarian families. The Political movement thus came on to the national political scene almost half a century ago, has been one of the most important and controversial phenomena in modern day Sri Lankan politics, repercussions of whose activities of rebellion are still felt in many aspects of life.
What have Wijeweera and the JVP gained in their attempts to grab state power twice; first through the Che Guevara Uprising on April 5, 1971 and subsequently through its second insurgency that lasted more than two years, from 1988 to 1990? Detractors would say nothing gainful in addition to the massive blood loss and carnage that has left , arguably more than one hundred thousand lives taken together. The resources lost to the nation in the form of its most brilliant and faithful sons and daughters will never be recovered.
Lionel Bopage, a one time leader of the JVP and seen by many as one of the leading ideologues of the Leftist political party, upon his resignation from his party, wrote a letter in which he portended a bloody and a grisly fate for the entire movement given the modus operandi of Wijeweera and the leaders of the party. Victor Ivan, one of the stalwarts of 1971 lashes out at Wijeweera for not being able to withstand the pressure from the then JR Jayawardene regime without falling to the trap of underground politics no matter how unfair and unsubstantiated the decision to proscribe the party in the wake of the July Riots in 1983. Veterans of the Rebellion like G. I. D. Dharmasekera have been openly critical of the leadership style that Wijeweera followed. In their opinion Wijeweera was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousand of Sinhala youth including his own.
Does it mean that the JVP had not served any purpose since its inception as a party in 1965? I do not subscribe to that line of thinking. I do believe that the JVP did fulfill many of the purposes for which the rural youth of the island nation gathered around WIjeweera, with his fiery oratory and in depth knowledge of Marxist Leninist ideology. At a time when the old left was decaying and dying and the very principles of socialist or left leaning ideologies were becoming the laughing stock in local politics, Wijeweera, became a viable Third Force, as is evidenced by the electoral results of the first ever Presidential Election held in Sri Lanka, where he became the third most voted candidate, easily surpassing veteran politicians such as Colvin R. de Silva,Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Amirthalingam. The organizational and propaganda skills that they displayed even from the seventies was unparalleled in Sri Lanka and remains so up to date. For a party that has not been in State power as a single entity , their organizing and mobilizing skills and speed are far superior to those of other main parties.
The bugle call for justice
But above all , the mark that the JVP placed since its entrance into mainstream politics in 1994 on the local political scene as a force against corruption, violence and injustice is unparalleled. It has captured the social psyche as a fighting and just force so much so , that any person who talks about rights and fights for them is indiscriminately called a JVPer or ‘JVP karaya’, a tribute indeed to Wijeweera and the founding members of this somewhat enigmatic party. Whenever a grave injustice is done to a poor person, it is to the JVP they run, inevitably.
Yet one unexplained mystery remains; despite its record as a disciplined and untainted party in relation to the two main political parties, their otherwise multi-pronged successes do not seem to translate into electoral victories. The alliances with which they contest elections either betray them in terms of the policies for which they join hands with such groups , thus making it imperative that they distance them from such opportunists. On the other hand there always seems to be a more urgent calling nationally that the voter finds himself bound to go for one of the major parties , obviously to be disappointed as experience shows, thus denying the JVP’s formidable electoral success.
Moral high ground
Ever since their re-emergence as a mainstream political party the JVP has been the yardstick in terms of whose conduct the status of other political parties or leaders are to be ascertained. The propriety, sobriety and integrity displayed by each and every representative from Parliamentary to Pradesheeya Sabha level talks volumes about the quality of the membership as well as leadership. A moral high ground that they almost haughtily maintain stems from the fact that there is little room within that party mechanism for corruption . The exemplary manner in which they conduct their electioneering not stooping to the level of the other parties in terms of the ‘Manape Balu Poraya’ or the ‘Dog fight’ for preferential vote as well as the discipline shown in propaganda and campaigning is simply unparallel in local politics.
The movie ‘Ginnen Upan Seethala’ which has been in film halls island wide, is too romanticising of Wijeweera according to many. A highlighting of the humane and family man over the political and party leader is said to have dominated the plot. It is a wok of art and need not meticulously follow Wijeweera in every step. The enthusiasm shown by the public to watch the film , in itself is testimony to the fact that the Wijeweera of the April 5 fame (or notoriety as some would suggest) has carved a niche for himself in the public psyche as a revolutionary leader who wanted to change the society from down upwards, the revolutionary way, the only way that is left to the down trodden and marginalised masses to stake a claim in governance. Hopefully the hype surrounding the film would entice more people to learn about Wijeweera, the JVP and what happened on April 5, 1971.
They say it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all; I dare say it is better, far better, to have rebelled and lost than to have never rebelled at all!
It is the legacy of such a brave, patriotic and upright generation that will be celebrated on April 5. You can applaud or curse, smile or frown, adulate or lash out. Yet the impact of April 5 is extensive.
It is nothing short of a trail blazing legacy of rebellion.