A revolutionist needs to question the very structures on which our country is run
I see on both sides candidates unwilling to part ways with the past
Where do all these reflections take me? They take me to the inevitable conclusion: we are not ready for revolution
Even when they clamour for change, Sri Lankan voters couch it in terms of a restoration. The binary is almost always there, from Kotelawala and Bandaranaike to Sirisena and Rajapaksa. The 2015 election involved, for the second time, a run-off between two contenders unlinked to the political elite of the country. The first time of course was in 2010, though then as now, the common candidate was a convenient cover for Ranil Wickremesinghe. Either way, elections here almost always have been about selecting one of two eras to restore the country to. In 1956 it was a split between a continuation of the UNP’s policies and a downright restoration to how things had been before the colonial era: essentially, a project aimed on the one hand at restoring the rights of the peasantry (the Paddy Lands Act) and on the other hand at restoring the privileges of the petty bourgeoisie (Sinhala Only). In 2015 the split was between democracy and authoritarianism, and a vote for democracy essentially became a vote for the UNP of 2001-2004: another restoration. We know now where that led to.
Sri Lankans are not ready for revolution, any revolution. Historically, there has always been a rift between popular support and electoral presence. No one who had been to the JVP’s rallies in the run up to the 1982 election, for instance, would have sensed defeat for them. And yet, having scrounged up barely 4.2% of the vote, Wijeweera was forced to abandon the electoral framework and seek greener pastures, pastures that eventually turned into rivers of blood. In that sense the difference between the Old and New Left, essentially, was in what each aimed at. The Old Left rationalised the problems of the economy and country in terms of classical Marxism, or what Regi Siriwardena once referred to as residual Marxism. Foremost among the priorities of the Trotskyites and Communists (of whatever faction and persuasion) was the establishment and mobilisation of industry. In other words they wanted to wean away the privileges of the plantation rentier elite, WITHIN a democratic framework.
This is a country, after all, where education policy continues to differentiate between two or three layers of schools and institutions
The JVP in the build-up to the second insurrection was neither classical nor Marxist. It was revolutionary, but one need not be a Marxist to inspire revolution. Gamini Keerawella in his intrepid study of the first insurrection points out that JVP cadres were drawn from depressed sections of the petty bourgeoisie. Hardly reactionary, their ideology was not, however, strictly speaking revolutionary either. They had, on the contrary, been products of free education and the democratisation of public institutions the two Bandaranaike regimes had facilitated in the 50s and 60s; many of the insurrectionists had been born in the South and educated at Madhya Maha Vidyalayas, their parents were mostly engaged in manual labour if not cultivation, and they were not landless, though their education had cost their families a great deal. The truth was that the pace at which reforms were being enacted was too slow for them.
By the time of the second insurrection, the echelons of the JVP who had participated in the first insurrection had largely abandoned their former comrades. Sunanda Deshapriya, Victor Ivan, Jayadeva Uyangoda, and later Lionel Bopage broke ranks with Wijeweera primarily over his stance on the ethnic question. Having alienated the non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist population, the JVP, smeared by the UNP as being complicit in the 1983 pogroms, ethnicised the national crisis and mobilised a huge Southern wave of discontent that was not only anti-devolution and anti-federalism but also anti-Indian and even anti-Tamil.
Even here, calls for urgent structural reforms, the radical nature of which surpassed anything the Old Left could have conjured up, were underscored by a project to restore denied rights and privileges. The Old Left was never blind to the need to restore such rights or privileges; the difference was that while it rationalised them in terms of class dynamics and dichotomies – the depressed Kandyan peasantry versus the privileged low country elite, for instance – the New Left, the JVP, inadvertently saw it an age-long battle between depressed and privileged ethnic groups. The Old Left ended up supporting the Indo-Lanka Accord as well as the 13th Amendment, against both the UNP and JVP. Support for these, in the eyes of the JVP, meant support for India. Insurrection was the only possible response.
Sri Lankans are not ready for revolution, any revolution. Historically, there has always been a rift between popular support and electoral presence
Today, the structural reforms left unaddressed in that era remain unresolved. I may be forgiven for thinking that we are complacent with this state of affairs, because that is what I have always believed. We don’t need political scientists and theorists to tell us that in every sphere, or at least every other sphere, we are in a rut. The fault has to be with the social and economic framework we are in. This is a country, after all, where education policy continues to differentiate between two or three layers of schools and institutions: the same two-/three-tiered system free education was supposed to get rid of before independence. And that’s just one of many, many other issues, other ailments, which afflict the country. We let them eat away at us, and we do nothing. That is not an indictment on those who represent us; that is an indictment on those who are being represented. Namely, us.
A revolutionist needs to question the very structures on which our country is run. Such people are rare to find, but not hard to find. From 1956 to 1977, in both the SLFP and the UNP, we came across representatives and lawmakers who tried to improve the lot of the many. After 1977 all that changed when an oligarchic neo-fascist elite managed to get into power. Almost overnight, the momentum of reform was reversed, if not partially retarded, and policies aimed at entrenching the elite were enforced. Not all these policies would have consciously been implemented to maintain the hold of such elites, but the latter were often behind them. Even seemingly innocent changes in policy, such as the setting up of school development societies, ended up benefiting the echelons of society: rich schools over poor schools. It didn’t help that those manning the public sector were tied by dint of their backgrounds to loyalties of school ties, family networks, and party affiliations; a comprehensive survey of the J. R. era and the changes wrought in it needs to be written for us to understand this.
We see in Ranasinghe Premadasa an attempt at backtracking on some of those changes. If he was, as Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out, a misunderstood hero, that was because he himself could not undo the entrenchment of the elite that his predecessors in the UNP had facilitated. The same could have been said of Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, probably the second political outsider after Premadasa to clinch the presidency: his manifesto sought to restructure many of the development paradigms of both the Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga administrations, but in the end it was scuttled in favour of a development plan that smacked of the same rentier private sector led philosophy his predecessors had institutionalised. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration in the Sirisena era gave this philosophy a neo-liberal twist, epitomised by the image of Mangala Samaraweera, sitting at a press conference next to Eran Wickramaratne, holding a simplified version of the fuel price formula.
I see on both sides candidates unwilling to part ways with the past. Both Gotabaya and Sajith are restorers, not revolutionaries. One wants to take us back to the Mahinda Rajapaksa era while accommodating his vision for the country, the other wants to take us back to the Ranasinghe Premadasa era while conveniently forgetting the rivers of blood it unleashed. Those who support them idealise the same qualities: they see in Gotabaya as a man of few words who can speak loftily, and in Sajith a man of many words who can speak eloquently. The latter’s tweets are a subject of ridicule, though for the life of me I don’t know whether to condemn them or to condemn those who ridicule them. In any case it works both ways: the tweets, pumped and puffed up as they are, pander to a half-baked crowd who see in mindless circumlocution, in English that is, a sign of genius, while those who critique them see in Sajith a wannabe member of the Colombo English speaking elite. At one level, I suppose, Sajith’s tragedy is a farce almost right out of an Ashok Ferrey story.
Where do all these reflections take me? They take me to the inevitable conclusion: we are not ready for revolution. The sight of undergraduates battling it out with the police and the army over the issue of private universities, the lukewarm response to the need for equity within the education and healthcare systems of the country by the UNP and the SLPP, and the pathetic plight of lower level soldiers, left without anything and now implicitly, cruelly accused by the Colombo elite as being puppets at the hands of the Rajapaksas, should convince me that change is afoot and change will come. But it’s really nothing more than a changing of the guard. After November 16, while the colours will change, and certain urgent reforms will see the light of day, the structures of material life and economic relations on which we have been running since 1977 will remain. To put it simply then, we are not ready for revolution. We are ready for restorations. And Sri Lanka has seen enough of them.