- The 1971 insurrection was bold for its time, but hardly the adventure its critics on the Left touted it to be
- The insurrection was put down, but despite its suddenness or perhaps because of it, the government became a laughing stock
- Having rebelled against Sirimavo from one vantage point, the JVP would rebel against her successor from another
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) rally at Galle Face recently was large, and it reminded me of the Rajapaksa- Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) rallies in Nugegoda, Kurunegala, and yes, Galle Face. But there the comparisons end, as they must. The JVP, or the National People’s Power (NPP) as it’s referred to now, is a broad alliance that challenges the neo-liberal credentials of the United National Party (UNP) and the populist thrust of the SLPP. In Sri Lanka, manifestos hardly cohere into a concise whole; they are promises, sold dear and broken cheap. Both the UNP and the SLPP are trying to outdo one another in such vital matters of state as the economy, defence, education, and bribery and corruption. The NPP does not try to outdo either, but attempts to present to us an alternative. (Unfortunately for their new movement, it happens to be led by an old face: Anura
The JVP never really stopped evolving. When it entered the parliament in the nineties, it was giving up its militarism in favour of the politics of compromise. Its shift there, affirmed by the decision of Chandrika Kumaratunga to enter into a temporary parivasi coalition with them (less than 20 years after they had killed her husband, considered then as the main voice against the JVP from outside the government), signalled a shift in its electoral base.
In the early years, Rohana Wijeweera had vocally condemned compromise, arguing that a vote for Sirimavo was no different to a vote for J.R. What was considered by them there as commitment to independence, however, was condemned by others from the Old Left as opportunism. What the latter failed to realise is that come what may, its novel revolutionary rhetoric had turned the JVP into a viable third force.
The party of 1956 was not the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Lanka Samasamaji Party (LSSP) or the Communist Party (CP), even though all three had a hand in reforming the country’s administrative and economic structure in the interests of the dispossessed. The emergence of a new social milieu, opposed to the UNP and also to the prospect of a Marxist revolution, was in one sense a consequence of SWRD’s victory; it was a transformation from an era of welfare politics to one of a burgeoning petty bourgeoisie that rallied behind the SLFP. That in turn gave birth to an intermediate class of cultivators, labourers, students, and unemployed youth, all of whom, marginalised by the UNP’s policies of the late 60s, opted for insurrection in the early 70s. The 1971 insurrection was bold for its time, but hardly the adventure its critics on the Left touted it to be. The government was not ready; the army and police were ill equipped; there were very few armoured cars; the air force was small (if not tiny) and its fleet of helicopters needed repair. The depth to which the government had sunk was signified, ironically, by its pleas to virtually each and every superpower for assistance; everyone, from Nixon’s USA to Brezhnev’s Russia to Tito’s Yugoslavia to Indira’s India, responded. The insurrection was put down, but despite its suddenness or perhaps because of it, the government became a laughing stock not long afterwards. What had happened was described, by academics and a bemused opposition, as a left-wing revolution against a left-wing regime.
If 1972 signalled an end to an era of rentier economic and political transformation begun by the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, 1977 signalled an end to the era of parliamentary supremacy which that Commission had initiated and the 1972 Constitution continued. This intermediate class, who had been throttled by the United Front’s economic programme (more an indictment on the oil price hikes and crises in Iran and Egypt than on that programme), had been “brought over” by J.R. Jayewardene, in the UNP’s first transformation since its inception. Considered a populist, yet also representative of the far right, J.R. led the UNP to a victory his forbearers would probably not have thought of, much less planned for.
Under J.R. the UNP became more than just a party of plantation elites, who thanks to 1956 had now become a waning influence; the experience of the first few years of the 1980s showed that other intermediate classes could and should be satisfied. In the end, the Pettah importer and petty merchant gained in economic stature what he assumed he had lost in the Bandaranaike years. (The Sihala Urumaya, which mobilised Sinhala Buddhist voters against Chandrika Kumaratunga, would later appeal to him by contending that the mother had emasculated Sinhala businessmen by nationalisation in much the same way the daughter was emasculating them by privatisation and deregulation.) Having rebelled against Sirimavo from one vantage point, the JVP would rebel against her successor from another.
"The JVP never really stopped evolving. When it entered the parliament in the nineties, it was giving up its militarism in favour of the politics of compromise"
The result of their agitation was 1989. In one sense it was to be expected; the Indo-Lanka Accord, which had excited and moved to anger the same intermediate classes that had helped prop up J.R. to power, was being opposed by the JVP. The Old Left supported it, because they saw in the Accord a confirmation of their long held belief in decentralisation. Here they exhibited a contradictory pose; on the one hand, they supported the Accord, and on the other they opposed the UNP, though the latter had drafted the agreement. It is left to doubt whether they ever resolved the paradox, but the result of it all was that they would condemn the JVP’s opposition as chauvinistic, opportunistic and un-Marxist.
If theoretical dogma led the Old Left to adopt this contradictory position, the ability to adapt led the New Left to oppose them. The JVP, of course, wasn’t only opposed by the Old Left; one vital factor in the disputes which arose over the Accord and the question of autonomy for Tamils was the emergence of NGOs. In 1971, when insurgents were being questioned and interrogated, a leading intellectual like Regi Siriwardena could write against the government; less than 20 years later, when those cadres were about to be tortured in ways the government of 1971 couldn’t even have hoped to equal, he could brush aside the JVP as a chauvinist party hoping to seize power from the state. In other words, the JVP overnight had become a party of Sinhala Buddhist adventurers; they were demonised by both the UNP and the Old Left, by various organisations that had hijacked the latter and by a hesitant SLFP -- a faction of which led by Vijaya and Chandrika would later, under the latter, espouse federalism.
In fascist and communist states, the shift from one party rule to multiparty democracy was accompanied by both monolith ruling parties and underground oppositional outfits being absorbed to the legislative process. The LSSP and the Communist Party had moved over to party politics after the War and after their proscription by the colonial government and the JVP would follow suit after their traumatic experience in the Premadasa years.
There were, to be sure, clear differences between these two contexts, but there was also a similarity; the Left, having entered electoral politics, was compelled to embrace a multitude of opposing, often contradictory electoral forces. In the case of the LSSP and the CP, this led them to cohabit with the SLFP; in the case of the JVP, it led them, after a failed presidential bid in 1999, to do the same. That is as far as the JVP has gone in the politics of compromise; then as now, the JVP remains impervious to cohabitation with the UNP, even if the 1999 JVP candidate crossed over to the SLFP and in 2015, to the UNP.
Today their insistence on theoretical dogma has budged. If Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Lal Kantha, Tilvin Silva, and Vijitha Herath are vague on matters such as the ethnic question, in other matters like same sex rights they’ve become unequivocal about their changed stances. It’s a sign of their continuing relevance and the diminishing prospects of the remnants of the Old Left which earlier lambasted them that the latter are divided; some tell us to support them over Sajith and Gotabaya, others question their past record, and some others, like Victor Ivan, indict them as being too traditional. But then, of course, if support for aspiring candidates is a sign of being too tradition, then such critics, who supported candidates who later reneged on promises in the past, must, and should, suffer the same indictment.