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Failure of the Left Movement


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 What the JVP should do at the forthcoming Presidential Election is become a major partner of a far-reaching public program aimed at ending the present corrupt and wicked system under which the Presidential Election is going to be held and recreating the society and the State. To fulfil this task, it is important that they work towards rallying all anti-system forces into a formidable united front – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

The growing socio-political crisis in Sri Lanka has affected all political parties. Leaders of all political parties have, in one way or another, begun to lament over their failure. Lal Kantha can be considered the person to bring this lament to the fore on the side of the JVP.

The purpose of this article is to examine the failure of the leftist movement in Sri Lanka. There were two left movements in Sri Lanka. One is the Old Left movement led by two traditional left parties, the LSSP and the Communist Party. It starts in the 1930s and ends in the ’70s. The New Left is the JVP-based movement. It was started in the ’70s and continues to date.

It is fitting to commence the story of the Old Left movement referring to a comment made by Mick Moore, Economist and Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, about its leaders. 

According to Mick Moore, the Old Left was a movement of wise and learned men. It constituted a group of internationalists. Many of them were educated overseas. Several of them were married outside their caste or community. Otherwise, they were descendants of mixed marriages. The majority of them belonged to non-Govigama castes and didn’t have much faith in religious beliefs and observances. They were intellectually eminent, talented leaders, eloquent speakers, and experts in parliamentary system of governance.

A Marxist head and a trunk of Liberalism  

The traditional Left Movement can be considered a movement with a Marxist head and a trunk of liberalism. They accepted Marx’s socialist economic system, but they cannot be considered to have followed Marx’s theory of violent revolution. They can be described parliamentary democrats in the sense of liberalism, but they cannot be considered a group that accepted liberal economic theories. 

The leaders of Old Left cannot be regarded a political group that originated from oppressed classes or sought liberation from oppression. They were from the middle class; if they were greedy for money, they could have gone a long way in amassing wealth. In that sense, they can be considered a group which had chosen left-wing politics with sincere aim of winning a better and just world.

However, their inability to build a left movement of indigenous milieu appropriate to local conditions can be considered the main reason for their failure. They didn’t have a clear perception of Sri Lanka’s independence. Before entering into coalition politics, though they had a sensitive view of the rights of minorities, they didn’t have a proper understanding about the historical need to build a modern nation. 

They considered building of “class” was more important than building the “nation”. They raised their voice against feudal caste system that prevailed in the country. But their struggle in this sphere was limited to removing taboos on dress codes of people of certain marginalised and oppressed groups in which they were not allowed to cover the upper portion of the body. However, they did not know the way to pursue their struggle in this connection to a logical conclusion.

During the Second World War, if the Lanka Sama Samaja Party had abstained from challenging the war and acted in a more prudent manner without leaving room for the rulers to impose a ban on the party, perhaps the content and the nature of independence gained by Sri Lanka would have been much different. Similarly, the number of parliamentary seats secured by the LSSP in 1948 general election would have been more than what they had actually gained. 

On 11 June 1941 the leaders of the LSSP were arrested and the party banned on account of the aggressive anti-war policy adopted by the party. Though the leaders under arrest escaped from prison and engaged in political activities in India, the LSSP had to keep away from political activities in Sri Lanka until the ban on the party was lifted in June 1945.These four years they lost can be considered a crucial period as far as politics of Sri Lanka was concerned in which many significant changes of far-reaching impact on the future of the country had taken place. 

Due to the ban imposed on the party they were deprived of their representation in the State Council also. It was during this period of four years that most of the discussions, dialogues and debates on the adoption of a new constitution for the country had taken place. The LSSP had two of the best scholars the country had ever produced (NM and Colvin) on the subject of legislation. As they were compelled to live in exile out of the country, they were unable to make an effective impact on the making of a constitution for independent Sri Lanka. 

On the other hand, by the time the party was banned, it had gained a considerable recognition among the people. During these four years they lost the opportunity to work with the people and also to carry the popularity the party had gained into a greater height. Therefore, without any resistance from the LSSP, D.S. Senanayake was able to manage the activities pertained to the independence and the making of the constitution, as he wished. If LSSP had not lost these four years, most likely the number of seats it secured in the Parliament at the first Parliamentary Election held in 1948 would have been more that what they had actually gained. 

Decline of the Old Left

The decline of the Old Left commenced with its turning to coalition politics. I am not saying it is wrong to go into coalition politics, but it must be done while defending the good policies so far upheld by the party. But the LSSP went into coalition politics with the SLFP, embracing the chauvinistic policies of the latter and abandoning the good policies that it had so far upheld and defended

The LSSP and the Communist Party turned to coalition politics, not at a time they were weak, but strong and remained a formidable force. The leaders of the LSSP had won admiration and confidence of a large number of Ministers, including the Prime Minister. They had a very high recognition amongst the backbenchers as well. They were given important and powerful portfolios. If they had tried to make the SLFP leaders to think reasonably about the Tamil issue without themselves complying with chauvinistic and ethnocentric policies of the SLFP, perhaps, they would have been able to make a significant difference in the aggressive policy adopted by the SLFP on the language issue. 

However, while the two Old Left parties conformed to the SLFP’s ethnocentric stance, strengthening the anti-Tamil policy, the 1972 Colvin’s Constitution and the Standardisation Laws introduced for universities pushed the Tamil leaders to conclude that there was no other alternative but to fight for a separate state to resolve their issues.

The split between the SLFP and the two Left parties, LSSP and CP, which formed the government, eventually resulted in the United National Party gaining a five-sixths majority in Parliament in 1977 and the complete loss of parliamentary representation of the Left parties. With that, the Old Left movement came to an end. Now, what is left of the Old Left constitutes only a few of its relics, which can be said to have stooped down to a ridiculous level where part of it depends on Mahinda and the other part on Ranil.  

The New Left or the JVP 

The social background of the leaders of the JVP, which can be described as the New Left, is completely different from that of the Old Left. The leaders of the JVP had received only a mediocre education. They were not as wise and learned as the leaders of the Old Left. Nor were they a group of internationalists. To a great extent they constituted an indigenous political group confined to this island. Unlike the leaders of the Old Left, their revolutionary orientation was not based on philosophical considerations, but on oppressive social conditions. 

Almost all the leaders of the JVP had a non-elite social background and were educated in ordinary schools. Many of the leaders of the JVP movement can be considered as those having chauvinistic and ethnocentric attitudes; they have been nurtured and nourished in the political womb of the Old Left movement in the aftermath of the two Old Left parties adopting chauvinistic attitudes.

The JVP movement provided leadership for two armed insurrections. The object of the first insurrection launched in 1971 was to seize power by attacking all Police stations and Army camps throughout the island simultaneously. It can be described as a stupid rebellion poorly executed without making a proper assessment of State power. The State armed forces were able to crush this youth insurrection within a matter of weeks without much difficulty. 

From the real sense of the word, this rebellion can be described as a non-elite rural youth insurrection; 92.8% of 10,192 rebels arrested comprised Sinhala Buddhist youth aged 16-32. Of them 77% belonged to the age cohort of 17-26. The average age of the rebels was 20. 

The JVP after the insurrection 

A considerable number of rebels including the frontline leaders of the JVP had to serve a prison term for a period of about seven years until a government of the UNP came to power. Many of the old leaders who had worked closely with Wijeweera had left the JVP after the rebellion. However, after being released from prison, Wijeweera was able to enter into politics again and establish the JVP as a third force. He carried an intense hatred towards the leaders of the SLFP for suppression of the insurrection and imposition of maximum punishments to rebels. Therefore, he covertly and indirectly followed a policy of working in close cooperation with the UNP.

Wijeweera’s followers supported the UNP at the General Election held in 1977. Wijeweera supported the programs of the UNP Government to suppress the SLFP, following the release of the JVP prisoners including him by the UNP Government. The JVP under his leadership fulfilled a significant role in the move launched by the UNP to deprive Sirima Bandaranaike of her civic rights. President J.R. Jayawardene used Wijeweera to weaken the SLFP. On the other hand, Wijeweera appeared to have believed that by destroying the SLFP, his party, the JVP would be able to acquire the political space occupied by the SLFP.  

Wijeweera realised that the way he thinks was not realistic only when the result of the Presidential Election in 1982 was released. Wijeweera appeared to have believed that he would poll more votes than the candidate fielded by the SLFP or at least he would be able to give a close fight to the SLFP candidate in an atmosphere in which Sirima Bandaranayke had been deprived of her civic rights. Wijeweera was able to run an attractive election campaign at this Presidential Election incurring a huge cost, a major portion of it was covered by the support received from Iraq. 

There was a big conflict between Iran and Iraq during this period. It was the JVP that worked as the local agency of the anti-Iran propaganda campaign in Sri Lanka in support of Iraq. In this context, the JVP, to please Iraq, set fire on a ship transporting tea from Sri Lanka. However, the result of the Presidential Election that Wijeweera expected did not come through. While Kobbekaduwa, the SLFP candidate, received 2,548,438 votes, Wijeweera polled only 273,436 votes. 

The second JVP insurrection 

Perhaps, with this result Wijeweera may have realised that it would not be possible for him to seize power through the parliamentary system. According to some contemporaries of Wijeweera, the result of the Presidential Election flabbergasted him. In this backdrop, the ’83 Black July offered him an opportunity to enter the path of rebellion again. However, there was no involvement of the JVP in the ’83 Black July. Nevertheless, JR looking for a culprit to put the blame of this dastardly act which had been instigated by an organised group of his own Government, banned the JVP, the Nava Samasamaja Party and the Communist Party. The Nava Samasamaja party and Communist Party were able to get the ban on their parties lifted while the JVP made it an opportunity to go underground and prepare for a second insurrection. 

The second insurrection of Wijeweera’s JVP can be considered a violent incident that terrified the country and unleashed maximum cruelty on society. The rebels killed not only their political rivals, but also the innocent people who refused to comply with them, in large numbers. The victims were not even allowed a dignified funeral. The volume and the value of public property destroyed by the insurgents were immense. The insurrection gave an opportunity for the State to unleash maximum cruelty. The rebellion not only destroyed the country but also deprived it of a generation of brave young people who had a vision for far-reaching change.

After this catastrophe, the next generation of leadership of the JVP took the party out of the destructive revolutionary path and brought it to a democratic path. This transformation they have done effectively and skilfully and they deserve due respect for that. 

After entering the democratic path 

Though the JVP possessed wisdom to eschew the outdated violent path, regrettably it lacked the good judgement to make the best use of the newly-selected parliamentary path.  

They had forgotten that they were a party that swam in blood. Realising that this sordid history will continue to come after them, they should have gone for not a superficial but a serious self-criticism to get out of this stigmatic situation. Regrettably, the party lacked the courage and wisdom needed to do that.

Let alone standing against the degeneration overwhelmed  the entire system, but at least as a leftist party represented in Parliament, the JVP should have implemented a strategic program to identify the main causes that had led to  the degeneration  of  Parliament and  raised their voice against them  to rectify the situation. But the party has miserably failed to do that. 

The MPs doing business with the Government can be considered a main cause of degeneration of Parliament. Of course, the JVP can argue that MPs of their party have not contributed to this offence. Though it is a praiseworthy quality to have the MPs of their party kept away from doing such ignominious things against the law, it must be said that the defence of their fidelity alone is not adequate. The JVP knew very well that not only the members of Parliament but also the Presidents elected by public vote are doing business with the State, right royally and to the fullest extent. If the JVP had raised a strong voice against these abominable, corrupt practices it could have certainly made a significant impact in effecting far-reaching changes in this sphere whilst achieving wide public admiration for the party. 

But the JVP refrained from doing so, being lured by economic benefits that the party could gain indirectly from the corrupt parliamentary system. Usually, in no country in the world where democracy prevails are MPs given duty-free vehicles and a big fuel allowance for the vehicle they use. Nor are they given an allowance of as much as Rs. 100,000 a month to run an office without having to produce accounts as to how it had been spent. 

Knowing very well that some allowances granted them as MPs were unreasonable and corrupt, they too enjoyed the benefits of such allowances as a party though not as individual MPs. By doing so, it had become a political party that reaped indirect benefits of a corrupt and wicked system.  

However, despite these shortcomings, the JVP or its MPs, compared to other political parties and their MPs, cannot be considered a party or a group that can be thrown into the waste bin in its entirety. However, being good in relative sense is not enough. It must become a party that performs an active and effective role against this corrupt and wicked system. 

Under the circumstances, what the JVP should do at the forthcoming Presidential Election is to become a major partner of a far-reaching public program aimed at ending the present corrupt and wicked system under which the Presidential Election is going to be held and recreating the society and the State. To fulfil this task, it is important that they work towards rallying all anti-system forces into a formidable united front. 

In view of the gravity of the crisis the country is facing, it is not by conforming to the tradition but by challenging it that a true transformation of the system can be achieved at this crucial moment. 

There is a great frustration and disappointment among Sinhalese people about the present corrupt system. What they are not clear about is the right way to choose to make a change in the system. Equally, the Tamils and Muslims are also in an extreme state of desperation and confusion. If these factors are managed effectively, the Presidential Election can be converted into an opportunity to arrest the prevailing corrupt system and make a people’s constitution for an overall change in the system. 

It is important that this situation is taken into serious consideration, not only by the JVP but also by all the other alternative movements and pressure groups.  


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