JVP split: can the left get it right? (Part 1)

| by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

( October 16, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It doesn’t seem to have brought in many votes, but it was thoughtful of Comrade Somawansa Amarasingha to have mentioned me in the wrap-up rally of the JVP’s municipal election campaign in Colombo. The Island report by Saman Indrajith quotes him as saying “The party had seen conflicts, intraparty struggles and factions …During the 1982-83 period came another plot led by Dayan Jayatilleka, but this too had been defeated.” (‘Amerasinghe says will never surrender to dissidents’, Thursday, Oct 6, 2011). Now this refers to my politics in my mid-20s, three decades ago, as a perceived rival for the same politico-ideological space, and has prompted me to comment on the ongoing crisis of the JVP.
One of the biggest, most colourful and most significant May Day rallies in Colombo was the JVP demonstration and meeting. Here some JVP members are seen having a quick lunch before the meeting at the BRC grounds. File Pic By Gemunu Wellage
The only left in Sri Lanka is the JVP, and whatever dissident tendency that comes out of it. The current schism in the party seems to be the most serious in its history because each side has its strengths and weaknesses.
Every society benefits from a strong Left as a social counterbalance. In some instances, when the Left has the appropriate mix of policies and personalities, it manages to win social consent and political power. This has been the case in Latin America from El Salvador to Argentina, from Uruguay to Peru, in what is referred to as the ‘left shift’. It has also been so in the South Asian region, in Nepal. The JVP has been chronically unable to make that shift, because its founding political paradigm of Wijeweera’s brand of Marxism-Leninism was so significantly different from that of the Latin American left and the Nepali Maoists, that it does not readily permit such a transformation. This is a problem that the dissident faction of the JVP (now named United Democratic Front- UDF) will also face.
The problem with Wijeweera’s JVP was not that it was patriotic, nationalistic or populist – all of which it was and is –but that it was Sinhala centric and latently (sometimes manifestly) Sinhala chauvinist. Wijeweera’s great merit was to attempt to apply Marxism-Leninism creatively to the concrete context of Sri Lanka; he attempted a Lankanisation of Marxism. His great limitation and gross error was that the product was not a ‘Lankanised’ Marxism but a Sinhalised one: instead of ‘Lankanising’ Marxism-Leninism, he simply Sinhalised it (or made a Sinhala-Buddhist version).
Conversely, the problem with earlier dissidents from the JVP, such as Lionel Bopage, Patrick Fernando and Sarath Justin Fernando, Kelly Senanayake, and the crew of the tabloid Hiru, such as Rohitha Bhashana, is that the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. If I may change the metaphor, they threw the baby of patriotism out with the bathwater of Sinhala chauvinism, winding up on the wrong side of the popular war for national reunification, against separatism and terrorism. Had they remained patriotic, they would have been far better placed to combat majority chauvinism. Of all the JVP leaders, only Nandana Goonetilleke seems to have evolved in the right direction in his political understanding, but he seems to have disappeared from public view.
The JVP contains perhaps the smartest, most media-genic group of younger politicians and parliamentarians in the country: Tilvin Silva, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Vjitha Herath, Bimal Ratnayake, Sunil Handunetti, and Lal Kantha. (The UNP’s Sajith Premadasa, Sujeeva Senasinghe, Dayasiri Jayasekara and Buddhika Pathirana form a similarly able cohort in the mainstream democratic Opposition). That’s the JVP’s strength. Their weakness is that they have been unable to agree on a leader who can reflect that strength, and instead have opted for a compromise in the form of Somawansa Amarasinghe, who is to the JVP what Ranil Wickremasinghe is to the UNP. The underground leadership of the JVP picked Wimal Weerawansa as its public face and voice in the years of recovery and re-emergence, a task which he performed admirably , but only so long as he was fighting against Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration or the Ranil-CBK period of appeasement of the LTTE. In any case his relatively poor knowledge of Marxism could never enable him to lead a party with the JVP’s profile, project (some may say pretensions) and better educated peers. His political ambitions made him move on, but his public performance deteriorated and star waned, with his electoral victory in the Colombo district being the summit of popularity. The JVP would have been – and would still be– much better off with Tilvin Silva as leader and one of the others, perhaps Lal Kantha, as General Secretary.
The UDF, the JVP’s dissidents, have in their ranks the most dedicated and ideologically committed cadres, and as Stalin pointed out, once the correct political line has been determined “cadres decide everything”. The UDF has as its de-facto leader, Kumara Gunaratnam, whose older brother Ranjithan (said to be dead) was one of the most intelligent, able and disciplined cadres I have met anywhere. By comparison, Kumara himself seem to have had more guts than brains, but those guts were in abundance. While the JVP cadre was busily murdering Sinhala leftists and minor state employees in the name of a patriotic war against the IPKF, Kumara was a true believer who actually planned and possibly participated in an ambush of an IPKF unit. The morning after, the JVP leadership contacted the Indian Deputy High Commissioner and profusely apologised, promising never to repeat that.
The JVP’s reaction to the schism has been predictable. A mixed bag of accusations has been up-ended on the heads of the schismatics, comprising charges of being RAW agents, pro-Eelamist and Trotskyists. In all probability the cops have been tipped off on the rivals, as Upatissa Gamanayake wrote in 1984 to the political police about the group I belonged to, the Vikalpa Kandayama. Of course the slightly anti-China undertone of the dissidents’ discourse cannot help but arouse suspicions of external manipulation or ultra-leftism.
The more left-liberal commentators have tilted to or welcomed the emergence of the radical dissidents. While the UDF’s line seems to be more in consonance with something recognisable as radical leftist by international standards, one problem remains, and that is a problem which has not been surfaced by any of the commentaries. That problem is the fact that the JVP’s university students’ wing and its leaders have joined the dissidents. While the positive side is that wing of the JVP has, in recent times, made a welcome outreach to the Northern students and is therefore a bridge between North and South and an antidote to Tamil secessionism, the negative aspect is the student wing of the JVP has been the source of the most barbaric and retrogressive political behaviour in the form of defending ‘raggers’ from disciplinary measures and prosecution, launching violent protests against such disciplinary measures and opposing the introduction of English in schools and campuses.
The Inter-University Students’ Federation has taken a stance that is seen or easily spun as anti-armed forces, on the issues of university ‘shramadana’ (volunteer clean-up) and the orientation course for incoming students. It is one thing to be anti-militarisation and quite another to sound hostile towards the army, especially one that is popular. Any serious student of the Latin American Left as well as of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia would know that the army is either an agency of change (Venezuela) or must be carried along with the process of change. Therefore, the interface with the army and the students would be regarded by any intelligent Left party as an opening for fraternisation. This was understood by Wimal Weerawansa during the war years, but not the JVP or its more radical breakaway, the UDF, and its IUSF affiliate, today. More to the point, a student federation that is seen to protect violent ‘raggers’ from disciplinary and legal action, but protest against a liberating, patriotic, peasant based military, is neither especially astute nor particularly prudent.
The affiliation of the JVP students’ front and its angry ideology of ‘levelling down’ and ‘petty bourgeois egalitarianism’ (as Engels called it), with the dissidents, militates (pun intended) against the evolution of the UDF into a more enlightened, rational revolutionary or radical movement. The dissident UDF will, I fear, be far too reliant on the IUSF, to rectify and restructure its ideology—which in turn means that the UDF’s political behaviour will not be significantly better than that of the JVP.

(To be concluded)
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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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