By Uditha Devapriya –
Professor Kumar David in an article titled “Centenary of the February Revolution in Russia” tries to draw parallels between the Leninist coup and Maithripala Sirisena’s election. His point of comparison itself is flawed, but for now let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. What compels my attention isn’t his handling of history, but his handling of the caveats that flow from it.
He claims that the Revolution (in Russia, not here) could have almost ended in capitulation, with the forces of reaction gaining over the revolutionists, if those chosen to head the latter were not realistic enough. “He was no petty bourgeois romantic” is an apt summing up of Lenin by Professor Kumar. Such a revolutionist would compromise on nothing, nothing at all, in his quest to erase away the Opposition and institutionalise those structures of power which are essential to sustaining ideological coups. Who could have, after all, inferred that a country which was feudal and was run by a king who had no clue about the existence or suffering of his people would be the first to send man to space 40 years later? That needed force.
After indulging much in history, Professor Kumar reveals his objective: “There will no new constitution, no useful amendments, no economic programme, ‘no peace, no rest’ until the counterrevolution in full swing under the leadership of the Joint Opposition is confronted and crushed.” The focus, as always, is on the Joint Opposition, on Mahinda Rajapaksa and the forces of reaction he (allegedly) represents. The Professor may or may not know that the Left/Right dichotomy in this globalised world of ours has dissolved, but again, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I am not, however, willing to be so lenient when it comes to his blatant acts of cherry-picking when confronting the shortcomings of (t)his government.
I am aware of the pitfalls involved in letting the opponent(s) of any revolution into the democratic process. I am also aware, however, that such opponents can serve a useful function in a modern liberal democracy, opening up dialogue, debate, and if necessary conflict. We are not, of course, a liberal democracy, but we are a democracy and being one empowers us to question, critique, and by all means DEMOCRATICALLY eliminate those forces antithetical to communal amity. Professor Kumar, however, has empowered the government to attack the JO. Not democratically, but forcefully. What are the problems that flow from this?
There are two issues that unearth the rifts of any government: ambiguity from itself and ambiguity from the Opposition. I see the latter with the debate over SAITM and private (medical) education. I see the former with this regime’s stance on war crimes and the economy. Ambiguity, particularly policy ambiguity, is reckonable as long as it’s not sustained for long. Unfortunately for this government and for us, policy statement after policy statement flow in, only to be contradicted, refined, added to, and subtracted from by whoever is spouting them. We have a Cabinet Spokesman, I believe, but not even that Cabinet Spokesman has been enough to wade away the flaws that have beset Maithripala Sirisena’s regime in this respect. I am not complaining, but nor am I celebrating.
It is the State’s responsibility to set things right. Not the Opposition’s. By the latter, I am referring to the official Opposition as well, but then as last week proved yet again, the likes of R. Sampanthan and his cohorts in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are more concerned about indicting our armed forces than questioning the regime over its handling of the economy, a more pertinent issue (it must be added) that spills over to the entire polity. But then, when did the TNA ever get out of its communalist mindset, even as it alleged that other mainstream parties were caved in the same?
As for the JO, it’s doing a rather efficient job of worsening the ambiguity of both the Opposition and the government. With the ruckus over private education, certain elements of the JO have come out in favour of abolishing SAITM. As I pointed out in my column two weeks ago, what brings the nationalist movement and the anti-SAITM bandwagon together is the fact that the former is opposed to the position the SLMC and GMOA have been led to by this regime. How does this make the problem even more ambiguous? By the glaring fact that these same elements were behind the previous regime as it green-lit the establishment of the campus AND the private teaching hospital.
As of now, the likes of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Bandula Gunawardane, and Dinesh Gunawardena are more concerned with indicting the government and judiciary for questioning the authority of the “national body”, the SLMC. Being the political creatures they are, they do not attack SAITM directly (they leave that task to the student movement), but rather highlight the government’s complicity in aggravating an already problematic issue. What the government can do in this regard is not to crush the JO, but to address the burden the JO handed over to it after January 8, 2015. Not fair, yes. But then politics rarely is.
The ruckus over war crimes allegations, however, is a different ball-game altogether. There the government has itself to blame, over both the handling of the issue by Chandrika Kumaratunga and the contradictory statements given by the President, the Prime Minister’s party, and the Foreign Minister. Of these, the President is trying to pacify the Sinhala Buddhists by saying, “No foreign judges!” The UNP is trying to pacify its electorate by saying, “The SLFP and JO are crying over hot air!” The Foreign Minister is trying to pacify the international community by saying, “Give us time, we will implement what even you do not insist!” I personally believe Dayan Jayatilleka’s criticism of the latter is valid, which is why I am worried about the doublethink being perpetuated here: “We will not create a war crimes tribunal with foreign intervention, unless we want to.”
Which is where I come to Professor Kumar. Professor Kumar has always stood for what’s right (for him, at least). We may not agree with what he writes, but we agree with his cause (lost though it may be). That is why I was almost completely sure that he would, in his latest piece, not single out the JO and instead condemn the government’s inaction. I am frustrated that he has not. Not because I expected much from his pen, but because he has conveniently highlighted and ballooned the largely absent (or absented) Left/Right dichotomy. For if he charges that the JO represents the forces of reaction, it goes without saying then that the government represents the forces of revolution. In other words, he compares or rather equalises February 1917 to January 2015 on the basis that the government is more amenable to a leftist/liberal revolution.
This interests me. Not because his reasoning is flawed, but because he gives the impression that he believes his own flawed reasoning. If the UNP and even the SLFP were so “revolutionary” as he thinks they are, then why have they not addressed the issues being aggravated by their silence? Should a government be more worried about its own inaction or about the actions of the Opposition? Given that the likes of Professor Kumar were empowering the UNP, the JVP, and the LSSP (that party still exists, yes) to question, critique, and bring down the Mahinda Rajapaksa plutocracy then, he is being logically inconsistent now. That doesn’t interest me. That upsets me. So much, in fact, that I want to revisit history.
If Professor Kumar visits the archives, he will hear of something called the Workers’ Charter. He will know that Sri Lanka does not possess such a document, just as much as it runs on a free education system without having a right thereto in its Constitution.
If he digs even deeper, he will know that the workers of this country, the people he theoretically should be in support of and writing about, were denied security and patronage by BOTH the UNP and SLFP regimes. He will also realise that the only attempt to bring such a Charter to the government was made by the man he vilifies, condemns, and attacks to the point of logical inconsistency, Mahinda Rajapaksa. If he digs even more, he will face the fact that the only document which could have statutorily empowered and protected the workers of this country was done away with in parliament by the SAME PARTY he covertly praises and condones, courtesy of the man who would become the Minister for Finance, Ravi Karunanayake.
For the record, this is what Karunanayake had to say: “We don’t need this Charter to protect the workers. We ourselves will protect them.” That was what even Mahinda Rajapaksa implied after he clinched the presidency, but for the time being my question is this: if the workers of this country were belittled by both parties, why should we bother about doing away with the Joint Opposition? Such a radical move needs justification. Not hot air. Professor Kumar has given us the latter. Not the former. Again, upsetting.
The Old Left of this country forgot the working class after the eighties. They were not worried about the poor. They were not worried about class discrepancies (which cut across every political and racial divide). They were bedding with the class enemies while harping on about the 13th Amendment. When Rajapaksa became president, they bedded with the SLFP, while a section thereof distanced itself from him even before Maithripala Sirisena announced his candidacy. That particular section, Professor Kumar speaks for and defends. That is what has led him and the constitutionalist de-legitimisers elsewhere to a rather unfortunate crevice: defend a government that is economically at odds with their interests against an Opposition that is dismantling the hypocrisy and the doublespeak being perpetuated by it.
He ends on this note: “The real issue right now is not the words in the Draft Constitution, or economic ideology, or the national question.” I agree. The real issue is none of these, because the people are tired. The Constitution will not feed them, ideology will not feed them, and the resolution of the national question will not pacify even the poor, common Tamil man, woman, and child. I am sure Lenin would have agreed, which is why he went ahead with an economic program to empower his base, the proletariat.
So if we insist on an analogy here, as Professor Kumar does, then all I can say is that state inaction on the part of the government will not sustain its base. It will only help the JO erode it even more. For the suffering of the people is INDEPENDENT (to a considerable extent) of the JO’s protests. I am surprised that the Professor still has not realised this.
That article compelled a reply days later. The title of that reply itself was alluring: “February 1917 & January 2015: Fake Similarities.” It was not written by a Mahinda Rajapaksa stooge, moreover. It was written by the General Secretary of the United General Employee Union, Neil Wijethilaka. Given the good professor’s affirmation of the current government, Wijethilaka ended his reply with an apt comment: that his take on history was “part of the Ranil Wickremesinghe project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.” For the record, I love the oxymoron there. Who wouldn’t?
One more point. A political commentator known for his heated exchanges with the Professor summed up what he had written in just two words: “Saw. Crap.” Made me grin, I swear.
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com