19 April, 2024

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Feminist Revolt & Masculinity Pitfalls In The Bolshevik Camp: Sri Lanka’s Election Prelude

By Athulasiri Samarakoon

Dr. Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon

Sri Lanka urgently needs to conduct elections; otherwise, it risks facing unimaginable consequences that could impact the future of democracy. Among several contestants, the two major political forces in contention are the Samagi Jana Balawegaya ((SJB) United People’s Power), led by Sajith Premadasa, the leader of the opposition, and the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (National People’s Power (NPP)), led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who also heads the Marxist-Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) (People’s Liberation Front). Both these forces have yet to hold power in government under their own leadership (both have leaders with experience in government), and they have the potential to radically replace the traditional two-tier dominance of the UNP and SLFP in the political party system. Actively campaigning without respite since the announcement and subsequent cancellation of local elections last year, they have faced undemocratic challenges, with the President employing authoritarian powers.

Simultaneously, a substantial social media battle is unfolding among various entities vying for political power. There is a prevailing belief, strongly supported by social media indicators, that the NPP in alliance with the JVP is poised to reshape historical election outcomes in the upcoming polls. Over the past two years, there has been a significant increase in JVP activity, primarily fueled by the socio-political landscape shaped by the ongoing economic crisis.

However, it remains unlikely to overcome a leader who secured nearly six million votes (Sajith Premadasa) when competing against someone, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who received only four lakhs in the 2019 Presidential elections. Despite this disparity, today, the battle remains open, with uncertainty prevailing over the election dates and type—whether General or Presidential. This decision seems to be at the discretion of the authoritarian powers of the executive presidency, despite constitutional provisions clearly indicating the necessity of holding presidential elections before October 16, 2024. Crucially, the JVP has adeptly capitalized on the widespread discourse surrounding the corrupt political system in the country, contributing to a significant discursive revolution. This heightened political engagement underscores the urgency for elections, as they serve as a critical mechanism for the populace to voice their concerns and participate in shaping the democratic future of Sri Lanka.

The JVP’s strategic approach, however, has evolved over time. Recognizing the limitations of achieving political power as a standalone party, the JVP transitioned from its roots in local nationalist Marxism to embrace a post-Marxist approach (Bolshevik core of JVP may be hesitant to acknowledge this shift?). This transformation led to the formation of the NPP, the JVP-led political alliance that contested the 2019 presidential election under the leadership of Anura Kumara Dissanayake, widely recognized as AKD. The JVP strategically distanced itself from its traditional identity, opting to present a new face to the public.

In 2019, the NPP secured approximately three percent (03%) of the votes, while Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed the presidency (with nearly seven million of votes). However, the subsequent challenges faced by Gotabaya’s government, including the impact of COVID-19, economic crises, and perceived leadership weaknesses, led to its overthrow by popular demand. This backdrop provided the JVP with an opportunity to showcase its organizational strength, particularly in response to the economic downturn during Gotabhaya’s rule.

Despite efforts to project a non-JVP identity, the JVP’s influence within the NPP remains substantial. The party’s leader concurrently serves as the leader of the NPP, underscoring the JVP’s pivotal role in the alliance. Although the coalition includes various civil society groups under the NPP umbrella, the JVP remains the predominant force, as evidenced by the authoritative correction of statements made by non-JVP figures.

Notably, the JVP’s control extends beyond the alliance, permeating various sectors such as farmers, fishermen, laborers, university academics, lawyers, and professionals etc. However, within this dominance, cracks in the facade become apparent, as certain forces exhibit autonomy and independence from the JVP’s Bolshevik command. Two notable examples are the “Ranaviru” (retired military) force and the new women’s force.

The retired military force represents a conservative faction with the potential to oppose JVP socialism. While not radical, it deviates from the JVP’s ideology, pushing the party towards a more nationalist stance. Simultaneously, the emergence of the new women’s force, led by figures like Harini Amarasuriya (formerly a university academic with a Sociology and Anthropology background), introduces a feminist discourse that transcends traditional JVP thinking. This force attracts middle-class, educated women, signaling a qualitative development within the JVP from a liberation political perspective.

The juxtaposition of these forces – one leaning towards nationalism and the other advocating for women’s liberation – underscores the ideological limitations within the JVP. As the party grapples with diverse forces, including those challenging its established ideologies, managing these tensions becomes crucial for its future trajectory.

Moreover, discussions surrounding JVP’s foreign policy indicate a recognition of the need for dynamism. The recent visit to India is seen as a potential catalyst for change. However, the question remains whether the party’s rigid assumptions and machinery can adapt to immediate dynamics and navigate the complexities of contemporary politics.

The JVP’s ability to navigate internal tensions will be pivotal in determining the realistic nature of its future force. One notable development within the party is the emergence of a new feminist movement, led by figures like Harini Amarasuriya, challenging the traditionally male-centric and conservative ideologies within the JVP.

Before Harini Amarasuriya’s arrival, the JVP’s stance on women leaders and their role in the party was relatively limited. The perception of women’s association within the JVP was somewhat backward, with past disciplinary measures impacting women’s full-time participation. Marriage was seen as a hindrance to active involvement. In contrast, the cinematic portrayal of Rohana Wijeweera’s wife, the founder of the JVP, in the movie “Ginnen Uapan Seethala (Frozen Fire),” depicting the 1989 period of the JVP’s second uprising and directed by Anuruddha Jayasinghe (2018), reinforced traditional gender roles. It depicted her as a conventional woman confined to household duties. Additionally, the historical lack of prominent women leaders in the JVP, especially during the struggles of 1971, highlighted the limited scope of women’s activism within the party.

While Samanmalee Gunasinghe and Saroja Savithri-Paulraj are recognized as women leaders within the current JVP, their roles have been more internal, lacking a theoretical or practical demonstration of feminism. The JVP appeared hesitant to introduce a separate discourse on women and patriarchy within the party.

The emergence of the JVP women’s force, spearheaded by Harini Amarasuriya and others, marks a significant departure from past practices. This new generation of feminists within the JVP addresses the theoretical and practical weaknesses that have characterized the party’s approach to gender issues. The JVP has historically shied away from engaging with traditional social views, particularly in discussions around sexuality. However, the new feminists within the JVP are challenging these limitations and leading the social discussion on various fronts.

Harini Amarasuriya’s involvement in the social discourse, addressing the issues of archaic laws governing the profession of prostitutes and the suffering of sex workers, has exposed the theoretical shortcomings and attitudinal stereotypes within the JVP. She advocates for women to fight against the male power structure, challenging the traditional masculinist mindset of the party. Amarasuriya’s well-studied approach introduces JVP activists to local feminist thinkers like Kumari Jayawardena and Sunila Abeysekera, signaling a shift towards a more inclusive ideological stance.

Women leaders such as Vraie Cally Balthazaar, Nilanthi Kottachchi, and Saradha Pathirana within the JVP women’s force are challenging conventional gender norms and aiming to place women’s issues prominently on the party’s agenda. This development is a positive step forward, considering the historically male-dominated mindset of the JVP.

However, the JVP’s ideological shift towards addressing women’s emancipation, while a positive development, poses challenges within a party that has traditionally focused on economic exploitation, labor issues, and anti-hegemonic stances. Therefore, one may suspect that the party’s embrace of women’s issues might be driven by a populist agenda rather than a deep understanding of feminist theories and the dynamics of the feminist struggle. If resolved positively, the ongoing ideological differences within the JVP and NPP movement may shape the JVP’s future direction, adding a dialectical dimension to its evolving ideology.

Despite these positive strides, the JVP’s history suggests a tendency to align with prevailing political winds, as seen during the war and alliances with various leaders. The party’s parochial pragmatic politics, supporting both warlike leaders and Sinhala nationalists at different times, highlights a potential weakness in its thinking. Whether the JVP is cognizant of this weakness and how it adapts to the changing political landscape will be crucial in shaping its future trajectory.

In conclusion, the JVP’s ability to balance internal tensions, accommodate diverse ideologies, and respond effectively to evolving societal demands, including the feminist movement within its ranks, will determine its realistic future force and ideological direction.

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Latest comments

  • 8
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    “In conclusion, the JVP’s ability to balance internal tensions, accommodate diverse ideologies, and respond effectively to evolving societal demands, including the feminist movement within its ranks, will determine its realistic future force and ideological direction.”
    .
    Some may view the contradictory nature of different factions within the constituent groups of the NPP as a weakness or a failure, but I do not think that should necessarily be the case. The diversity in opinion and ideals coild be a strength through which a new stronger party could emerge. It may provide resilience and an environment that could birth, nuture and flourish a party with a new life that could rejuvenate the troubled country.
    .
    Something similar to the primordial soup that existed billions of years ago, that facilitated the emergence of the very first organic molecules and subsequently life on planet earth.

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      Well said Ruchira. Even communist Russia has modernized, with Bolshevik talk belonging to the early 1900s. Yes, some nationalism should be there, and some women’s empowerment. But doubt they will change the core principles of equalizing the economic playing fields. Both impressions will contribute to uplifting the livelihoods of the masses.

      But yes, the author needs to worry somehow. The truth is, there is a number of the older generation that is drunk on pedagogy of the Bolshevik era and have immersed themselves in its culture. But not only them – some Lankans immerse themselves in old Lankan stories and movies – whether it is communist, monarchist, Lankan nationalist-racist, or capitalist (haven’t we seen Ranil dancing to the 1950’s boom era of Italian arias and tangos and rumbas). But many know that there has been too much of suffering of the masses to worry about them. Modern concepts have arisen.

      • 2
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        Thanks Ramona. Older generations seem to be more divided along various lines. Sometimes ethnic, sometimes ideological and at times purely along party politics. These identities are at the core of their driving forces. Their loyalties may never change as shown by the often used phrase “Kapuwath Kola and Kapuwath Nil”.
        .
        The new generations on the other hand seem to be more flexible, rational and pragmatic. And it’s these younger generations that were said to be the lifeline of the recent uprisings such as Aragalaya that are changing the narrative and shifting the public opinion that is increasingly leaning towards the NPP.
        .
        It’s a good thing that NPP is open to them and modern concepts they bring with them, albeit their roots are in rather outdated or even failed ideologies of a bygone era.
        .
        Winds of Change are in the air. Exciting times to be alive. Lots of things to look forward to despite the economic struggles the country is facing. Future can only be brighter with the emerging modern NPP being the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.
        .
        Hope you are having a pleasant week!

  • 4
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    “. In contrast, the cinematic portrayal of Rohana Wijeweera’s wife, the founder of the JVP, in the movie “Ginnen Uapan Seethala (Frozen Fire),” depicting the 1989 period of the JVP’s second uprising….”
    I have always said that the state’s attitude to terrorism has a distinct racial bias. Hagiographies of a Sinhala terrorist who wanted the whole country are permitted, but not even a poster of a Tamil terrorist who wanted only part of the country is permitted. How strange.

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    ” post-Marxist approach”
    ‘Post’ assumed the demise of something.
    Like all other ‘posted’ theories, this too will have nothing to do with the term less the post.

  • 1
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    Trying to “sail with the wind” ultimately ends up with “going with the wind”

  • 4
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    It is a grave mistake to believe that our people understand how democracy works.
    .
    … JVP’s parochial politics, supporting warlike leaders and Sinhala nationalists, highlights a weakness in its thinking.

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