23 May, 2022


On Being A Tamil, Sri Lankan & Marxist Internationalist: The Relevance Of N. Sanmugathasan To Our Times & All Times

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

It was gratifying to see Dayan Jayatilleka lead off the birth centennial tributes to N. Sanmugathasan (Shan) in Colombo Telegraph two weeks ago. Last Sunday, Editor Manik de Silva added his reminiscences of Shan from his unique vantage point as the doyen of Sri Lankan journalism in the English language. There have been other tributes – by V. Thanabalasingham and DBS Jeyaraj, and likely many more especially in Tamil which I have not seen. Ravi Vaithees has previously provided scholarly accounts of Shan’s politics in the context of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. 

I would like to use the privilege of my space today to offer some reflections on what Shan’s life and times could teach us on the fundamental questions of life and politics which all of us muddle through and many of us are affected by, but to which no one can provide easy answers that would be conclusive and acceptable to everyone. What does it mean to be a Sinhalese, a Tamil, or a Muslim in Sri Lanka? Who is the Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka? And in these tragicomic times, when Trump’s America steals the show for all the wrong reasons, what is it to be a Sri Lankan in the US, other Western countries, or anywhere else in this globalized world? 

Shan and his politics which were in the national limelight in the 1960s and 1970s might be unfamiliar territory to the majority of Sri Lankans who are under fifty years of age. Those who are familiar with the politics of that era and Shan’s role in it are likely in their seventies, or well into their sixties. The 1950s, the first decade after independence, began with the death of one Prime Minister (DS Senanayake) and ended with the assassination of another (SWRD Bandaranaike). In between, there was the Great Hartal of 1953, a tumultuous change in government in 1956, the Galle Face Satyagraha that same year, the first communal riots after independence in 1958, and all of them interspersed with militant labour strikes. There were two political dynamics at work. 

The two dynamics

N. Sanmugathasan

The first involved the political relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the flashpoint of which was the Sinhala Only legislation that made Sinhala the country’s only official language. The Muslims were not as aggravated, and they were geographically divided between the southern Sinhalese political parties and the Federal Party that was electorally dominant in the northern and eastern provinces. The parties of the Left, the LSSP and the Communist Party, lambasted both the Sinhalese and the Tamil political parties as right-wing communal parties (or communalistic – to use Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent adjectival preference), advocated parity of official language status for both the Sinhala and Tamil languages, and projected a political program for the emancipation of the oppressed classes of all communities. The program was unequivocally predicated on class politics and working class leadership, but within (the LSSP’s and the CP’s) contending applications of the Marxist framework to local and global political realities. The Left-Right ideological contestation was the second political dynamic.                  

The 1960s saw the interplay of the two dynamics and the realignment of political forces that shaped the course of politics for the rest of the century and even beyond. The first realignment came about, in 1964, as a coalition between the centrist SLFP and the Left Parties, that led to splits within the two Left parties and disillusionment among left-oriented Sinhala youth. The second realignment was the 1965 alliance between the right-wing UNP and the Tamil Federal Party, which too led to disillusionment among the Tamil youth. There were no apparent signs of what these realignments would eventually lead to, but it is reasonable to say that at the political level the seeds of the JVP insurrection in 1971 and the Tamil separatist movement after 1972 can be traced to the twin disillusionments of the mid 1960s. 

The 1960s were also the decade in which Sanmugathasan gained national prominence as a political leader. He was already a leading member of the Communist Party, having started his political activism as a university undergraduate, joining the trade union movement straight after university, and becoming the head of the Ceylon Trade Union Federation in 1947, when he was just 27 years old. Remarkably, Shan’s split with the Communist Party was not the result of coalition politics. He was expelled from the Communist Party, almost a year earlier, in 1963, for taking a pro-Maoist line. There may have been other internal reasons and personality clashes may have been at play, but the growing Sino-Soviet schism provided the reason for (what was then) the Ceylon Communist Party to expel one of its frontline leaders. The reasons for his expulsion are irrelevant now. What Shan did politically after his expulsion is what has earned him a special place in the history of Left politics and in the history of Tamil society in Sri Lanka. 

Expelled from the Ceylon Communist Party, Shan founded the Ceylon Communist Party (Peking Wing), forcing the parent party to be named by the national media as the Ceylon Communist Party (Moscow Wing)! He did this more than a year before the historic split of the Indian Communist Party over similar ideological disagreements as in Sri Lanka. As the General Secretary of the Party, he built an organization of dedicated members, who were not large in electoral terms, but whose organizational strength and cadre commitment were comparable and even superior to other larger political parties whose politics is centred on elections, and elections only. 

A common compliment paid to Shan by those who worked with him is about his contribution to political education in the Party. It was Shan who popularized the phrase – Marxism, Leninism, Mao Tse-tung thought, and its teaching in Sri Lanka. Hundreds of cadres of all communities passed through Shan. Several future JVPers, including Rohana Wijeweera, were members of Shan’s Party and pupils in his classes. Apart from the marginalized among the Sinhalese, Shan reached out to the oppressed castes among the Sri Lankan Tamils, and the Tamil estate workers in the plantations. 

In hindsight, it is fair to say that Shan’s Communist Party was the strongest microcosm of Sri Lanka’s ethnic plurality. Looked at it another way, Shan was the only Sri Lankan Tamil to lead a political party of mostly Sinhalese members. And unlike any other Sri Lankan Left leader, Shan provided counter-traditional leadership on a matter that was at the sensitive core of Tamil society: caste exclusion, especially at places of worship. Equally, he developed a militant following among the Tamil plantation workers, unlike either Tamil political leaders or national Left leaders. 

Tamil by accident of birth

The political realignments of the 1960s, gave Shan the perfect platform to attack both the Left and the Tamil Right. He assailed the Left for what he condemned as its parliamentary opportunism and betrayal of minority rights. And he castigated the Tamil political leadership for aligning with the UNP and pussyfooting on caste issues. Shan was quite dogmatic in his belief that parliamentary democracy and the project of socialism were incompatible. So, when the United Front of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP (Moscow) won a landslide victory in the 1970 elections, Shan may have been hoping for an experiential verdict on the failure of the United Front experiment. It turned out to be far worse than a mere failure in the end. But Shan himself like many others were blindsided by the JVP insurrection, which he had no truck with and condemned it thoroughly. But he was incarcerated by the State for allegedly teaching revolution to the JVP. He was acquitted without trial after one year in jail at great cost to his health. Shan never quite recovered from the ordeal, physically and politically.

He literally found a second wind after the 1983 riots. That was the year when the dynamic of ethnic politics completely overwhelmed the dynamic of class politics. That was also the year I first met Shan and came to know him reasonably well. Earlier that year, we were both active in a group called the Marx Centenary Committee that was formed to commemorate the death centenary of Karl Marx on the 14th of March, that year. We used to meet regularly at Hector Abhayavardhana’s Chitra Lane house, and we continued meeting after the July 1983 riots. Practically everyone who has been someone in the Left movement would show up and the discussions were insightful and politically therapeutic. It was during that time that Shan started writing a flurry of articles to the Daily News on the riots, its aftermaths, and the political relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. There was a new standpoint to his externalization. The old fact that he was a Tamil. Hector Abhayavardhana loved Shan’s articles and said, “Shan is discovering himself.”   

Nearly two decades earlier, sometime in 1967 or 1968, Shan said in a public speech, “I am a Tamil by an accident of birth.” I was a student at Peradeniya then, and the statement generated some discussion among Tamil students. There was quite a contingent of Maoists on campus, and to them Shan’s statement was a scientific assertion. To others, it seemed a betrayal of his Tamilness to politically appease the Sinhalese. And it was blasphemy to those who had been socialized into believing that being a Tamil, or a Sinhalese, or a Muslim is the biological essence of one’s being. 

The term ‘essentialism’ was not in vogue then, at least not in our student circles. Even ‘ethnicity’ had not entered Sri Lankan political vocabulary at that time. What Shan was asserting then is the rejection of ‘ethnic essentialism’ that is now commonplace in any social science writing. There is no ethnic essence in any one of us. The tag of ethnicity that is attached at one’s birth is an act of political astrology. Wouldn’t Sri Lanka become a better a place instantly, if the country’s political leaders were to realize and acknowledge, as Shan did, that their ethnicity is in fact due to an accident of birth?

*To be continued…

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Marxism circa 2020 is dead in the water. It officially ended with the breakdown of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Marxism is rooted in the evolution of continental Europe. Hence it never took off in the English-speaking world. Because the British Empire ruled all over the globe and needed to overthrow only the rulers of Africa, Australia, America and Asia. On the other hand Europeans had been endlessly looted by the Kings, Queens and land-owning Aristocrats, Bankers and the Priest-class for centuries. Hence these people had to be killed off. Which the French did in 1789. Sri Lankan’s or Ceylonese as they were called back then didn’t own land until around the 1888’s. And still less than 40% of the population own land. Mostly a single house. Who exactly are the Sri Lankan Marxists ( who we hear from about 1950’s to about 1990’s ) supposed overthrow and bring about this workers Utopia ? And take power from Whom exactly ?
    We live in 2020. Where with a Wifi connection, A laptop and Smartphone who can earn a living, provide for you wife and children and own a home. This is possible because Marx’s revolution never materialized. Sri Lanka is piss poor country with nobody running anything and nor one has any power or money.

  • 1

    Part 1
    Rajan Philips recollects with apparent nostalgia his campus days at Peradeniya.

    1965- 1969 were no doubt eventful and climaxed in 1968 with student demonstrations that rocked the capitals and campuses throughout the world.

    World revolution was supposed to be round the corner. Of course, the Vietnam War was the catalyst.

    This was the period when Shan was spearheading the temple entry protests in Jaffna without any long-term strategy.

    This is the period when Marxist intellectuals were busy revising their Marxist texts with youth /students playing a decisive role in the march to socialism replacing the traditional workers and peasants.

    Che Guevara was killed in 1967 and became an instant hero along with traditional Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, rosa Luxamburg,Mao and Castro- Their photos were displayed everywhere.

    The left was no doubt in the ascendancy.


  • 0

    Part 2

    However, by 1969 all these resolutions or revolutionary situations fizzled out including Shan’s temple entry adventure with token success and capitalism had triumphed again..

    Only the War in Indo-China went on to a successful outcome.

    The violent JVP and the Tamil nationalist movement incubated during this period with some token Marxist slogans.

    None of the traditional leftists including Shan could not guide either the JVP with Rohana Wijeweeera in the lead or the Tamil nationalist movement on the correct path despite his close relationship with both.

    The failure of the traditional left including Shan was the cause for the armed struggle of JVP and the Tamil nationalist movements in Sri Lanka.

    This was the end of history or Marxism and the beginning of clash of civilization.


  • 1

    Shan was no different to NM Perera or other Socialists. They lead the workers on behalf of the richest and powerful in the country.

    The Indian Business Congress or Cabal. Shan like other Socialists were on the payroll the Indian Merchants of Colombo.

    One Das an Indian had a number of businesses including a textile factory in Hektitta, Wattala called Cliftex.

    The young girls who worked there wanted to form a Union. The resident guy who ran the place was a middle aged Tamil. The girls approached him and he promised to see Shan.

    One day this man went to see Shan in the morning regarding forming a Mercantile Union branch in Cliftex. When he came to work after seeing Shan the guy at the security post told him that there in no need to come to work any more.

    • 2

      This story has quite a few holes.
      The girls are supposed to have to the guy who runs the place to help them form a union. (This sounds like a Tamil movie.)
      The man goes to see Shan on a working day in the morning.
      Who tipped off the management about his action? (D’s tale would suggest that Shan did. But what is his evidence? Has he considered other possibilities?)
      Whatever the case, gone were the days when companies of significant size could fire employees at will. There were decent labour tribunals.
      A man who knew Shan that well would have gone back to Shan either for help, or to tell him off if he had suspicion that Shan ratted him out.
      In any event, what does the victim do? Take it lying down? What would have been the response of his colleagues? (Sorry he was boss! A boss who tried to help subordinates form a union.)
      The opening sentence itself is a giveaway of the writers intention to discredit all socialists.
      Private sector trade unions of the time came mainly under federations like CTUF, CMU etc. which were very clean outfits and members would swear by them. If there was a report of abuse by a union official, the union high-ups or of the party to which the union was affiliated would have taken stern action.

    • 0

      I fully agree with you. Majority of Marxist politicians in Sri Lanka were hypocrites and crooks. They are responsible for ruining this country by encouraging workers to ‘STRIKE’ even for trivial matters. They discouraged private entrepreneurs. Their slogan was ‘weda adu karaw, padi wedi karaw’ (reduce the workload and increase the wages).

      • 1

        Even if as you say ‘a majority of Marxist politicians in Sri Lanka were hypocrites and crooks’, they were far more honest and sincere than a bigger majority of their counterparts in other parties.
        Hatred for socialism blinds people to reality.
        The article is about someone who did not make money out of politics and remained loyal to his beliefs right to the end.
        I had disagreed with Shan on several matters. But he is nevertheless a great revolutionary thinker and a dedicated party activist.

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