By 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
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…