By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The impassioned, strongly worded statement just recently issued by the Asgiriya Chapter meant that the writing is on the wall. But there is more than one thing written on the wall, and there is also something written between the lines.
What the writing on the wall clearly says is that we have reached a point similar to that of 1955 when the Buddhist Commission issued its report. Already the government (effectively) of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe looks like that of Sir John Kotelawala in the famous Mara Yuddha cartoon, except that this leadership clique and its lifestyle isn’t seen as symbolized by the macho Sir John in the cartoon but more by Zou Zou Mohammed!
How do we understand the Asgiriya Chapter’s statement—because the crucial challenge is to comprehend it, whether or not one agrees with it in whole or in part (and I for one, do not). The statement is a throwback to the 1940s and 1950s, and is a nationalist cultural backlash against a perceived erosion of the national by the alien. I am greatly helped by the writings of my late father Mervyn de Silva in understanding it:
“Already, by the forties, the sensitive ear could pick up the first rumblings: the free education agitation, the Swabhasha movement, the Buddhist Commission. The challenger, the ‘new class’ which was to lead the assault was sounding the alarm, choosing the battleground and shrewdly creating the casus belli which would best rally the masses behind it. This was the necessary prelude to 1956…
Meanwhile the masses lay dormant; watching, waiting, resentful. By 1956 the equation was complete, the issues, the new class, the leader, the political alignments, the socioeconomic forces which would jet-propel the masses into action. In 1956 they moved: they moved with such a terrific momentum that it shattered the Right…
Language was not only an issue in 1956 but its banner, and it was more than a contest between parties: it was a far more fundamental clash of the “two nations”… It was more than party politics; it was social ferment…
… How do a people assert their national identity, especially a people who believe that their own way of life has been willfully neglected, disrupted or partially destroyed? How does a man do it? He searches for marks of distinction and (because his emotional need is so compulsive) stresses and overstresses them. So do a people. They find these “marks” in religion, language, customs and ceremony. This is the traditionalist impulse; it looks back.” (Mervyn de Silva, “1956: The Cultural Revolution That Shook the Left”, Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 16th & 23rd, 1967)
The dominant ideology of the newly formed SLPP and perhaps increasingly the dominant ideological line of the JO seems to be the same as that of SWRD Bandaranaike after he shifted to accommodate the Sinhala Only slogan. All that’s missing from the pre-1956 scenario is the Hartal of 1953 but that too will come, though it may assume or be diverted into the grotesquely distorted ethno-religious form of 1915 unless the Left trade unions, the student unions and the JVP and FSP unions are able to dominate it.
This present government is doomed. The only question is does it happen the easy way or the hard way; does it go head first or feet first? If it (A) goes for a new Constitution any time soon or within the rest of this term, with a referendum inevitably in train, or (B) if it strives to implement the Geneva resolutions, the Asgiriya chapter’s recent move will prove only the tip of the iceberg and there will be a unified Sangha-led nationalist social avalanche which will bury the Government.
This Government can go home at a referendum or an election. But it can survive or reduce the margin of defeat (avoiding a landslide) if and only if the radioactive Ranil-Mangala-CBK crew is dumped not only by President Sirisena but by the UNP as a party, and substituted by a new “Macronist” centrist-moderate alliance consisting of the patriotic UNP, SLFP and moderate progressives of the JO.
In the alternative, the ethno-religious radical Right that has mobilized can be counterbalanced somewhat and the ratio of the gathering forces modified, only if the official SLFP cuts the tie with the Ranil-CBK Govt and goes into Opposition, taking with it dissident UNPers and drawing a moderate JO faction, thereby constituting a moderate progressive center within the opposition space.
If neither of these outcomes materialize, then we are indubitably looking at a 1956 and 1970 scenario, perhaps closer the latter than the former, given the probability of a violent post-election backlash against the UNP and collaborationist SLFP.
Since the Tamil and Muslim minorities haven’t had the prudence to hedge their bets by being shareholders of both the Government and the Opposition, backing both the UNP and the Rajapaksas, the inevitable replay of 1956-1970 will bring into office a majoritarian administration.
This in turn will benefit neither the Sinhalese nor the Sinhala Buddhists, nor the country as a whole. Just as the minorities will realize that this isn’t the country it was in 2015 still less in 1947-1956, the majority will learn that this isn’t the world and the region, of 1956, 1970, 2005 or 2009/10.
Meanwhile there is an unavoidable question. In a situation in which the anti-Government struggle is increasingly becoming an alliance of the original Joint Opposition, the new SLPP, the Sangha and a slew of Sinhala nationalist civil society clusters, and the ideology driving the struggle is increasingly that of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which side should progressives be on? There are those who would argue that the UNP driven Yahapalana government being a greater repository of anti-Sinhala nationalism or Sinhala chauvinism, it should be supported, while others would argue for an independent, two front struggle or equidistant stance between Government and Opposition.
If this were the 1980s, I would have a variant of the latter position, but three things have occurred since. World socialism has collapsed, leaving the Third world unprecedentedly exposed and vulnerable. Tamil nationalism has exposed its pro-imperialist, reactionary and pro-fascist (unwillingness to renounce the LTTE and its war) character. The Ranil-CBK-Mangala troika has deviated even from the earlier UNP model of capitalist development to a simpler one of selling off the country’s assets and land.
In such a triple context, it would be unpardonably wrong to view matters through the prism of a single issue: the Tamil national question or the matter of the ethno religious minorities. Instead the interests of the part should be secondary to the interests of the whole. What the primary interest of the whole should be understood as is best set out in the words of Fidel Castro to the last summit of the Sao Paulo forum that he spoke at:
“Nobody can claim that objective or subjective conditions are favorable at this time for building socialism. I believe that at the present time there are other priorities… The most important battle in Latin America today is, in my opinion, to defeat neoliberalism, because if we don’t—we will disappear as independent states and will become more of a colony than the “Third World” countries ever were.”
Thus the primary struggle, the main aim of the struggle has to be to prevent our disappearance as independent states; to prevent winding up as worse colonies than we third world countries ever were; to remain independent; to combat neoliberalism.
The clear imperative is to fight against those who would practice untrammeled neoliberalism and reduce the independence of Third World states. The clear imperative is to fight on the side of those who would be most protective of the independence of our states and least likely to return them to colonial status if not worse.
What then about the ideology of the Asgiriya statement? No less a radical than Lenin makes the matter clear, namely that any real mass upheaval, even a socialist revolution will entail “outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices… masses imbued with the crudest prejudices…”(https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jul/x01.htm)
“But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the back of tsarism and paving the way for democracy…” says Lenin, reiterating that:
“The socialist revolution …cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital…”
If this true of the socialist revolution, how much truer must it be of the anti-neocolonial, anti-neoliberal, anti-puppet regime struggle in a Third World and Asian society?
It is by that yardstick of objective anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberalism rather than social progressivism across the board, that as far back as 1925 Stalin wryly concluded that “the Emir of Afghanistan is more progressive than the British Labor Party”. It is by that yardstick of dealing a blow to the pro-imperialist, anti-sovereignty government that the hierarchy of the Asgiriya Chapter is more progressive than the United National Party. It is also by that yardstick that the JO, the SLPP and the Rajapaksas –any and all the Rajapaksas– must be regarded as infinitely preferable to the present dispensation and supported in the struggle.