By Lionel Bopage –
It was interesting to read several ongoing discussions about certain personal properties allegedly held by some JVP leaders. As far as I can recollect, this has never been an issue with the leaders of the ruling political parties or of the traditional left. With regard to them, issues have been different. They were about the many properties and wealth acquired allegedly by corrupt or deceptive means, or using positions of authority one holds. Those allegations are raised prior to elections but after the elections, swept under carpet by hook or crook. The 72-year history of Sri Lanka provides an ocean of evidence for that. Even some bureaucrats, particularly certain political appointees fall into the same category. Yet, my attention here is not about bribery, corruption and other deceptive conduct of politicians and bureaucrats, rather an assessment of the right of socialists to hold personal property.
During the last decade or so, there have been allegations of comrade Anura Kumara Dissanayake holding property overseas and comrade Vijitha Herath’s family owning property in Sri Lanka. So it comes as no surprise that this public discourse is managed by a few media outlets and several shady political characters well-known for falsifying and slandering political activities by raising allegations against the leaders of the political parties of the left such as the JVP and the Frontline Socialist Party. At times, such mudslinging occurs among the left political leaders themselves. Obviously such denigrative discourse among left leaderships becomes greatly beneficial to their political opponents.
This campaign of slander, falsification and distortion is nothing new. When late comrade Chandra Fernando allowed comrade Rohana Wijeweera (slain by the state), to use his Mercedes Benz car for his travelling across the island, the same media outlets and political outfits slandered Rohana, saying that he had bought a Mercedes using the funds that the JVP had raised via their ‘till’ campaigns.
Property was never an issue and never discussed as we were not into collecting property, but into building the party to which so many comrades sacrificed their lives. Even to date I do not know whether Rohana’s family in Tangalle, owned any property other than the land and house where his mother and siblings used to live. After Rohana and Srimathee got married, they would have had some ownership to the property Willorawatta, Moratuwa, where they and Srimathee’s mother lived in.
There have been many deceptions, fabrications, distortions, misrepresentations, lies, falsifications used against the JVP throughout its half a century long history. Those allegations varied from being CIA agents and KGB agents (at the same time!) to using motor vehicles for travel purposes rather than public transport and wearing new clothes and footwear.
When I was General Secretary of the JVP, I had only two pairs of clothes and a pair of shoes. With regular use, clothes had become discoloured and worn, but with regular washing were kept clean and tidy. The pair of shoes had worn out and had some holes patched up. Seeing the dilapidated state of my shoes, Chitra still being a religious brought a new pair of shoes. I did not think twice about wearing those and went to a party discussion somewhere in Gampaha. At the meeting, the first issue that was raised and the longest item of discussion was the new pair of shoes I was wearing. In a way, we could say that this was something we brought upon ourselves.
During the period from 1968 to 1971, we did not have funds to waste. That was one of the main reasons for avoiding smoking and drinking. It had nothing to do with ethics. Some allege that we were against marital relationships, but as far as I know, we did not have such a policy. During our times at Peradeniya campus, most of the members of the “movement” I knew of had ongoing relationships with girls. The issue that came up later within the JVP leadership about girls was complicated. It was combined with allegations of political inaction and practising idealistic rituals in day to day life activities influenced by those relationships and families.
Coming back to the issue of holding personal property, the JVP had many comrades who had property they inherited. The best example would be ex-parliamentarian, comrade Vijitha Ranaweera. When he was detained in 1971, he was Chairperson of the Ceylon Salt Corporation in Hambantota. In his previous life, he was a “Walawwe Hamu” (lord of the manor house). His residence and property in Witharandeniya were left open for the JVP to utilise at any time of the day, till the day he left the JVP.
It is unpardonable for me to skip names of some comrades here. Late comrade M B Rathnayake, attorney at law, was at a time leader of the MEP and was another “Walawwe Hamu” from Matale. Comrade Rathnayake made need-based allowances for the JVP leadership to use the veranda and garage space of his house for political discussions. That is where we had our first Politbureau meeting when we were released from prisons in October 1977. It is also there, we met former minister and the SLFP candidate in the 1982 presidential election Mr Hector Kobbekaduwa to look at the possibility of to have a single opposition candidate against the then president JR Jayewardene. The sad saga of the single presidential candidate continues to-date.
Late comrade Ubhaya Weerasinghe, attorney at law was also a property owner and a businessman. Though not to the extent that comrade Vijitha did, Comrade Weerasinghe provided the first-floor room of his sawmill in Armour Street. We used it as the head office until the JVP was proscribed in July 1983, by the JR Jayewardene regime. We had a couple of meetings of the Human Rights Organisation at his house in Horton Place, Colombo. At the district level, we also had similar comrades who owned property either through parental lineage or acquired through business engagements. Unlike their opponents on the right who shamelessly plundered the state coffers, most of those comrades sacrificed their lives and used their wealth for the cause of building a better Sri Lanka.
The JVP had to sack several leaders because of their misuse of party funds and or property. Some of them had happily betrayed at the altar of Capital their ‘humanitarian’ principles they said to have valued most. Even today, we have them hoodwinking the masses while accumulating properties and funds and serving their corrupt capitalist masters to the best of their abilities. To the credit of the JVP leaders, they have taken up in public the allegations raised against them. The JVP has refuted such allegations and clarified how they or their families have come to acquire property through parental lineage. Unfortunately, their responses do not get the attention of many media outlets, particularly those outlets and personages enjoying enormous financial and material privileges for slavishly serving their masters.
Simply because you own property like a house and a land does not imply that you are a capitalist. You become a capitalist when that property is made to acquire a social status in production. Capital is a collective product that can be set in motion only by the united action of many, and in the last resort, of all members of society. Capital is, therefore, not personal, it is a social power. The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., the means of subsistence, which is absolutely required in bare existence as a labourer. What we want to do away with is the miserable nature of this appropriation, under which a worker lives just to increase capital.
Karl Marx’s life-long friend and closest collaborator and political comrade, Friedrich Engels, published The Condition of the Working Class in England, when he was 25. This November 28th, it will be Engels’s 200th birth anniversary. His life appears replete with contradictions. He was a Prussian communist, a keen fox hunter who despised the landed gentry, and a mill owner whose greatest ambition was to lead the revolution of the working class. In passing, I recollect that the first booklet I read in year 9 was Socialism Utopian and Scientific, written by Engels in the 1880s.
He was born a son to a prosperous family with deep roots in the yarn and cloth industry. Under his father’s insistence, he acquired business experience. He was a firebrand radical, a campaigner for socialism, at the same time a respectable Manchester businessman. Engels supported Marx and his family financially for many years. He became Marx’s most effective popularizer and propagandist. Engels survived Marx by 12 years and continued Marx’s posthumous collaboration. Their long-term friendship and intellectual partnership have become known as “the most famous intellectual collaboration of all time”. Engels himself is called Marx’s General.
Engels consolidated Marx’s influence among competing revolutionary programs in a variety of works, most notably in Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (1878) and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). His works vigorously defended Marx’s commanding position among many radical political theorists. Despite the advance of European parliamentary democracy and social reform, Engels continued to defend the need for continuing the class struggle and revolutionary political tactics. He died in London of cancer in 1895.
In spite of his privileged background Engels was a tireless campaigner and political activist on behalf of the working class, who were forced live in unhygienic, airless and sunless slums. He assiduously and movingly recorded their plight in his masterwork. His life and political legacy should be our beacon and guide. It is in this light we should view this distracting and damaging campaign against the leaders of the JVP.
We need to judge political leaders by the content of their politics and their actions on behalf of the working people. Everything else is just a distraction, nay a smokescreen that covers the actions of the true plunderers of our Island’s wealth and their cynical hollowing out of the democratic institutions and the fraying communal harmony.