By Malinda Seneviratne –
‘Lost Revolution’ was the title of Rohan Gunaratne’s part-fiction, part-fact account of the second JVP insurrection, i.e. the one which ended with over 60,000 people being killed between 1987 and 1989. Puritanical Marxists, ex-JVPers included, would balk at the use of the word ‘revolution’ to describe that particular adventure.
The strange arrangement of words, ‘lost’ with ‘revolution’, hints at ‘possibility’ and squandering of the same. In other words, that there was something that was ‘winnable’ here. It is easy, in retrospect, to say ‘it was doomed’. It’s been a long time and long-time gives perspective. The debacle was remembered this year (on November 13) by two groups, separately. It made me think of ‘old’ and ‘new’, of both the general ‘Left’ and the JVP.
The JVP had a selling point when the party was launched in the early sixties. ‘New’ was the tag, which simultaneously pinned ‘Old’ on the Communist Party (both the ‘Moscow’ and ‘Peking’ wings), the LSSP and other groups that had splintered over the course of several decades. The ‘old’ or rather the strength-wise significant sections of it had moreover sold out by entering coalitions with the SLFP. The JVP would be different. It was.
It was, in 1971. Different in approach to politics. Different in dreams dreamt. Different in assessment of victory potential. They went for guns. Got gunned down. Back then there was nothing to suggest that the much talked of ‘objective preconditions’ had matured to a point that warranted an armed strike against the state, except of course that the state was ill-prepared to handle armed insurrection, a weakness that was quickly sorted out. Years later, as Gamini Samaranayake points out, the LTTE picked on the state’s seeming incapacity and prospered, not because the state was incapable but successive governments weren’t sure of the state’s ability to wipe out such a movement.
By 1988, the JVP was still young, although its leader was pushing 50. In 2012, the JVP and its leadership is ‘old’, not just in age but in terms of the perennial youth-queries ‘relevance’, ‘knowing’ and ‘method’.
The JVP had its moments. It was a self-styled punchi aanduwa (small government) that did a lot of big things including holding the maha anduwa by the proverbial short hairs on occasion, not to mention assassinating some big names. Following the elimination of the entire leadership (apart from Somawansa Amarasinghe) in a matter of a few days, the JVP went out of circulation. For a while. It re-emerged following the assassination of President Premadasa, using avenues created by the Lakmina newspaper where Wimal Weerawansa, using the penname ‘Wimalasiri Gamlath’, first made his mark as a phrase-turner, and of course the spaces for politics reclaimed by the ‘Jathika Chintanaya’ group. In 1994, the JVP used the vehicle of that good hearted by naïve politician, the late Ariya Bulegoda, to return one member to Parliament. Until then no one had heard of ‘Galappaththi’.
By the year 2000, the JVP had 10 MPs and the following year 17. In that one year, the JVP succeeded in dictating terms to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, making for a new addition to the political lexicon, ‘Parivaasa’ or ‘probation’. It was short-lived, naturally, but in that brief period the JVP authored and got through the only Amendment passed in Parliament since the UNP lost its two-thirds majority in 1989. The 17th Amendment was flawed, but it is the only concrete measure that sought to restore balance to a constitution heavily favoring the executive.
The JVP also got some important decisions from the Supreme Court, most notably a determination that the North and East should not remain merged. The JVP played a key role in bringing down the UNP Government of Ranil Wickremesinghe by persuading the then President to dissolve Parliament and contest as a coalition. The result was a massive surge for the party, with 40 being elected mostly from SLFP votes.
The JVP, by that time, perhaps emboldened and cocky, and thick in parliamentary/coalition politics, no longer deserved the ‘radical’ tag. Indeed it had all but buried all Left pretensions. It made a massive error by supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005. It was a gross underestimate of the man’s potential. Within a couple of years, the new President had ensured that the JVP needed him more than he needed the JVP. The second error was when the JVP decided to go it alone in the local government election, rejecting the President’s offer of control in 25 bodies. They even lost the one they had, Tissamaharama. It was downhill thereafter.
The JVP lost its most vocal spokesperson, Wimal Weerawansa, whose oratorical skills more than anything else was responsible for the resurgence of the JVP after the 1988-89 debacle. In 2010, the JVP was forced (like the UNP) to back Sarath Fonseka to save electoral blushes. They clutched on to him long enough to win a few seats at the April 2010 General Election.
Then the final blow: a new split, and one on old-new/conservative-radical lines. With it, the JVP lost its main agitation front, the Inter University Student Federation, whose hot-bloodedness found the Frontline Socialist Party more attractive.
And so, on November 13, 2012, the (mis)adventure of 1988-89 was commemorated by two groups, the JVP and FSP. Both seem to be fighting for ‘rump’ status, which alone speaks of the party’s decline in recent time. The latter, though, is amply equipped to fancy another 1971 or 1988-89. Tilvin’s group has had it. If elections were held today and the JVP went alone, they will go back not to 2010, not to 2001 or 2000, not even to 1994 but to that seat-less period before.
As for ideology, there’s no need to worry. The JVP was never hot on ideology, not even during Wijeweera’s time. They were good slogans. Good at coalition politics (just like the LSSP and CP). Good at helping unpopular regimes regain control by inviting suppression. Good, therefore, to help snuff out tens of thousands of lives. Only, this time, it won’t be the likes of Tilvin, Vijitha, Anura and others who will do it, but the ideology-bereft, cloak-dagger-loving firebrands plotting ‘revolution’ with ex-LTTE cadres and politically displaced individuals such as Kumar Gunaratnam.
‘Revolution’, then, was a faded banner that there was no one to grab and made it possible for an adventurer like Wijeweera to obtain youth appeal. There was no ‘revolution’ that was ‘lost’; only young men and women who were unfortunate to have been born in the sixties and early seventies.
It is not a history that we can afford repeated. If 1988-89 is to be remembered only the learning of this lesson matters.