By Kumar David –
The JVP must change its position on the rights of the Tamil people. The Tamils are themselves no longer demanding secession therefore, self-determination in the Leninist sense, is irrelevant, but they must have the right to manage their affairs in their areas of domicile. In this context “devolution” is a useful term; the small print obviously has to be negotiated with the Sinhalese and the Muslim people and the Upcountry Tamils to the extent that they see themselves as different from “Ceylon Tamils” (for want of a better term). Even the TNA has conjured up a verbal gymnastic posture called the “right to internal self-determination” to avoid being lynched by both sides. I wish it luck.
Hold it! I am running ahead of myself. It all started with a straw poll I sent to more than a dozen people about ten days ago. They were not all leftists and included progressives and liberals, but all were what one might call intellectuals and included former university colleagues. I don’t know what motivated me to do this out of the blue. I enquired of my sample “If the next presidential election were to be held in 2023/4, and if not voting was not permitted in so far as this straw-poll is concerned, who will you vote for?” I offered a range of choices: Sajith, Ranil, a Sajith-Ranil combo in any form, Rajapaksa-porottuwa options (Dullas, Namal etc.) and the Rajapaksa-Ranil marriage of reprobates. Of course, the left options such as the JVP-NPP and Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) also known as Peratugami were included
Imagine my surprise (I am not making this up because I am an NPP member) when well over half replied that they would support the JVP-NPP, while nearly all the others said they had the JVP-NPP very much in in their sights but needed more time. While some respondents thought the JVP/NPP could not win, no one explicitly expressed their support for any of the other options. This was a wake-up call, frankly an unpleasant wake-up call for me. Why unpleasant? Because if the JVP-NPP is going to do well then there is work, a lot intervention and kicking arse that needs to be done to knock sense into our buggers! You don’t want a JVP-NPP government in office with cock and bull notions full of its head, do you? If the buggers are going to win you and I and all us have a hell of a lot of work to do before that.
There are three massive issues on which the JVP must be confronted and put right: one, Democracy, two the Tamil Question, and third the Economic role of the State. The JVP is humming and hawing about Democracy, it hints that it has finally seen the light, it slyly concedes that it was a bloody fool in 1971 and 1989-91 and forfeited the confidence of the people etc; good, good. However, it has not issued a full and formal admission of its errors, nor has it spelt out its current “Democracy” programme: That is, its plans for elections and future changes of government. Crucially it has not proposed a structure of government e.g. (a) Westminster, (b) Executive, (c) Legislative like the old Ceylon State Council or similar to the vast powers of the US Congress, or (d) the One-Party state. It is high time the JVP thought through the options available all over the world and publicised its views.
The second “massive” issue that the JVP has to address is the subject of this essay, the Tamil Question which will take up most of this column. The third is the economic role of the State. I have often expressed the view that in the early stage a dirigisme state (setting directions and choosing priorities for growth) is a necessity. However, I have also pointed out in recent pieces that this is a passing phase. The state must not become an enduring encumbrance on the people (like Stalinism). It must pass away, otherwise it constrains human freedoms, stifles creativity and undermines economic productivity. The state must “wither away” to use the classical terminology of anarchists and socialists. Right now, the JVP is rightly concerned about safeguarding sate-enterprises from privatisation and fears that encroaching capitalism will reduce worker’s rights and the benefits of the people. In a philosophical sense however it would also be good if the JVP, like the anarchists, Marx, Lenin and Rosa also declares the need to protect the people from an overreaching dictatorial state. To recap then, I am saying there are three “massive” topics to discuss with the JVP: Democracy, the Tamil question and fundamental role of the State.
The Tamil Question
Observe that I speak of the Tamil Question and do not mention a Muslim or a Catholic Question. There is a reason for this. Imagine for arguments sake that some Pope or Saint, some centuries ago had proposed a damn-fool moral theory (it actually did with Galileo). Then in later historical times this becomes an encumbrance because to refute it the Church will have to anger many believers who have in the interim aligned themselves with the said damn-fool theory.
The JVP is in a similar quandary. The leadership, or at least most of the current leaders know that Rohana Wijeweera was a racist in his feelings about the plantation workers, he had no sympathy for the rights of the “Ceylon” Tamils and he formed racist alliances with Mahinda Rajapaksa. It will be traumatic for the inner circles (Central Committee and ex-military leaders) to wake up now and call Wijeweera a damn-fool racist. The obstacle to correcting the inherited standpoint on the Tamil question is the embarrassment of having to call Wijeweera plain wrong. The problem does not end there, we have the Somawansa episode. Somawansa in cohorts with racist Chief Justice Silva broke up the combined northern-eastern provincial unit. Somawansa may or may not be an intrinsic racist at heart, he may have been playing opportunist race politics, I don’t know. But the episode is an acute embarrassment to the current leadership. How can it denounce these deified Saints and Popes?
It is very interesting that the JVP adopted a progressive attitude towards the Muslims as against its stance on the Tamils. Saint Wijeweera and Pope Somawansa were long gone and no longer burdened the Party with their venerable bull-shit. The JVP could stretch its arms and legs (atha-paya digearala) and act progressively on the Muslim issue. The humiliation and ill-treatment of Muslims by looney extremist Buddhist monks and the Rajapaksa regime was mainly a post-2014 phenomenon (Wijeweera was assassinated in 1989, Somawansa left the JVP in 2014 but was marginalised earlier).
It is not for me to propose tactics to the JVP leaders; they will work something out themselves. Some points though are obvious. The Tamils themselves are not (no longer) demanding Eelam or a separate state. The great majority, I think are simply not interested in separatism or dismiss it as an unattainable fanciful dream. Therefore, the theory of self-determination including the right to secession is no longer relevant.
The NPP (National Peoples’ Power)
Perspectives on the Tamil Question and the Democracy Issue are better in the NPP than in the JVP. This is thanks to the intervention of Attorney Lal Wijenayaka, Professor Vijaya Kumar, both long established in the Samasamaja tradition, as well as many other left and liberal minded activists in the NPP’s top committees. I am confident that the NPP supports devolution of power to communities and regions and is well ahead of the JVP in this respect. The NPP also has clearer ideas about democracy. Like the JVP it rejects the executive led presidential system, option (b) in my list some paragraphs above, and both the NPP and presumably the JVP oppose option (d), the One-Party State.
Neither has spelt out its preferences between various versions of the Westminster model, first-past-the-post or proportional representation, or between unicameral or bicameral legislatures. Nor has either proposed committee structures (the Ceylon Legislative Council of yore had some attractive features) or examined the committee structure of the US Congress and other countries. So, you see there is still a lot of work to do in both the JVP and the NPP to flesh out how Democracy is actually to be practised.
Humans lived in communities without formal hierarchies long before States came into being. The original ‘stateless’ form was democratic in the sense that it was an association of humans with minimal hierarchy – anthropologists can enlighten us more. Formal anarchism usually associated with Marx’s great rival Mikhail Bakunin advocates stateless societies, that is forms of free associations. Socialists see anarchism as a utopian left-wing movement farthest left on the political spectrum, but running ahead of its time. Marxists have a relationship with anarchism similar to what St Augustine said about chastity: “Oh Lord give me chastity, but not yet”.
The state is bad; it is a coercive instrument; it is an imposition (for example of the capitalist class, the fascists or a foreign power) upon the freedoms of the people. But right now, I am intrigued by a more prosaic topic. The dirigisme or directive state has a role to play in the initial stages of economic growth, but there has to be a time-line when that phase can be transcended; when the impositions can pass. In the meantime, there is the JVP’s current problematic of the need to protect state enterprises from being handed over to capital. There are no abstract answers to these questions, it is concrete events and the hands-on experiences of the next three years that will tell us what to do and when to do what. In the meantime it would be useful to initiate discussion of these topics in the chambers of the JVP with its more indigenous factions and with the residual military sections if any in the Party.