By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Virginia (founded by Thomas Jefferson), HL Seneviratne, writing in the Colombo Telegraph some weeks ago, raised the question ‘Is There a Role for the Left?’ and answered in the affirmative. I agree, though I suspect he is addressing a different tradition and generation of the Left than I am.
In order to make any headway whatsoever, all streams of the Lankan Left cannot avoid and must adopt a correct stance (note that I do not say the correct stance) on the interrelated issues of the war, the Tamil question, the minorities in general, and human rights/humanitarian law. With a single huge exception, nowhere on the planet has the Left made gains while going against patriotism. That exception was the Russian Revolution but as George Lichtheim noted, that was in a society where the bulk of the population, consisting of the peasantry, were not yet franchised and did not feel themselves stakeholders in the state. He went on to point out that by contrast, in those societies that had universal suffrage, the Left could not but support their national states during the war. Thus Russia was the exception that proved the rule—and in any case, the Russian state (unlike the Sri Lankan) lost WW1.
Sri Lanka’s war has dominated the second half of the island’s post-independence history and the lives of more than one generation of its inhabitants. This is truest of the Last War, 2006-2009. As a war of reunification against a secessionist movement, it was and will always be defined by the vast majority of citizenry as a patriotic war. Since the secessionist movement was also notoriously totalitarian and a consistent practitioner of large scale terrorism (including suicide terrorism), the war – and the victory of May 2009, was also experienced and will be viewed as liberation. That this was a victorious war of national liberation will probably remain the verdict of history over the long term. The Lankan Left cannot stand on the wrong side of this historical verdict. In philosophical terms, it cannot evade the Event, May 2009, and the encounter with the Real.
While it is a grotesque travesty to argue as Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara have done, that the failure of the Lankan Left was its refusal to unite with and bow before the ‘national’– actually, chauvinist–movement and ideology of Anagarika Dharmapala, it would be correct to argue, as they do not, that the failure of the Lankan Left was to unite radical modernity with the militantly anti-imperialist heritage of the 1848 insurrection of Puran Appu. This ‘mix’ was the secret of the wave of national liberationist revolution that swept the world, from China to Vietnam and Cuba. It is this failure that permitted 1956 and all that followed.
Wijeweera’s JVP thought that it was rectifying that error, and linking up with the patriotic heritage but it did not succeed in so doing because it avoided taking a crucial step. Ironically, that step is still being avoided by the far Left FSP, which criticises the JVP as ultranationalist. This critical move is the dialogue and alliance—hopefully leading to fusion—with the Left tendency within Tamil society, as the basis of a truly national and patriotic project, in the broadest, most radically enlightened sense.
Despite a strong militant Maoist presence among the northern Tamil youth, Wijeweera’s JVP avoided from its inception, all contact with Tamil politics (except for an evening’s flirtation with the hill-country’s Ilancheliyan in ’71). Radical elements that have broken with the JVP over time, ranging from Lionel Bopage through the ‘Hiru’ Kandayama (of Rohitha Bhashana), overreacted to Wijeweera’s social chauvinism by indiscriminate embrace of Tamil activism, occasionally going so far as to endorse the LTTE as a national liberation movement and its war as a national liberation struggle. Instead of being influenced by Anton Balasingham and ‘Taraki’ Sivaram, (as is true of the ‘Hiru’ group but not so much of Bopage) they should have clearly delimited their interaction to the Tamil Left while standing alongside the latter, against the Tigers.
Today’s JVP is less sectarian and has an outreach to the Tamil people, though, sadly, no real political discussion or debate with the Tamil political spectrum. The FSP has made two classic mistakes: one is its lack of clarity over the character of the war– which it occasionally describes as a racist war—and its silence over whether or not the outcome was on balance, historically positive. The second mistake, which is not unconnected with the first, is of ‘skipping stages’ in that it has attempted a dialogue with Tamil activists or former activists, irrespective of whether or not they have made a criticism/self criticism and decisively and irrevocably broken with their erstwhile secessionist ideology. In so doing the FSP has skipped over the necessary stage of alliance with the like-minded element in Tamil politics, including in the Diaspora: the thousands of anti-LTTE activists belonging to, or who once belonged to, the Eelam Left.
This confusion and ‘abstract internationalism’ has many deleterious consequences, some of them potentially deadly. It permits the infiltration and utilisation of the Lankan radical left by the far tougher–minded, disciplined and experienced pro-secessionist activists, especially ‘intelligence wing’ cadres. Even if that were not the case, it permits the ideologically confused Tamil activists to propose immature and imprudent slogans and programmes of agitation, which can objectively serve the same purpose as would proposals of agents-provocateurs. In short, it can walk some of the best elements of the Lankan radical Left into the waiting trap of the repressive apparatus.
I suspect that this is a major factor – together with the obvious, illegitimate one of sectarian bitterness–that prevents the imperative united front of the JVP and FSP. Both formations have to avoid agents-provocateurs from two top-notch, ruthless intelligence apparatuses, one of them being the LTTE in exile—as well as from double agents. The JVP would not want the FSP’s naïve, confused outreach to and interaction with Tamil activists here and in the Diaspora to be the conduit and constitute the excuse for a crackdown by the state. Yet another factor is that the JVP has also to take into consideration not only the split to the far left (FSP/JAV) but also to ultra-nationalist radical populism, as evidenced by the election of Weerawansa’s candidate in the East.
Part of the problem faced by the Left is the role played by the radical and progressive intelligentsia during the war. While intellectuals throughout the world were in the vanguard of struggles for national reunification and against fascism, and therefore accrued the moral capital that stood them in good stead for decades ( the French resistance is a classic example), by stark contrast in Sri Lanka, the left intelligentsia utterly discredited itself by being part of the CBK package for federalisation, the Sudu Nelum movement against recruitment to the military in the face of Tiger aggression, the CFA which brought the state to its knees, the ISGA and PTOMS proposals which would have ceded part of the country to the Tigers. Thus there is a limit to the success of even legitimate social movements and civic struggles led by those who remain identifiable by the general public as, at the very least, not having said a word against the fascist Tigers and at worst, being active opponents of a war of liberation-cum-national salvation and active proponents of appeasement and capitulation to fascist-terrorist secessionism. When such elements attempt to take on Mahinda Rajapaksa frontally, they fail to recognise the massive deficit of national and social legitimacy and their negative standing in the national-popular narrative. One can only hope that the FSP can immunise itself from identification with and influence by such elements.
No element of the Lankan Left, be it JVP, FSP or the dissidents of the LSSP-CPSL, should be seen to consort with those segments of the Tamil political spectrum here and in the Diaspora, which are perceived by the majority of citizens as anti-Sri Lanka, not merely anti-regime. For an organic Left reflective of ‘the collective will of the people-nation’ (Gramsci), any component of the Tamil polity campaigning against Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and the country’s armed forces as part of the push for an Eelam endgame (e.g. the TGTE, GTF, BTF, TESO), must be regarded as outside the parameters of political partnership. The legitimate partner in a South-North project to build a Sri Lankan nation is surely what’s left of the Tamil Left, martyred by Tiger fascism and ignored by the State.
(To be concluded next week)