By Rajan Hoole –
1979 – 83: The Mounting Repression – Part II
The idea of a revolutionary liberation struggle was in its origins a leftist notion, but the struggle largely became the property of the Right even though the use of leftist jargon persisted. All the militant groups that kept to their Left roots were driven to the margins or to extinction by the LTTE’s violent assertion of sole leadership. A generation earlier a corresponding process had taken place among the political parties in the democratic stream.
V. Karalasingham, a member of the LSSP who contested S.J.V. Chelvanayakam in the KKS electorate in 1960, did creditably, polling 5,042 votes against 13,545 by the charismatic and highly respected Tamil leader. Karalasingham has the distinction of having spoken at election meetings throughout the Island in English. The historian Seelan Kadirgamar in his memoir The Left tradition in Lankan Tamil Politics, presented at the Hector Abhayawardana felicitation symposium in December 1999, made this observation: “Karalasingam’s pungent criticism of the Federal Party is as much applicable to the FP in 1963, the TULF in 1977 and the Tamil political movements and leadership in the present impasse.” We will quote from the memoir in the rest of this section.
In the chapter Why They have Failed, from his book The Way Out for the Tamil Speaking People of 1963, Karalasingham observed: “It is worthy to note that all the parties that have hitherto gained the confidence of the Tamil people, have done so on the basis of resisting the ‘chauvinism’ of the majority community and securing for their people their legitimate demands. But the period of ascendancy of the Tamil Congress and that of the Federal Party has signified to the Tamil speaking people not an increase but a diminution – indeed a sharp and precipitous decline of their fortunes. What heightens their tragedy is that their present plight cannot be attributed either to their apathy or their lack of support to the parties which at different times spoke for them. Apathy there never was on the question of minority rights. If anything, the politics of the last 30 years in the Northern and Eastern Provinces has revolved round precisely this question, to the exclusion of all others. The popular support for the traditional Tamil parties has been so enthusiastic and overwhelming as to incur the envy and jealousy of their rivals.”
Karalasingham pointed to what he described as a strange paradox: “The Tamil-speaking people have been led in the last decade by an apparently resolute leadership guided by the best intentions receiving not merely the widest support of the people but also their enthusiastic co-operation and yet the Tamil-speaking people find themselves at the lowest ebb in their history. Despite all their efforts the people have suffered one defeat after another, one humiliation after another”. He pointed out that the fundamental flaw in the Tamil nationalist strategy is the position that the fight for the rights of the Tamil-speaking people is the responsibility of the Tamil-speaking people alone.
Karalasingham observed poignantly, “the present leadership because of its close identification with the past will not encourage any discussion of these fundamental questions – it would rather see the Tamil speaking people burn themselves out, in impotent rage and despair against the government than permit a critical re-examination of its politics.”
Another left leader V. Satchithananthan, in his introduction to the 1978 edition of Karalasingham’s book with postscript added, made reference to earlier debates on nationalism among the Tamil intelligentsia. He referred to the booklet Communalism or Nationalism? published by the Jaffna Youth Congress in 1937 as a response to the position taken by G.G. Ponnambalam and recommended it as a document ‘for all time’. Sachithananthan observed, “after fifty years of communal campaigning, what a pathetic admission by the TULF to state in their 1977 Manifesto that the Tamil Nation,‘gropes in the dark for identity and finds itself driven to the brink of devastation’?”. Having experienced the plight of the Tamil people under the dominance of the LTTE, one marvels at the prescience of several Left Tamil Leaders of a bygone era who were also eminent public figures.
Commenting on the future of Tamil politics after July 1983, N. Shanmugathasan, the leader of the Communist Party (Peking Wing), observed of the Tamil militant movement, that “it is based fundamentally on romantic and petit- bourgeois ideology which is characterised by a lack of faith in the masses. It places its main reliance on a brand of swash-buckling ‘Three Musketeers’ type of bravado which is expected to perform miraculous exploits against terrific odds.” He warned that unless the different militant groups stop their internecine warfare and unite against the common enemy, “fascism would have crept upon us even before we know it….”. He said in conclusion, “On the unity of the revolutionary forces of the North and South depends the future of Sri Lanka.”
Kadirgamar observed that while being strong opponents of chauvinism, both Karalasingham and Shanmugathasan represented a consistent position taken by the Left movement in the Tamil North to condemn and correct Tamil chauvinist tendencies from whichever quarter it emerged.
Shanmugathasan dismissed Satchi Ponnambalam’s book Sri Lanka, The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle (published in 1984) in a review, in which he deplored the publication of this book as “Tamil communalism gone mad.” He strongly objected to the misinterpretation of the history of the Sinhalese people and accused Ponnambalam of denigrating their ancient civilization. “It is true”, he wrote, “that the Tamils have suffered violence and the regional autonomy demand had arisen as a result of these events. Why can’t we put this argument straight without embellishments, myths and fantasies?”
The Left had strong electoral support in the Jaffna electorates of KKS, Point Pedro, Uduvil (Manipay) and Vaddukoddai. In Point Pedro the Communist Party candidate V. Kandiah was elected in 1956. The last prospects of the parliamentary Left becoming a mass movement in Jaffna faded after the KKS bye-election of 1975. The Tamil Leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam resigned his KKS seat after the government of Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike rejected having talks with his party and went ahead to adopt the 1972 Constitution which was very offensive to the Tamils. Chelvanayakam made the bye-election a referendum seeking a mandate for a separate state. The bye-election was deliberately delayed and held in 1975, during which time the Jaffna University had been founded and a strong group of well known Left sympathisers moved into leading positions at the university.
In a straight contest between Chelvanayakam and V. Ponnambalam of the CP, who was backed by the SLFP and the LSSP, Chelvanayakam polled 25,927 votes. But V. Ponnambalam polled a substantial 9,457 votes. It was remarkable considering the growing bitterness against Mrs. Bandaranaike and her coalition. A year later V. Ponnambalam quit the Communist Party and, in Kadirgamar’s estimation, “with him went the last bastion of the Left movement in the North.” Ponnambalam expressed his regrets at having contested the 1975 election against such a venerable figure as S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. He later revealed that he and the Tamil supporters of the Left movement who had worked hard at the 1975 bye-election had been severely let down. The United Front which formed the government had given him the assurance that 48 hours before the poll the KKS electorate would be flooded with pamphlets promising a substantial degree of autonomy to the North and East that would have gone beyond the aborted Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact in 1957. At the last minute, the SLFP high command went back on this promise and the CP leadership succumbed to this betrayal.
On looking back at the experience there are charges and counter charges and to answer any of them in the affirmative would be unjust. V. Ponnambalam’s change of camp is again illustrative of the dilemma. It has been charged on the one side that the Tamils in the North-East were backward and ungrateful not to support the Marxist parties who stood for their rights. On the other side it has been charged that one cannot give credit to the Left as serious Marxists when they abandoned their principles to join with as communal or even racist a party as the SLFP. Moreover, after their volte face, how can such highly educated Marxists fault an essentially peasant people in the North-East for supporting the Federal Party, several of whose first generation leaders were after all men of character?
There is still no satisfactory explanation of the volte face of the Left. This becomes more enigmatic when one considers that from 1935- 1960, over a whole generation, the Left had been consistent and doughty champions against racism. During the 1930s they did not waver in their support for Malayali and Plantation Tamil workers for which they were virulently attacked as traitors, especially in A.E.Goonesinha’s Viraya. It took conviction in those times of economic depression to stand up for the unity of the ‘workers of the world.’
At the same time it would be wrong to single out the people in the North-East for not backing the Left. In the South too outside urban Colombo, most areas supported the nationalist parties. Further, in Jaffna in particular there were not the extremes of poverty and wealth, nor a prevalence of huge landholdings as obtained in the South, for politics to become radicalised. Further, there was no sustained concentration on Jaffna by Left leaders. They were mainly seen at election times. Marxism was something one used to read about in high school or at university.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here