By Dayan Jayatilleka –
EPRLF Leader K. Pathmanaba’s 63rd birthday is today
Comrade Pathmanabha was first of all a revolutionary, a Marxist-Leninist, a national liberationist and a humanitarian socialist. If we were to forget his characteristics we would then also forget his contribution. Pathmanabha was not just another leader of the Tamil national movement cut down by the LTTE. He was more, and this we should always remember.
Comrade Pathmanabha political career goes back to the first years of the decade of 1970’s. He participated in the activities of the rising Tamil student and youth fronts, in protest against the racist policies implemented by the United Front Government of the day. It is this Government, consisting of so called progressives and left parties, that reinforced the foundation of the Tamil Eelam demand, the cornerstone of which was laid by the Bandaranaike policy of Sinhala Only in 1956. Comrade Pathmanabha participated in the early 70’s in the campaigns of agitation launched against media wise and district wise standardisation and discriminatory 1972 Constitution.
His specific contribution to the Tamil nationalist movement and the progressive movement of Sri Lanka as a whole, begins however, in the mid 70’s. He was one of the founders of the very first socialist oriented organisation within the Tamil national liberation movement. This was the Eela Viduthalai Iyakkam or Eelam Liberation Organisation founded in 1974/75. This organisation was formed as a result of the attempts by Pathmanabha and others to give the Tamil nationalist movement a mass base. He was one of the groups of youth militants who were the first to break with the bourgeois and parliamentary policies of Tamil United Front. I think we must stress this fact, since both Velupillai Prabakaran and Uma Maheswaran remained within the political and ideological ambit of bourgeois TULF politics, until much later in the struggle.
Pathmanabha and others attempted to take the message of Tamil national liberation into the countryside and among the working people. In doing so they encountered a fundamental problem. What would the struggle for Tamil Eelam bring to the workers and peasants, particularly the peasantry and those suffering from caste oppression? It is in answer to this question that the political philosophy of Pathmanabha took a sharp turn to the left. This is why the Eela Viduthalai Iyakkam was formed as a social oriented organisation dedicated to the cause of Tamil national liberation.
Pathmanabha believed in the unity of theory and practice and as such the ELO resorted to the tactic of armed expropriations. He participated personally in the Puloly Bank operation, which was one of the first such in the history of the Tamil resistance. In the immediate aftermath of that armed expropriation, Pathmanabha who was on the run, was sheltered, protected and assisted by the people of the area. This deepened his love for and respect for
the so called common or ordinary people. He realised that the people could be a great source of protection and even of wisdom for the national liberation struggle. His pro-people orientation deepened qualitatively as a result of this experience.
The Eela Viduthalai Iyakkam did not survive the repression unleashed as a result of the Puloly Bank operation. As the organisation disintegrated, Comrade Pathmanabha left the country and went to England. He agreed, due to the pressure of his family, to recommence his studies and registered as a student of Accountancy while in London.
But from the very first day he reached England he was a manifestly restless young man. His thoughts were entirely devoted to the task of getting back to his native land as soon as possible. When in London, all his free time, social contacts and his personal interactions were devoted to the attempt to win over friends and acquaintances to the cause of the national liberation struggle. It was while in London that he joined and in fact helped to form the General Union of Eelam Students (GUES) and the EROS. He was in the first batch of Tamil militant activists to receive training from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Lebanon. His experiences and those of his comrades in Beirut left in him a permanent love for the Palestinian struggle. Almost a decade later, when he was the head of fairly strong Liberation Organisation himself, he did his very best to give moral, material and political support to the Palestinian fighters. It was during this spell with the Palestinians that Comrade Pathmanabha also developed a strong sense of solidarity with the Eritrean liberation struggle.
Comrade Pathmanabha made his journey back in 1978. Before returning to Sri Lanka he spent some time in India laying a firm foundation for the subsequent activities of his organisation. His political work in India is also noteworthy, because until that time the connections between Tamil fighters and India had been with smugglers and social bandits and also with the most hard core Tamilnadu nationalists. Pathmanabha, however, established firm links with Marxist Leninist revolutionary elements in Southern India. He learnt much from them himself but his choice of allies is further testimony to his ideological and political clarity and his socialist revolutionary commitment.
Having set up a GUES committee in Madras under Comrade Suresh, he returned to Sri Lanka, working politically not only in Jaffna but also in the hill country. Comrade Pathmanabha made serious and extensive efforts to recruit Tamil youth from the plantations and those from the Colombo schools for the cause of Tamil national liberation. In doing so he broke with the narrowly limited, Jaffna centric outlook of other Tamil national liberation fighters. Pathmanabha also made a very serious attempt to establish contacts with Sinhala revolutionaries. He met many such and tried to convince them of the need to support the cause of Tamil self-determination. He was not successful in most cases. However, what is important is that he had departed completely from any kind of narrow Tamil nationalism or chauvinism.
From these earliest days in 1978, when we first met in Peradeniya, he was very clear that the Tamil national liberation struggle was the first step and stage of an overall socialist revolution throughout Sri Lanka. The Tamil struggle itself would make the transition from its democratic stage and culminate in the sett ting up of a socialist Tamil Eelam. Of these two propositions Pathmanabha was very convinced and these ideas were ones which he had arrived at independently. His attempt to link up with Sinhala revolutionaries was in consequence of this strategic vision of his.
In 1981, he broke with EROS on the question of the lack of democratic centralism. While that was the issue on which the rupture took place, the founding of the EPRLF permitted Comrade Pathmanabha to operationalise his own distinctive conception of the national liberation struggle. He attempted to give the struggle both a socialist political education as well as a base in a network of mass organisations. This is why he was insistent on the need to set up an array of popular organisations such as the Rural Workers and Peasants Front, the Eelam Women’s Liberation Front, the Fisheries Workers Front and the Plantation Proletarian Front. These mas organisations he later attempted to group in a single Popular block called- the Eelam People’s Liberation Front. This was in 1983.
He was very clear that the armed organisation should be based and drawn from the mass organisations and be under the political leadership of the party. Hence his adherence to Mao’s triad of the party, the Army and the United Front. But it was not a dogmatic Maoism. as his idea of the separate mass organisations subsequently grouped in a popular bloc demonstrates. I believe that he had evolved his own synthesis of the ideas of the PFLP of Dr George Habash, of the Eritreans and of the Indian Marxist Leninist organisations. As a Marxist, he had great respect and love for Stalin, Mao, the Vietnamese and particularly for Che and Fidel.
Certainly it is obvious that he was not able to fulfil his goals in this regard. It is obvious that this organisational structure did not function in the way it was meant to and should have. This was due to sets of reasons. One set of reasons consists of avoidable subjective mistakes and organisational errors. The other set of reasons are those due to the trap of history and geography.
Comrade Pathmanabha, like all of us, inherited historically determined conditions and circumstances. He was attempting to build a socialist national liberation organisation within an ethnic and social formation that was characterised by conservatism and ossified social structures. His attempt to fight against caste domination and class exploitation, together with his insistence on the need for women’s emancipation within the national liberation struggle, earned the EPRLF the enormous hostility of entrenched, privileged social strata within the Tamil nation. The result of this was the narrowing of the economic resource base of EPRLF.
When in the aftermath of July 1983 the militant movements sought refuge in South India and made their base there, the EPRLF was distinguished by its refusal to compromise on its ideological convictions. All the other groups benefitted from the largesse of the Tamil Nadu state government and the most nationalistic, even chauvinistic, political and bourgeois elements in Tamil Nadu. Comrade Pathmanabha’s steadfast refusal to attack Sinhala civilian targets in Colombo or elsewhere did not endear him to bourgeois Tamil nationalists in India or the West who were bank-rolling the terrorist operations which were undertaken by some other groups despite their verbal commitment to the principles of Marxism.
I feel that the belatedness of the EPRLFs attempt to develop a powerful military apparatus was also due to Comrade Pathmanabha’s own philosophical conviction that what was most important was a mass struggle, mass organisations and a correct political orientation. It would have been very easy for him, trained in Lebanon by the Palestinians, to have plunged into the ‘prestige race’ of launching military attacks on Sinhala targets. But I believe he restrained himself and consciously refrained from succumbing to a militaristic deviation. Perhaps he foresaw in some way the brutalisation that was to set in. in the Tamil liberation struggle. Whatever the reason, I would say that history has vindicated Pathmanabha’s refusal to take the easy path of militarism at the expense of politics and mass organisation.
When the LTTE launched its attack on Anuradhapura in 1985 and then again on the TELO in May 1986 Pathmanabha and the EPRLF took a very clear position. On both these occasions Pathmanabha went against the tide. He extended full support and solidarity to the TELO and his was the only group to have a hartal in protest at the killing of TELO cadres by the Tigers. He would not have been unmindful of this. But nonetheless he adhered to principles. He did the right thing in the face of injustice.
I would say that Comrade Pathmanabha’s greatness resides not only in his positive achievements but most certainly in the wrong things he consciously desisted from doing. The EPRLF under his leadership did not engage in the killings of Sinhala civilians. It refused to engage in drug smuggling as a source of revenue. On this last issue, the otherwise so gentle Nabha was very firm.
He upheld the idea of the death sentence for any members of the EPRLF who engaged in drug trafficking. He used to say that “all that we do, all our struggles are based on love for human beings and the ideals of humanism. Drug trafficking results in the destruction of the lives of great many human beings in other countries. This makes nonsense of ideals to which we are committed”. This indicates very clearly the humanism that infused the socialist revolutionary commitment of Comrade Pathmanabha. His refusal to permit internal killings, at the time when other pseudo-socialist organisations in the Tamil Eelam movement were maintaining torture chambers and death camps, attests to his fidelity for the cause of democracy, while his refusal to entertain the idea of killing Sinhala civilians is testimony to his internationalism.
The fact that Comrade Pathmanabha was himself deeply involved in the attempt to construct a join revolutionary project of Sinhalese and Tamils and did not sub-contract this task to this or that glib ideologue as did other Tamil liberation organisations, is further proof of his deep personal commitment to the goal of what he called the ‘total revolution’ in Sri Lanka. It is not only physically that Pathmanabha stood head and shoulders above other leaders of the Tamil liberation movement but also in his internationalism and his humanism. The evolution of the world Communist and Revolutionary Movement has vindicated Pathmanabha’s own ideological formation and synthesis. Pathmanabha stood for, believed in and acted with democratic, humane socialism, which is an ideal the world Marxist Movement has now endorsed as its goal.
In his humanism, Pathmanabha was like Vijaya Kumaranatunga, who was himself profoundly anti-racist and internationalist and totally committed to the idea of a democratic socialism.
Viewing comrade Pathmanabha in historical perspective is no easy task since
there are a great many personal memories and experiences that we have shared in our odyssey. But that is a much longer story, for a different time. I will say that Comrade Pathmanabha was certainly one of the outstanding Marxists produced by the Tamil nation of this country – the others being Comrades Vaidyalingam, Kandiah and Shanmugathasan. But I could say that none of these other Marxists had the opportunity or perhaps the capacity and motivation to unite theory with armed revolutionary practice. In that sense it would not be inaccurate to say that Comrade Pathmanabha was the greatest Marxist – Leninist revolution-ary leader produced by the Tamil community. I would even go further. If I am asked who was the greatest revo-lutionary Marxist – Leninist leader that we have produced in Sri Lanka, ‘I cannot think of anyone but Pathmanabha’.
The detailed analytical assessment of Comrade Pathmanabha is the task for another forum. But let me say that understanding Pathmanabha brings us face to face with a great many problems of revolutionary strategy and theory of political philosophy and practice – be it the relationship be-tween the political and the military, the party and the united front, the maximum and the minimum programme, internationalism and nationalism, socialism and humanism, relations with bourgeois state, and the crisis of the World Communist Movement. Pathmanaba’s practice and thinking involved all of that and much more. Understanding Pathmanaba would shed light on the history of Tamil liberation struggles, the nature of the Tamil social formation, the history of the Sri Lankan revolutionary process, the political processes of South
Asia and the trajectories of the revolutionary movements of this complex, violent part of the world and the world as a whole.
Pathmanaba has left behind his organisation which has proved its remarkable resilience whenever it was attacked by the fascist LTTE. He has left his organisation behind in the hands of his close comrade-in-arms Comrade Suresh Premachandran. But above all Pathmanaba has left us with his example. He was never a talker and a writer. But what he stood for, he acted out and acted upon. Therefore we have to gather together, systematise and share our reminiscences of Pathmanaba. And above all we have to follow his example. The Tigers may have killed Comrade Pathmanaba, but as Vijaya Kumaranatunga said at the funeral of Nandana Marasinghe, They may kill the Liberationist, but they cannot kill the liberation struggle. For the liberation struggle is eternal.” Someday when the peoples’ revolutionary forces of the Sinhala. the Tamil and the Muslim communities wage their combined struggle against reaction and Imperialism, the world will know this – for surely at some decisive stage and determinant moment of the struggle, they will unfurl the twin banners of Vijaya and Pathmanaba!
Pathmanaba’s moral and ethical stature does not diminish but grows with each passing day as we reflect on the civilisational crisis of our country and our revolutionary movements. I will conclude this, having searched for a slogan which may synthesise Pathmanaba’s ideas, his theory and practice, our own historic, existential encounter and indubitable future reencounter. And that slogan is this -SOCIALIST REVOLUTION OR DEATH!
*Dayan Jayatilleka was the Asst. Secretary and a member of the Political Bureau of Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP). This was written in November 1990