By Malinda Seneviratne –
Prof Michael Dear, Professor Emeritus in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, and Honorary Professor in the Bartlett School of Planning at University College, London, once taught a class on postmodernism in the Geography Department, University of Southern California.
At the end of the semester, he asked people where they believe they are now located ideologically. Most said ‘postmodernism’. Kanishka Goonewardena, then doing fieldwork for his PhD dissertation and was auditing that class, said ‘Marxist’.
‘Is that a confession?’ Michael, who was always good-humored, asked.
‘It is a confession and a threat!’ Kanishka was good at repartee.
There are statements that cut both ways, ‘watermelon’ for instance. Those who are opposed to both environmentalists and socialists or anyone who is not saying ‘hooray’ to capitalism accuse the ‘greens’ of being watermelons, green on the outside and red within.
Some ‘greens’ who believe that environmental issues are not just about saving fauna and flora but are inextricably linked to broader economic, social and political matters, say it with pride: ‘yes, we are watermelons, green outside and red inside.’
This is not about watermelons, although it is about greens and reds. Green as in UNPers (those of or loyal to the United National Party) and red as in self-labeled leftists or liberals who take up what used to traditionally ‘left causes’ or even ‘deep reds’ if you will. The ‘reds’ would include the political parties/groups that have no qualms about affiliating with the UNP or the SLFP and contesting with one of these parties in a coalition or supporting their presidential candidates. For example, the Communist Party, the LSSP, NSSP, the United Socialist Alliance, other splinter groups, the JVP and the plethora of trade unions.
Included too are those political itinerants who form clubs every now and again, especially when elections are at hand, under fancy names such as ‘aluth parapura’ (new generation) and ‘purawesi balaya’ (citizens’ power), ranting and raving over injustice and tyranny only to fall silent once those they back kick justice and democracy in their proverbial behinds.
Greens, on the other hand, are more settled, politically. Those who are not card carrying members are wont to desist from criticizing the party, whether it is in power or not, or at worst only offer ‘constructive criticism’ to ‘make it better’. The UNP is of course faulted now and then, but then again with a bunch of caveats. At best, a bit of tokenism smeared with liberal doses of badmouthing ‘the other guys’.
I heard the most interesting observation about the political vacillation of greens and reds just the other day from a friend who insisted, ‘don’t quote me’ as in ‘don’t mention my name’. So, I am not taking credit for this gem: ‘the reds are red until they get something, then they are green.’ My two cents: ‘and the greens become red when they are in the Opposition’.
Sure there are exceptions, for the most part individuals disillusioned with parties they were members of, living frugal and principled lives. As for parties, one can think of some of the Trotskyite groups such as the Socialist Equality Party (previously knows as the Revolutionary Communist League. Apart from this, reds transition from revolutionary to democratic socialists to socialist democrats, conditional supporters of bourgeois parties to the parties themselves, either through membership or open support.
There’s no need to name too many names (and there are many) but the following comment by the late Raja Gunasekara illustrates the point. It happened at his residence when he agreed to represent a group of 14 or 15 young people in a fundamental rights application. He read all the affidavits which I had drafted under the guidance of Sanath Jayatilaka. He was most impressed by the one describing the history of political engagement of Champika Ranawaka.
And the comment: ‘I only hope he doesn’t end up in the UNP. I remember listening to Mahinda Wijesekera when he was young. So eloquent. He was thinking on his feet. Look what happened to him!’
‘Look what’s happened to a lot of people!’ is the obvious extrapolation. That’s if one attaches some intrinsic value to ‘Left,’ a highly debatable point when you strip eloquence from action and consequence.
My friends contention, however, is interesting. There are JVPers, for example, who ‘graduated’ literally and metaphorically after the insurrection of 1971 failed, and moved out of the party and into various action-groups (the term ‘NGO’ was to arrive about a decade later). We are talking about those who wanted to retain the ‘left’ badge and not those who abandoned the social project altogether (they were branded and castigated as counter-revolutionaries, renegades, opportunists and so on). Some started newspapers. Some took on projects: environment, women’s rights, conflict resolution, peace activism, sustainable/alternative development and of course human rights. Businesses, for the most part.
When they wanted to be seen as ‘left’ in more tangible form, they would issue statements in support of or in line with the JVP and of late the Frontline Socialist Party. Whether they vote for these parties, we don’t know. By and large they’ve backed either the SLFP or the UNP with the support extended depending on the rewards obtained or anticipated.
If the chosen party looks like it is being defeated at a major election, they slide to the other side or if they’ve misread the temper of the electorate and have backed the loser they re-acquire a bit of redness.
The UNP is the unabashed right wing party of the country. It is the party under whose watch and with its active participation or tacit support the worst human rights violations took place: the riots of 1983, the bloodbath that took 60,000 lives towards the end of the same decade and the worst human rights violations in the ‘ethnic conflict’ (among all governments from 1983-2009).
And yet, when in the opposition, the UNP changes its ideological color. It’s sometimes a whitish pink, at times pink and can and has turned various shades of red. Those who said nothing when the UNP governments oversaw the bashing of heads, proxy arrests, abduction, torture and extra-judicial killings of both Sinhala and Tamil youth all of a sudden get upset over the police baton-charging or tear-gassing protesting students.
The party which was once led by a man who promised to retire the electoral map for ten years, who obtained undated letters of resignation from all Members of Parliament representing the party and rigged election after election including one which illegally extended the life of an elected Parliament by six years, gets all democracy-fixated when in the Opposition. Indeed, when it comes to freedom of expression, democracy, accountability, transparency and such, the curtailers of freedom, the Bonapartists, the corrupt and abusers of all rights, go red. As in ‘Left’. But only when in the Opposition.
And the blues? A home to reds who lap up benefits (just like the UNP), the SLFP is essentially a poor cousin of the UNP and the JVP. They are neither deep red nor deep green. They go reddish in Opposition and greenish when in power, at least since 1977. They have, for decades, accommodated so many reds in coalitions (the UNP only had tacit support from the JVP and then again, not for a UNP candidate but candidates backed by the UNP) and their own ‘progressives’ (e.g. T.B. Illangaratne and Hector Kobbekaduwa) were more red than the official reds (those of the CP and LSSP) that the ideological color has for decades been purplish.
Things of course went crazy when Maithripala Sirisena became President and dragged the party into the yahapalana arrangement with the UNP. Sirisena himself doesn’t seem to be sure if he’s part of the government or the opposition. Indeed, there are times when he talks as though the UNP is in power and he in the opposition and vice versa.
Such things aside, it’s the green-red switch that says most about the nature and fate of the ‘left movement’ in the country. Anura Kumara and the JVP are lampooned as red-greens or baby elephants in red docilely doing the bidding of the UNP pachyderm. The biggest of the red parties, the JVP, had no qualms about taking dollars from Washington or rather syphoning bucks doled out with Sarath Fonseka’s campaign; but then again the late nineties was also marked by bank robberies and ransom.
The operations of the party-less reds are the most hilarious. They talk the red talk but are happy to walk the green walk. Sure, they’ll justify it with a lot of red rhetoric or rather watered down red rhetoric; they will never object to capitalism and the miseries it spawns. It’s easy because they are classless reds, meaning they’ve established color-changing credentials and qualified for benefits by abandoning the class project.
All things considered the greens are an insult to the larger greens (those concerned with the health of the planet) and the reds have embarrassed the larger reds (those committed to class struggle). We have reds who, when scratched will turn green (or blue-greens if that variety is in power). We have greens who when scratched (read, ‘when in opposition’) won’t necessarily bleed but will blush just enough to be mistaken for decent citizens concerned about justice, integrity, good governance, democracy etc.
What color are humbugs, I wonder.