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Role of Janata Vimukti Peramuna in Srilankan Politics and the Ethnic Question

After a protracted struggle soaked with bloody violence and more than 70000 dead the Srilankan Tamils whose cause was being fought by the LTTE have lost their chance for establishing a homeland for themselves in Srilanka. The question arises whether they ever had a chance at all . Years of peaceful negotiations by Federal party leaders starting with S.J.V. Chelvanayagam , often called the Tamil Gandhi due to his belief in Non Violence produced no substantial concessions from the Sinhala Majority Govts and the frustrated Tamil youth took to arms. Added to this is the divide between the high caste Vellala community which held the leadership role among Tamils and the Karavas(Fishermen) who formed the backbone of the Tamil insurgent groups particularly the LTTE .

India’s long involvement has been directionless and infructous . India first trains the insurgents and then wants to disarm them . However laudable was the effort to bring peace to the ethnic battles , the dispatch of the IPKF produced nothing concrete except to make both Tamil insurgents and the Sinhalese hostile to India . It is undeniable that from independence in 1948 successive Govts followed the policy of favouring Sinhala community and made life more and more difficult for the Tamils. The policy covered official language , university admissions , employment in public sector etc . Successive Govts bore out Anthony Down’s economic theory of democracy in which the primary aim of a political party is to supply policies which will gain the most votes ! Violence was unleashed regularly in 1958,1977 ,1979 and 1983. In all these cases there has been serious allegations of overt or covert involvements of the Govt. in power .The mode of protest employed by the Tamils till the 1980s has been either parliamentary or peaceful means .What has led to this discrimination against Tamils in Post independent Srilanka ? Based on ancient chronicles such as Mahavamsa from 6th century AD the Sinhalese claim themselves to be the first settlers of the island defending themselves from Tamil invaders for centuries .The origin of the Sinhala consciousness as a nation and Srilanka as the only home for the Sinhalese is derived from this mind set and Tamils along with the colonial powers were termed foreigners who were resisted .History was thus appropriated to serve the propagation of ethno nationalism . However the claims of the Sinhala Community as being the original inhabitants of the country is not borne out by historical inscriptions dating to B.C. The inscriptions dating back to between the third century B.C. to the first century B.C. reveal some names of ethno nationalist groupings like Kaboja , Milaka , Dameda , Muridi , Meraya and Jhavaka but no mention of Sinhala as a distinct ethnic group. According to Leslie Goonawerdene a well known historian Sinhala ethnicity has been a later formation encompassing various sub groups taking the process of people of dynastic Kingdoms . State had a big role in the formation of Sinhala ethnicity .

The unitary character of the state was arbitrarily imposed by the British in 1833. The first proposal for federalism in the country came from – guess who ?! – SWRD Bandaranaike in 1926 to allow cultural diversity and prevent uneven development. This became a demand by the Tamils articulated by the Federal Party of Chelvanayagam after independence . The first sign of removing colonial heritages was disfranchising in 1948 of the million Indian Tamils mostly working in tea estates though they have been the backbone of the one of the important sectors of the Sri Lankan economy. The Sinhalisation of the island then started with making admission in universities from over represented areas ( mostly north ) more difficult .

Meanwhile the 1970s saw a huge challenge for political space to the elitist major political parties like UNP and SLFP and the traditional communist parties, from the frustrated youth who banded themselves and formed a socialist but chauvinistic party called the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP). The discourse shifted from parliamentary debates to military confrontation. These young men called the traditional left contemptously as “Mahalu Nayakatvaya ( feeble leadership)” . The JVP concentrated in its first five years on the rural sector ( as in China- Director,CCCS). JVP cadres gave elementary classes in political thought, divided into five categories, and these political lecturers often hid themselves behind curtains, while speaking, to avoid police detection. The five lectures were on the following subjects: 1. The greatness of the Sinhalese past and of the Buddhist kings; 2. The economic crisis and the colonial formation of the tea economy; 3. Indian expansionism through the tea plantations; 4. The history of the ‘left’ in Ceylon and the failure of parliamentarism; 5. The ‘Sinhalese road’ to revolution.”

In their anxiety to change the system according to their dreams the JVP struck on April 5 1971 . “The aim of this first attack seems to have been to capture a stock of modern arms, and to consolidate in a liberated region of the interior, blocking communications across the island and providing a base for a second offensive . It cannot be credibly argued that in 1971 the JVP posed anywhere as serious a threat to state power as they were to do in 1987-90. The UF government which had come into office less than one year earlier was still popular; Most importantly its charismatic leader Rohana Wijeweera was already in custody and the Govt. had also the complete backing of the UNP, the main opposition party, against JVP and the quick help from India followed by other countries. Despite all these favourable factors or may be because of it the UF government went on an unbridled offensive which is yet to be matched proportionately: According to some reports 15,000-20,000 were killed in just 5 weeks . Rohana Wijeweera in an introspective analysis before the Criminal Justice Commission which was trying him , said that the objective conditions were still unripe for the kind of revolution that the JVP attempted. It had not reached a stage where the masses saw no other solution but revolution. It is true, however, that then, as now, society was moving in that direction. The subjective conditions were also lacking: that is, the existence of a revolutionary party that has steered itself, won the support of the masses and is fit to lead them in an armed struggle for power and JVP while moving towards it was not fully ready in that role . During their rule of the areas they held in April 1971 they were immature and totally naïve. Lacking imagination, and new thinking in the administrative structure they imitated the very system which they held to be flawed and wanted to destroy .

While in 1971 the uprisings were mostly by young rural Sinhalese challenging the Govt. on socialist issues the second uprising in 1987-90 was driven by Sinhala nationalism protesting against India’s involvement in the North and East. Thus two nationalisms Sinhala and Tamil competed for their own space over one internationally recognized entity.

Religion , language and historical heritage are the backbones of the Sinhala Psyche. The minorities have only a subordinate position in the Sinhala nationalist thinking and this applies equally to a Marxist ideology based party like the JVP. The JVP struggle in 1971 and late 1980s were not mere class conflict against the ruling elite but a rural based protest against the urban domination in politics. with the added proviso of Sinhalese nationalism and anti Indianism .

It is interesting to examine the role of the Buddhist Clergy in Srilankan Politics, particularly the ethnic question and their association with a “Marxist” party like the JVP. While most of the Sangha have been content to influence party politics from the sidelines, a number of monks have become more engaged politically, associating themselves openly with Marxist and Sinhala nationalist activism. In the 1980s, and particularly after the signing of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, many became increasingly militant in rejecting proposals for federalism or devolution. The JVP busied itself at this time in recruiting Bhikkus in support of its armed anti-accord insurrection . The argument by militant monks is that a unitary state with one religion and one language is required to honour the sacred trust of Lord Buddha, which has clear ramifications for the self-determination aspirations of Tamils and other minorities living in Sri Lanka. It leads to the formation of Jathika Hela Urumaya or National Heritage Party, in other words, the justification is that religion is in peril.

The social base of the JVP mainly comprised of rural Sinhala Buddhist youth, semi-proletarian to lower middle class in nature. Prior to the insurrection in 1971, the understanding the political leadership of the JVP had about the problems of the Tamils and other non-Sinhala communities was minimal. Moreover, the attempts of the JVP to carry out political activities among the Tamils were extremely limited . The JVP accepted the right to self-determination of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka but did not accept separation as a solution to the Tamil problems; and advocated a united Sri Lanka with regional autonomy, where all residents could live as equals. During 1987-89 , when the IPKF was deployed in the island both the JVP and the LTTE fighting for “Eelam” saw it as the common enemy .India was painted as the villain of the piece “merrily” playing with the lives of the people in quest of its “geo-political interests in the region”. And that was the only occasion in the past when the LTTE and the JVP found themselves on the same side of the fence. Their common goal was to ensure the “ouster of IPKF .

Some ideologues claimed that the party’s advocacy of the Tamil people’s right to self determination was one reason for its poor showing in Presidential elections in 1982 which JVP contested with poor showing. From that moment, the JVP moved from a socialist party to a chauvinistic one. The political opportunism of its leadership was a critical factor in this shift. They revived the slogan “Indian expansionism” which had featured in the JVP program before 1972 . JVP also reverted to its familiar theme of India being the villain . JVP chief Somawansa Amarasinghe accused India of pressuring Rajapaksa to implement the 13th Amendment. In one interview, he said: “First we must understand how the 13th Amendment came about.… the 13th Amendment was thrust upon him by the Indians with Indian gunboats outside Colombo harbour . The JVP as a whole represented Marxist and Sinhala nationalist tendencies. The nationalistic element rested with the historic glorification of the past Sinhala Kingdoms. The current JVP has shed all its Marxist tendencies and become purely nationalistic. It wants to achieve a unitary Sinhala state by defending their ‘motherland’. Thus the Sinhala Buddhist cultural identity can be made to flourish while western cultural decadence and the influences of other cultures on Sinhalese could be negated. Their so-called idea of socialism has been subsumed by its commitment to safeguard this unitary state, which is ironically a colonial construct .

JVP split in 2008 basically over Nationalism vs. Marxism and support to Rajapakse. Wimal Weerawansa, the party’s propaganda secretary, who was suspended from all positions in the party by the party leadership on disciplinary grounds. walked away with 10 out of the 39 JVP members of Parliament (MPs), indicating that he was ready to launch a new party. Weerawansa in fact founded and led a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist movement called the Patriotic National Movement (PNM). Thus this split seems to reflect the mainstream JVP’s unease with Weerawansa’s Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist project. Thus the Rajapakse administration was the immediate beneficiary of the JVP’s split

Interestingly there are striking similarities in the material conditions which led to the creation of LTTE and JVP .These are educational disadvantages , unemployment , poverty , landlessness , English language problems , substantial exclusion from the political and community decisions making processes . There are also ideological and political common grounds between the two formations . Both wanted to promote their own linguistic and ethnic nationalism . Both were against domination of Colombo based elitist state. Thus roots of post independent political conflicts are based both on class and status – ethnicity and language.

In the last decade of 20th century and beginnings of the new millineum JVP transformed itself into a mainstream political party joining the extant democratic processes and became the third largest party in parliament in 2001 claiming to be the idealist corruption free party (unlike the traditional elite parties) and critical of market liberalization and kowtowing to the west and international financial institutions In a remarkable growth , the JVP won 10 seats in 2000, 16 in 2001, and 39 in 2004 from just one parliamentary seat in 1994 The JVP gained enormous prominence in the 2001-2004 period as the principal political force opposing the Norwegian-mediated peace process under the United National Front (UNF) government of Ranil Wickremasinghe as a threat to country’s integrity and Buddhist culture , which are always equated . It is true that they have done badly in the recent parliamentary elections but that is mainly attributable to the immense popularity of Mahinda Rajapakse who is now treated as Duttu Gemunu who was considered the victor over “Chola Tamils” . But given its ideal prescription of Sinhala nationalism and prescriptive egalitarianism JVP should not be written off as a spent force. When the victory over LTTE fades from memory and economic issues and problems of inegalitarian society comes to the fore, JVP could very well rise like Phoenix from its ashes. Any hasty action by India to guide Srilanka according to its wishes would only hasten this rise.

(The above formed the basis of a talk given on April 13,2010 by Mr S.Gopal, former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, at the Indian Centre for South Asian Studies- Center for Asia Studies seminar on ethnic reconciliation,economic reconstruction and nation buiding in Sri Lanka, held at Chennai. Mr Gopal can be reached at muthason@gmail.com)

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