Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Sinusoidal nature of the JVP Policy on the National Question

The recent interview the JVP leader, comrade Somawansa Amarsinghe, conducted with Sanjana Hattotuwa and published on Groundviews clearly demonstrates the limitations, fluctuations and the non-cohesive nature of the JVP’s policy position regarding the national question.

The ruling elite and the bourgeois-nationalist intelligentsia belonging to all the communities contributed to spreading and reinforcing ultra-nationalism and chauvinism among the people in Sri Lanka. This process implanted feelings of mutual distrust and hatred against the other and their culture. These forces have attempted to make people of one community believe that their socio-economic freedom could be won only when the other is conquered and their culture is extinguished.

During the period from 1972 to 1983, the JVP advocated the policies laid out in the Policy Declaration of the JVP. It did not advocate separatism as a solution to the national question, but accepted the Tamil peoples’ right to determine their own political destiny, voluntarily and freely.

It is paramount to keep in mind that the unitary constitution was an autocratic construct of colonialism. According to the JVP, it rejects the 13th amendment to the Constitution because India imposed it on the people of Sri Lanka. Were not the constitutions of 1978, 1972 and 1948 and the unitary administration established by the British in 1833 impositions on the people?

During the interview comrade Amarasinghe cited the clauses of the Sri Lankan Constitution that related to Language provisions. Except for the issue of right to self determination, the JVP seemed to have come back to its original position as stated in its policy declaration drafted in 1973. This, I believe is a positive step in the right direction, given the JVP went through a cycle where, at the end of nineties and until recently, its leaders publicly questioned whether Tamils had any grievances at all.

The interview omits to mention the significant changes to the national question in Sri Lanka since 1972, when the late comrade Rohana Wijeweera and I formulated the policy declaration of the JVP for the approval of the party. Comrade Amarasinghe rightly points out that Sinhala and Tamil should have been included as official languages in the same constitutional clause, but avoids commenting on the major problem regarding the language issue. If the GoSL cares about its Tamil and Muslim citizens, it should have taken measures to practically implement the language provisions already available in the Constitution. When Mrs Chandrika Bandaranayake was in power, she issued a Presidential circular with an order to provide facilities for Tamil speaking citizens to make and record their complaints in Tamil at any Police Station in Sri Lanka. However, unlike President R Premadasa who monitored and implemented all his orders and projects meticulously, Mrs Bandaranayake did not have the caliber to monitor the progress of her executive order. It was never implemented. This situation exists even today. The JVP does not even seem to be aware of the existence of such a situation because it perhaps believes that Tamil people have to wait until it emancipates them from all their socio-cultural and economic ills.

Comrade Amarasinghe continues to identify himself as a Marxist. However, anyone having an understanding of the major components of a socialist program on the national question will be bewildered by his bourgeois nationalistic take on the question. It seems he has forgotten that the recognition of the right of people to determine their political destiny played an important role in mobilizing and uniting people of diverse nationalities in building the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1918 and in the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922. One major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the autocratic over-centralisation of power under the ‘socialist’ bureaucracy at the helm of the Russian Republic and the role Russian chauvinism played in distancing its other constituent nationalities from the Russian nationality.

When a group of people, who have been subjected to national oppression for more than half a century, demand equality, fairness and justice one of the first weapons used against them by the ruling elite is repression. This sort of repression of the Tamil peoples’ demands has occurred since 1956. From approximately 1995 the JVP solely concentrated on putting forward slogans that only called upon the need to develop the language, culture and ‘national’ liberties of the majority community, thus ideologically influencing the majority community only along nationalist lines.

Since the late 1990s the JVP not only supported the chauvinist verbal onslaught against the Tamil people but also became an active collaborator in the brutal repression carried out by the state against the Tamil people. Thus, it has to bear some responsibility for the socio-cultural and economic outcomes that the working people of the island are experiencing today. For dividing the people by clouding its consciousness, the JVP, in particular its nationalist bloc used chauvinist and fundamentalist slogans to the maximum effect. The JVP camouflaged its ultra nationalist stance with socialist phraseology. Therefore their nationalist views and slogans were particularly dangerous for the working people. Lenin, supposedly Amarasinghe’s ideologue, uncompromisingly exposed such hypocrisy by showing that any proclamation of national equality that is not backed by the support for liberation struggle of the oppressed peoples is false and meaningless.

In 1977, when I drafted my essay A Marxist Analysis of the National question[1] based on the teachings of Marxism-Leninism, I said that the process adopted by the Tamil-speaking people at the time to find solutions to the national question was undergoing a decisive change.

The analysis I provided, which was originally drafted in 1972 while behind bars and thus with limited research facilities, was incomplete and at times incorrect, particularly, in relation to the issue of decentralisation of power and federation. I also tried to explain in the paper the role played by capitalist and nationalist forces in a neo colonial country like ours.

However, since May 1983, with the rejection of the underlying fundamental Marxist policy of the ‘right to self-determination’ of peoples, the political line of the JVP regarding the national question underwent a significant change, which was chauvinistic and opportunistic in nature. Having reversed its original position on the national question, the JVP aligned themselves with the Sinhala nationalist forces and the faction of the SLFP led by the late Mr Anura Bandaranayake

This change in political outlook of the JVP generated a policy of collaborationism with part of the ruling elite, as evidenced by the political support the JVP provided to keep part of the capitalist ruling class in power and the common platform they shared with Sinhala ultra-nationalist political formations.

Since the GoSL and the LTTE signed the Indo-Lanka Peace Treaty in 1987 at the instigation of the Government of India, the JVP and its leadership shifted its strategic political emphasis to an extreme anti-Indian and Sinhala nationalist position. The anti-Indian stand that was dropped after 1971 was revitalized.

The JVP leadership in their collaboration with capitalist and ultra nationalist forces identified the Tamil people and their organizations as the main enemy. They even sought the advice of Malwatte and Asgiriya Buddhist prelates regarding how to develop their policies and run the country. What a turnaround it was! Has the JVP in their current formulation moved away from its opportunistic ultra nationalist stance, or, is it just another reflection of the sinusoidal nature of the party’s policy on the national question?[2]

During the current interview and even earlier, comrade Amarasinghe opposed federalism and the implementation of the 13th Amendment, while accepting decentralisation as agreeable to the JVP. He has not elaborated on this point. However, the late comrade Rohana Wijeweera in his essay opposed any form of decentralization in Sri Lanka stating that it will move the country away from its centralized nature, leading the island towards fragmentation. I believe comrade Amarasinghe has moved in the right direction by accepting decentralization as a possible and acceptable solution to the national question.

While writing this response I also had the opportunity to sight the latest set of proposals proposed by the JVP to resolve the national question and resettle the people displaced by the war and interned in IDP camps. I agree that this set of proposals has many positive features regarding the language issue, especially, several practical measures. Yet this set of proposals does not go far enough because it does not talk about releasing and settling the Tamil people interned in these camps in their original places of settlement. This is no different then, when suspected JVPers were held in internment camps in 1971 and in 1989 (not many were held in 1989 as many of them were made to disappear without any evidence!) did not those who valued democracy demand their freedom?

Why is the party proposing such a change in direction at this point of time? Has the JVP forgotten when it was part of the government of Sri Lanka it opposed such measures. It also seems to have forgotten when the Tamil people were strongly demanding equality, fairness and justice, it ignored their pleas. What prevented the JVP from demanding the implementation of such policies during the initial period of the current regime? Implementation of these would have generated and improved better trust between the two communities. Nevertheless, this set of proposals will not holistically address the issues raised by the national question in Sri Lanka.

As evident from these news reports, the JVP leadership seems to attempt to emphasise the necessity to have a political solution to the national question within a unitary state or, as comrade Amarasinghe has put it recently, even within a decentralized state if such a state would lead to future centralization of the island.

In fact, since the eighties the JVP should have highlighted the necessity for and agitated politically for its implementation when it was agitating for the socio-economic and other issues affecting the working people of Sri Lanka. Yet, it did not do so. Where is the policy cohesiveness within the JVP leadership?

I would like to end this statement with a comment I made at an interview held in 2003:

I have a strong belief. A belief, that one day, when the JVP hits its next crisis point in their sinusoidal path, honest and committed people in their ranks, when they come to know the reality of the deceptive politics their leadership had engaged in, would join hands with others in forming a better organization, as the young generation of the 1960s did, when the traditional left departed from their mission and formed a bourgeois coalition.

[Editors note: Lionel Bopage was a former General Secretary of the JVP. He was involved with the JVP since 1968 and resigned in 1984. He is a frequent commentator and contributor on this site.]

[1] Bopage L (1977), A Marxist Analysis of the National Question, Niyamuwa Publications, JVP, Colombo

[2] An aside. When the JVP was in power through the formation of a coalition government in 2004-05, I requested them to present an anti-discriminatory framework that would at least allow our citizens to seek redress from the discriminatory practices they have to undergo in their life time. I explained that many Sinhalese faced this situation and such a framework would help their predicament. It went unheeded.

  • This is an important analysis which all serious JVPers must carefully study and absorb. I’ve no doubt there’re highly creative thinkers within the JVP ranks to turn the party in the correct direction. Remember, it’s now the country is facing its biggest ideological challenge. We must be grateful to Comrade Bopage for raising the right issues boldly at the right time.

    I think, the JVP is right to reject the 13th Amendment, but not for the chauvinistic reasons they provide. There’re good grounds to ridicule the 13the Amendment: it is a farce; it’s a trap. In the present contexts, it will only be used as a cover for military oppression. Supporting it is politically disastrous.

    As Comrade Amarasinghe rightly says, the answer lies in the transformation of the centre. Any regional decentralization would only become meaningful as a part of that. True, the 13th Amendment in the present set up is bound to kindle separatism. That’s because, Tamil would not have any alternative.

    Sure, the Tamils have the right to self-determination. But, ordinary Tamils will clearly understand that a “separate state” is not going to solve their problems. Two hostile states in Sri Lanka are not going bring peace to anybody; it’ll be recipe for continuous “military rule” on both sides.

    Thus the answer lies in all progressive parties – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim – forming a united front quipped with a clear agenda to transform the centre, and to decentralize power as part of it. Such a united front, I believe, should challenge the chauvinist forces in all elections. I think, such a united front is the most effective way to put an end to separatism for good.

  • justice

    This is precisely the kind of discussion that every political entity in SL should undertake.SL is in a transition phase, a lot of honest discussion has to take place,If one wants to avoid mistakes of the past.
    Introspection into their policies and an honest look at them self’s before indulging in acrimonious finger pointing, is the need of the hour.
    To that extend Lionel has shown courage in being introspective toward his old organization.
    There is a fundamental flaw in the psyche of the politicians who think that the masses need to be subjucated if not they will divide the country or cause moral terpitude. On the contrary give full freedom to citizenry and belive in their creativeness.After all they are the masters .The elected representatives should realise they are servants of the citizenry.
    The reason for disintergration of the former socialist block countries be it USSR,Czhecoslavikia or Yougoslavia was centralised power , authoritarianism,one community or ruling class trying to subjugate the other.

    If every community has the means to express itself from village level onwards then every one feels contented.Local problems get solved locally.This builds in accoutability as the local decision makers have to face elections to get reelected and live with the people they claim to represent.
    So proper decentralisation and devolution of powers is essential and they are not mutually exclusive
    .To make these units viable they should have resources allocated to them.Although checks and balances are necessary to erradicate misuse of power this has to be for both center and the devolved units.Hence the second chamber in parliament becomes essential .
    The presidential powers have to be curtailed with the full implementaion of 17 th ammendment.So the judiciary,administrative services and law enforcement remain independant from the legilative part of govt.

    Sommawansa Amarasinghe’s views about secularism and three language formaula are indeed steps in the right directions.
    This formula for a fair and meaning ful devolution of powers which will answer not only the ethnic question but also the general draw back of current constitutional arrangement.

    The 13 th ammendment was hurriedly put forward.Delibrately made to be confusing with concurrent list and other forms of draconian power overlaps.
    So there is consensus that it’s inadequate to resolve the problems the country faces today.When the Tamil parties say that it’s a starting point that is what is meant.Not what as some want to interpret as a stepping stone for secessation.

    The problems faced by common man is identical except for some language issues in administration.
    A fair settlement should envisage following principles
    1.A symetrical devolution of powers to all provinces .With ability to manage land ,law enforcement and fiscal responsibilities.
    2. Administrative units from village level onwards should be able to manage their own affair independantly.
    3,A seccond chamber in the house of parliament with equal representation from each provincial council.With clear mandade to have checks and balances against hegemonistic control over provinces and vice versa.
    4.Full implementation of 17 th ammendment to make admininistative services, law enforcement agencies and judiciary independant of legislative branch of Govt.This in turn will curtail the executive powers of the presidency and will reinstate power to the chambers of parliament.
    The current president with all the good will he has earned with the end of the war,can certainly bring about this change for better .As he himself has supported most if not all of the above principles.
    If he does he will be remembered in the history of SL as the man who united SL and unleashed it’s full potential.Only time will tell if this is the history our children going to read.

  • Kumar David

    This is an excellent and timely intervention from Lionel. It is great that he has consistently maintained his clarity and honesty over the years.

    I have one criticism; Lionel should have mentioned more explicitly in what specific ways the JVP should improve and change its programme. He only mentions the need for a more robust policy on closing the IDP concentration camps, but I think the JVP has added 6 points on this matter making its original 21 now into 27 points.

    I hope Lionel will follow up with more suggestions; people will listen to him


  • cyberviews

    The democratically reconstituted JVP that arose phoenix-like from the ashes of a state induced implosion of the JVP in the late 80s, early 90s, conveniently and opportunistically found chauvinism the prosthesis to establish its identity. The LTTE made its task easier as it was able to present itself as the democratic and patriotic antitheisis to what it claimed was a pure and simple terrorist organisation with separatist intent. It was therefore able to cleverly mobilize the chauvinist forces, even to the extent of putting into power a government that it would use as a cat’s paw in violently suppressing any aspiration towards self determination by the Tamils. It was able to do this with ease because of its ability to systematically destroy all progressive forces in the country during an agressive campaign which began in the late 70s, and continued until its decimation in the early 90s. It is the traditional left, by abdicating the leadership of the progressive forces, that perpetrated the greatest betrayal in this very volatile period in the history of the country. A gift which the JVP accepted gleefully , posing as a pseudo-marxist alternative. They still do so, if one were to go by the large cut-outs of the bearded founding fathers of Marxism they dispay at their election rallies