Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Understanding the JVP

by Dr. S Sathanathan, Northeastern Monthly, September 20, 2006

The JVP simplistically alleged Sinhalese workers and peasants could capture State power by eliminating the urban, anglicised upper classes. The anti-kaduwa agitation in effect equated language to class...The vast majority of rural Sinhalese see themselves sandwiched between their Sinhalese ruling classes, who twice eliminated challenges to their wealth and power, and the LTTE-led Movement, which is aggressively fleshing out a de facto State of Tamil Eelam in the Tamil Homeland in parts of the land rural Sinhalese blithely assumed is their own. The logical response of Sinhalese workers and peasants is to ally with their oligarchy and support the Sinhala State’s military campaign to defeat the LTTE.

Making of a national Sinhala tragedy

‘So, as we have asked and asked and asked during the past weeks and months; where the hell are we going from here?’ bemoaned a columnist in July. ‘With little by way of vision and less in terms of direction or policy and little or no monies we appear to be at a dead end.’ (Daily Mirror, 26/jul/06)

Almost a decade ago a Sinhalese analyst, Stanley Jayaweera, similarly lamented ‘the country is in shambles’, the ‘tragedy is that [Sinhala] society as a whole has failed to throw up a community of principled men who can stand up to our rampaging politicians and put them in their place.’ With much breast-beating, he yearned for ‘men who can think deeply and feel deeply’. (Island, 6 August 1997)

The ‘tragedy’ did not materialise out of thin air. It has a tortuous history, which began in the early 1950s with Mr SWRD Bandaranaike’s disastrous policy of Sinhala Only, of making the Sinhala language the sole official language of the country to the exclusion of the Tamil language.

The shattering impact of this staggeringly myopic policy upon the Tamil-speaking peoples and the consequent political crisis and military fallout over the past four decades is well documented.

In contrast, the Sinhala Only policy’s impact upon the Sinhala-speaking people has been hardly looked at. To understand the JVP, one must grasp the complex effects of the policy on the Sinhalese. During the 1956 parliamentary elections campaign, Bandaranaike flatly declared at a meeting, ‘we will make Sinhala the official language in twenty four hours.’ And he added with a flourish: ‘after that even the white men (suddho) who come to our land must first learn Sinhala to do business here.’ The Sinhalese crowd went delirious and cheered Mr Bandaranaike non-stop for several minutes; his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) swept into power and he assumed office as Prime Minister. Almost immediately he enacted Sinhala as the only official language.

Through the Sinhala Only rhetoric, the anglicised Sinhalese upper classes – whose scion was Bandaranaike – conveyed a cluster of messages to their ethnic compatriots, especially to the youth. They deluded the Sinhalese masses that the hegemony of the English language - the kaduwa (literally, the sword) – and the domination by the anglicised upper classes would be almost over. They duped the vast rural Sinhalese middle classes that their youth could safely jettison knowledge of English; that they could learn in the Sinhala language medium virtually any subject in school or university and then have the world at their feet!

So, English language was re-classified from a compulsory to an optional subject. The teaching of English in government schools patronised by the masses was all but dismantled. Numerous skilled and experienced Ceylonese teachers migrated to countries as far away as Borneo and Zambia. But the private schools where children of Sinhalese upper classes study, of course, continued teaching English. The anglicised Sinhalese made sure their own next generation would be proficient in English, often in preference to Sinhala. At the first Cabinet Meeting held after Sinhala was declared the official language, the Cabinet Secretary reportedly queried Oxford-educated Bandaranaike ‘do we record minutes in Sinhala now?’ to which he is said to have replied curtly: ‘English’. So it is not surprising that his grandson, Vimukthi, could not converse in Sinhala at a press conference on the environment arranged for him in Colombo by his mother-cum-former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in late 2005.

The first post-Bandaranaike rural generation of Sinhalese who came out of schools and universities during the late 1950s and the 1960s discovered to its horror the utopia promised by the Sinhala Only policy was nowhere to be seen. Lucrative urban economic opportunities and upward social mobility pivotally depended, as before if not more, upon a working knowledge of English; and they found themselves hopelessly trapped in the Sinhala Only ghetto.

What prevented the rural youth from exploiting employment opportunities in non-plantation agriculture? Development in this sector since the early 1940s has been structured around State-assisted land colonisation schemes, which consisted of distributing free State land largely for irrigation agriculture mainly to Sinhala settlers in the Dry Zone, including Tamil-majority regions in the North East Province (NEP). Sinhalese nationalists’ outlandish claim was that the country is reclaiming its ‘glorious ancient irrigation civilisation’ that will form the foundation first of import-substitution and later of export-led economic growth. In stark contrast, the left-wing Sinhalese parliamentarians condemned the schemes in 1957 as ‘two acres and a cow method of development’ that created at best woefully inadequate employment and simultaneously led to ‘an intensification and aggravation of communal conflicts’ (Hansard, vol 30: col 2020, 2105). The conflict over water at Mavilaru (TamilNet, 31/jul/06) is one such instance and the stunning accuracy of the predictions needs no elaboration today.

So, the first post-Bandaranaike Sinhalese generation went to the wall in the mid-1960s. Its politicised segments saw no alternative but to overthrow the kaduwa. But the Communist Party (CP) and the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) that ought to have given them revolutionary leadership betrayed them in 1964 by joining the oligarchic SLFP to form the United Front (UF) coalition led by SLFP leader and Bandaranaike’s widow, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Soon that Sinhalese generation rallied around the alternative Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), armed themselves with rudimentary weapons and launched the 1971 Insurrection. The ruling UF regime with Sirimavo as Prime Minister crushed the Insurrection by putting to death a conservatively estimated twenty thousand young Sinhalese men and women. Their only crime was to believe in the Sinhala Only utopia cynically sold to them by her late husband and his SLFP cohorts in return for votes. The UF killed off most of the politically conscious and intellectually active cream of the first post-Bandaranaike Sinhalese generation, which, if not for the folly of Sinhala Only, would have brought forth the community of principled Sinhala men and women the likes of Jayaweera yearn for.

A Sinhala-Buddhist utopia

The UF government’s 1972 Constitution changed the country’s name to its Sinhala version, Lanka, but added the prefix ‘Sri’ to link it to the first word in the ruling SLFP’s name. It also made Buddhism (the predominant religion among Sinhalese) effectively the State religion by granting it ‘foremost place’ in the Constitution. Almost immediately the Sinhalese population cleaved into a Sinhalese-Buddhist majority and Sinhalese-Christian minority. The Sinhalese-Buddhists became Sons of the Soil’ (bhoomi puthra,) while Sinhalese-Christians were reduced to second-class status much like the way Tamils had been, two decades earlier. Thereafter, the ethnic hierarchy has Sinhalese-Buddhists at the top, Sinhalese-Christians next, Tamils below them, followed by Muslims. In substantive terms the ethnic totem pole institutionalises preferential access for Sinhalese-Buddhists to educational and economic opportunities.

Foreign investors who arrived after 1978 (when the economy was liberalised) to take advantage of the more open markets and export quotas did not learn Sinhala as Bandaranaike had duplicitously predicted. Instead they demanded knowledge of English from prospective Sri Lankan employees in white-collar jobs, especially at managerial levels. Sinhalese investors too preferentially employed those proficient in English who could communicate with, and function in, the fast integrating global economy. In short, the economic changes post-1978 underlined the utter centrality of English language to Sri Lanka’s tiny export economy. But President JR Jayawardene’s United National Party (UNP) government made no attempt to promote universal English literacy.

So, the vast majority of the second post-Bandaranaike Sinhalese generation from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, ignorant of English, were shovelled into the non-English speaking Sinhalese underclass; they survived on the fringes of the expanding open economy. Inevitably, that generation, too, went to the wall in the mid-1980s. They also mobilised around the JVP; they groped for an explanation for, and a way out, of their Sinhala Only ghetto. But Jathika Chinthanaya waylaid them.

Jathika Chinthanaya is a supposedly enlightening Sinhalese ideology allegedly rooted in the consciousness of an idealised Sinhalese people miraculously unsullied by European colonial influence. But the moribund ideology sucked them deeper into the same linguistic ghetto. They drank deep at its twin streams of anti-English linguistic chauvinism (an undercurrent of class antagonisms) and anti-Indian Sinhalese nationalism (since New Delhi had by then overtly intervened in the Sri Lankan Tamil National Question). These political elements combined to form, in the Sinhalese mind, an emotive but confused amalgam of hostility to neo-colonialism and resentment of Indian expansionism.

The mobilised Sinhalese demonstrated their awesome street power between 1985 and 1988. Regimes of Presidents JR Jayawardene and R Premadasa struck back viciously between September 1988 and January 1990 to defeat this second uprising. Between them they eliminated, on a conservative estimate, sixty thousand (some estimated one hundred thousand) young men and women. In private, the security establishment glibly explained that the scale of slaughter has to be huge since only about 10% to 15% of those eliminated would be actual JVP cadre and so, a sufficiently large Sinhalese population has to be culled in order to fatally undermine the organisation. In the process, the government decimated almost the entire core of the politically and intellectually committed Sinhalese youth of the second post-Bandaranaike generation. Arguably, many of them would have matured into the much-sought-after community of principled Sinhalese men and women.

But, what of the rest of the Sinhalese intelligentsia in each generation? A few intellectuals were refreshing exceptions. They courageously stood up to be counted, but were starved of lateral political support by the emasculated Sinhalese intelligentsia. Some were isolated and cornered into silence by the State; others emigrated to saner environs and their names often adorn the numerous appeals made for an end to war by Sri Lankans resident abroad.

Conditions facing the third post-Bandaranaike rural generation of Sinhalese youth, of the 1990s and early 2000s, have hardly changed for the better. They also are confined to the non-English speaking underclass. Through the 1990s the rural Sinhalese came to grips with the sobering realisation that overthrowing kaduwa is largely irrelevant to their economic advancement and social emancipation. Because JVP ideologues employed half-baked ‘Marxism’ - and so confused language for class - and projected the opposition to domination by the anglicised Sinhalese upper classes as synonymous with class struggle against the Sinhalese oligarchy. The JVP simplistically alleged Sinhalese workers and peasants could capture State power by eliminating the urban, anglicised upper classes. The anti-kaduwa agitation in effect equated language to class. This fatal flaw in theory mired the Sinhalese youth in anti-English populism that left the status quo virtually untouched. In other words, the third generation that rallied around the JVP too has failed to wrest a share of economic wealth and political power from its oligarchy.

Politics of a military solution

Meanwhile that third Sinhalese generation perceived a threat to its economic interests from another direction. The rapidly growing Tamil National Movement led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) gathered political momentum and military strength in the 1980s and 1990s; and it laid claim to a share of rural and coastal resources and economic and social assets of the country encapsulated by the ideological concept of a Tamil Homeland in the NEP. The vast majority of rural Sinhalese see themselves sandwiched between their Sinhalese ruling classes, who twice eliminated challenges to their wealth and power, and the LTTE-led Movement, which is aggressively fleshing out a de facto State of Tamil Eelam in the Tamil Homeland in parts of the land rural Sinhalese blithely assumed is their own. The logical response of Sinhalese workers and peasants is to ally with their oligarchy and support the Sinhala State’s military campaign to defeat the LTTE.

In the midst of this melee, the JVP exploited the fears and frustrations of the third Sinhalese generation and rode to power. The anti-Tamil alliance across Sinhalese class boundaries is reflected in the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition formed by the JVP and SLFP (with some smaller parties) in 2000. The televised financial contributions Sinhalese people from all walks of life and every social class enthusiastically made to the government’s National Defence Fund to help defeat the LTTE are telling demonstrations of the depth of this coalition.

The question is, where will the JVP’s alliance with the SLFP take the third post-Bandaranaike Sinhalese generation?

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