Sri Lanka: The giants of politics past

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Dec 18 14:39:22 UTC 2006

The giants of politics past: The 71st anniversary of the LSSP
December 17, 2006 at 8:45 pm

By Rajan Philips

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party was founded on 18 December, 1935, by twenty
five activists united in their opposition to British colonial rule. It was
also the beginning of the Left movement in Sri Lanka that has shown
consistent unity of purpose as a movement despite the frontal divisions
between the LSSP and its offshoot, the Communist Party, at the beginning,
and other organizational splits in later years. The founding leaders of
the Left, Philip Gunawardena, N.M. Perera, S.A.  Wickremasinghe, Colvin R.
de Silva, Leslie Goonewardena and Edmund Samarakoddy, were political
giants not only among their contemporaries but also in the entire modern
history of Sri Lanka. They were extraordinary in stature and intellect,
grand and sweeping in their ambitions and vistas not for themselves but
for their country, and virtually born with the ethic of disciplined hard
work and abundance of selfless generosity.

They were joined by no less formidable men and women of succeeding
generations during the formative years of the Left movement that were also
the years of the Second World War and the last years of the colonial rule.
The succeeding galaxy included Doric de Souza, Bernard Soysa, S.C.C.
Antonypillai (Tony), V. Karalasingham (Karlo), Selina Perera, Vivienne
Goonewardena, P. Kandiah, A. Vaidialingam, Pieter Keuneman, Hector
Abhayavardhana, Bala Tampoe, N. Sanmugathasan, and Osmund Jayaratne among
others. There were others, like William de Silva, T.B. Subasinghe, and
Anil Moonesinghe, who began their political life in the LSSP, moved on to
other political parties and made significant contributions. Seventy years
are a long time in politics and of the giants of the Old Left only two are
living: Hector Abhayavardhana and Bala Tampoe. The LSSP and the CP now are
much less than a shadow of what they were till 1977 both in parliament and
out of parliament. The leading lights of the two parties Philip, NM,
Colvin, Bernard and Pieter were exemplary parliamentarians who easily
outperformed everyone else in the legislature, in substance and in show.
Outside the legislature, according to credible commentators, it was the
working class movement spearheaded by the two Parties that first hastened
the exit of the British rulers and later helped the survival of
parliamentary democracy itself by sustaining a strong Opposition in

Yet, for all their resourcefulness and commitment, the Old Left failed to
win political power on its own terms. Friendly commentators have pointed
to a number of reasons: the tendency to be carried away by revolutionary
enthusiasm ahead of the islands social realities, the inability to address
the cultural peculiarities of the Sri Lankan societies, and the
debilitating effects of doctrinaire splits and personality clashes.
Despite all these shortcomings, the Old Left leaders have left giant
footprints on Sri Lankas political sands. For them, as Hector
Abhayavardhana memorably put it in his obituary to Colvin R. de Silva,
politics without power was still worthwhile.

Bold Vision

The founding leaders of the Left set themselves apart from other political
leaders of their time, notably D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike
among the Sinhalese and G.G. Ponnambalam and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam among
the Tamils, by their unequivocal opposition to British rule, their
programmatic campaign for economic and social justice, and the principled
fight against communal (or ethnocentric) politics. Put another way, the
tensions between the Left and the communal Right in these three areas Sri
Lankas position in the world, economic and social justice for its people,
and the nature of the relationship involving the state and the different
ethnic groups significantly influenced the course of politics in the years
before independence and the years between 1948 and 1977. The relative
positions of the key players and the political dynamic that ensued offer
both inspirations and lessons for the present time and the challenges it

The Left's opposition to British rule was inspired by a bold vision for
Sri Lankas place in South Asia and the world. Unlike other leaders who
were seeking communal and even feudal political advantages by pleasing the
British authorities, the leaders of the Left threw themselves against the
British rulers by linking the goal of Ceylonese independence with Indias
epic struggle for freedom. The fusion of the interests of the people of
South Asia should ideally have been pursued even more vigorously after
independence. But the British left South Asia far more divided at
independence than it had ever been previously. The painful hangovers of
the partition of British India into India and Pakistan and the subsequent
amputation of Bangladesh are even today standing in the way of a greater
South Asian unity that is so necessary for the people of South Asia to
deal with the challenges of globalization.

Sri Lanka's post-independence foreign policy under D.S. Senananayke was
aptly described by N.M. Perera as Anglo mania and India phobia. The
disenfranchisement of the Indian plantation workers was a prime
illustration of this phobia. The rapprochement of the Indo-Sri Lanka
relationship under the Bandaranaikes was presented and used, at least in
Colombo, more as a Nehru-Bandaranaike dynastic link than as a step towards
South Asian unity. Even while professing friendship with Nehrus India, the
Bandaranaike governments severely ignored the example of Nehrus leadership
on such foundational questions as secularism, state language policy, and
the system of devolved governance. Equally, the Tamil political leaders
who shifted the goal posts from federalism to separation look to India for
support for separation but refuse to look at the Indian Tamils experience
of eschewing separatism in favour of federalism.

The Old Left leaders who had fraternal connections with the Socialist and
Communist Parties traditionally favoured close relationship with India in
regional and international issues and learning from Indias experiences in
regard to religious, linguistic and ethnic questions. Seen in this light,
it is passing strange that the Communist Party of India  Marxist (CPM),
Indias principal Left Party, should now entertain fraternal relationship
with the JVP based on its numerical size and disregarding its overtly
communal substance.

Economic and Social Justice

The Old Lefts crowning achievements, which separated the Left from the
rest of the political pack, were clearly in the areas of economic and
social justice. Its contributions to policies and programs in these areas
began from the very inception of the LSSP in 1935 and lasted until the
Lefts defeat in the 1977 elections. It did not matter whether the Left was
in opposition, when it was able to pressurize governments to implement
progressive programs; or, it was part of a government, when the Left
Ministers introduced and implemented programs themselves.

Not surprisingly, the names of the Old Left leaders have become associated
with specific policy fields and programs; namely land reform (Philip
Gunawardena), irrigation and agriculture (S.A. Wickremasinghe), finance
and gemming industry (N.M. Perera, Bernard Soysa), the plantation
industries (Colvin R. de Silva, Doric de Souza), public transport (Leslie
Goonewardena, Anil Moonesinghe), public housing (Pieter Keuneman), and
industry (William de Silva, T.B. Subasinghe). One cannot find such a range
of individual stamps on specific policy fields among the leaders of other
parties as one does among the Left leaders. There were of course notable
exceptions such as C.W.W. Kannanagara in education, D.S. Senanayake, C.P.
de Silva and Dudley Senanayake, who had a lifetime association with
irrigation and land settlement, G.G. Ponnambalams brief leadership in
state industries, and R. Premadasas preoccupation with housing. The latter
preoccupation, it must be recognized, may have been successful
vote-garnering politics but it was poor economics in that Mr. Premadasa
used his enormous political powers to over-allocate resources to the
housing sector and produced questionable results.

In hindsight and in the context of our current shortcomings, one could see
the lack of focus and interest on the part of all political leaders in the
development of physical infrastructure. Education has become a dogs meal
after sixty years of free education, and the insightful criticisms that
N.M. Perera made at the time of the introduction of free education have
unfortunately been validated. The most alarming socioeconomic challenge of
our time is the growing disparity between the Western Province and the
rest of the country in terms of income, physical and social
infrastructure, and economic opportunities.

What this means is that the hugely capital intensive irrigation and land
settlement projects that have been the stock in trade policy of UNP
governments have not yielded the desired results. Equally, the state
industrial development championed by the SLFP governments proved
unsustainable and has been abandoned. Globalization and free market
policies only aggravate and not address the problems of the hinterland. In
the past the Left leaders and intellectuals like G.V.S de Silva and Hector
Abhayavardhana offered alternative approaches to addressing the agrarian
question and expanding the village economy. Sadly, this intellectual
tradition seems to have now disappeared, and the JVP is more interested in
entrenching its political base in the village but has little to offer by
way of expanding the village economy.

Quirks of History

In the 1977 election, for the first time since independence, the electors
in their first-past-the-post wisdom shut the two Left Parties out of
Parliament altogether. A whole generation has grown up since. Those who
voted at the 1977 election are now older than 47 years and constitute only
25% of the countrys population, or 35% of the voting population. For the
rest of the adult population, the Old Left and its giant leaders are no
more than history. And the history of the Left could hardly have attracted
their attention amidst the global consumerism, political chaos and
inter-ethnic violence that have made and marred their lives over the last
thirty years.

Even those who are familiar with the Left now are likely to associate the
Left entirely with the JVP, considering that nearly 80% of the countrys
current population were of age 15 or under at the time of the JVPs first
insurrection in 1971, and 60% were in a similar situation during the JVPs
second coming in 1988. It is fair to say that the JVP is now more a fly in
the ointment than a legatee of the Old Left movement, a viscerally
ethno-centric party in contrast to the cultural universalism of the Old

On the Tamil side of the ethnic divide stands the LTTE, the JVPs Siamese
twin in every political sense, the two claiming to represent the chosen
and the rejected children of 1956. Just as the JVP now occupies the
political space that was once dominated by the Old Left, the LTTE is the
occupier of the space that had been the preserve of the parliamentary
Federal Party of the Tamils. Demographically, the bulk of the Tamil
population, born after 1970 and 1977, is also unaware of the inclusive
legacy of the Old Left, the national prominence of generations of Tamil
parliamentary political leaders, and of the time when the Sri Lankan state
was more inclusive and not at all militaristic.

By a historical quirk, the Federal Party too was founded on 18th December,
but fourteen years after the LSSP, in 1949, one year after Lankas
independence. In their hey day the politics of the Left and the politics
of Federal Party differed from each other like cheese from chalk, and
Karalasinghams revolutionary schema projecting the traditional alliance of
the working classes and the minorities never materialized. The fault
though was not in the theory but in his application of it to the
circumstances in Sri Lanka.

The 1977 election that decimated the Old Left also marked the end of the
Federal Party, but with a difference: a new generation of the Federal
Party had reincarnated itself as the Tamil United Liberation Front,
abandoning federalism and avowing separation. The rest is recent history,
post Old-Left. In a sense that is depressing, the country entered the most
dangerous decades in its modern history without the giants of the
preceding years and with only the pigmies left to preside over the
unfolding of our Karma.

There is no denying, however, that the mistakes of the Old Left and the
even greater blunders of the other political leaders and organizations
have contributed to our current ethnic predicaments. What is perhaps truer
is that the present crisis has reached critical proportions mainly because
of the failure of successors to learn from the mistakes of the past and
avoid repeating the old blunders, and the failure also to draw upon the
more positive legacies of our past leaders on citizenship, language rights
and devolving state power.


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