Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Lionel Bopage Story: A journey through Serendipity’s not so serendipitous times - Reviewed by N. Shanmugaratnam

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‘A biography by its very nature’, writes Michael Colin Cooke, in setting the scene for the Bopage Story, ‘reveals a life not only of an individual but of the society and times of that individual.’ A person’s life story, however, can be told in different ways. A biography may be rich in minutiae and fail to go sufficiently beyond the more immediate social context of the subject.

Cooke deserves to be commended for the way he has approached and narrated the biography of an extraordinary individual, who is intensely political and strongly committed to the creation of a better social order. The young Lionel Bopage dared to engage in struggle with passion. Imprisonment and torture were not the only price he paid for challenging a system which he believed was unjust and hence had to be changed. He was not afraid to self-criticise and re-assess his and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s political past and leave that party to which he gave his youthful years, and choose other means to continue the struggle. He completed his university studies in engineering while serving his sentence in a Lankan prison.

Compelled to be an exile, he continues to be a political activist, commentator and scholar with strong links to the land of his birth. The personal and the political are so intimately linked in his life. In telling the story of this man, Cooke takes the reader on a journey through the different phases of Lanka’s rather turbulent post-colonial political history. The Bopage Story is about ‘rebellion, repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka ’, as the title says. It is an absorbing story that should not be missed by anyone interested in Lankan politics and the daunting challenges of building a left alternative in the country. I am happy to hear that the book is being translated into Sinhala and Tamil as well.

Lionel was born in 1944, when Ceylon was still a British colony. He was barely four when the ‘model colony’ was granted independence, which actually meant a transfer of power to an elite group of native comprador retainers.

He was a child when the newly formed government disenfranchised the plantation workers, the upcountry Tamils or ‘Indian Tamils’. Making the ‘universal franchise’ granted by our colonial masters less universal was one of the first major undertakings of the government of independent Ceylon!

Lionel was drawn into left politics very early in life. His father was a card carrying member of the Communist Party and Lionel was also influenced by some of the leftist teachers at school. But in 1956 Lionel’s father, along with a local Party leader and supporters, crossed over to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Bandaranaike, who had forged a coalition under the rallying cry of ‘Sinhala Only’ on a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist platform with a populist rhetoric that appealed to the Sangha (Buddhist clergy), Vedha (indigenous physicians), Guru (teachers), Govi (farmers), and Kamkuru (workers) – the so called ‘five great forces’.

Lionel recalls his experience of the moment of 1956 in the following words:

My father and I at the time supported the campaign to make Sinhala the official language of the country. Our bodies and minds were overflowing with Sinhala nationalist emotions. I can still visualise the small blue poster with Mr Bandaranaike’s photograph wearing the Sinhala national costume. His fist close to his mouth and one finger pointed towards the sky and a poem in Sinhala to the effect that Sinhala will be made the official language of the country ‘within 24 hours’ of coming to power. (p49-50)

The post-1956 communalist politics and violence made young Lionel wonder why the left parties were unable to mobilise Sinhala and Tamil workers for a united struggle to change the political and economic order inherited from colonialism. The reality, however, was the rise of ethno-politics, the deepening of the ethnic cleavages and tensions, and a progressive recession of class politics. Bandaranaike and his allies had effectively ethnicised distributional conflicts and the social consequences of uneven development and underdevelopment and outflanked the left parties, which after a brave but brief show of resistance caved in and capitulated. In retrospect, the divisive and anti-left nature of the ‘Bandaranaike revolution’ is all too evident.

As to be expected, one learns a lot about the JVP from this book though some questions remain unanswered or inadequately addressed. The author rightly rejects Moore ’s (1993) characterisation of the JVP’s activism as an ‘exercise in political entrepreneurship’. This type of interpretation of rebel movements belongs to an academic genre that has gained wider currency in post-cold war years. The book is also justifiably critical of some of the other interpretations, which are preoccupied with Rohana Wijeweera’s psycho-pathologies, or are unable to go beyond some useful insights on the socio-political space that enabled the birth and growth of the JVP.

Through his interviews and discussions with Lionel and by broadening the analytical canvas, Cooke strives to capture the historical conjuncture and the ideological contestations that set the stage for the JVP phenomenon in Sri Lanka . While agreeing with Jupp (1978) that ‘the JVP, like the SLFP before it, was a movement of the rural Sinhalese’, and in that sense ‘it was a true child of the victors of 1956’, Cooke takes issue with Jupp and other scholars who have failed to address the JVP leadership’s claim that they were Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. This is a moot point indeed and, after reading the book, one is left with a feeling that it should have been explored more critically and more thoroughly. Many of the key leaders and activists at different levels of the JVP had their early political schooling in the Communist Party of Ceylon and most of them openly identified themselves or sympathised with the ‘Peking Wing’ against the ‘Moscow Wing’ when the party split as a result of the ideological parting of ways between the Soviet and the Chinese Communist Parties. They claimed to uphold the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary line when they broke away from the Marxist-Leninist (or Maoist) Communist Party led by Shanmugathasan (Comrade Shan).

These youthful leaders did not emerge from the SLFP, yet they were all children of 1956 who were influenced by a ‘socialist ideology’ and inspired by the Cuban revolution. The year 1956 marked the beginnings of the hegemonic rise of Sinhala Buddhist ideology through public institutions and the media – the Sinhala media in particular, which played a significant role in the on-going reconstruction of a collective Sinhala Buddhist identity.

This was a mono-ethnic, cross-class, cultural and ideological project of constructing Sinhala nationhood. On the other hand, 1956 also paved the way for the rural youth and the poor to become more aware of their exclusion and disempowerment. Bandaranaike’s ‘Sinhala Buddhist socialism’, while giving pride of place to the language and the main religion of the Sinhala people, failed to deliver in terms of employment and enhancement of life chances.

The two old left parties, however, were in an alliance with the SLFP, which they claimed was anti-imperialist and progressive. The radical left parties and tendencies that broke away from the old parties were advocating a proletarian revolutionary line and rejecting the majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist discourse as chauvinist and reactionary. However, their efforts to win over the working class base of the once radical LSSP and the pro-Moscow CP did not produce significant results. What was happening was that these two old parties were losing their trade union bases to the SLFP and UNP. The JVP leaders, while talking about the working class, chose to target Sinhala students and the educated unemployed for mobilisation and recruitment.

Lionel admits that the JVP chose this strategy as it was easier to find recruits in these sections of society than from the working class. The question as to why the revolutionary left groups that split from the old left parties or the newly formed JVP did not succeed in building and sustaining a strong working class base is not adequately addressed in the book. In some instances, in his self-critical retrospection and theoretical reflections on class, Lionel tends to idealise ‘the working class’ as an entity that is imbued with an innate collective consciousness and transformative power. This is rather abstract thinking, given the hard realities of the counter hegemonic challenges of politicising workers along class lines across ethnic and religious divides. These challenges are further compounded by the growing informalisation (or casualization) of labour and the widespread use of coercive practices by the state against mobilisation of workers for collective action.

The rise of ethno-politics in Sri Lanka meant that ethnicity preceded class and gained an overdetermining power in the evolution of the country’s political culture and modes of political mobilisation. As a political movement, the JVP was not prepared to challenge this process from a Marxist standpoint. Chapter 4 briefly mentions an attempt by Lionel and some other JVP leaders to establish contacts with plantation workers (upcountry Tamils) through the Young Socialist Front led by Ilancheliyan and with urban workers through the LSSP(R) led by Bala Tampoe.

It is not clear how seriously these efforts were pursued and why the JVP failed to develop any links with these organisations. On the other hand, it was well known that the JVP viewed the Tamil plantation workers as agents of Indian expansionism, which was the subject of its Fifth Lecture – the last in a crash course offered to the recruits. With that lecture, the JVP exposed not only its own inability to free itself from the ideological trappings of the hegemonic discourse but also its poor understanding of the history of working class struggles in Lanka. Both of these shortcomings are interconnected, of course. At the same time, the party was ridden by factionalism and there were some tendencies that were trying to operate on their own. All these factors played a role in the making of the JVP and the shaping of its ideology as a petty bourgeois movement, which was in a hurry to make a ‘socialist revolution’.

‘The insurrection’, writes Cooke, ‘has been rightly seen as a failed putsch in which large sections of the more progressive elements in society failed to join; often they were hostile to the JVP. In fact many of the workers who belonged to LSSP-supported unions informed on JVP cadres’ (p154).

Furthermore, the putsch was a response ‘by a faction-ridden party of young inexperienced revolutionaries to… state repression. By doing this the JVP allowed the state to imprison its leadership, murder 10,000 of its cadres, and jail and torture many thousands more’(p157). The insurrection was a disaster, a tragedy indeed. Even more tragic was the failure of the JVP to learn the lessons of that costly misadventure. Lionel had been trying to adopt a principled political stand within the party on the question of whether to launch the insurrection or not and on the factionalism that was plaguing it. Before coming to that, it is important to highlight the brutality with which the uprising was crushed by the government in which the LSSP and CPSL were partners.

Drawing on Lionel’s firsthand knowledge and other sources, the book provides valuable documentation of the conduct of the government and the state apparatus at its command. Thousands of JVP cadres and supporters were arrested and imprisoned months before the insurrection of April 1971.

Wijeweera was arrested and taken to Jaffna and kept there in detention. An emergency was declared on 16 March 1971 and the government invoked a most pernicious 19th century colonial provision that permitted the disposal of dead bodies without any inquest. The British colonialists used this draconian regulation to legalise their brutality during the Kandyan revolts of 1818 and 1848. In 1971 March, in independent Ceylon , the United Front government chose the same regulation to give its security forces a free hand to crush the JVP and anyone suspected of having links with it. The stage was set for the enactment of the first major bloodbath in post-colonial Lanka. More were to come.

The decision to launch the insurrection on 5 April at 1130 pm was taken at a meeting of the two factions of the JVP amid unverifiable and contradictory messages supposedly sent by the imprisoned Wijeweera, lack of trust between the factions, poor information flow within the party, and arrests and killings of cadres by the police. The police also had informants within the organisation, which came to light much later. Lionel had his reservations and told his comrades that the party did not have enough cadres and arms to sustain an offensive in Colombo . However, his concerns were unheeded by the Athula-Sanath group that imposed the decision to stage the insurrection. The secret plan was to launch simultaneous raids on police stations in different parts of the country. ‘The aim was in one quick scoop to capture a large cache of arms and in a short space of time, to seize the state’ (p141). An incredibly bizarre plan for a new party with serious internal conflicts and without popular support! And things did not go as planned. The element of surprise was lost due to an isolated premature attack on a police station on 4 April. Many of the police stations could not be taken. The poorly armed and ill prepared but daring youthful fighters were badly outnumbered and outgunned by the state’s armed forces. The blood bath happened with the support of many countries including India , Pakistan , Singapore , Soviet Union , USA , and China.

In April 1971, Lionel and U Mahathaya had sought refuge in a Buddhist temple in Panadura. One morning the temple was surrounded by hundreds of policemen and Lionel and his comrade were arrested although at the time the police did not know that they had caught two key figures of the JVP. In detention, like thousands of other JVP prisoners Lionel was tortured. The torture included electric shocks to the genitals of the prisoners before subjecting them to further physical cruelties. I reproduce one of the quotes from Lionel:

‘Then we were hit on the sole of our feet. The pain would jolt through my whole body. By the fourth or fifth hit the body went numb. Many a cadre ascended the stairs and never walked back. Another favourite form of punishment was to hit by the butt of a rifle. The pain was intense and I could not stand up but had to move on all fours. Many of these police officers could only be classified as sadists. The political thuggery was simple, if you gave in, confessed and dobbed your comrades, the punishment would stop.’ (p171)

As noted by the author ‘the government’s barbarity had appalled the progressive forces in the country’, and international human rights bodies.

They demanded investigation into the atrocities perpetrated by the armed forces. The government did not care and it expelled the British observers sent by Amnesty International. The leaders of the JVP were tried by a specially set up Criminal Justice Commission (CJC). In a defiant and eloquent speech before the CJC, Wijeweera spoke the language of class struggle and declared himself a Bolshevik! While not taking responsibility for the insurrection he maintained that his party resorted to a struggle in the face of intolerable repression by the state. It would seem that he did not think that the time was ripe for launching an insurrection in April 1971. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and Lionel to 15 years rigorous imprisonment. In fact, Wijeweera’s sentence exceeded the maximum term that could be imposed under the CJC Act. Subsequently, the sentence was reduced to 20 years in response to appeals by the Amnesty International and the Civil Rights Movement.

The suppression of a youth rebellion in the south did not mean the end of youth revolt in Lanka. As Lionel and his comrades began to serve their sentences, another rebellion was in the making in the north, a rebellion that would turn into a brutal protracted war with far reaching consequences. In prison, Lionel came into contact with some of the Tamil youth leaders detained for their anti-state activities in the 1970s. He became more interested in the Lankan national question and decided to study it deeply.

His ‘A Marxist Analysis of the National Question’ was published in 1977 in Sri Lanka . ‘The Constitution of Sri Lanka and the National Question’, a pamphlet by him was published the same year in London by the Ginipupura group. In these works, he was defending the Tamil people’s right to self-determination and arguing the need for a secular state in Lanka. With the help of his analysis, Lionel was able to persuade the JVP to adopt his position on the national question. The JVP, however, abandoned that position after 1983, opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution and any form of devolution, and supported a military solution.

Much blood had been shed in the country since the release of the JVP leaders in November 1977, while the Lankan state was getting more ethnocratic and authoritarian. The UNP government, whose key figures were the masterminds and facilitators of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, scapegoated the JVP, the NSSP and the CPSL. No one believed the government’s propaganda but that did not stop the authorities from arresting Lionel and many other JVP members. They were released after several months of incarceration.

Lionel was fighting a losing battle on the ideological front within the JVP.

He was against changing the party’s stand on the national question and stood for engaging in talks with left-wing Tamil groups to convince them that a united struggle for socialism rather than a separate Tamil state was the right path. This had few takers within the JVP. Realising that he could not persuade the party leadership to change the chauvinist course it was taking, he decided to resign from the party in 1984. Lionel saw through Wijeweera’s clever distortion of Lenin’s views on the national question to disguise a chauvinist line. As Cooke observes on page 419, ‘the JVP like the traditional left and the LTTE does not seem to have had the political vision, patience or the stamina to do the hard political yards that is essential to confront the chauvinists and make common cause with the members of all communities.’

Lionel’s principled stand on the national question and his vision of a united struggle for a secular and egalitarian Lanka are admirable indeed. It must, however, be noted that the prospects that existed in the 1970s and early 1980s for a new united left alliance across the ethnic divide had begun to recede rapidly as the Tamil people’s struggle came to be dominated by militarism and sectarianism. Many years ago, while condemning the anti-Muslim violence in the north and east, I raised the point that Tamil nationalism had turned into a mirror image of Sinhala nationalism (Shanmugaratnam, 1990, Tamil Times; Economic and Political Weekly). I do share Lionel’s view that a resolution of the national question within a united country is the best way ahead for all the peoples inhabiting it. I am aware that many individuals hold the same view. Indeed that is the line taken by some smaller left political formations in the country. However, we are yet to see the beginnings of a united and sustained movement towards that goal in post-war Sri Lanka . What we see is ethnic polarisation and majoritarian triumphalism in a highly militarised and fear-ridden environment.

Lionel’s letter of resignation (1984) is a moving, revealing political statement, which is marked by a tone of lamentation and, at the same time, a strong commitment to a socialist revolution. In the more than a quarter century since Lionel’s resignation, the JVP has turned more chauvinist and opportunist. In 1987, after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord and the arrival of the IPKF, the JVP resorted to an opportunist tactic and staged its disastrous second insurrection and a series of assassinations. The government was mercilessly brutal in its response. Thousands of lives were lost. Many leaders of the JVP including Wijeweera were killed. Many left political activists and human rights workers who had nothing to do with the JVP were also killed. More recently, the JVP split in two and there are some belated signs of repentance from both factions. It is difficult to say which way the JVP is going, although it is not at all difficult to see that it has been reduced to a minor political actor in today’s Lankan political scene. The JVP had long missed the opportunity to reform itself and emerge as a multi-ethnic left party in Sri Lanka .

But Lionel has struggled and moved on and against many odds found a political niche in exile. Unbowed by the diatribes from pseudo leftists and self-proclaimed ‘patriots’, he works intelligently and energetically to advance the case for a political solution and genuine reconciliation and peace in Lanka. In narrating Lionel’s story, Cooke has done a remarkable job of locating the JVP story in the larger historical processes of the rise of ethno-politics, the decline of the ‘old’ left and the search for an alternative, neoliberalism and globalisation, secessionism and war, and the continuous erosion of democratic freedoms in Lanka.

(The writer is Professor Emeritus, Department of International Environment & Development Studies, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB). Email address:

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