Fifty Years After Youth Insurrection 1971-2021
BY Sumanasiri Liyanage
I was at James Peiris Hall, University of Peradeniya. Some students knocked at my door to inform me that on the previous night a group of rebels had attacked a Police Station in Monaragala District. Students were enthusiastic and hopeful, as they were not aware of the fact that it either was a result of a mistake on the decided date or a warning to the Government of an impending attack. The following day, on 5 April, a large number of Police Stations throughout the island, except in the North and East, were attacked and some stations were captured by the rebels. The insurrection was led by the young rebels of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), an organisation that was formed by Young Turks of the Sri Lanka Communist Party (Peking), led by Moscow-trained medical student, Rohana Wijeweera, in the late 1960s.
In the political discourse, the JVP was described as the "New Left," to distinguish it from the Old Left that consisted of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, both were by then junior partners of the coalition led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Forming a coalition with a bourgeois Party like the SLFP was considered as a betrayal, so the Sri Lankan youth believed that a new, vibrant, and young leadership was needed. In a very short period, the JVP became a mass youth organisation, with a strong foothold in all State Universities.
The 1971 rebellion failed to achieve its objective, to capture State or governmental power, although the rebels were able to hold virtual power in some areas for months. The militarily weak State of Sri Lanka was able to regain power, crushing the rebellion, as it received military and financial support from the rest of the world, including the People’s Republic of China. The State in the process got strengthened. The event that happened fifty years ago was seen repeated once again in the late 1980s. One may even say, the 1971 tradition had become a beacon for Tamil militants when they waged a struggle against the Sri Lankan State.
As a result, those who have been in power have to recognise wittingly or unwittingly the youth segment of the population as a separate power base. After 1971, the State was forced to adopt many radical measures, although their final outcome may be questioned. As a result of Tamil youth militancy, the Centralised State was forced to introduce a two-tier system of governance.
Istvan Meszaros opines: "Past history testifies to many instances of not only noble efforts dedicated to introducing significant social changes in order to overcome some major contradictions, but also to some partial successes in the originally envisaged direction." Nonetheless, Meszaros continues: "the successes have been sooner or later rolled back by the subsequent restoration of the dependency relations of the earlier status quo. The primary reason for such developments was the fateful inertia of structural inequality reproduced in one form or another throughout history, despite some change in personal from time to time at the apex of society."
Daniel Bensaid talked about two main traditions that enabled the lower rung of society to capture political power with the primary objectives of social transformation. First is the mass uprising leading to the formation of Soviets or the committees of working people of all kinds. Net result is the power based on Soviets and the new State restructures on them. This was the model we have seen in the Paris Commune 150 years ago and the Russian Revolution in 1917.
The second tradition according to Bensaid was the Cuban model of capturing and exercising power through a sudden attack on the centre of power. Of course, it is not possible to draw a clear distinction between these two traditions, as hybridity has been normal in real struggles. The best example is the Nicaraguan Revolution.
Youth insurrection of 1971
Broadly speaking, we may say that the JVP followed in 1971 the second tradition, not only because of the attraction of the Cuban Revolution, but also there had been a general consensus that the Sri Lankan Revolution needs to be completed in a short period. The LSSP stalwart, Leslie Goonewardene once remarked that capturing power cannot be a prolonged struggle in the Sri Lankan context.
The JVP failed in 1971, not because it had failed to attract an adequate number of cadres, but it did not have a correct and well thought out strategy of socialist transformation. Keerthi Balasuriya, a General Secretary of the Revolutionary Communist League, a small Trotskyist outfit, in a series of articles that were later published as a booklet, revealed the principal theoretical weaknesses of the JVP.
The strategy and tactics of the JVP did not go beyond an eclectic collection of ideas that revelled in the Sri Lankan political discourse. How was this hotchpotch formulated? The JVP took its economic plan from S.A. Wickramasinghe’s booklet, The Way Forward. Its analysis of social forces appeared to be taken from the Sinhala-Buddhist political discourse of the 1930s. Lenin's views on economic and spontaneous struggles were totally misinterpreted to denigrate the working class struggles. The Cuban Revolution and its colourful leadership were used as icons. Che's Bolivian Diary provided the JVP its military tactics. This hotchpotch might have given hopes for rural youth, but it cannot be a strategy of power.
Although the JVP was able to arouse rural youth, it had failed to attract the working people of the urban and estate sector. The JVP denigrated trade unions and the struggle waged by the trade unions as struggles for sops. As a result, the JVP had failed to challenge the Old Left in that sphere. Similarly, the working class of the estate sector were depicted as agents of Indian imperialism.
The JVP did not have a serious discussion on the National Question and its significance to socialist transformation.
Whatever the weaknesses and immaturities of the JVP in 1971, it introduced a strong tradition of rebellion. It tried to rejuvenate the same tradition in the late 1980s unsuccessfully. In spite of the failure of the two struggles it had waged against the existing system, the rebel tradition it introduced into Sri Lankan politics would remain as a strong force. Whether the present JVP would take this tradition to the future is highly controversial.