This biography looks at the post-independence history of Sri Lanka (from 1948 on) through the eyes of one of its prominent left wing activists – Lionel Bopage.

Sri Lanka is an example of a country that has paid a terrible price for the failure to convert its ethnic diversity into a wider national loyalty.

It is scholarly study that looks at how the elite who mainly resided in Colombo dominated all the major parties on the island. They played with the fire of ethnic rancour at the expense of national unity to stay in power; whilst ignoring the economic disparities their policies engendered.

The book looks at this failure and its consequences through Lionel’s own story.

His life has been filled with exciting and terrible events: imprisonment and torture, an insurrection which left between 5,000 and 10,000 people dead, communal violence and Lionel’s resignation from the post of general secretary of a major left-wing party because of its opportunistic fanning of resentment against the Tamils. He and his family were forced into exile because of a suicidal war between the state and his ex-party in the late 1980s, a war which resulted in over 40,000 deaths.

It is also the story of Lionel’s enduring marriage to Chitra, who, when he first met her, was a nun. The biography discusses their life in Australia and Lionel’s attempts to reconcile members of the Tamil and Sinhala communities here, attempts which have sometimes been rewarded and which sometimes have engendered bitter resentment.

The book puts the current issue of war crimes into a historical context. The covering up of atrocities and the killing and jailing of dissidents have been constant features of the country’s modern history.

Yet the story has a basic optimism. Despite the violence and the suffering, Lionel attests to an unconquerable hope that he and those like him might bring people together, redressing communal grievances and bringing about genuine power sharing in Sri Lanka.

Michael Cooke

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Let’s be clear about the 1971 Insurrection Updating Lionel Bopage’s recollections - Kumar David

Let’s be clear about the 1971 Insurrection

October 15, 2011, 5:24 pm

Kumar David

It is fortuitous but most timely that on 5 October somebody left a copy of a brand new book at the gate for me – thank you whoever you are. The topic that has enthralled the media and political commentators for the last four weeks is the explosion in the JVP and most important is that the problem is still unfinished business from 1971 if not earlier. It is vital that both factions of the schism be challenged theoretically to a forthright debate of the past and the present. Unforeseen by the author of the book and the book’s hero, it has turned out to be the perfect foil for me to get the ball rolling.

The Lionel Bopage Story by Michael Colin Cooke, Ahahas Publications, Colombo, 2011, traces the political history of the JVP from its origins in the 1967-68 to Bopage’s leaving for Australia in 1989 in nine chapters. The book is subtitled ‘Rebellion, repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka’ and is a ‘two for the price of one’ political biography of Lionel and the JVP inseparably intertwined. The tenth chapter on the family’s life ‘Down Under’ will not interest politically motivated readers so I will not touch on it - but it does fascinate me since I see myself as a personal friend of lovely Chitra and brave Lionel. Let me add that neither will friendship hinder sharp criticism when needed.

There are two gigantic political blunders that underlie the whole JVP saga from alpha to omega; Sinhala chauvinism and puerile ultra-left adventurism. Both are of the utmost significance right here and now, right today, in the context of the historic split occurring before our eyes. The book provides me with source material for a close evaluation of both blunders. I will deal with left adventurism and the foolish plunge into a senseless putsch in this column today. Next week will be the turn of the national question.

Narodniks sans


Chapter three deals with the genesis of the JVP and chapter four examines the preparation, the launch and the defeat of the doomed April 1971 insurrection. The JVP’s strategic plan was to capture the state by an armed rebellion of about 5,000 young people, mostly in their twenties, through a simultaneous lightning strike on about 100 police stations and by seizing the City of Colombo. It was sheer adolescent lunacy and was bound to be crushed once the armed might of the state, ably supported by the Soviet Bloc, China and the West rallied to the support of the government. It would have been crushed even without foreign support but that would have been a little messier; it would have been crushed even if misadventures had not given the government notice of the rebellion a day ahead. Home made hand bombs, sawn off hand-guns, creeping around at night playing hora-police, less than zero mass or working class support for an uprising; what was going on in their minds?

Lionel does not tell lies, but he leaves out a lot about the preparatory phase before that fateful April day. Or maybe we remember different things because of different political standpoints. I had returned from postgraduate studies in 1969 and was a young engineering lecturer at the same time that Lionel was a student in the Faculty and we shared the drama of the Peradeniya Campus before that Armageddon day. Let me say this clear and upfront, the JVP student bodies on campus were a bunch of fascistic armed thugs. How many times anti-JVP students must have been beaten up, how many times people like Bahu and I must have avoided a beating only because we were staff, how many times every opposition to the JVP in debates and seminars was shouted at, screamed at, and silenced; I lost count. The book is silent on this dark and brutish intimidation of political opponents.

It was chaotic for months; strange creatures in shadowy clothes would flit around outside the halls of residence in the dead of night. They were going for secret meetings, study classes, and of course making, transporting and storing of hand bombs. There were police raids, if I recall correctly in February and March. There was the accidental bomb explosion in Mars Hall that gave the show away and led the police to unearth an arsenal. Lionel complains of arrest, intimidation and incarceration of a large number of JVP cadres before April; yes that’s true. I don’t want to take the side of the ‘dirty capitalist state’ but what will any law enforcement agency do if it unearths piles of hand bombs and guns in preparation for an imminent armed uprising?

The JVP was planning to use a crude cudgel as the instrument of ‘revolution’. In chapter four Lionel sketches the secret preparations that were being made by a cadre of a few thousand young people to bludgeon Ceylon into insurrectionary stupor. It had not the feeblest link to what the JVP’s pantheon, Marx, Lenin and Mao, called revolution.

Lionel does say "(T)he struggle of the JVP took the form of a secret conspiracy, without the participation of the majority of the working people" and the book’s author concedes "There was nothing romantic about the insurrection itself. It was a botched putsch by a faction-ridden party . . ." However, Lionel and author Cook elsewhere ruminate that maybe the insurrection was a tactical mistake, maybe the JVP should have retreated to the hills for a while, maybe more mass political work in preparation for an insurrection should have preceded it. Crucially, they do not concede that the very strategy and theory were plain wrong. I am asserting this in the hope that today’s factions will take some note.

Theory, what theory?

Lionel gives us a summary of Wijeweera’s five lectures and the lurid scenarios under which they were delivered. The contents have been known for a long time but it is definitive when a person of Lionel’s standing in the party (Politburo member and later General Secretary) provides a synopsis. The themes were: the capitalist economic crisis, Sri Lanka since independence, Indian expansionism, a critique of the traditional left, and the final and most secretive, path to revolution. The first two were couched in the Stalinist-Maoist argot of the times, jargon soaked like munching splinters, but let it pass because it comes from the right side of the barricade. Personally though, I could not have sat through it for 16 hours!

Number three was a shocker. It combined Maoist antipathy to India, described Indian capitalist expansion as the root of regional conflicts and dismissed the Upcountry Tamils as cultural, economic and ideological dependents of Indian capitalism. The fourth was an attack on the opportunist politics of the traditional left – fine, but I could have done a better job! The final discourse dismissed bourgeois democracy in Sri Lanka as a fake and sketched out the programme for the putsch. For people who loved to quote Lenin this was as far removed from reality as one could get. It disdained mass and class political activity in favour of armed intervention by a small group; Narodnik thinking 100 years after the original version and the precise opposite of Leninism.

I was in the campus LSSP ‘Local’ and though not secretary at the time, I had been for a long time before, which may be why I was summoned to appear before the Party PB in February 1971. I well remember the meeting at NM’s Cotta Road house as though it was yesterday. I was an inconsequential pup in the presence of great men – NM stroking his nose with his eyes closed, larger than life Colvin, Leslie deadpan and dead serious, Bernard, the two bald pates (Hector and Doric) and one or two others. What was happening was crystal clear to us the LSSP campus group, an uprising was in the planning; we were gasping in the thick of it, and it was certain that a large scale tragedy was in the making. So the slaughter was not unforeseen and the Party had indeed been forewarned. After a lot of grilling NM finally asked, "So comrade, what do you want us to do?" My reply was "Prepare the working class, even arm sections" – meaning if you leave it to the state it will be carnage. NM and Leslie sighed and shook their heads.

The LSSP leaders had a clear understanding of what the JVP was. It was rooted in the social crisis of tens of thousands of educated, but exclusively Sinhala educated youth, lacking a window into the bigger outside world. They were socially and economically under-privileged and unemployed. The JVP was a product of the 1960s and 1970s ferment – the age of Vietnam, Cuba and anti-imperialism. It was a movement of the oppressed, but it was intellectually half-baked. It was cadre-based and indoctrinated with a conspiratorial mind set. The youth had lost faith in the traditional left within months of the 1970 election.

Yes the PB understood all this, but it was paralysed. It had lost the dialectical plot, not by entering a coalition, but in its adjustment to the state so as to use that state itself for its own transformation and as an agent of social revolution. Superficial people say the LSSP’s failure was opportunism; no not so, what derailed it was an error of dialectics, a misjudged ingress into an infeasible state-making project.

Reopening the debate on method

I said this JVP-Lionel biography was a perfect foil for reopening a debate which is more about today’s concerns than history – 1971 and 1988-90. A sensitive observer of the JVP schism would have good reason to worry whether the two cardinal and continuing blunders of the JVP are now being shared out by the two factions, one each. Is the official faction, in accusing the dissidents of an Eelamist agenda and serving as RAW’s tools, revving themselves up to turn on the chauvinist tap - again? Are the dissidents, by their ambiguity on programmatic matters, leaning to ultra-left adventurism - again? It is this concern with ultra-left adventurism that motivated my approach today in reviewing two chapters from Cook’s book about Bopage.

Is the book pricy at $25 for a paper back – have a heart, it’s 560 pages. If you are interested in politics you need a copy for sure

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