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

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Lionel Bopage Story: from an ex-rebel that walked away to that he walked away from

Category Archives: Views

The Lionel Bopage Story: from an ex-rebel that walked away to that he walked away from.

The Lionel Bopage Story: Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka by Michael Colin Cooke comes at a crucial juncture in Left Wing representation of the nation’s history. On one hand, the political party of which Bopage was a key member – the JVP – has had an intra-party explosion of a sort and is in the process of relaying itself in terms of its policy, ideology and membership. Then, again, the political present against which the book is released is intense with “repressions” – political, social, cultural, (non-state) ideological etc – and a strained sense of justice are generally felt by citizens who choose to see the existence of such. Our political transactions remain “struggles” alright; largely muffled struggles by a strategic weakening of “alternative voices” and modes of such representation.

Bopage’s 1960s and the Present
The nation, one feels, is being driven to a phase where the disparity between the “political elite” and its annexation of VIPs and the “rest of all” is systematically enhanced. In other words, the insistent class tension of the “haves” – the privileged in terms of political access, social viability, economic sustainability, civil authority etc – and the “haves not” is being strategically fine tuned through state funded mechanisms. Spaces ones “civil” are largely being prioritized and are being converted into the monopoly of an “elite few”. A householder at Old Kent Road cannot park his monopoly pawn at Mayfair. Not even in Sri Lanka, the fast growing “Wonder”.
The backdrop against which youth agitation first broke out in 1971 saw a privileged elite, into whose bloodstreams power and authority had been naturalized, be temporarily unsettled. The outcome of the rebellion aside, the spurting of social anxiety in militant a form itself testifies to the dissent and disparity of post-independence neo-elite monopoly. The times, perhaps, have changed; but, in a continual order where an “elite oligarchy” belittles the rights and aspirations of the “rest” the tensions are recycled and re-manifested. The “struggle”, alongside the “suppression”, continues; for the class conflict and the desire of the elite (ruling) class to disarm hegemonize its subject persists. The story of the JVP, throughout the years, has consistently been a battered history written and rewritten along these lines. The party has twice been brutally raped and slithered by the state arm and – since its reentry into mainstream politics – has undergone several decisive intra-party ideological clashes. The continuous suppression of the JVP as well as its own inner tumults gives a wider meaning to “struggle” in which the party pioneered by Wijeweera, Bopage et al had had to engage: a “struggle” with itself as well as its political opposition.
Famous shot of Wijeweera in 1970
The Lionel Bopage Story (LBS), therefore, at a level, becomes a meta narrative which helps us in our readings of the transformations and shifts the party at present is undergoing. The rupture within the party – the open divide between the “Somawansa faction” and the “Gunaratnam party” – can be seen as a continuation of a “revolutionary” legacy along Marxist principles which Bopage’s records introduce to us in LBS. More crucially, I felt that the book tries to submit to the general reader (by “general reader” I mean a reader who is not necessarily a student of the JVP or the Lankan history of revolutionary politics) an argument which invites a view regarding the complexity that surrounded the 1971 insurrection and its aftermath. In this regard, Bopage / Bopage’s biographer has much to “reset” and “reconstruct” in the general reading public’s eye – for, the “demon” of insurrection which is internalized into the mass psyche, as a phenomenon, is traditionally one that is detrimentally prejudiced against the JVP. The transmission of history – as well as its construction – is arbitrated by the victor. The state ideologue has no blueprint for a memorial in the name of the (lost) revolutionary potential of 1971 or 1987. That history, by such default lines, is condemned and silenced. Bopage’s biography, therefore, is an attempt at exploring the complexities and ambiguities of these processes by which a twin revolution was borne and brought forth; and as to how they culminated in two tragic mass holocausts.
Bopage, 40 years on
The Bopage saga highlights the initial years of the JVP, of its origins and the impetus by which it set its revolutionary clock. In fact, much has been written already of the first phase of rebellion (1965-1971), but Bopage’s views have seldom been included in a publication addressing a general audience on the issue/s the JVP tussled with. Two solid chapters are dedicated to the crucial after-1971 phase of the JVP, mapping the revisions and second thoughts the frontliners and theoreticians of the party felt between 1971-1977. A strength of the book is its close study of how the likes of Bopage and their political consciousness sustains itself (“shift” could be a better word, perhaps, in a relativist sense) against the deepest ditch of an eroding national consciousness in the 1980s. Two further chapters extend the “shifts” and reflects on the consciousness of a later Bopage; both in exile and then fixed in Australia (1989-2009).
A Supplementary Document
Out of the writers with a myriad agendas writing of the 1971 insurgency let me isolate for comparison two who are popularly peddled. One retrospective writer of the rebellion is Victor Ivan (71 Kaerella), who reflects on the trajectory taken by the JVP (1965-71) as an ex-rebel. Ivan’s confessional apology (to the state), however, is significant for at least two reasons: (a) the analytical socio-historical detail he presents of the political and economic disparities which existed in post-independence Ceylon as an “ex-insider”: ground conditions which urged / assisted the likes of Rohana Wijeweera to “manipulate” revolutionary potential; (b) the trivialization Ivan makes of the processes by which revolution was executed and the moral and pragmatic “hollow” of the leadership which he repeatedly highlights.
A protest march of our times, watched by state-installed soldiers
On the other hand, we have political historians of Fred Halliday’s caliber, whose political convictions and ideological storehouses get in the way of a more “objective” analysis of the rise and the felling of the JVP. Halliday’s Marxist activism and strong bias to the “Left” disallows him to be a “reasonable” eye or a neutral analyzer of history. Cooke’s records of Lionel Bopage, on the contrary, comes across as a more balanced and controlled delivery. Even in his bid to present what Cooke himself calls a “Marxist history” of Bopage’s activism his sense of detachment and of being a referential “third party” prevails. Of course, at times, the ironies presented by the writer are subtly honed. Take the random instance where HLD Mahindapala’s responses to Olga Mendis’ historical references to Sri Lanka are introduced as coming from “the doyen of all things Sinhala down under”; but, the delivery, overall, does not degenerate to the level of hot emotions being used as boxing hides.
But, more crucially, the LBS submits to the reader a “counter-narrative” to the streamlined quasi-histories to the struggle nursed in the form of Ivan et al. A strength of the text is its consideration of the evolution of the JVP parallel to the larger politico-historical context of the nation’s post-independence trajectory. Running parallel to the Bopage saga we have the state’s exercise and feeding of anti-communal bread to the (Sinhala majoritarian) body mass. The writer connects the struggle of the JVP with the larger “rebellious consciousness” of the island. The riots of 1958, the democratic struggle of the Tamil identity to enhance its rights and its will to equality are presented through a neat evolutionary light in relation to three regimes through the 1960s to 1983.
Skeeter Davies songs are often considered responses to Jim Reeves ballads. In an analogy that may sound somewhat unromantic, one feels that the LBS aims at “filling” many holes left of “1971” by the prejudices of Ivan-likes and other pro-state recorders. Cooke’s accomplishment is brought forth in three main forms: (a) by laying out 1971 in juxtaposition to post-71 political activity. This makes “1971” a mere moment of a larger political programme and of extended political stakes. Bopage’s own misgivings and ideological revisions a mature activist naturalizes as a historical “inevitability” the run up and the execution of the initial insurrection; (b) Bopage’s apology for Wijeweera (and his “acquittal” of Wijeweera from “blame” regarding 1971) is a conscious defense of the JVP against the mainstream history documented on the evidence of dissidents and one’s prejudiced. Cooke records Bopage as recalling how Wijeweera himself felt that an attack in April 1971 to be nothing short of “suicide”. He also submits records of the enthusiasm to revolution shown by some members of the central committee, who later on became witnesses of the Crown. At yet another level, (c) Cooke gives much space to the contradictions and ambiguities within the JVP practice – and does not seek “fool proof”, “all explained” interpretations.
The future left open
The JVP has now come to a juncture where its mainstream leadership is confused among a tangled “left of center” and “right of left” contraptions. Like all revolutionary potential which dealt spades with the capitalist mainstream manifesto, the JVP too has lost its impetus – it has been bought or dulled; its ideology been blurred and complicated. The pores apparent in the party at large keep issuing forth worms and other termites. But, these signs have a positive thrust, if progressively understood and reacted to. Posters of the “November Heroes’ Day” (Il Maha Viru Dhinaya) from both JVP “sides” adorn the same poster spaces. Both parties launch public seminars – both locally and overseas – to reach out to its carder and activists. Jitters are sent down the spines of non-JVP and ex-JVP personalities, too; who – perhaps out of skepticism, if not out of a sense of restlessness at the prospect of a Leftist resurgence – take to platforms to speak of the crises which the JVP itself has not fathomed.
However, the Bopage biography, to me, is a key to read the past, present and continuous struggles of sidelined political potency; and the theoretic revisions and reconsiderations we need to plant an effective (if at all) programme against state hegemony.
[This was earlier carried by the Nation on Sunday]

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