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People power to the fore

| by Dr Vickramabahu Karunaratne

(January 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A friend of mine declared that since Independence in 1948, the JVP of the 1960s and 1970s was the only revolutionary Marxist or revolutionary socialist formation in Lanka; but today the JVP is neither revolutionary nor socialist. He added that post 1948, as the LSSP-CP were no more revolutionary socialistic, but essentially parliamentary socialists, there were only two options visible: a coalition for state power with the SLFP petty bourgeoisie /nascent bourgeoisie; or an independent /permanent socialist opposition. Leaders opted for the former and there by ruined the left movement. On the other hand he believes that the JVP thought correctly in 1971, about taking over state power. But they grossly underestimated the strength of the state institutions defending the establishment. However the capitalist structure in 1971 was not that strong. Hence, had the large mass based parties the LSSP and CP remained revolutionary socialistic, post 1948, the outcome of any major youth uprising in 1971 could have been different.

17-3Clearly the reformist LSSP/CP betrayed. Having said that, my friend proceeded to conclude that, the most consistent outcome in the last 60 years of politics of parliamentary socialism in Sri Lanka, which includes the NSSP, too, is consolidation of capitalism. So the future looks bleak. Though he has got facts wrong, it is a serious suggestion which needs a careful counter.

Mass struggle for power

In the first place he has not considered seriously, hartal or mass struggle as a potential bid for state power. True, in 1953 the leaders did not make a conscious preparation. The hartal was scheduled for only one day, but in some cases the crowds were so worked up that they continued until the morning of the 13. Some leaders held that there was no intent to continue the demonstrations after the 12. But others suggested that the demonstrators were ready to go on, only if the leadership had given them a signal. In many areas the police and demonstrators clashed and at least ten people were killed. On August 12 the cabinet of ministers met on board the HMS Newfoundland, a British warship docked in the Colombo harbour. The immediate result of the meeting was that portions of the country were placed under Emergency Regulations, essentially martial law, and Dudley Senanayake resigned as Prime Minister. The United National Party (UNP) remained in control of the government and elected John Lionel Kotelawala as Prime Minister.

It was an application of the classic Marxist thesis of the general strike with mass support to bid for state power. In fact the capitalists correctly understood the danger and made all preparation for the confrontation. But those who called the hartal failed to take it to that stage. However, they knew the Marxist thesis that a general strike ought to lead to the overthrow of the government in power. Hence it is correct to blame the leadership. But it is a greater folly to off-hand dismiss the hartal, where masses irrespective of nationality, caste or religion got together to challenge the system. People failed no doubt, but in JVP led insurrections too, people get defeated with greater losses. In 1971, while it was betrayed by the coalitionists, the JVP was childish to launch an insurrection against a newly appointed popular front government overwhelmingly supported by the proletariat. Hartal was a mass struggle that spread in many directions, while the ‘71 insurrection was confined to an organised group of Sinhala youth. ‘53 is not the only mass struggle led by the proletariat. So was the general strike and sathyagraha of 1980.

Against economic policy

Openly it was not led by political parties and demands were not political. However the unrest was developing against the new open economic policy and the draconian laws and constitutional changes brought in to protect the new setup. The result of the new economic policies of the government was soaring inflation, rising food prices, welfare cuts and with these measures came an increase in conflict with workers and their trade unions. The trade unions set up the Joint Trade Union Action Committee, the JTUAC, in an attempt to meet the emerging challenges; and protests started. Government thugs attacked the protestors and a trade unionist, D.Somapala, the father of five young children was killed. Industrial unrest continued and the JTUAC convened by Panditha, decided on July 11 to call for a general strike on July 17. The government introduced Emergency rule on the night of July 16 and declared every imaginable enterprise, both public and private, an “essential service”. The Emergency regulations imposed censorship of all news relating to or connected with the strike including even references to the strike in Parliament. All meetings of parties or organizations other than those organized by the government were banned. All facilities hitherto granted to trade unions in the public sector were withdrawn. Office facilities, enjoyed by unions up to then in government premises, were taken back by the government. Bank accounts of all trade unions on strike were frozen. Police was invested with power to arrest and detain persons for a period not exceeding 14 days and those arrested under Emergency regulations were refused bail, unless the express consent of the attorney general was obtained. The regulations were enforced to the letter, casting a heavy toll on strikers and their unions. Though the strike leaders except the NSSP leaders, assumed the struggle as non political, the government correctly understood the developing mass struggle as a political threat. JR openly asked the question “who is ruling the country JR or Panditha?”

This mass struggle too got defeated as opportunist TU leaders including the JVP sabotaged the action. Eleven mass leaders including Moulana, Vasu and Bahu were kept in remand and the case which accused them of a conspiracy to overthrow the government was heard for eleven years, before it was dismissed for lack of evidence. Today the perspective of a mass struggle is valid more than ever.

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