Monday, April 20, 2015

Dissecting a Lion

It went on for more than one hour. It needn't have but then again it didn't lag. Time didn't matter anyway. Everyone seemed to have come with a purpose. They had come to honour an icon. To remind themselves that his legacy continues. After all these years. The 43rd Commemoration of Philip Gunawardena was held at the Sri Sambuddhathwa Jayanthi Mandiraya (in Thunmulla) on March 28. It opened up to a crowd that waited, patiently, until everything was over. The weather wasn't amenable and the heat outside was unbearable. But we couldn't have cared less. And we didn't.

At the time of Philip Gunawardena's death, Ceylon was just a few months shy of "becoming" Sri Lanka. All those decades spent in agitating for complete independence were soon to culminate. The worst uprising in our country's post-independence history until then had come and gone. One can only guess what Philip (who was 72 when he passed away) would have said (or written) had he lived. Those who came to honour him weren't interested in that, however. They were interested in the man and his life. As they should be.

There were guests who came and spoke. Two guests. Professor A. V. D. S. Indraratne, the prominent economist, was first in line. He raised some important points in his speech. He noted, correctly I believe, that by the time Philip Gunawardena returned to Ceylon in 1932, Marxism here was more or less limited to the urban worker. It was Philip, he highlighted, who brought Marxism to the rural peasant. Professor Indraratne coined a term for this: "jathika samajavadaya". The meaning gets diluted when translated, because "national socialism" would hardly stand up to what the Professor meant for reasons that are all too obvious. Still, his thesis stood ground. Remarkably.

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka delivered the second speech. It was longer. Didn't matter. Dr Jayatilleka can speak lengthily without losing touch with his audience. That's what he did here. He began by reading out a pen portrait written by his father Mervyn de Silva. He delivered it in English and then went on to deliver his own speech, free of frill but still long.

Dr Jayatilleka argued that the man he was speaking about tried to bring together two ideologies. One was Marxism. The other was nationalism. In other words, he saw Gunawardena's entire project as having to do with the amalgamation of these two different streams. He quoted a term that fitted some of those who opposed him ideologically: "mul sidhagath aragala karayo" (rootless cosmopolitans).

Professor Indraratne
This is true. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party, since its inception in 1935, tried to fill a gap. Unlike in India, where the middle-class and even the upper-class intelligentsia actively opposed British rule, their counterparts here were content with transitional independence (Dominion status). In other words, the bourgeoisie here did not call for complete independence. Which was where the LSSP fitted in.

This was also where Gunawardena fitted in, because it was he who moved the LSSP to Trotskyism and revolutionary politics. The party as a whole was represented by him and N. M. Perera, yes. But while N. M. eventually oversaw the transition of his party to social democracy, his colleague and in some ways his rival persisted with his vision of Trotskyism blending in with nationalism.

At the time of Gunawardena's death (N. M. would die seven years after him), it was not difficult to see who had won and who held sway: the LSSP had embraced social democracy which, in the words of Regi Siriwardena, "irrevocably triumped over the residual Marxism of his (N. M. Perera's) colleagues."

What of Gunawardena, though? While N. M. Perera's beliefs were rooted largely in an urban, secular, and cosmopolitan backdrop, Gunawardena's beliefs were rooted in a rural, tradition-based, and by no means secular upbringing. It was this that both speakers echoed, I believe, when they mentioned how successfully he brought together nationalism and Marxism.

Reading the "Lion of Boralugoda" this way would be easy, however. Too easy. Which was why Dr Jayatilleka went beyond this simplification. He argued that Marxists here faced a dilemma in that they failed or didn't make the attempt to reach out to history. He pointed out that both Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh successfully reflected their country's independence struggle in their political projects.

Unlike Castro and Minh, however, Marxists here rubbished history, dismissing each and every historical struggle against colonialism as "bourgeois". According to Dr Jayatilleka, Marxism was the true successor to Veera Puran Appu's movement. That those who followed it failed to realise this eventually led to their downfall. That is why Philip Gunawardena is remembered, he implied: because he tried to follow what others hadn't wanted to.

Perhaps this explains everything. Perhaps not. The argument that Marxists here were estranged from history stands to reason elsewhere too. But reducing Philip Gunawardena's legacy to his divergence from this alone would be another simplification. It is not as simplistic as the blanket vilification of Marxism by nationalists, true, but the point is that he didn't just complement nationalism with socialism. To argue that this was all he did would be a poor reading of him.

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka
I think Dr Jayatilleka understood this. Which was why he raised another point. For him, Gunawardena wasn't just a nationalist. He had gone overseas. He had met and befriended Krishna Menon and Jomo Kenyatta in London. He had fought with the Republicans in Spain. He had lived a hard life. All this managed to free him from the insularity of nationalism. Dr Jayatilleka pointed this out by contrasting his "jathikavadaya" (nationalism based on a nation) with "jathivadaya" (nationalism based on race).

One can of course retort to all this: "But why did he compromise with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in his coalition with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike?" A poor argument the way I see it, because by 1956 two factors stood out in favour of that same coalition.

One was the factional splits the LSSP and the Left movement as a whole were facing. The other was the wholesale populist opposition to the United National Party, which found its pivot in Bandaranaike's movement. He was swept to power on a platform of the pancha maha balavegaya. The farmer ("goviya") figured in there, as did the rural peasantry. Gunawardena represented both.

This is not the time to analyse anything and everything, however. The 43rd Commemoration of Philip Gunawardena turned out to be what its organisers had wanted: a celebration. It wasn't just a celebration of the man. It was a celebration of his legacy. A celebration of how relevant that legacy is today. I think Professor Indraratne summed this up nicely:

"Those who are in power and those who want to come to power will do well to look up to icons like Philip. I do not wish to talk any longer. But I wish to make this much clear. If we continue to take to heart people like him, if we move on to better our Parliament by his example, then we can all improve as a nation. We can all hope for good governance. Rhetoric-less good governance."

Aptly put, I should think.

Photos courtesy of Vinod Kumar Moonesinghe