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November is for remembering

By Malinda Seneviratne

In the midst of a hectic election campaign, the JVP has not forgotten to commemorate their fallen heroes. It is probably a blessing that the JVP can commemorate what to their minds was a massive political tragedy right in the middle of a campaign. It is after all a media event and will win them some extra media space. Comrades Wijeweera and others might not mind. If they died "for the party" they could also be "remembered" for the party, I am sure. Although, if he was looking down from up there wherever he may be now, Rohana might well wonder what his party is doing, bedding with the right-wing, all but abandoning Marx, and up to their necks now in parliamentary politics.

Remembering is not the preserve of the JVP. Neither do they "own" the remembering of that particular November. For they are not the only ones who suffered. They also made people suffer. They were, after all, the punchi aanduwa and in some places they were the maha aanduwa, their "curfews" being more effective than those enforced by the government. And at times no one knew who was worse, the government or the JVP, for when terror envelops a society, death does not give a damn about party affiliation.

November 1989

I remember November 1989 when the entire politburo of the then JVP (sans of course Somawansa Amarasinghe) including Rohana Wijeweera were blasted out of the Sri Lankan political equation. I was in the United States at that time, checking Sri Lankan news that trickled into my email account courtesy of SLnet. I felt a thin film of tears sweeping across my eyes. Didn’t make sense, for I had always opposed the JVP for its fascism and its ideological inconsistencies. It took me a while to make sense of those tears. I found they were powered by both profound sorrow and intense anger.

I had never been a friend of the JVP, not least of all because I have been threatened and assaulted by its cadres. I remember September 1988. Campus had reopened after many months. I found that during this hiatus many of my formerly anti-JVP friends had second thoughts. I presented a Marxist reading of the JVP and argued that this party was more populist than anything else and that in practice they were definitely fascist. A batchmate from Ampara told me that things were different in the villages and that there it was about simple things; young peope needed to go where there was strength in order to save their lives and that’s why they joined the JVP. He invited me to go with him to his village. I went and found his thesis to be correct.

I met local JVP leaders who told me their stories and made cogent arguments for joining the JVP. It was, as my friend said, not about ideological convinction, but survival. For them, the state was primarily responsible for the situation. The JVP, to them, was not blameless. Unlike others who had the luxury to make objections based on ideological differences and stick to particular positions simply because the immediacy of "threat" was never felt, such people could hardly debate ideological purity. I suppose the same argument could be made about the LTTE. This is why I differentiate cadres from leaders.

He also took me to a rally in Ampara organised by the JVP, attended by well over 5000 people. My friend was asked to speak on behalf of the Inter University Student Federation. He made a lucid speech, analysing the political situation and discussion the options before the people, without once compromising his beliefs about class, social change and a better order of things. Immediately after the rally we left Ampara and my friend didn’t return home for several years. He couldn’t. Everyone who spoke at that meeting, except for representatives of the SLFP, were butchered.

All this didn’t make me join the JVP for a couple of reasons. I firmly believed that when the UNP was all set to unleash the bheeshanaya, the JVP provided them with ample excuses. Also, there were too many ideological issues that the JVP was simply not interested in resolving. And yes, although I was born in the "wrong" decade and therefore a possible victim (not least of all because I was an undergraduate), "disappearance" was never a day-to-day issue to worry about. Two years later, hundreds of patriotic, honourable men and women were dead. Included in the long list of the "disappeared" were friends whom I cared about. At the end of the day, capitalism emerged stronger.

The JVP would have commemorated their dead. Among the political rhetoric I am sure there would have been JVPers at the Vihara Maha Devi Park who would have spent a few quiet minutes remembering more real and human things, like friends and family killed. Some of the older members might have also reflected on the atrocities they or their leaders engaged in. Remorse might have crept in, but I doubt it. Twelve years is a long time. Long enough for a clear "come-clean" about the bheeshanaya and all the blood that’s on their political hands. Too much to hope? Yes, the JVP saints just abhor the word "papochcharanaya". It is a demand that the people themselves are not interested in or are too scared to ask. Maybe that’s just a reflection why we as a society are so poverty-stricken politically.

In any case, I still remember the anger and the sadness that wrapped my sensibilitites. And I took the time to disentangle these strands and lay out their distinctive histories. My anger was primarily directed at the UNP and its willingness to arrest, abduct, torture and kill unarmed people. I was also angry at the JVP for dragging our youth on an emotional highway with a clearly marked destination board: "Tragedy". I was sad because these political twins sent hundreds of people who were capable of serving society well to their untimely and tragic deaths. Those November assasinations put an end to the bheeshanaya. I suppose I had reason to heave a sigh of relief. For an entire generation, it meant the end of hoping. Rightly or wrongly they believed their time had come and it did, in ways they didn’t quite anticipate.

Dreaming is the prerogative of youthfulness. The burning of dreams, then, can arguably call forth some tears.

No fair trial

I believe Wijeweera and the rest of the JVP leaders deserved a fair trial even if they themselves did not accord the same rights to those whose execution their kangaroo courts ordered. I am against the death penalty and certainly opposed to extra-judicial killings. Still, I did not and do not grieve their demise. I am indifferent. And still, I had reason to grieve. I grieved for my friends and for people whom I admired, who gave their hearts and their lives to win something for their class, their way of life, their country.

I remember learning, again through email, a couple of months after that fateful November, about the JVP leader for Matale District being killed after a massive operation in the jungles around Sigiriya. Prematilleke was about four years senior to me at Peradeniya.

I had met him once very briefly in Doratiyawa. At that time he was against the JVP. In letters to friends written around 1988 and 1989 he had desperately said he was trapped politically, for he was, unfortunately, a university student. A suspect. Apparently his father had been the victim of a proxy arrest. The police had demanded that the sons (three or four if I remember right) "give themselves up" if the old mad is to be released. Premasiri had died fighting. There had been just two others with him. His friend Senadheera, also from the same batch and a teacher had been killed after a "billah" had pointed him out as a JVP suspect. Another, Anil, again againt a JVP had been hounded by the death squads because his brother was in the JVP and by the JVP because he was opposed to him. He managed to flee the country. He did not return.

Among those who were not personally known to me, there were remarkable people who never got a chance to flower to their full potential. Among these were two incredibly gifted student leaders, Daya Pathirana and Ranjithan Gunaratnam. Daya Pathirana was the charismatic leader of the Independent Students Union of Colombo University. Pathirana knew his Marxism and he knew that the JVP didn’t. He was therefore the most serious threat to the JVP’s control of the Inter University Students Federation. He "had to be killed". They abducted him, sliced his throat and left him bleeding to death in Kindelpitiya. In the end his organisation "evolved" into one of the many hit-squads employed by Premadasa. That is besides the point. In the case of the ISU, it can be argued, that it was the JVP that pushed that organisation into Premadasa’s lap. Together, all these people threw the ordinary into the lap of the cursed thing which came to be known as the bheeshanaya.

Ranjithan Gunaratnam was another exceptional student leader. He was in the Engineering Faculty at Peradeniya. He was at one time the convenor of the Inter University Student Federation. He was arrested on several occasions, and once held for over a year, I believe. He wrote and spoke eloquently in all three languages. According to his friends he was one of the most gentle and persuasive individuals in the student movement. He was abducted in December 1989, detained, tortured and killed in the infamous torture chambers in Wehera, Kurunegala.

*In my batch there was a boy from Kuliyapitiya named Lalith. Way back in 1985 when JVPers were shy about admitting their membership, Lalith did. Even then he was seen more as a showman than anything else. He insisted on wearing red shirts for demonstrations (and we had only three "strike" days that year). He even posed for photographs next to posters. I believe he had read too much revolutionary literature and digested very little of it. Overall, Lalith was a good hearted person. He was "disappeared".

Then there was Dassanayake. Dase, as he was known to all, was not politically prominent in our first two years. He was a year senior to me. By the end of 1987 he was undoubtedly the leader of the Arts Faculty at Peradeniya, which doesn’t say much since that particular stream was (and still is) the most gullible to JVP rhetoric and the least capable of nuanced analysis, least of all social transformation a la Marxism. Still, Dase was different. He was a small man, spoke intensely and to the point. I remember when a boy in Nugawela Central was shot dead aroud September 1988, all of us anti-JVPers went to Dase and asked him what he wanted us to do. It was not about the JVP or scoring political points even though any action at that point would be credited to the JVP balance sheet. It was about a young boy, 15 years old, being gunned down in cold blood and about trusting an honourable leader.

A year later, Dase was dead, the last we heard was that he had been tortured, his body cut into pieces and hung from a tree. He had met a batchmate a few weeks before that, and had admitted that the JVP had made unforgivable blunders. He had been asked to "get out" now. Dase had said "too late, machang". He had brought too many people into the movement to quit. He also had a congenital defect in one eye. He had nowhere to hide. He was honourable. He was killed.

Of course there were thousands of others. There were bus drivers, grama niladharis, UNP politicians, left leaders, media personnel, artists and ordinary people who succumbed to the bheeshanaya. They will be remembered by those who felt their loss deepest.

What am I supposed to say this November, twelve years later? During the bheeshanaya, Chandrika fled the country. Her friends in the SLMP (which and not the SLFP runs the PA, by the way) formed death squads of their own and helped the UNP wipe out the JVP along with thousands of innocent people. The UNP can’t make us forget how it robbed us of our innocence. The JVP can’t claim to be blameless. It’s banner is red as much from the blood of others as with that of comrades.

November is not about any of these parties. It is about us as a people, what we suffered, what we lost. It is not about an election. It is about learning; learning how to fight better, how necessary it is not to let go of our humanity even when it is necessary to pick a gun. And of course remembering those among us who were unmistakably pure and committing ourselves to gather and piece together the charred dreams that were torn apart.


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