The last of the Old Left and the end of an era

Hector Abhayavardhana:


by Rajan Philips

HectorAbhayavardhana passed away on Saturday, September 22, at the ripe old age of 93. He was a lifelong and loyal member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party.Almost from the time he joined the Party as a young University student, Hector belonged to the top echelon of the Party – that formidable political pantheon of Philip Gunawardena, N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Edmund Samarakoddy, Bernard Soysa and Doric de Souza. With his death the curtain finally falls on Sri Lanka’s oldest political party, but its contributions over fifty years are a huge part of the island’s 20th century politics and society. They cannot be erased, they cannot be forgotten. The question is whether a new generation of Sri Lankans will be serious enough to draw inspiration from those contributions to make a difference in the present situation and foreseeable future.

To say that the curtain is finally falling on Sri Lanka’s grand old political party is not so much an obituary to the LSSP as it is a lament about the state of politics and political society in today’s Sri Lanka. As a theoretician and commentator, Hector has the set standards for those of us who gravitated to him for inspiration and method. He could see the political situation clinically and objectively regardless of the limitations of party discipline and political choices. He has described the Sri Lankan state soon after independence as a caricature and the 1956 government as the enthronement of charlatanism. By those yard sticks, what would be the measure of the present government and the state of politics in today’s Sri Lanka? But first, let us remember Hector and honour the great man.

Man of exemplary paradoxes

For someone who almost died of smallpox 70 years ago in a Gujarati village when he was just 23 and an underground revolutionary during India’s independence struggle, Hector outlived every Sri Lankan and Indian socialist who entered politics to end the British colonial rule in South Asia. As far as I know, BalaTampoe, prominent lawyer and veteran trade union leader, is the only person alive who joined the LSSP before independence. But Tampoe, who wrested control of the Ceylon Mercantile Union from A.E. Goonesinha for the LSSP, broke away with his union from the LSSP in 1964. Those who remember Leslie Goonewardene’s "Short History of the LSSP," will recall the references to Hector’s experience with death in Gujarat and Tampoe’s triumph over Goonesinha in Colombo.

Hector has often described himself as someone whose primary interest was politics. We could say that Hector found in politics the means to rise above the banalities of life and he lived a life that freed him from the banalities of Sri Lankan politics. Hector was also the only Sri Lankan or Indian who was politically active in both countries after independence for long periods of time. He has lived in Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Hyderabad, Madras and Colombo as the intellectuals’ intellectual, the writers’ writer and the debaters’ debater – always advancing the cause of socialism and progressive politics and inspiring others around him to work towards shared goals.

He was a man of exemplary paradoxes. For someone who brought to a head within the LSSP and in the entire left movement the debate over choosing between parliamentary realism and revolutionary dogmatism – the debate that ended with the breakup of the LSSP in 1964 and the beginning of coalition governments, Hector never sought election for a seat in parliament. He would have politely turned down an invitation to a seat in parliament on the National List. Political writing was the most enduring passion in his life, but Hector always shunned the mainstream and establishment media and worked with alternative media and counter-hegemonic voices of dissent. The quintessential party loyalist, Hector cultivated broad political and intellectual networks that encouraged exchange of ideas and knowledge transcending political loyalties.

Hector joined the LSSP soon after entering the University College in 1936 and took to full time political activity before finishing his degree. He spent nearly two decades in India, going to India in 1942 during Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ mass struggle against the British and staying on for over 12 years after independence. In addition to direct political and trade union work, Hector wrote politics and he wrote better than the best in the subcontinent. His political writings in India covered a wide range of topics and a selection of them is included in Hector Abhayavardhana: Selected Writings, published by the Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo.

They are recommended reading for any Sri Lankan looking for insights into Indian politics. The topics include: critique of Mahatma Gandhi’s Constructive Programme, independence and partition, the Congress governments after independence, political parties and leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru, the Five Year Economic Plans, landlessness and land reform, the national language question and the emergence of the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the world’s first elected Communist government in Kerala and the farce of its dismissal by the Congress Centre, the role of caste and class in Indian politics, and India’s place in the world and among its neighbours including Sri Lanka.

The United Front experience

Returning to Sri Lanka in 1960, Hector immediately rose to prominence within the LSSP and in the broader political, academic and intellectual circles. His brilliant paper "Categories of Left Thinking in Ceylon," presented at the 1962 annual conference of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, crystalized the debate within the LSSP and in the Left movement about the choice between parliamentary realism and revolutionary dogmatism. Hector was a key proponent of the coalition or united front approach that was endorsed by the 1964 LSSP conference through a majority vote. But he was more than the theoretician of coalition politics and was a very capable organizer.

The LSSP never had access to indirect state funding, business contributions or foreign sources and had to rely on its trade unions, its members and contributions by progressive individuals who were not Party members but who supported the Party’s causes without expecting any return of personal favours. Hector was a key player in fund raising and also managed to get for the Party its present offices. He started for the Party a political weekly in Sinhala called Janasathiya, and founded and edited for several years perhaps the best political weekly in English in post-independence Sri Lanka, The Nation. He was the moving force behind the Socialist Study Circle that was the forum for political debates, and his book-lined study in his Chitra Lane home was the venue for many discussions involving the UF leaders including Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike that led to the Common Programme of the United Front of the SLPF, the LSSP and the CP.

After the massive election victory in 1970, the UF government included three LSSP Ministers: NM Perera (Finance), Colvin R de Silva (Constitutional Affairs and Plantation Industries) and Leslie Goonewardena (Transport), and one CP Minister: Pieter Keuneman (Housing and Construction). Hector was active in the Finance Ministry and was a well-liked Chairman of the People’s Bank. Felix Dias would later complain for no good reason that under Dr. N.M. Perera as Finance Minister, outsiders like Bernard Soysa and Hector Abhayavardhana were seen presiding over budget preparation from the Minister’s chair. Hector gave the People’s Bank a much needed fillip in status against the snooty Bank of Ceylon.

It is now history that the United Front experiment did not go beyond 1975 and notwithstanding all the efforts and exertions of the Left Parties the coalition experiment ended in failure. The electoral debacle that wiped the LSSP and the CP out of parliament two years later in 1977 showed the angry frustrations of the people. It would be too simplistic to say that the coalition experiment was doomed to fail because the two Left Parties abdicated the revolutionary path and took the parliamentary by-pass. The absurdity of this argument was experientially exposed by the 1971 revolutionary misadventure of the JVP an year after the massive United Front victory. Worse, the insurrection totally derailed the UF and the government never regained its lost momentum.

There were internal roadblocks from the rightwing section of the SLFP leadership, but perhaps the biggest reasons for the failure not seen at that time but which Hector perceptively identified later were developments outside Sri Lanka. The emergence of global capitalism and the collapse of the Soviet second world, Hector argued, had invalidated the premises of the United Front that "a wise and potent national state could rescue its economy from being tossed about by powerful forces operating in global markets… (and through) self-reliance compensate for weakness in productive relationships."

The end of an era

As it turned out, the UNP that benefited from the 1977 UF debacle and opened the economy with vengeance to robber barons worked on the old assumptions of the first UNP government after independence without adapting to the new global conditions of the 1990s. In the end, while capital flowed in, development occurred and wealth was created, the processes and outcomes proved to be spatially uneven, socially inequitable and productively unsustainable. The structural weaknesses in manpower training and productivity were left unaddressed. In the name of a Sri Lankan economic miracle that never happened, the country was made to pay a huge political price involving, as Hector summarized, "a process of systematic destruction of the Opposition political parties, their trade unions and other mass organizations … the downgrading of parliament, the setting up of a virtual dictator in the name of an Executive President and the use of violence, including assassination and kidnapping, against individual opponents." I have to remind the reader that this was Hector Abhayavardhana railing against the UNP government of 25 years ago even though the same words can be automatically applied to the present government. Be that as it may.

The UNP government’s handling of the national question was even worse. Those who over-attribute the rise of separatism to the 1972 Constitution, which predated separatism, are often guilty of under-criticizing the 1978 Constitution which was drafted with separatism staring in its face but included nothing in it to address the fundamental reasons for separatism. Here, the Old Left rediscovered its old roots. NM led the charge against the 1978 Constitution and in regard to Chapter Three of the Constitution on Language, wrote that "Chapter Three no longer satisfies. What might have satisfied the Tamil community 20 years back cannot be adequate 20 years later. Other concessions along regional autonomy will have to be in the offing if healthy and harmonious relations are to be regained."

Although Colvin R de Silva was the acknowledged architect of the 1972 Constitution, it is now known that the designation of that constitution as a unitary constitution was due to the insistence of Felix Dias against the better advice of Colvin. Taking collective responsibility with characteristic equanimity, Colvin never cast blame in public, or even in private, but years later wrote a learned essay in the Lanka Guardian explaining the overlapping between unitary and federal constitutional systems and how federal ends can be accomplished in a unitary system and vice versa. Colvin’s powerful statement to the first All Party Conference convened by JRJ in January 1984 is among the finest statements on the moral imperatives and the practical steps to find congruence between the structure of the Sri Lankan state and the plurality of its society.

It was almost too late when President Jayewardene made changes to the Constitution through the 13thAmendment. There is much hand wringing going on now among many pundits about 13A being imposed on Sri Lanka by New Delhi and its envoy in Colombo, but they conveniently forget that the Sri Lankan state was in utter disarray at that time and that there were many others in Sri Lanka who welcomed the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayewardene. The Socialist Alliance that included the LSSP and the CP were in support of the Agreement and the Amendment. And Hector Abhayavardhana was one of the thirty or so eminent Sinhalese intellectuals who issued a public statement describing the implosive crisis the Sri Lankan state was facing and welcoming India’s mediation to help its island neighbor get over the crisis. That was 25 years ago. Many things have happened since including the defeat of the LTTE and the ending of the war, and the country continues to be mired in bad government, a stalling economy, and non-starter of a reconciliation process.

When the LSSP launched the movement against colonial rule, there were those who would rather deal with the British with reverence rather than defiance and others who simply amassed personal fortunes by working with the colonial rulers. The seeds of corruption and acquiescence were already planted then and now they have become institutionalized under recent regimes.

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven," was how Bernard Soysa once described, borrowing Wordsworth’s line about the French Revolution, the impacts that the LSSP’s political activities against British colonial rule had on the minds of those who participated in that struggle. There is no need for poetic imagination to capture the mindsets and motivations of today’s political actors.

Hector Abhayavardhana was representative of scores of men and women who joined the LSSP against the norms and practices of their families and social milieu and with selfless generosity dedicated themselves to achieving political independence and social and economic equality for all. The crassness of today is that young men and women – the princelings - are having their political careers ready made for them by their parents and families. There is neither inspiration nor selfless generosity in today’s political culture, but only decadent indulgence by the princelings.

It used to be said that an LSSP government was the best government that Sri Lanka never had. With his trademark wit, Pieter Keuneman welcomed the short-lived 1964 SLFP-LSSP coalition government saying that having known the LSSP for so long he could not say that a government that included the LSSP was not better than one that was without it. Almost 50 years later, it is more appropriate to speculate what it would be like to have an LSSP Opposition taking on the Rajapaksa regime. Put another way, Sri Lanka never had the best government it could have had and is dearly missing today the best opposition it used to have when the country needs one most.

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