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Thursday, February 29, 2024

National Peoples Power’s Indian Visit: A positive step but still way is long – Lionel Bopage

A National Peoples Power (NPP) delegation led by its leader comrade Anura Kumara Dissanayake was invited to India for talks with India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar, the National Security Adviser (NSA) Mr Ajit Doval, and the Foreign Secretary Mr Vinay Mohan Kwatra. Dr Jaishankar’s social media posts denoted positive and productive discussions that centred on bilateral relationships, and mutual benefits.

Different Interpretations  

Comrade Anura is also the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). This is not the first engagement of the JVP with the Indian Government though this recent visit is being subject to much debate and criticism mostly by political pundits. Social media posts from those affiliated with the NPP and the JVP have interpreted this visit as a recognition by India the potential of comrade Anura of winning the next ‘would-be’ presidential elections. Previously, diplomats did not endeavour to engage with the JVP because it was not seen as a strong enough political force. Circumstances have now changed with the NPP increasingly gaining more visibility, popularity and credibility, particularly among the lower middle class.

Early Engagement the JVP had with Indian government

The first engagement the JVP had with Indian government was when I was the General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and its Politbureau member in charge of external affairs. We maintained good relations with the Indian High Commission. Even comrade Rohana Wijeweera accompanied me to visit Mr Narasimha Rao when he visited Sri Lanka in the early eighties. We had by then dropped the policy of “Indian Expansionism”. It was dropped in 1972 and was resurrected by the JVP post 1984. The leading comrades like Somawansa Amarasinghe who led the JVP later,  were strongly anti-Indian, that they went as far as wanting to ban Indian imports to Sri Lanka. Ironically, his escape from Sri Lanka occurred via India, arranged by the mediation of comrade Hendry Wickremasinghe. More recently, diplomats of India, US and several other countries have officially met and have held discussions with the NPP and its leaders.

Historically, Sri Lanka being in close proximity with India have had significant cultural, economic, historical, political, and geostrategic relations. India has played a major role in influencing many aspects of Sri Lankan society. Currently, India plays an increasingly significant role in the economic development of the Island. It has been influential also in the international sphere. Given India’s rise to a superpower status, it makes eminent sense for the NPP and the JVP to recognise this reality and develop good relations with India.

The JVP slogan of “Indian Expansionism” 

Since the JVP’s revival in the recent years and the establishment of the broad front – the National People’s Power, I have not heard them using the political slogan “Indian Expansionism” anymore. As a political activist from my Maoist days, I agreed with the concept of Indian Expansionism put forward by comrade Mao-Zedong when he was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. However, it was not intended to be used as a weapon against the Indian working class or Malaiyaha workers in Sri Lanka. We wanted to make the working people of Sri Lanka aware of the threat posed by the Indian capitalist class, their collaboration with the Sri Lankan counterparts and their influence on Malaiyaha workers.

It is worth remembering that in the 1980s, particularly at the peak of the LTTE militancy, almost all major and minor political entities in the south as well as in the north were against Indian involvement in Sri Lanka, as reflected in the strong opposition to the Indo-Lanka Accord by the JVP as well as a majority of the Sri Lankan populace and its political movements. Most of the Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu and Islamic religious representatives opposed it. Among them were the current Prime Minister’s Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and all Maoist groups.

The exceptions to this were some Members of Parliament of the ruling United National Party (UNP) such as Messrs A C S Hameed and Gamini Dissanayake led by President J R Jayawardene, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) and the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP). In the North and East, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and a few other small groups were also exceptions.

It was President Jayawardene, who invited the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) to Sri Lanka, despite the opposition by his Prime Minister R Premadasa and others in his party. Minister Gamini Jayasuriya of the UNP regime resigned from his cabinet, expressing his opposition to the Indo-Lanka Accord. After the Indo-Lanka agreement, Prime Minister R Premadasa became the leader of the anti-Indo-Lanka Accord campaign. He provided armaments to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to oppose the IPKF, and ultimately pressured India to withdraw the Indian army. The current President Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Leader of the House of the  Premadasa administration at the time. There were protests against the Indo-Lanka Accord and the IPKF held near Fort Bo Tree in Colombo.

The Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987

The UNP regime led by President Jayawardene was fighting for their political survival with the LTTE waging war in the North and the East and the JVP launching its armed opposition in the South. The regime had no intention of developing a just and long-lasting solution to the national question. The Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 was drafted to enable the Indian government to intervene militarily in the Sri Lankan conflict with the approval of the Sri Lankan government. While the Accord recognized the country’s unitary status and its territorial integrity and sovereignty, it also acknowledged the demands of the Tamil population in the North and East. Yet, the Indo-Lanka Accord made the national question of Sri Lanka grow worse. Nevertheless, India’s principal stand on the national question on power-sharing based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution remains unchanged.

This Accord did not come into effect because of a participatory consultative process adopted with people of Sri Lanka, rather it was unilaterally imposed from above. The opposition of many political entities to the Indian intervention through Indo-Laka Accord and the IPKF can be seen in this light. For the lack of any genuine endeavours to develop and implement a just and long-lasting solution to the national question, all political entities in Sri Lanka need to be held responsible and accountable.

“Anti-Indianism” during the 1983 – 1987

Advocacy of “Indian Expansionism” and “Anti-Indianism” during the 1983 – 1987 period cannot be understood without discussing the global socio-economic and political developments at the time. If we want to be honest and critical when looking at the past, the actions and policies of all the major political parties need to be scrutinised. This is vital given the parlous state the country is in today. However, not a single political entity appears to be brave and honest enough to embark on this vital and necessary task.

In the sixties not only the JVP, but also all other Maoist groups accepted the concept of Indian Expansionism. Those times have changed. Due to the innate nature of neo-liberalism, all its major players overtly and covertly appear to engage in an expansionist agenda. In realpolitik, one needs to consider the changes that have taken place in the regional and international power balance from the 1960s, 1980s, and particularly from 1987 to 2024. The ‘socialist’ camp led by the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. China has risen as a new global military and economic superpower. India is also becoming an economic behemoth and is aiming to be one of the main players on the international stage. So, it comes as no surprise that Chinese and Indian interventions and tensions in the region have increased.

The NPP and the JVP appeared to have mellowed their opposition to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils, which came to fruition as a result of the Indo-Lanka Accord. They have accepted the amendment as an inflexible feature of the constitutional landscape, till a new constitution is adopted and when the executive presidency is abolished. If any of these structural, political, legislative, and constitutional changes would be possible to be implemented, is still open to debate. The JVP has recognised the significant role India plays in the region in political and economic terms. From my point of view these progressive measures are in stark contrast to the positions they took in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, what the JVP proposes as the solution to the national question remains to be developed and elucidated.

In Sri Lanka, any political party intending to be in power, needs to build diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible. Otherwise, political and economic survival will be almost impossible, particularly due to the influential role India and China play in Sri Lankan politics. In the Indian ocean, any political party or coalition expecting to come to power needs to consider how they can navigate the competitive agendas of these two superpowers, while at the same time pursuing a political agenda that favours the interests of the people of Sri Lanka.

Not an Unusual Invitation

In view of the increasing popularity of the NPP in an election year their visit to India should be seen in this light. This visit is the first time the Central Government of India invited the NPP and its leader. This is not unusual given past practices of the Indian government. In a comparative sense, one needs to acknowledge the fact that the NPP has forthrightly moved into the spheres of policy development, social mobilisation, and propaganda, though there is still a long way for them to go. There are problematic issues, shortcomings, mistakes and avoidance of looking at their own past that need to be discussed and rectified. However, in this crucial regard, not a single political entity among the progressives in Sri Lanka can be considered perfect.

Given the superpower rivalry in the region, it will not be a surprise if China too would court the NPP in the not-too-distant future.

08 February 2024

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