The political economy of “Paangshu”


Paangshu continues to be reviewed positively by critics who, during the second insurrection, would have called the victims of State-led terror campaigns “chauvinists” and “nativists.”


For well over a month, Paangshu has been the talk of the town. Initially shown to select audiences during the yahapalana regime, then given a public release two months ago under the current government, it continues to win overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Meera Srinivasan of The Hindu correctly considers it as “perhaps the first mainstream Sinhala film to foreground the struggle of a missing person’s family.” Of course the missing person happens to belong to the majority Sinhala community, rather than the minority Northern Tamil community, since Paangshu isn’t about the war up there; it’s about the war down here, in the South, one that, over three years, killed as many people as, if not more people than, those killed over three decades in the conflict with the LTTE.

The second JVP insurrection (1987-1989) differed from the first (1971) owing to the wave of sympathy it created among the Southern youth for the JVP. The first insurrection had been carried out mostly by undergraduates, the sons of a petty bourgeoisie who later became ideological vessels for the establishment.

As Gamini Keerawella once observed in an essay on the JVP, by 1967 the party had begun to recruit vast sections of the petty bourgeoisie, distancing itself from the rural proletariat from whose ranks it had got in its membership until then.

The insurrectionists thus couldn’t hold for long after their uprising. By the end of the 1970s, they had begun to transit to the establishment, reflecting if not betraying their class interests; one of these ex-JVPers now describes the insurrection, no doubt with the wisdom of hindsight, as “a stupid rebellion poorly executed.” What this means is that the class composition of the first insurrection was considerably different from the class composition of the second.

Thus what transpired from 1987 to 1990 cannot be explained without reference to the policies of the regime that crushed the insurrection: inter alia, a ban on eco-friendly hena cultivation; the diversion of land to Western multinationals (J. R Jayewardene’s “robber barons”); the devaluation of the rupee which deflated severely the value of food stamps (by as much as half from 1979 to 1981), thereby leading to the malnourishment and impoverishment of vast swathes of the working class; and the “Indianisation” of the civil war.

Added to that, the crushing of the Left, the crippling of trade unions, and the proscription of anti-government political groups all left behind a vacant space. These groups soon found themselves squeezed out of the democratic framework. It was against that backdrop that the Indo-Lanka Accord, despite the opposition of several government figures, was signed, immediately sparking off a wave of discontent across the South.

In class terms, the second insurrection thus came to differ from the first. Even in caste terms it was different: most of those arrested in the 1971 insurgency, as Gananath Obeyesekere documented at the time, hailed from higher castes, whereas many of those who took part in the 1987-1990 uprising came from depressed communities. That is not to say caste factors always militated against those higher up in the hierarchy – indeed, there were cases of upper caste insurrectionists campaigning against lower caste officials – but all the same, it refracted class discrepancies. At any rate, class or caste, the war was protracted and fought over economic reasons.

The difference between the JVP uprising and the war against the LTTE – which many critics, in their reviews of Paangshu, seem to be comparing to each another – comes out here. While the State, as Susantha Goonetilake notes in Recolonisation, engaged in a “class war on the poor” in the South, in the North it was pitted against a separatist movement led by a community that, in economic terms, had suffered much less under successive regimes than the two most discriminated groups in 20th century Sri Lanka: estate Tamils and Sinhala peasants.

By disenfranchising them and stripping them of citizenship, the UNP had robbed the former of an opportunity to take up arms. The latter, on the other hand, grabbed that opportunity the moment the political crisis reached its peak.

There were two ideological routes you could take at this juncture: you could either support the Accord or oppose it. By supporting it you took the side of the UNP, or a considerable section of the party which accepted it, and of the Old Left, which endorsed it because it saw India as a countervailing influence against the State. On the other hand, by opposing it you took the side of the Sinhala nationalists, or of the JVP.

It was simply difficult not to choose. The closest historical analogy I can think of would be the case of an ex-Jacobin living under Napoleon in France: he couldn’t have supported the Bonapartists, but then he couldn’t have supported the Holy Alliance either. And yet he had to take a side. Gambling on anti-government sentiment, the Old Left thus chose to support the Accord, severely underestimating the extent of anti-Accord sentiment.

Given the Old Left’s endorsement of the Accord and, later, the 13th Amendment, it was only to be expected that it would not only help form anti-JVP hit squads, but also contribute to civil society’s demonization of the JVP.

Since Susantha Goonatilake has recorded this in his book Recolonisation, all I will say here is that much of the NGO intelligentsia which purports to stand up for radical youth today, branded the JVP then as not only chauvinist, but also anti-Tamil. It took Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mangala Samaraweera – both from the South, occupying diametrically opposed political positions today – to take the names, the details, of those made to disappear by paramilitary squads to Western capitals.

This remains, then as now, a blot on the conscience of NGO intellectuals; their failure to give equal consideration to the Northern war and the Southern insurgency (Witharanage 1994) led to a distorted view of what was happening on the ground.

Meanwhile, right until their separation from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s coalition in 2006, even the most liberal commentators here went on labelling the JVP as Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist. Only when the JVP broke away from Rajapaksa’s coalition and began to endorse what is, for me at least, a pseudo-Marxist-lumpen ideology did these commentators abandon that stereotype.

The failure of the NGO-cracy to identify the root causes of the insurrection is symptomatic of its inability to view that uprising in class rather than ethnic terms: a failure that explains why it could, while opposing a neo-fascist regime, interpret the JVP’s opposition to Indian intervention as chauvinist, and worse, anti-Tamil.

Those who write on Paangshu without recalling the callous lack of sympathy towards the insurrectionists, displayed by what the late Prins Gunasekara described as “local human rights magnates”, should thus bear in mind the political economy of the period depicted in the film. For history, as we all ought to know, is too precious to be forgotten. Even in fiction.

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