Some Political Explorations of the Lankan Scene in the 1970s: Jupp and Perinbanayagam & Chadda

JAMES JUPP JuppSID PERINPerinbanayagam CHADDA Chadda

ONE: James Jupp’s Sri Lanka: Third World Democracy (1978, London, Frank Cass) reviewed by Michael Roberts at

This book eschews grand political theory and concentrates upon solid descriptive analysis. In presenting an ordered summary of the recent political history of Sri Lanka from the 1930’s to the 1970’s, the author is not forgetful of the social and economic background and is not afraid to lace the description with his own interpretations. He highlights several trends: an erosion of the influence of the Anglicised elite which did not, however, extend to their displacement; the movement “from the British notion of ‘good government’ … to a notion of popular government” catering more to mass prejudices (p.349); a rhetorical and ideological emphasis on indigenisation and cultural and economic decolonisation which obscures the fact that the opposed political persuasions have been of Western, if not British inspiration; and the gradual concentration of political opinion in the Sinhalese dominated districts around Bandaranaike’s Middle Way, which was democratic, socialist, and Sinhala Buddhist.

The author prefers a pragmatic understanding of the concept “democracy” rather than an ideal type, and in these terms he concludes that Sri Lanka “was highly successful in adapting and developing democratic practices and attitudes” (p.327). The relative stability of “participatory democracy” is attributed not only to a strict and well managed electoral system and the electorate’s inclination: towards turning out governing parties at each election. It has been supported by the emergence of a two bloc system within the Sinhalese districts between 1956 and 1970, by the readiness of parties to accept defeat, and by the “high degree of policy consensus among major parties” (p.332). The evolution of a consensus around the middle ground of democratic socialism was occasioned by movements towards the SLFP position by both the UNP and the Old Left after 1956. All these trends in turn are said to be rooted in “the political system” and the electoral situation” (p.333). In other words, Jupp’s analysis would implicitly place Sri. Lanka within that select band of countries which are said to possess “consociational democracy”. These conclusions are qualified by an insistence that the consensus is fragile and that participatory democracy is “continuously at risk” because of the island’s intractable economic problems (pp. 334, 358). Se that Sri Lanka’s main problem at present remains that of preserving social democracy and social welfarism in the context of an economy that is both poor and dependent on international capitalism.

This background is employed by the author to draw out the limited utility of modernisation theory in Sri Lanka’s case and to cogently pinpoint the disjunctures between development theory and the recent history of Sri Lanka (pp. 347-362). These findings are hardly surprising in the light of the severe mauling which modernisation theory has received since the 1960’x, but one must remain grateful to James Jupp for his succinct and long overdue review of the Sri Lankan case in the light of these theories. We must now move towards more fruitful theoretical frameworks. It is doubtful if the globally conceived dependency theory can provide the specificity and fineness of differentiation which we require, though there might be scope for someone to achieve for political analysis in Sri Lanka what Oxaal, Barnett and Booth 3 secured for dependency theory in Latin America and Africa. Perhaps Jupp’s book will serve as a call to arms.

The more particular strengths of this book lie in (i) the perceptive presentation of the social backcloth in one of the preparatory chapters (chapter two) so that one is prepared for the argument that the social base of the political system .vas not conducive to certain aspects of modernisation and westernisation; (ii) its consistent attention to what might be called patronage politics; (iii) an intelligently conceived grouping of constituencies for the presentation of electoral results in Appendix II, though the chapter which surveys electoral politics is, notwithstanding several insights, rather disappointing; and (iv) the analysis and commentary on the history of Marxist forces in the island, both the old Left and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna which attempted a revolutionary seizure of power in one single blow in 1971. Indeed, his chapter on the J.V.P. is a clinical and judicious analysis that avoids the perils of romanticism and becomes the best article length survey of the subject to date though one that was made possible by several scholarly publications that preceded it.

The book could profit from greater attention to the way in which politics has become a major channel of social mobility and to the changing role of political notables. The linear model of political ideology which permeates the book in terms of a continuum from “revolution” to “conservatism” (p.126) could be fruitfully replaced by a triangular model, which would make the passage of individuals from Marxism to Fascism shorter and more comprehensible. Despite the author’s provisos relating to the persistence of “democratic practices and attitudes” during the period surveyed, one can surely question the emphasis which he has attached to this conclusion. The lengthy periods of emergency rule, the position of the Tamil minorities, the government control of the major newspapers from the early 1970’s, the recent extensions in the repressive apparatus, and, above all, the alacrity with which political leaders from all the parties indulge in punitive acts whenever the situation permits, all these features call for a more substantial modification of this argument.

Finally, both author and readers must face up to the fact that the value of this book as a window to contemporary Sri Lanka is undermined by the march of events. Several perceptive insights (but not all) are rendered obsolete by the radical re-structuring of the constitution and the electoral system effected by the UNP government elected in 1977; while the implications of such events as the break-up of the SLFP/Old Ieft coalition in 1975 and 1977, and the release of the JVP leadership from jail by the UNP in 197′ will, undoubtedly work themselves out in ways that re-shape the political scene. Indeed, it is in depicting trends during the 1970’s that the book is at its weakest. Inadequate attention is paid to the reconstitution of the social base of the UNP since 1973 and the role of the Wahumpura caste within it. The festering dissatisfaction of the Ceylon Tamils, evident enough in the early 1970’s, is lightly treated: so that readers are ill prepared for the recent upsurge of a terrorist group devoted to a Tamil separatist state; and as a result of which the author can, incorrectly conclude that the move towards “communal adjustment” demanded by the decolonisation had been satisfactorily (by force!!) achieved by 1962 (pp. 340-341).

But this deterioration in the review of events in the mid 1970’s is surely understandable. In sum, this is a judicious and readable political history. It does not serve the uninitiated alone. There is much within it for the aficionados.

TWO: “Strategy of Internal Relations: An Examination of the Conflict in Ceylon,” by S. Perinbanayagam & Maya Chadda in Nationalism and the Crises of Ethnic Minorities in Asia By Tai S. Kang

Abstract: Strategic considerations have been applied to the analysis of relationships between units within the internationsl system. Such applications were based on a general theory of strategy derived from – or at least connected to – an equally general social psychological theory. Hence the theory of strategy can be applied to any interactional system and process – interpersonal, inter-group, inter-community, inter-state or international. Such an application is made here to the relationship between two ethno-linguistic communities in Ceylon that have been in conflict for over two decades. It is argued that had the leadership of the communities thought in strategic terms and prosecuted their interactions accordingly, certain manifestations of conflict could have been obviated. It is suggested that hence we can speak of clever and wise performers in leadership roles – those who anticipate the full implications of the activities they are pursuing at the moment, and stupid performers, who do not. In the language of game theory: it is incumbent on performers to distinguish between zero-sum games and mixed-motive games; to be unable to do so is to bring disaster on themselves and the causes they represent.


Leave a comment

Filed under communal relations, constitutional amendments, devolution, historical interpretation, language policies, Left politics, modernity & modernization, plural society, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, riots and pogroms, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, teaching profession, world affairs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s