Gender and Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna1

By Chamindra Weerawardhana

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front) – the most popular left-wing political party in present-day Sri Lanka – faces intertwined dilemmas in two key policy areas, gender politics and ethnic politics. Gender issues are complemented by a Sinhala-nationalist ‘sectarian-socialist’ drift, tainting the JVP’s reception among minorities. Despite its somewhat inclusive rhetoric under its current leadership, the JVP is not very different from other parties, which prevents it from emerging as a viable ‘third alternative’ against the two larger parties and their coalitions. The JVP’s challenges in gender and ethnic politics provide a glimpse into its overall policy loopholes, which are recurrent in left parties in deeply divided societies, as in post- and neo-colonial contexts in the global South.

A political party of the ‘Left’ in transformation?

The campaign leading to the 17 August 2015 parliamentary election in Sri Lanka was especially marked by the rising popularity of the JVP, a political party that presents itself as Marxist-Socialist and is best known for its turbulent history of challenging the establishment through armed resistance.2 Its rejuvenated spirit during the campaign resulted especially from the appointment of Anura Dissanayake MP, a Physics graduate and lifelong political activist, as party leader at the 7th JVP Convention on 2 February 2014.3 Aged 46 at the time, Dissanayake’s leadership was a novelty in a polity where politicians seldom reach the leadership of a national-level party in their forties. In the months preceding the 8 January 2015 presidential election, Dissanayake spearheaded the JVP’s subsequent emergence as the strongest voice for anticorruption and accountability, garnering the support of many academics, artists, writers, poets and professionals. Although the JVP opted to neither stand nor directly endorse a specific candidate, its trenchant critiques of the Rajapaksa regime (11/2005-01/2015) were central in shifting many Sinhala votes towards Maithripala Sirisena, the candidate of the Joint Opposition, who emerged victorious.

During the August 2015 parliamentary election campaign, it was widely assumed that the JVP was en route a higher headcount.4 Its campaign manifesto, entitled ‘Accord of Conscience’ (AC, Sinhalese hradayasakshiyé smmuthiya), included a relatively comprehensive programme.5 Far from being a mere election manifesto, AC contained a plan of action with short, medium and long-term targets.6 In addition, the JVP’s 2015 campaign marked the party’s entry into electioneering in the digital age, extensively incorporating social media (Gunawardene 2015, Sirisena 2015), eye-catching publicity, and a theme song. The campaign also included an unprecedented Special Convention as well as tailor-made events to cater to the corporate and business sectors.7 Yet, tactical flaws such as placing frontline leaders in electoral districts different from their own, shattered all hopes, with the JVP securing only six parliamentary seats (Devasurendra 2015). Despite this setback, Dissanayake was appointed Deputy Chief Whip of the Opposition in the current parliament.

This article argues that gender justice and ethnic politics-related policy inconsistencies adversely affect the JVP’s political prospects. The JVP’s mediocre approach to these two policy areas also indicates the extent to which, despite a growing reputation, its role in national politics continues to be limited to left populism and popular protest. I begin with a brief discussion on political movements of the left in the global South, and I then contextualise the JVP in the convoluted landscape of Sri Lankan politics. This leads to a short sketch of the JVP’s turbulent political trajectory. I will then move on to discuss the JVP’s policy approaches to gender justice and the ethno-national question.

My focus is on the post-2014 Dissanayake-led JVP, which marks a break from the party’s previous policy and political outlook. This ‘present-day’ focus required a series of conversations and interactions with selected party insiders, as well as analysing the JVP’s media output, including especially its Sinhala language social media, and social media pages of senior JVP politicians. In terms of media portrayals, the JVP suffers from negative publicity from the mainstream Sri Lankan media. It is the Sinhala language blogosphere and JVP social media that provide the most revealing insights into the JVP’s positions, which, in comparison with those of the larger parties, receive scant if not convoluted coverage in mainstream print and electronic media.

Political movements of the left in the global South: between populisms and conservatisms?

Revisiting politics of the left in the Global South, covering ‘new’ left-wing political movements in Brazil, Mauritius, Kerala, Venezuela and Tanzania, Sandbrook (2014a: 14-15) concludes that the moral and intellectual leadership of the left has shifted ‘south’ from its European birthplace. Today’s political movements of the left, whether in the Global South or North, have mostly emerged as responses to the dominant capitalist and neoliberal functional dynamics of world politics. At the 2013 meeting of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a point on which participants unanimously agreed was that in the context of the impasse neoliberalism faces in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, there was a possibility and a necessity for the [sic] contemporalization, localization and popularization of Marxist ideas (Miao 2014: 256). In many places in the global South, Left populism continues to be a hallmark of political movements of the left. This is especially the case in Latin American contexts with strong left traditions such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Despite momentary successes such as empowering hitherto marginalised groups and redistributing income through social programs funded mainly by resource exports and redistributing assets, the politics of personal cults and left populism are inherently limited in scope. When faced with serious political challenges, power built upon populist personal cults often leads to repressive reactions, on the grounds that the regime’s opponents are not part of the popular masses in whose name the people’s leader speaks (Sandbrook 2014a: 697). In Sri Lanka, the JVP’s campaigns and overall political behaviour have long revolved around its own brand of left populism, combined with a discourse of Sinhala nationalism, an ideological concoction that has been described as sectarian socialism (Venugopal 2008, 2010).

In terms of gender politics, political movements of the left have a long history of ideological conflict with feminist perspectives (Jayawardena and Kelkar 1989). Research has indicated mixed reactions from left-wing governments to gender justice issues, where policies largely depend on specific local contexts, political and strategic priorities (see for example, Friedman 2009).  In the Indian subcontinent, the left has been accused of being oblivious to socioeconomic and cultural stratifications, especially along the lines of caste. This has even been the case in the Indian province of Kerala, where the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) has held sway since the late 1950s (Mitra and Singh 2007). An extension of this can be observed in the subcontinent’s contemporary politics, especially in relation to Dalit-Bahujan liberation activism, which intensified as violent crimes against Dalit people gained increased media exposure.8

Sri Lanka’s early politics of the left, especially of the Youth League Movement of the 1920s, were inspired by militant and left-leaning elements of the Indian national movement (Jayawardena 1974: 15-17). In the decades that followed, the Sri Lankan left developed a course of its own, in the context of local challenges of ethnic politics and class divisions. Despite being ethnically inclusive in its early years, Sri Lankan left – as the JVP’s story testifies – gradually evolved into a political movement considerably divided along ethno-national and ethno-linguistic lines. The JVP has not been immune to problems facing the left in the South Asian region ­– one of the least supra-nationally integrated parts of the world in all spheres – which include difficulties in developing regional and cross-party solidarities in addressing shared challenges, and the exclusion of marginalised groups from politics of the left.

Contextualising Sri Lanka: fertile terrain for politics of the left?

In 1948, Ceylon became the first Crown Colony to obtain Dominion Status within the New Commonwealth.9 Politics of the left were by then well-established in the island. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s left has a long and eventful history, dating back to the early 1930s. The early left-wing parties, the Labour Party (Kamkaru Pakshaya, created in 1931) and the Marxist (and subsequently Trotskyist) Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Equal Society Party – LSSP, created in 1935), were actively engaged not only in challenging class-related inequities, but also in anti-colonial politics.10 The granting of Dominion Status in 1948 marked the culmination of a long series of constitutional ‘experiments’, the 1931 Donoughmore reforms being the most decisive (Russell 1982). Under the guidance of socialist politician Sydney Webb, Secretary of State for the Colonies in Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour government (1929-1931), the Donoughmore Constitutional Commission introduced one-person-one-vote universal suffrage, and control over domestic affairs to local leaders elected to the State Council of Ceylon at general elections. A well-established English-educated and anglicised upper and upper middle class of Ceylonese facilitated these developments, a first in the non-Caucasian parts of the British Empire. Political representatives (representing all ethnic and religious groups) from this wealthy oligarchy, all of them educated in the same elite schools and many graduates of British universities, took over the reins of power when Dominion Status was declared in 1948.

Most importantly, it was people from the very same elite as their right-wing counterparts who spearheaded the politics of the left, prompting the Governor of Ceylon to claim when the LSSP was created in 1935 that it was being ‘run by young men with more money than brains’ (Jayawardena 1988: 2131). In its heyday, the LSSP rhetoric seldom reached Sinhala-speaking masses in provincial Sri Lanka. Most of its theoretical and promotional material appeared only in English (Solidarity London 1972). It has also been argued that, since the late 1930s, ‘radical’ parties such as the LSSP were cautious to deploy leftist ideas merely as a device to get their leaders elected to parliament (Fernando 1973, 382). Irrespective of political affiliation, Ceylonese politics of the 1930s and subsequent decades were thus composed of members of the same social class, who shared a strong sense of oneness and group solidarity within the elite (Fernando 1973: 376).

Leading figures of post-1948 Ceylonese politics were quick to identify the political dividends of upholding ethno-nationalist positions and deploying ethno-linguistic, religious and cultural divisions in Ceylon’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society to their advantage. In 1951, Solomon Bandaranaike MP, cabinet minister and son of the senior-most local official in British Ceylon and thereby representing the wealthiest and most influential political household Ceylon, defected from the centre-right United National Party (UNP), creating a populist movement that centred on what he termed pancha maha balavegaya, or the five great powerhouses, namely, the Buddhist clergy, Ayurveda medicine experts, school teachers, cultivators and working people (Manor 1989, DeVotta 2004).11 His newly created Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), swept to power on a populist and Sinhala majoritarian manifesto at the 1956 general election. The National Language Act of 1956, Bandaranaike’s primary campaign promise, made Sinhala the sole official language, amidst strong protest from minorities, especially Tamils, Ceylon’s largest ethno-linguistic minority. The 1956 Act’s adverse consequences began to emerge as the generation that completed their primary and secondary education in Sinhala came of age, to find out that their lack of English posed a near-unbreakable glass ceiling. This generation of youth, disillusioned with their elitist government and with the equally condescending politics of the left, found political expression in breaking away from the old-guard as of the mid-1960s, adopting a more aggressive stance of radical resistance.

The JVP: Brief sketch of a turbulent trajectory

The JVP’s emergence as a Sinhala youth-led critique of the old elitist left is best understood in the backdrop of the latter’s role in Ceylonese politics in the 1960s. In 1964, the LSSP joined the SLFP-led government of Sirima Bandaranaike government (widow of Solomon Bandaranaike, who was assassinated in 1959), a decision widely opposed among trades unions and student groups (Wickremasinghe and Rathnayake 2014). This decision was also the Ceylonese manifestation of a general trend among Moscow-wing leftist parties across the Indian subcontinent.12 In tune with Moscow’s diagnosis of the subcontinent’s national bourgeoisie throughout the 1960s and 70s, Moscow-wing party leaders regarded India’s Indira Gandhi, Ceylon’s Sirima Bandaranaike, Bangladesh’s Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as ‘progressive-minded’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ (Banerjee 1977: 1170). Despite its mediocre electoral strength in comparison with the UNP and SLFP, the LSSP’s charismatic leaders occupied key ministerial portfolios such as finance and justice in the Sirima Bandaranaike government, which enabled them to make a strong impact on Sri Lankan political life. The declaration of the Republic of Sri Lanka in May 1972, ending 24 years of Dominion Status, for example, was spearheaded by Justice Minister Dr Colvin R. De Silva MP, a leading LSSP figure.

The JVP first came into the limelight in the mid/late 1960s, as a breakaway faction of the Ceylon Communist Party’s pro-Peking wing (Samaranayake, 1999 114).13 Discontent among youth groups with the old guard soared in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, and the JVP increasingly affirmed its position as the main political platform for many Sinhala youth disheartened with the old left. In the JVP’s fledgling years, the broader context of Ceylonese political economy provided fertile ground for its brand of radical politics. This was a period when socio-cultural disparities (especially between those educated in Sinhala and those from the English-speaking elite) were further cemented. The mid-1960s also witnessed an economic crisis, with a balance of payments challenge, forcing Colombo to increase external borrowing. This inevitably involved obligations to abide by World Bank and IMF dictates, thereby negatively affecting social welfare services (Economic and Political Weekly 1978: 1550; see also Keerawella 1982), a situation that could only galvanise discontent among youth from underprivileged backgrounds.

The JVP’s early ideology – an eclectic mix of elements of Stalinism, Maoism, Castroism, Guevarist resistance (Keerawella 1980: 46), and Sinhala nationalism (Jayawardena 1985: 86) – led the JVP to launch a youth-led insurrection in 1971 (Wijeweera 1974, Goonetileke 1975), which the state brutally suppressed, with military assistance from several Commonwealth countries and the USA, USSR and China (Arasaratnam 1972, Wilson 1972: 115). The JVP was proscribed in April 1971 and re-emerged in electoral politics only at the local government polls of 1978. The insurrection led to a standstill of essential services, and unprecedentedly rattled the Ceylonese government and the ruling class. It was a defining moment in the JVP’s evolution, marking the first severe outburst of discontent among Sinhalese youth. It was the first large-scale popular rising in the Dominion State, and resulted in associating the very abbreviation ‘JVP’ with connotations of being prone to violence and vandalism, which continues to prevail to the present day.

The JVP suffered a substantive blow as the insurrection was violently suppressed. Many of its members died and large numbers were imprisoned, decimating its membership and sphere of influence.14 Despite this severe setback, the JVP re-emerged in electoral politics by the late 1970s. Sri Lanka’s political climate of the day, however, was generally unfavourable to the left, which was also the case in other South Asian polities. By the late 1970s, many ‘younger’ leftist groups across the subcontinent, which, especially under the influence of China, sought to break away from elite-controlled parliamentary politics by armed revolution, had been reduced to isolated entities or sufficiently chastened to join the parliamentary mainstream (Banerjee 1977: 1170). JVP’s founding leader Rohana Wijeweera contested the 1982 District Development Council and presidential elections. By then, the JVP had begun to emerge as the principal party of the left in electoral politics (Samarasinghe 1983: 162).

Since its inception, the JVP opposed constitutional Tamil nationalist politics, and as Tamil violence emerged in the late 1970s, the JVP stood resolutely against Tamil secessionism. These positions, which did witness times of relative moderation (Anandalingam and Abraham 1986: 42), shaped the JVP’s reception among ethnic minorities, especially Tamils. Attributing the July 1983 ethnic riots to JVP agitation, the ruling right-wing UNP government, headed by pro-Thatcher-Reagan J.R. Jayewardene, subsequently proscribed the JVP.15 In confronting this state-sanctioned crackdown, the JVP launched a second violent uprising in 1988-1989, which was once again brutally suppressed (Samarasinghe 1989, Moore 1993: 616-641). More than a protest against systemic discrimination and exclusion, this rising was also an expression of opposition to the Jayewardene administration’s decision to sign a peace accord with India, which involved the deployment of an Indian Peacekeeping Force in northern and eastern Sri Lanka (Gupta 1992: 2029). Throughout its political trajectory, the JVP has adopted a staunchly anti-India stance, and has been wary of defence and trade partnerships in the South Asian region. The 1988 uprising was significantly more violent than that of 1971, and the JVP lost a great deal of its membership. Its unprecedented carnage, involving the loss of some 41,813 lives (Wickramaratne 2017), resulted in further strengthening the JVP’s negative image as an instigator of violence and destruction.16

In the 1990s, the JVP gradually re-emerged to electoral politics, securing one parliamentary seat at the 1994 general election, and gradually increasing its parliamentary headcount at subsequent general elections in 2000, 2001 and 2004.17 It supported Mahinda Rajapaksa’s candidacy at the 2005 presidential election (Wickramasinghe 2009: 1051). Although the JVP subsequently withdrew, accusing the Rajapaksa administration of corruption and mismanagement, it strongly endorsed Rajapaksa’s 2006 decision to move away from the already stalled peace process and launch an all-out military strategy to defeat the Tamil Tigers.18 At the first post-war general election in 2010, the JVP secured only three parliamentary seats. Despite this setback, the three MPs emerged as the strongest voice of the opposition benches, especially in the context of the main opposition’s passivity in the face of the Rajapaksa regime’s dictatorial drifts.

During its fifty-year existence, the JVP has faced many a split, including the 2008 split of Wimal Weerawansa MP, the party’s highly vocal Publicity Secretary and leader of its parliamentary group, who defected to President Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition with nine fellow JVP MPs (Uyangoda 2008). In 2012, a substantial faction of the party’s inner machinery defected, accusing the JVP of veering to the right (Hughes 2013: 14-15). The dissidents formed the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP, Sinhala: Peratugami Samajavadi Pakshaya).19 In 2015, former leader Somawansa Amarasinha quit the JVP, launching a campaign of negative publicity targeted at current leader Dissanyake and other frontline personalities (Weerasinha, 2015). Under the Dissanayake leadership, the JVP has also been accused of being manipulated by the UNP, and toeing the line of neoliberal politics.

JVP and Gender Politics

Writing in the late 1980s, Professor Kumari Jayawardena outlined a perennial problem that South Asian feminists with left-leaning political views faced – that of the patriarchal and conservative attitudes of political movements of the left (Jayawardena 1986, 1988, Jayawardena and Kelkar 1989). The JVP has not been immune to the challenge of reconciling Marxist and feminist imperatives. In its nearly fifty-year existence, it has shared the parity-related problems faced by Left movements elsewhere, with a tendency to relegate committed female members to secondary and support roles. Since its early years, the JVP rank-and-file has been (and largely continues to be) mostly limited to Sinhala men from petit-bourgeois backgrounds, with women’s engagement determined, managed and regulated by men (Liyanage 1999: 126-128). JVP membership has always been disproportionately male and Sinhala-Buddhist, with far fewer female and ethno-national minority members. The party’s present-day predicaments epitomise the claim that unless Marxism takes feminist claims seriously and acknowledges the validity of women’s experiences, it will remain partial and impoverished (Bryson 2004: 14). The JVP has long perceived feminism as a product of decadent Western capitalism (Jayawardena 1986: 2).

No women constitute the JVP’s national-level leadership at present. Only eleven female candidates stood at the 2015 general election. Samanmali Gunasinha, the chairperson of the Socialist Women’s Association, was the only candidate to be a national-level office-holder within the party. In comparison with frontline male leaders, Gunasinha has very low media presence.20 Out of the eleven female candidates, only Saroja Paulraj, who stood in the Matara District (southern Sri Lanka), came to relative national-level prominence during the campaign. Paulraj’s response to a journalist’s question about the absence of women in her party’s frontline leadership is worth quoting at length as it provides insights into the JVP’s perceptions of political representation, parity, gender equality, equity and justice:

[The JVP does not] treat men and women differently…Since its early years, the JVP has included brave and dignified female members…such as [the late] Comrade [Premavati] Manamperi. Concerning women in today’s JVP, [comrade] Samanmalee Gunasinghe – who is contesting in the Colombo District – has been in politics for a long time, especially in women’s organizations. As far as I am concerned, I wasn’t selected to stand [at the 2015 general election] by accident. I have been a [JVP] member for some 15 years, and I have been especially active in women’s mobilization, through [JVP] women’s associations. When the JVP selects its candidates, the focus is not on women for women’s issues or…youth for youth issues. Instead, our focus is on selecting the most suitable people, who can ascertain problematic issues of national concern, and who are educated…From the outset, women have entered Sri Lankan politics either upon the demise of a husband, because of belonging to influential political families, or using their higher social status. But in the JVP, only those who are qualified can engage in active politics and stand for office. One has to show political maturity, be a committed long-term party member, and only the most suitable are selected as candidates.21 

This statement denotes a fundamental problem in the way in which the JVP conceptualises gender justice. The claim prioritising talent and suitability, when juxtaposed with the extreme scarcity of women in positions of leadership, especially frontline leadership, implies either that the JVP lacks suitably qualified female contenders for leadership roles, or that it is simply unwilling to respect a gender balance in the allocation of opportunities. The party’s executive structure –the Political Bureau and senior officials – does not include any women. The twenty-nine-member Central Committee includes only one woman.22 The JVP’s youth and student wing, the Socialist Youth Union (SYU) elected a new national committee at its third convention on 28 February 2016. The twenty-seven-member committee included only four women.23

Despite the JVP’s resolve to avoid the dynastic and clientelist modes of female political representation characteristic of the two main parties (UNP and SLFP-led coalitions) and its occasional emphasis on women’s rights, its policy papers, manifestoes and media output do not include a consistent policy on gender equality. It does not view parity and gender justice in political representation as a strategic priority. As politics of the left across the world increasingly prioritise equal representation and programmes to facilitate women in politics – focusing on minority women and other underrepresented groups – the JVP continues a policy on women in politics that has undergone little change since its inception in the late 1960s. Its slogan for the 2016 Women’s Day Convention, organised by Women for Rights (WR, Aitheen Udesa Kanthavo), the JVP women’s organization, referred to the consolidation of women’s rights beyond the limits of ‘percentages’. This is a reference to the ruling UNP’s emphasis on a 25% quota for female candidates in future provincial elections.24  The JVP’s core argument that a mere focus on percentages does not serve to advance the situation of women who do not represent the politico-economic elite, is indeed justified. However, the JVP continues to be short of a strong emphasis on gender justice, parity in political representation, and women’s empowerment.25 Speaking at the 2016 WR convention, its new chairperson (Paulraj, mentioned above) framed women’s equality as an integral part of the class struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors, highlighting that gender-related inequalities, conservatisms and restrictions on fundamental rights do not apply to women from the upper echelons of society.26

At both 2016 and 2017 WR conventions, Paulraj particularly emphasised the challenges faced by women from underprivileged backgrounds working in domestic labour in the Middle East, highlighting the need for initiatives that provide women with training and skills prior to foreign employment.27 These points are echoed in the JVP’s interactions with Sri Lankans living and working abroad (especially in the Middle East), and also in interactions with party members and insiders. In articulating its priority policy areas such as the welfare of Sri Lankans working abroad, the JVP falls short of a strong emphasis on women’s empowerment and, most importantly, on challenging sociocultural conservatisms, which especially oppress women from less privileged backgrounds. A series of conversations with female party members from each electoral district throughout the year 2015 indicated opinions quasi-identical with those of Gunasinha and Paulraj.

Despite an understanding of the class dynamics of violence and discrimination against women, existing JVP women’s mobilisation remains largely cis-heteronormative and falls short of a discourse on empowerment. However, on specific issues such as access to safe and legal termination of pregnancies, the JVP supports pro-choice stance.28 Yet the overall approach remains inconsistent, due to the absence of a comprehensive strategy on gender justice-related priorities. A constant fluctuation between regressive and progressive attitudes characterises the JVP’s policies on gender issues. Despite such lacunae, the present-day JVP is also home to politicians who regularly take strong positions in support of gender equality and fighting misogyny, such as Bimal Rathnayake MP, JVP’s National Organiser and SYU Coordinator.29

Overall, the JVP’s discourses on gender issues are shrouded in – to borrow from Peterson (2000 73) – a hierarchical boundary, fencing itself within a strong sense of heteronormativity and majoritarianism. In a December 2015 press interview,30 Nalinda Jayathissa MP, a medical doctor, made extremely transphobic and homophobic remarks, earning the wrath of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community, especially from analysts who supported the JVP at the 2015 general election (Weerawardhana 2015). Speaking on behalf of the party in September 2016, Rathnayake claimed that the JVP’s official stance is one of recognizing the rights of non-cis-hetero-normative people.31 This development is commensurate with the rise of a strong dialogue on LGBTQI rights in the latter part of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, with local queer liberation movements reinforcing their work and gaining unprecedented media exposure in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Despite this new affirmation, the JVP avoids a comprehensive emphasis on sexual orientation- and gender identity-related issues in its political discourses and youth politics, where it otherwise seeks to present itself as open-minded and inclusive. This can be attributed to social conservatisms among a significant segment of the JVP vote base.32Inconsistencies in its rhetoric on gender justice have, to date, prevented the JVP from developing links with gender justice advocates and the LGBTQI community.

JVP and ethnic politics: a contested territory?

The JVP repeats its fluctuating and inconsistent approach to gender politics when it comes to the elephant in the room in Sri Lankan politics – the ethnic question. Reflecting a perennial problem in JVP discourses, Paulraj also equated gender inequalities across ethnicities, arguing that Sinhala and Tamil women’s wartime suffering was identical. Despite the fact that economic, and socio-cultural marginalisation, and sexual violence across groups share commonalities, equating women’s ethnic conflict-related suffering in the ‘Sinhalese south’ and ‘Tamil north’ is deeply problematic, and obliterates the multiple intersectionalities of the issues involved. Spouses and family of deceased military personnel, for example, receive state compensation and benefit from a positive appreciation as kinsfolk of ‘war heroes’ whereas spouses and families of fallen Tamil fighters get stigmatised as relatives of terrorists, do not receive compensation, and face high levels of stigma and discrimination both from within the Tamil community and at the hands of state authorities. At the worst receiving end are women from the lower echelons of the Tamil caste structure. An intersectional focus on justice for such heavily marginalised women across the ethnic divide does not, to date, form part of the JVP’s gender justice agenda.

In its early years, the JVP alternated between stern opposition to minorities, including Tamil plantation workers (Jayawardena 1985: 87-88, Anandalingam and Abraham 1986: 42),33 and efforts to build bridges across the ethnic divide, with senior leaders visiting the Northern and Eastern Provinces and exploring avenues for partnerships with left-leaning Tamil groups.34 The rise of Tamil militant activity in Northern Sri Lanka in the late 1970s and the Jayewardene administration’s anti-JVP policies resulted in a more closed-up approach, emphasising national sovereignty and the state’s territorial integrity.35

Since 1994, the JVP has become the foremost opponent of Western-led liberal peace-building efforts. In the 2000s, the JVP was a frontline campaigner against Norwegian good offices in Sri Lanka, strongly endorsing a military solution to Tamil separatism (Moore 1993, Venugopal 2008, 2010, Rampton 2011).36 Indeed, the claim that the JVP is a pseudo-Marxist party in the service of Sinhala nationalism has been advanced since the 1980s (Perera 2012: 114). The JVP’s policy on the ethnic question is replete with inconsistencies, incompatibilities and a Sinhala nationalist posture. The JVP’s parsimonious early efforts to mobilise working people across the ethno-linguistic divide, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were short-lived. Just as the JVP led Sinhala youth in violent anti-state uprisings over systemic inequalities, Tamil militant groups, most notably the LTTE, began, in the mid-late 1970s, to lead northern Sri Lanka’s disgruntled Tamil youth in taking up arms against the Sri Lankan state. Throughout the war years (1983-2009), opposing Tamil secessionism and upholding a Sinhala nationalist posture were crucial to the JVP’s political survival. Hence its emergence, in the 1990s and 2000s, as an ardent opponent of peace processes and peace-building, and a supporter of an all-out military offensive.

The current JVP leadership strongly reiterates that it has consistently stood for interethnic coexistence (Dissanayake 2014). Yet, the JVP continues to remain ambiguous in relation to present-day debates on ethnic politics, which especially include constitutional reform, with Tamil politicians calling for a restructuring of the Sri Lankan state (see Wigneswaran 2016). The JVP strongly supports Sri Lanka’s existing unitary state structure, and has long been critical of Tamil demands for extensive devolution and a federal alternative. Despite working with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the parliamentary opposition since August 2015, the JVP has so far shown no sensitivity to debates on constitutionalism in Tamil political circles. Months after the war ended (and contradicting its earlier position of unconditionally endorsing the 2006-09 military offensive against the Tamil Tigers), the JVP sought to interact with Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, hoping to work with left-leaning Tamil groups, and the Party leadership has openly regretted its lack of empathy towards the war victims.37 Under the Rajapaksa regime, such efforts were met with vehement opposition and violence. On 14 November 2010, Sunil Handunetti, a senior MP who has represented the JVP in parliament since 2000, was brutally assaulted during a visit to Jaffna to take part in a protest on the fundamental rights of Tamil detainees, calling upon Colombo to address the plight of those held without trial (Sunday Leader 2010).

At the 2015 general election, the JVP was thoroughly unsuccessful in the northerly Tamil-majority electoral districts, where the vote generally favours ethnic Tamil political parties. In a sociopolitical sphere where regional roots play a crucial role, the JVP appointed Ramalingam Chandrasekar, a non-northerner, as its group leader in the Jaffna District. This marked a departure from the elitist and upper caste electoral practices of the TNA and other Tamil parties. In northern Sri Lanka, the JVP’s prospects of producing a credible left-wing alternative remain low. At the 2015 election, JVP lists in Tamil-majority electoral districts did not include female candidates or a commitment to inclusion across gender, caste, socioeconomic and religious dividing lines. Despite such lacunae, the JVP continues public outreach efforts in northern Sri Lanka. The SYU held its annual 2015 Che Guevara commemoration ceremony in Jaffna.38 The JVP has also taken steps to increase the facilities in its Jaffna office, including the provisioning of a library. Yet, the JVP lacks a consistent strategy to address the political, socioeconomic and cultural grievances of the Tamil people and a plan to make its own rank and file inclusive in terms of gender-related, ethnic and socio-cultural intersectionalities. Despite its trade union links to the All Ceylon Estate Workers’ Union (ACEWU), the JVP has no support base among the Tamil plantation worker community of central Sri Lanka. Just as with gender politics, the JVP’s higher echelons remain largely Sinhala male, with extremely low, if not non-existent Tamil presence.

Writing about the JVP and the ethnic question, Jayawardena (1985: 90) noted that the theoretical problem before the Left was the persistent strength of ethnic consciousness and the power it has to override all other differences, including class. Some three decades later, there has been little change. The JVP has yet to clearly articulate its standpoint on devolution and self-determination, which continue to be frontline issues in Tamil politics.  Its prospects of enhancing its electoral appeal among Tamil voters in northern Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the island remain slim. Party insiders cite challenges involved in appealing to the Tamil vote, the forte of Tamil political parties. These interactions also point to a shortage of intercultural understanding in the JVP rank and file in relation to the Tamil community.39 However, this does not imply that the present-day JVP’s position on ethnic politics has not evolved. It stood in solidarity with the Muslim community during the June 2014 outburst of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence (Weerawardhana 2017: 30) and has acknowledged problems in its low regard for the plight of Tamil people during the latter stages of the war.40 The foremost challenge ahead lies in articulating clear-cut and incisive positions on core issues, thereby remedying vacillation between Sinhala majoritarian postures and the JVP’s new-found parsimonious emphasis on reconciliation.

Conclusion: perennial challenges and possibilities

The JVP shows little potential for being perceived as a new and dynamic political force. Instead, it appears to cater to the ethno-linguistic majority of a multilingual and multicultural state. Entrenched in its petit-bourgeois roots, the present-day JVP continues to be shaped by patriarchal attitudes, preventing meaningful policy formulation on gender justice, equality, equity and parity. The Sinhala language, the lingua franca of its main electoral base, forms the primary medium through which the JVP addresses the electorate, and this alone suffices to distance Tamil speakers, who are left to perceive the JVP not as a progressive, inclusive and welcoming left-wing party but as an exclusionary and exclusively Sinhala-led majoritarian party with no ‘egalitarian’ place for minorities. This reality is glimpsed in the JVP’s extremely low performance in Tamil majority electorates at local and national elections. A strategy to address these issues requires a clear understanding of the interdependent intersections of gender and ethnic politics.

Despite this bleak reality, signs of progressive change are apparent in an occasional emphasis on gender justice and equality and latent efforts to articulate a somewhat inclusive position on the ethnic question. Party broadcasts and conversations with insiders demonstrate a considerable understanding of world politics, especially pertaining to austerity, inequalities, political movements of the left, and the adverse effects of neoliberal politics. It also appeared that some JVP frontliners (all of them cisgender men) are more progressive-minded than others, resulting in internal collisions and disagreements. Writing about prospects for the left in India, Professor Vijay Prashad notes that the left struggles to find a way to both critique the inequality of neoliberalism and appeal to the public for an alternative future, which is also very much the JVP’s present-day conundrum.41 Strong policies on gender politics and ethno-nationalism ­­– which would present a viable alternative to the two larger parties and their coalitions – are bound to have a decisive effect on the JVP’s potential to emerge (or not) as a game changer in Sri Lankan politics.


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1. Unless otherwise indicated, all URLs in this article were accessed and verified on 2 May 2017. The writer thanks JVP members who provided their insights on condition of anonymity, and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments.

2. The party is popularly known and referred to, even in the English language press, in its Sinhala abbreviation, JVP, which is maintained in this article.

3. ‘Anura Kumara Dissanayake is new JVP leader’, Daily Mirror, 2 February 2014:

4. For a detailed evaluation of the specific skills and contributions of each of the JVP’s present-day frontline leaders, written by an expatriate journalist and one-time JVP insider writing under a pseudonym, see Lanka News Web, 2015.

5. English version:

6. AC’s continued relevance has been evident, for example, in the 2015 budget debate, when the JVP’s Bimal Rathnayake MP elucidated the JVP’s economic policy approach, largely on the basis of the Accord of Conscience. Full speech: [Sinhlala].

7. JVP Special Convention:, #geSL2015 theme song: [Sinhala].

8. For a discussion of the lack of caste-related inclusion in present-day Marxist politics in India, see Jessie 2016.

9. In this article, I use ‘Ceylon’ to refer to political events in Sri Lanka prior to 1972, the year in which the Republic of Sri Lanka was proclaimed.

10. On the socioeconomic and political backdrop in which the LSSP came to being, especially in relation to the Great Depression, see Jayawardena 1974. On the LSSP’s overall impact on Sri Lankan politics, see Goonetilake 1975: 98-99).

11. Bandaranaike was among the earliest to foresee the advantages of communal politics. He learnt Sinhala only in his adult life, and he first advocated Sinhala ethno-centric political mobilisation in the mid-1930s, spearheading the creation of ‘Sinhala Maha Saba’, or Great Council of the Sinhalese, the membership of which subsequently formed the SLFP’s core support base.

12. The Moscow and Peking wings of the Sri Lanka Communist Party (itself the result of a breakup within the LSSP in 1943) developed after the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s.

13. For a detailed account on the events leading to the creation of the party and its early years, see

14. The Official estimate was a total of 1,200 deaths, while unofficial estimates claim 4,000-5,000 deaths (Fernando 2013).

15. Present JVP leader Dissanayake vehemently denies any JVP links to the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, also known as the Black July riots. The JVP accuses the Jayewardene administration of simultaneously rousing ethno-national hatred and using the resulting tense situation to ban the JVP, simply for the UNP’s political advantage. This point was reiterated in the wake of a rise of anti-Muslim violence in 2012-2014 (Dissanayake 2014).

16. This figure is a government estimate, and estimates of human rights organizations are significantly higher.

17. The JVP contested the 2004 general election under the UPFA coalition banner, and won a record 39 seats. In the Colombo District, for instance, three JVP candidates topped the preferential votes. 2004 general election results:

18. This military offensive, which ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE and the assassination of its leadership, is also known as Eelam War IV. Post-war, JVP leaders have publicly affirmed that their positions on the war were devoid of adequate concern towards the plight of war-affected Tamil people, a point Anura Dissanayake reiterated in a July 2014 BBC interview: [Sinhala].

19. The FSP has so far been unsuccessful in electorally challenging the JVP. At the 2015 general election, it polled only 5000 votes islandwide. The foremost challenge the JVP faces from FSP is the latter’s strong anti-JVP campaigns, especially on social media.

20. Gunasinghe’s social media is limited to a personal Facebook page (, which mostly includes reposts from pages of her party colleagues and party social media.

21. My translation of the original Sinhala statement. Relevant excerpt of the talk show [in Sinhala]:

22. List of senior party officials:

23. Members of the new national SYU committee: [Sinhala]

24. On 11 Dec. 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe informed parliament that the Cabinet has approved giving 25% representation for female candidates at future local elections. While the shortcomings of this policy – which excludes parliamentary elections and will benefit only women from privileged backgrounds – are self-evident, the JVP’s critique has failed to offer an inclusive alternative.

25. This section especially zooms in on WR and its chairperson. Given the close-knit nature of the JVP’s organizational structure, WR and its chair’s positions are broadly representative of the party’s overall positions on gender issues.

26. Full speech: [Sinhala].

27. The JVP is the only party to actively campaign for the rights of Sri Lankans living and working abroad – especially in the Middle East, through Ethera Api (Ourselves Abroad) its organ devoted to Sri Lankan expatriate issues.

28. Source: conversation with senior JVP insider, November 2016.

29. This was evident in his public pronouncements in the aftermath of the gang rape and murder of S.Vithiya, a high school pupil in northern Sri Lanka in May 2015, a tragedy that sparked national outrage. A parliamentary speech (from 6 December 2015) in which Rathnayake makes a strong case for special Sexual Offence Courts, also highlighting the necessity of challenging sexism and misogyny across society is available at: [in Sinhala].

30. ‘Extreme no to extremism’. Daily News, 10 December 2015:

31. [Sinhala] Smalingika ayithivasikam apa piligatha ythuyi – Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna: [We must accept gay rights: JVP]

32. Source: interaction with party insider, February 2016. Conversations with a number of active JVP youth revealed that the present-day JVP is at a crossroads on gender issues, with a progressive focus on equality on the one hand, and an inclination to cling to social conservatisms on the other.

33. Tamil plantation workers (also known as Malayaga Tamil) in central Sri Lanka are descendants of indentured labourers from South India that the British force-migrated to work in Ceylon’s coffee and later tea plantations. As the Tamil polity struggled to obtain Sri Lankan citizenship to Malayaga Tamils in the late 1970s, the JVP vehemently opposed the move, calling for their forced repatriation (Anandalingam and Abraham 1986: 42).

34. Insights into such efforts can be gleaned from the writings of Lionel Bopagé, a Sri Lankan-Australian who took part in the 1971 insurrection, later became JVP General Secretary and quit over disagreements on the ethnic issue (Cooke 2013, Boyle 2013). Footage of a 1978 JVP rally in Jaffna attended by Wijeweera: [Sinhala].

35. On the JVP’s contradictory politics regarding the ethnic question, see Jayawardena (1985: 84-90).

36. Widely quoted in academic writing on the JVP, two Sri Lankans, Chandraprema (1991) and Gunaratna (1990) share strongly anti-JVP and pro-establishment positions when analyzing the JVP. A major lacuna in existing research is that very few analysts who have written on the topic in English actually speak and write Sinhala, leading to inconsistencies in processes of translation and consequent misinterpretations

37. Dissanayake especially affirmed this position with a BBC interview in June 2014: [Sinhala]. Exact statement: Sequence at 7:15-7:57. Related press report:

38. Photos and video of the ceremony:

39. The JVP’s organizational structure does not include steps that could facilitate dialogue and interaction, such as encouraging and assisting its overwhelmingly Sinhala rank and file with Tamil language skills.

40. See footnote 15 above.

41. “India’s left will be back,” The Guardian, 23 May 2014:

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