by Vijaya Kumar
The Lanka Samasamaja Party, the oldest political party in the country celebrates its 85th anniversary on December 18, 2020. The Party grew out of its Youth Leagues which played a prominent part in the ‘Suriya-Mal’ movement – an alternative for indigenous ex-servicemen as against the Poppy Day where funds collected were for British ex-servicemen. The Marxist party from its early days heavily focused on the fight against the British colonial power were identified with people-friendly policies and the struggle for workers’ rights. The party has been instrumental or actively fought for the adoption of many of the progressive initiatives which we today take for granted.
The fight for full independence from Britain rather than constitutional reforms which was the aim of the so-called national parties was successful a mere 13 years after the party’s formation. The British bases which remained were removed under the SWRD Bandaranaike government nine years later and full freedom was achieved when Sri Lanka became a republic on May 22, 1972, under the stewardship of the party’s Colvin R de Silva. The fight for free education and free health services which was originated by the Communist Party’s SA Wickramasinghe, then an LSSP member of the First State Council, bore fruit with the CWW Kannangara Free Education Bill of 1945 and the Free Health Policy of 1951.
The party actively organized workers in both the urban and plantation sectors into its trade union movement led by NM Perera. These initiatives were dealt a heavy blow in 1940 when the Party leadership was arrested supposedly for opposing the British war effort but in reality to undermine its struggles in the estate sector. The Bracegirdle Affair and the Party’s militancy in the aftermath of the Mooloya Estate strike of 1939 which resulted in the shooting of Govindan had frightened the English planters.
Although the leadership broke jail at Bogambara, escaped to India and became actively involved using false names in the Quit India movement there, Party political activity was hampered. In 1945, by the time the leadership was released from prison after being arrested in India and the party became active once more in the trade union field, Indian pressure had facilitated the dominance of the Thondaman leadership in the plantations. However the Party fought and won better pay and working conditions including schooling and health, the right of trade union officials to enter estates, equal pay for men and women and ultimately nationalization of the estate sector although it was unsuccessful in its fight against the UNP’s disenfranchisement of the plantation worker.
It organized the general strikes of 1945, 1946 and 1947 aimed not only at workers’ rights but also as part of the independence struggle, the Hartal of 1953 which many believe was a lost opportunity to take power and many strikes particularly during the 1956 to 1959 period. Workers were able to win rights such as better pay, the eight-hour working day, pension, leave, payment for overtime, a provident fund scheme and the May Day holiday through these struggles.
The Party fought for and achieved to some measure the nationalization of the major foreign businesses in the country. It fought for Sinhala and Tamil to be given pride of place in the country’s administration but failed in its attempts to ensure that these rights were provided equitably to the Tamil speaking people. The 1972 Constitution in whose adoption the Party played a prominent role gave constitutional recognition to Buddhism as the foremost religion and Sinhala as the Official language of the country, a matter of discontent for many Party supporters.
The Party which was represented in the first State Council had 7-15% membership in Parliament from Independence to 1977 and NM Perera was Leader of the Opposition twice during that period. It held three Ministries in the Sirima Bandaranaike government of 1960 during its last few months and in 1970 holding 12 and 19 seats respectively in Parliament. It had four members and a Minister in the Chandrika Bandaranaike government of 1994 but in the recent past it has had to depend on being nominated through a National list in order to enter Parliament.
On the occasion of the 85th anniversary, it is worth reflecting on why the influence of the Party had declined sharply since 1977. Could the perennial Marxist discourse on the dangers posed by coalition politics with capitalist parties provide the answer? Unfortunately coalition politics in the early days was clouded by the world food and oil crisis of the seventies which led to popular discontent and further complicated by the JVP uprising of 1971. Could it have been a matter of personalities with the inability of later leaders to replicate the high energy of the original leaders, and the Party’s inability to retain possible leadership material like Anil Moonesinghe and Athauda Seneviratne who drifted to the SLFP; or Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Vickramabahu, who displeased by coalition politics and founded the NSSP, taking with them a large section of the party’s trade unions?
This together with JR’s tactics in dealing with the disastrous 1980 strike decimated the party’s trade union base, which had hitherto provided the muscle to its parliamentary politics. Or was it that the party’s programmes ceased to be relevant or critical to a nation, particularly its young generation which took for granted many of the rights and privileges they enjoyed through the early struggles of the Samasamajists.
An important reason contributing to the decline has been the new electoral system introduced by JR which required high investment on an election campaign. Neither the Party nor its members, brought up in a culture of high integrity and zero tolerance of corruption had the wherewithal for such a campaign, giving the Party no option than to align itself with other parties.
The Party was also unable to face up to patronage politics introduced by Felix Dias and JR which has become a crucial feature and an electoral expectation in today’s Sri Lankan politics. While individual politicians have contributed to the national debate even under these trying circumstances, like Batty Weerakoon’s successful prevention of the sale of the Eppawala phosphate resources and Tissa Vitarana’s valiant fight to address
the national problem, these efforts have not been appreciated by the major party. LSSP Ministers have been forced to vote for proposals like the 18th and 20th Amendments which went against everything they stood for to merely continue in politics. However, recent critical comments on government policy by Tissa Vitarana, relieved of Ministerial responsibilities although still a nominated MP augurs well for the party.
Displeasure against the Party’s approach to the 18th amendment resulted in a substantial group led by Lal Wijenayake and Jayampathy Wickremaratne to leave the Party and end up in the uncomfortable position of being part of the disastrous UNP dominated coalition of 2015. Many members of this group feeling the need for forging a strong left movement, then aligned with the JVP’s National People’s Power but this too has failed to win the backing of the people.
The left has a formidable task facing up to many challenges if it is to play a significant role in Sri Lankan politics given the prevailing culture of high cost elections, religious and racial intolerance, crony capitalism, corruption, suppression of dissent, a pliant court system and militarization. Is there any part of the left that can successfully overcome these issues and reclaim the glory of its past?
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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