Charles Wesley Ervin, August 2010; Charles Wesley Ervin lives in USA and is the author of Tomorrow is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon, 1935-1948 and Philip Gunawardena: The Making of a Revolutionary (both published by the Social Scientists Association, Colombo). His email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A. Patchamuthu, who will soon celebrate his 90th birthday, is one of the last living veterans of the Old Left in Sri Lanka. He was a member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) from 1942 until his retirement from active politics in 2000. I first contacted him several years ago, seeking information about the Samasamajists who had crossed over to work in South India during the Second World War. He obliged cheerfully. When I asked him about his own political career, he said he had been merely a rank-and-file party worker. Yet the more he revealed, the more I admired him. I sense that he is too humble and modest to tell his own story. And so I offer my own tribute to a remarkable “foot soldier of the revolution.”
Appavoopillai Patchamuthu was born on September 29, 1921, in Koslanda, a hill town in the Badulla District of what was then colonial Ceylon. His ancestral roots were in Aranthangi, a town in the Tanjore District of Madras Province, which is now Tamil Nadu. His grandfather, R. Alaghoopillai (1872-1944), had trekked to Ceylon from India at the age of 18 seeking a better life. Through hard work, he developed four plantations in the Koslanda-Nikapotha area as well as a printing business. And his son, R. A. Appavoopillai (1898-1955), further developed the family’s holdings in the Koslanda area, providing Patchamuthu and his siblings with a comfortable home, an English education, and opportunities for advance.
As Patchamuthu grew up, the Indian freedom movement was in full swing, and the struggle resonated in Ceylon, especially among the Tamils. “My parents were politically inclined up to the point of talking about Gandhi and Nehru and their struggle for Indian independence.” (All quotes are from his letters to me.) Attending Uva College in Badulla, an Anglican secondary school, Patchamuthu learned about world politics. “My main source for political knowledge while in college was Nehru’s book, Glimpses of World History. From this book I learned about the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. He gave vivid descriptions of the political upheavals in Europe and Asia.”
The Lanka Sama Samaja Party
In 1935, while Patchamuthu was still a teenager, the LSSP came on the scene, a dynamic, radical new force that boldly challenged the conservative status quo in the new language of Marxist revolution. The youthful party had two firebrands in the State Council, Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera, who championed the interests of the working classes and denounced the selfishness, stupidity, and injustice of the British overlords and the Ceylonese elite.
In Badulla, the local LSSP leader J.C.T. (“Jack”) Kotalawala, a lawyer who was a founding member of the party, had a strong popular following. The LSSP made rapid headway in organizing a militant new union for the Tamil workers on the British tea plantations. The planters fought the Red Menace tooth and nail. Starting in 1939, a wave of militant strikes swept the plantations. The LSSP had become more than just a thorn in their sides. In April 1940 the government arrested Philip Gunawardena, the real brains behind the LSSP, and three other leaders, shut down the party newspapers, and banned party meetings.
In this tense situation Patchamuthu attended a huge LSSP rally in Badulla on May 12, 1940, held in defiance of the ban, to protest the police murder of a striker. That day changed his life. “I met J.C.T. Kotalawala, and he introduced me to the party.” The police warned Patchamuthu to stay away from the Trotskyist troublemakers. But he was not one to be deterred by threats. “I continued my political activities with a few of the worker comrades who were not arrested in Badulla.”
In April, 1942 Patchamuthu heard welcome news: the LSSP had rescued their four imprisoned party leaders from their jail cells in Kandy under cover of darkness and smuggled them past the military sentry posts back to hideouts in Colombo. Embarrassed and humiliated, the government hunted for the fugitives and arrested more party members. “On December 1, 1942, I was summoned by the Superintendant of Police in Badulla and interrogated. I was let off with a severe warning, since I was a student.”
“The Glorious Days of the LSSP”
Despite the risks, Patchamuthu cast his fate with the LSSP. “I disappeared from Badulla along with a few others. I went to Colombo and got absorbed in the LSSP underground movement.”
By that time, the fugitive party leaders had already left for India, where they were working with the newly formed Trotskyist organization, the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI). The party group in Colombo consisted mainly of second-tier cadres and student recruits who were not known to the police. “We worked with harbour workers, weaving mill workers, and railway workers. We worked among university students. We distributed leaflets to the soldiers. These were the glorious days of the LSSP.”
In 1944 the BLPI decided to convene a clandestine all-India party conference in Madras. The LSSP elected Patchamuthu as a delegate. “It was perilous journey to meet the LSSP comrades in a city that I was going to for the first time.” The conference was an intense political experience. The delegates debated a wide range of issues, from the thorny theoretical question of Muslim self-determination to practical matters of party building. Given the need for tight security, all the participants used pseudonyms. Patchamuthu was “Ganesh.” The meetings, which lasted all day and night, evidently roused suspicion in the neighborhood. The police dispatched a squad to raid the house. Alerted to the danger, the delegates had to quickly disperse.”The underground days were very challenging and nerve-breaking.”
When the war ended in 1945, the government lifted the ban on the LSSP and released the political prisoners. “I left Colombo and went to the plantations to organize our trade unions. In a short time we built a strong trade union base in Badulla and Haputale Districts. I was the central figure in Haputale where we had a membership of over 25,000 plantation workers.”
In April 1946 Patchamuthu and another comrade, S. Chelliah, led a strike of 400 Tamil laborers on the Sherwood Estate in Haputale. Their strike triggered sympathy strikes on another ten estates, involving some 20,000 workers. Patchamuthu, Chelliah, and J.C.T. Kotalawala toured the estates and addressed the strikers. The party newspaper reported optimistically, “The worker Bolskeviks in these estates were in the forefront of the struggle and took an active part in the organising of strike committees on these estates” (Fight, May 1946).
Eager to build on this success, the LSSP asked Patchamuthu to contest the Haputale seat in the first elections to parliament in 1947. His election leaflet set forth a series of demands specifically addressed to the needs of the Tamil plantation workers, including free education and free health services. “My parliamentary election campaign was very exhausting. I owned no vehicle and had to walk miles and miles up hills and down valleys. My opponents were very formidable candidates with unlimited resources. My election workers were employed in tea and rubber estates on daily wages.”
Alarmed by the resurgence of the LSSP, the conservative Ceylonese parties played the communal card to drive a wedge between the Tamils and the Left. Their insidious anti-Tamil propaganda worked. The plantation workers voted for their own communal organization, the Ceylon Indian Congress, in self-defense. The CIC won six out of the seven seats it contested. Patchamuthu came in fourth place for Haputale. J.C.T. Kotalawala lost his bid in Badulla, his home base. After the election, the Tamils deserted the LSSP union in droves.
The election defeat was a harsh blow to Patchamuthu. One of his comrades at that time recalls: “When walking along Galle Road, shortly after the ’47 election, I saw Patchamuthu through the open door at a table. It was, I think, a private press office. I walked in to speak with him. He was, as I felt, in a state of shock. He could not, I thought, believe that those workers to whom he had given so much had voted for Congress.”
Recalling that period, Patchamuthu told me: “After the grueling campaign, I wanted a break.” He went up to India, to Madurai, where he spent the next nine months working with the BLPI student groups and unions of mill workers. That was far more satisfying and rewarding work. In 1948 he returned to Koslanda. His parents gave him a ten-acre plantation with a house. “I continued with my trade-union and political activities from here. I had a reasonable income to live a happy, simple, and comfortable life.” During this period, he contested an election to the village council as an LSSP candidate. “In spite of the electorate being predominantly Sinhalese, I won by a handsome majority.”
The Hartal of 1953
In 1953 the LSSP and other left parties called for a one-day hartal to protest the government’s cut in the rice subsidy. The response was completely unexpected, in terms of turnout and militancy. “The Hartal was widespread, from villages to town. I participated and I was arrested and locked up in the Fort Police Station.”
As crowds clashed with police in the streets, the LSSP leaders debated what to do. None of the Left parties had planned for anything more than a symbolic one-day protest. As the day drew to a close, the LSSP leaders, together with the leaders of the other left parties, issued a statement congratulating the masses and urging them to return to business as usual the next day. Even then, there were incidents where people tried on their own to continue the struggle.
In retrospect Patchamuthu feels that the LSSP missed a historic opportunity. “From the start the LSSP had total leadership of a militant mass uprising. It shook the foundations of the government.”
The Era of Coalition Politics
In 1956 Patchamuthu returned to Colombo. He got married, and went to work for his uncle who had taken over the family’s printing company, the Nadaraja Press. His first son was born a year later.
This was not a happy time for the LSSP. The party had high hopes going into the 1956 elections. But the MEP coalition won in a landslide. The LSSP was reduced to the role of Opposition in parliament.
By 1959 Patchamuthu had saved enough to set up his own printing shop. Working hard to support his growing family, Patchamuthu had to withdraw from politics. “I could not be an active member of the LSSP due to my family responsibilities and the need to keep the home fire burning. But I continued my interest and activities in the LSSP.”
In 1960, after the breakup of the MEP, a section of the LSSP leadership proposed that the party should reverse course and seek its own coalition government with the SLFP. Patchamuthu was against any alliance with “the Sinhalese racial capitalist party of Mrs. Bandaranaike.” Although the proposal was defeated, the coalition faction gathered support within the party and raised the issue again as elections approached in 1964. The LSSP was deeply divided. When the proposal was finally put to a vote at a special convention, Patchamuthu voted against it. But it passed by a 2-to-1 majority. At that point the anti-coalition minority walked out of the conference.
“Those who left were the cream and the genuine Marxist members of the party.” He attended the meeting where they set up a new party, the LSSP (Revolutionary). But he did not join. “My experience with these comrades told me that they were not capable of forming another revolutionary party.” He was right. The LSSP(R) soon fragmented.
Patchamuthu felt that his duty was to remain with the mother party, which he believed could be drawn back onto the revolutionary path. “I was ignored for some time. In due course, my name was proposed at a party conference for the Central Committee and I was elected. But everyone knew that I was not an admirer of the coalition politics.”
The Demise of the LSSP
Sadly, his optimism in the regeneration of the LSSP was unfounded. Six years later the LSSP joined a second coalition government with Mrs. Bandaranaike. The LSSP leaders ended up authoring a communalist Constitution, smashing strikes, and justifying the brutal police-military crushing of the JVP uprising in 1971. “Their revolutionary Marxist struggles and sacrifices came to a pathetic end.” The LSSP was buried at the next elections.
“Since then the party functions like a Social Democratic Party. Their mass base was shattered and wiped out – a tragic end to a once Trotskyist revolutionary mass party.”
In September 2000, at the age of 80, Patchamuthu resigned from the LSSP. Since retiring from politics, he has suffered serious health problems and weakening sight in one eye. He no longer can write his long letters. Yet, as always, the wonderful twinkle of optimism shines through in his letters to me. “My old heart is still young.”
Looking back, Patchamuthu summed up his long life in politics: “I have no regrets that my life was spent with comrades who dedicated their life for the emancipation of the working class from exploitation. The LSSP that I knew and under whose banner I fought is no more. Let me conclude by quoting the philosopher Spinoza’s famous words: ‘Neither to weep nor laugh, but to understand’.”
Charles Wesley Ervin is the author of Tomorrow is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon, 1935-1948 and Philip Gunawardena: The Making of a Revolutionary (both published by the Social Scientists Association, Colombo). His email: email@example.com