Bloody Memories: The JVP Insurrection 1971

Zahrah Imtiaz courtesy of Daily News, 5 April 2017, where the title reads “Sanguinary Memories: JVP Insurgence of 1971”

The decision taken by the nine senior members of the JVP when they met at the Sangaramaya Temple of the Vidyodaya University on April 2, 1971, was to capture State power by attacking all the police stations in the country on the night of April 5, 1971.”– “Rohan Gunaratna: Sri Lanka: A Lost Revolution? The Inside story of the JVP”

 From Prasad Premarathne…

The plan was simple, the orders had come and all they had to do was to execute it. Rohana Wijeweera, the charismatic leader of the JVP was in prison in Jaffna, and via a message sent through Lal Somasiri, he had asked that, “Posters should be published and leaflets distributed calling for his release, and in the case of an attack, 500 comrades should be sent to Jaffna to secure his release.” He had also stated, “If you cannot obtain my release legally, you may create an island-wide struggle throughout the country and then send 500 men”.

As decided and commanded by their supreme leader, JVP activists on April 5, 1971, attacked 74 police stations within 24 hours. In the span of two to three days, they  also managed to seize power over 35 police station areas, control of over 50 chief towns, and attack close to 92 police stations with 57 damaged. The state which was caught very much unprepared took time to strike, but when they did, it was the first time the State took action to quell an armed struggle of its own citizens since Independence. Official records show that 5,067 were taken into custody, 53 security forces died and 323 were injured, 37 policemen were killed, and 193 injured in police stations. The JVP in turn killed 41 civilians, but overall rough estimates suggest that between 8,000 – 10,000 people died during April of 1971.

The failed insurrection: A JVP suspect arrested by the armed forces. Pix courtesy the JVP

The government at the time estimate that the cost of the damages caused by the 1971 revolution amounted to over Rs 20 million. Today, as we mark the 46th Anniversary of the 1971 JVP Revolution, both the nature of the JVP as well as the Sri Lankan state has changed form, but the core problems which led to the 1971 revolution still remain. Statistics from the Central Bank in 2012/2013 show that 77.4 percent of the population of the country lived in rural areas while 18.2 were in urban and 4.4 lived in the Estate sector. Agriculture, which was one of the main sources of income in the rural sector, today only contributes 7.7 percent to GDP, while employing 28.5 percent of the population (2014). Thus, the mean income per household per month in the urban sector was recorded to be Rs. 69,880 in 2012/2013 while it was Rs. 41,478 in the rural sector and Rs. 30,220 in the Estates.

A large proportion of the GDP—42 percent—also comes from the Western Province which has undergone progressive urbanization over time. When it comes to education, the 2012/2013 statistics showed that 20.5 percent had passed A/Ls in the urban areas, which had the best schools, while only 11.1 percent managed to pass their A/Ls in the rural sector, with the Estates trailing behind with 2.2 percent.

The situation for the youth in the rural sector was no different in 1971.

The 1971 Revolution and its failures

Revolution it was to be. The plan to capture State power through the attack of police stations was simple according to Gunaratna’s book. Add to this, there were grave instances of miscommunication between various group leaders of the JVP around the country leading to the attack being carried out at the wrong time.

All activists on the ground were sent the telegram “JVP Appuhamy expired. Funeral 5”, which called for the attack on April 5 night. “The message sent by telegram was misunderstood, and the JVP activists in Moneragala prematurely attacked the Wellawaya Police station in the morning,” noted Gunaratna.

Police officers, tipped off about the attack, were soon on alert when the Wellawaya station was attacked, and all other stations around the country were immediately put on alert. The security forces and police though, were caught full unprepared to deal with such a situation. Gunaratna’s book showed that they were, “Ill-equipped and did not have a proper ground intelligence system and did not take seriously the intelligence reports of the earlier government about a JVP attack.” That they also assumed that a “bunch of village boys could never overthrow them”.

As the State geared itself to deal with the first of many of revolts to come, it was also the time when Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike put to good use all the good faith she had won in the international community and sought help from neighbouring countries such as India and Pakistan to get troops to assist the government.

The JVP had four important missions to execute: Attack the Panagoda army camp, kill or abduct the Prime Minister, ministers, and senior government officials, capture Colombo, and rescue Wijeweera from the Jaffna prison. None of these bore any fruit. According Gunaratna, the cadres at the bottom were not prepared or briefed properly on how they were to set about getting these tasks done. Moreover, the little success they did achieve when capturing large areas of land in the South on April 5, were short-lived as many did not know how to consolidate their positions.

“The JVP was a cadre party and had limited public support. They were a group of handpicked and highly motivated young men who thought narrowly and had certain ideals,” said Gunaratna in his book, “They believed in this revolutionary ideology of the JVP and were prepared to do whatever their leaders ordered. Further, the JVP activists who managed to control large areas of the country following April 5 did not know the next step”.

“As the public watched the young JVP activists struggle with no direction, many soon lost faith in the maturity of the party,” said Gunaratna. More importantly, the JVP had overestimated the strength and capability of the student sector. “From schools and university, they were highly indoctrinated and were prepared to sacrifice their lives, however, they were only equipped with a bomb or two and were inadequately trained and lacked strategy and direction,” he added.

 JVP prisoners at Vidyodaya campus

  JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera (L) and Prins Gunasekara (R) at the Criminal Justice Commission (located in Thunmulla ) after the 1971 uprising. Pix courtesy the JVP

Post revolution

While it was a wake up call for many in government and society at large, the revolution was a failure of epic proportions for the youth who had fought in it. The media, which was highly censored during the revolt, later on reported that, “About Rs. 450 million ear-marked for capital development in 1970-71 could not be spent due to these disturbances. Together with the Rs. 400 million worth of damage to State property caused by the insurgency, the additional Rs. 450 million under expenditure on capital development works out to be a colossal figure unprecedented in the economic history of this country.”

The government, at the time, also said, “For so many thousands to revolt, something terrible had gone wrong,” and the Prime Minister herself stated, “We must remember that we are all sitting on top of a volcano today. We are unable to say at what moment this terrible volcano will erupt. Before it erupts and causes a great calamity, we need to take adequate protective measures to save ourselves from the impending disaster”.

One important legislation they passed to deal with the insurgency was the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) Act which would set about arresting and taking legal action against the JVP activists. A CJC was also recently proposed by the government to deal with those involved in large scale financial fraud.

Bandaranaike’s government also appointed boards, commissions, organisations to look into the problems of the rural people and the youth and advocated reforms in education, etc. but nothing concrete happened. The problems were left to persist.

When taking steps to break up the JVP, however, the government adopted the strategy of interrogating Wijeweera and breaking the confidence the cadres had in him. They also ran rehabilitation camps to wean off many JVP cadres from the party and then release them back into society.

“In the 1971 investigation and the CJC trial that followed, the government adopted a strategy which was not adopted in the late 1980s and 1990s. The then government managed to convince most of the main suspects of the CJC trial that Wijeweera was a fraud. By doing so, they killed the popularity of the leader and to a large extent, the movement,” stated Gunaratna’s book. And truly enough, Wijeweera, during his interrogations, gave away names of JVP ‘A-listers’.

As a result, less than five percent of the old members supported Wijeweera after 1971 and most retired from revolutionary politics. After 1971, the JVP as a party also scattered into many smaller groups; some openly against Wijeweera. Some of them also took to train themselves militarily, and after 1984, when proscription of the JVP made it hard for it to engage in politics, Wijeweera look for assistance from these parties to take up arms once again.

Gunaratna also noted, “It was possible that the disenchanted north-eastern Tamil youth drew inspiration to stage an armed struggle against the state from the events of 1971.” It was also a signal of a greater calamity to come in 1987—the second insurgency of the JVP which was more violent and dangerous.

Why did they take up arms?

“The rural sector was highly undeveloped, and it was the crisis in the rural sector that was a main contributor it. In addition, there were also caste conflicts, limited opportunities for education, unemployment, etc.,” said the Head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, Dr. Terrance Purasinghe. “The traditional Left went into coalition politics with the SLFP to form a government, and with that, the revolutionary streak of the Left was buried. The youth had to look for an alternative movement and that is when the JVP came to being,” he added.

“The JVP,” he further said, “is a ‘rural petite bourgeoisie movement,’ and even to this day, with over 70 percent of Sri Lankans coming from rural areas, the JVP has mass appeal.”

More importantly, none of the main parties had room for youth voices to be heard. “The main parties like the SLFP and UNP still have no room for the youth; even when nominations come up, few are given the opportunity. Even now, there is very little interest in resolving the issues of the rural youth and the rural sector in general. The alternative should be the Left, but the Left movement is very weak and is still in coalition with the major parties,” Dr. Purasinghe added.

In addition to not having an outlet for their voices, Gunaratna noted, “One of the key reasons for youth in 1971 and in the 1980s to rebel against established authority was a direct result of educated men being mass-produced out of a system not having jobs. If education was not made free overnight or was employment-oriented, this calamity would not have occurred”.

Dr. Purasinghe observed that the JVP also gave way to the rising feeling of nationalism among the youth, “Their (JVP) foundation is nationalism, but what they show is socialism. In 1971, the movement was not racist per se, but grew increasingly so, and in 1987, they added the anti-India stance and ethnic flavour to it,” he said, “Today the trend in the country is nationalism, and many in the Sinhala community and the majority of rural Sinhalese believe in it.”

Many of the socio-economic issues which persisted in the 1970s are still prevalent today, and the solutions put forward by Gunaratna in the 1990s are very much applicable to today’s context. He observed that many of the problems in the country were due to Sri Lankan leaders, instead of solving the problem at the initial stages, often allowed it to grow to acute proportions. Notable intellectuals spend time criticising leaders instead of solving the issues, Sri Lankan leaders always try to apply solutions based on western models which have had no effect on the local situation and the lack of planning of national programmes, be it education or employment.

“The false sense of nationalism and patriotism has destroyed the country’s values, and this has, among other calamities, caused the absence of a national identity,” he noted, “All political parties should work towards a national future than towards their own narrow futures”.

In the end, it was imperative that the Government addressed the deep-rooted socio-economic problems that led to such dissatisfaction while having the security forces prevent the resurgence of violence. “The 1971 revolution, as well as the failure of the 1989 one, showed us that social revolution cannot be brought forward through an armed struggle. The defeat of the LTTE proved that too. A social revolution can only be done through a mass struggle and that can be achieved in Sri Lanka,” said Dr. Purasinghe.

***  ***

A NOTE: Zahrah Imtiaz clearly did not experience the JVP insurgency and its suppression in 1971 (and has probably been assigned this task of commemoration by Lakshman Gunasekara).  Zahrah has therefore relied on word pictures drawn by Purasinghe and Gunaratne. Whether she has ploughed through and sorted out all the details in  Rohan Gunaratna’s book  remains in doubt. In any event the alleged casualty estimate of 8,000-10,0000 dead must not be accepted without resort to a number of sources and their potential differences. Terrance Purasinghe’s claim that the JVP insurrection came into being because of the failure of the United Front government to fulfill its promise is arrant nonsense. The JVP was active from the late 1960s and supported the UF campaign against the UNP at the General Election of May 1970  in order to set the conditions for its insurrectionary effort within a short period. From campus gossip as well as critical pieces of information garnered when I got a lift to Colombo with Dr Osmund Jayaratne (an LSSP intellectual) and had young Jayampathy Wickramaratne (an undergraduate LSSP leader) in the car as another passenger meant that in late 1970 I was alive to the likelihood of some JVP putsch in the near future. However, there are other more reliable voices and/or published sources to consult in checking out such issues and details.  Michael Roberts

ANOTHER REVIEW: Kumudini Hettiarachchi: “The night of April 5, 1971”, Sunday Times, 3 April 2013

Under cover of darkness, three young men travelled by taxi to the bo-tree junction at Borella. While two stood at the bus-stand, one walked into the Ritz cinema, found several of their sahodarayas (comrades) watching a movie, came back and whispered that it was not time yet.  The three, with one gripping a heavy suitcase, waited. They waited in vain………..for their leader didn’t turn up. They waited for one and a half hours and noticed that both vehicular traffic and pedestrians had thinned out. Curfew had been declared.

It was the night of April 5, 1971.

The diminutive but bold youth who was holding onto the suitcase then walked up to a Sub-Inspector of Police who was on the Borella roundabout and requested that he please stop a taxi for them to get home. The SI obliged and they were back in their boarding-house at Kotahena, mission unaccomplished.

At the crack of dawn, around 2.30 a.m. the next day soldiers and police struck, storming the boarding-house and not only taking into custody the three youth but everyone else as well.

It was later, much later that they got to know that their mission was to commandeer a vehicle at Borella and proceed to the Rosmead Place residence of then Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and take her into custody, while across the country bands of youth would storm police stations. This was to establish the “kotang anduwa” that more than 10,000 youth hoped would bring about equality, justice and fairplay. (The name ‘kotang anduwa’ came from the fact that the young revolutionaries were supposed to cut down trees and remove lamp-posts and telephone-posts to be used as roadblocks to hinder the movement of the army and the police.)

The young man, 28 then, waiting in vain while gripping the suitcase stuffed with grenades at Borella, while his sahodarayas were armed with revolvers, was none other than Somawansa Amarasinghe.
“I was expected to drive the vehicle that we would commandeer, to Rosmead Place,” recalls Somawansa.

The one-day revolution dubbed the ‘Aprel kerella’ (April insurrection), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) had planned and plotted had failed even before it started on April 5. For, the mission leader who was tasked with the vital arrest of the PM had himself been taken into custody by the police several hours earlier.

The tip off had been by a police agent, a relative of then JVP Second-in-Command, Nimalasiri Jayasinghe, who had assumed the nom de guerre ‘Loku Athula’.

Somawansa, currently Leader of the JVP — which has four Members in Parliament under the symbol of the Democratic National Alliance — was to come into prominence as a Member of the Politburo in the JVP’s second bloodier and more brutal uprising of 1987-89. He was the only Politburo Member to escape death by leaving the country in the late 1980s.

In 1971, however, Somawansa was only a minor cog in the JVP wheel, under the mentorship of “cell leader” Piyasiri Bandara whom he would meet at the Sangharamaya of the Vidyodaya campus at Gangodawila.

I came face-to-face with Comrade Rohana Wijeweera, “very briefly” in 1975 at the Welikada Prison, four years after the insurrection failed, says Somawansa, adding that he had got a glimpse of the JVP Leader when he addressed a huge rally at Hyde Park in August 1970. That day all roads to Hyde Park were blocked with a mass of humanity surging towards the meeting, he says.

The youngest in a family of seven children, Somawansa was born in Payagala, schooled firstly at Kalutara Balika Vidayala and later at Kalutara Vidyalaya until his H.S.C. He was not only first in class from Form 1, good in Maths, but also with heavy leanings towards fields as diverse as music and cricket (he set the bowling record for his school).

From his childhood, he had had a close affinity with the temple near his humble home, the Sumanaramaya – coming under the influence of the High Priest, Ven. Kalamulle Sugathadheera, in fact himself wanting to don saffron robes and follow in the footsteps of Lord Buddha. He also read a variety of books available at the temple which encompassed Literature, Politics and biographies of people such as Mahatma Gandhi.

When Maha Kavi Ananda Rajakaruna launched a fast at the temple, demanding that priority should be given to Swabhasha (both Sinhala and Tamil, Somawansa hastens to add), it was he as a 10-year-old who was given the responsibility of looking after the poet and serving water to him.

“These were people who were willing to give up their lives for the rights of others,” says Somawansa. It was also at the temple that he came into contact with many leftist politicians. As a senior student, Somawansa’s rebellious streak came out when he wore National Dress instead of the European trousers and shirt, against severe admonishments and threats of expulsion by the Principal. Later Somawansa joined the Irrigation Department’s Training School at Galgamuwa, close to Anuradhapura as a “Learner”.

After passing out and serving as an Irrigation Technical Officer in different parts of the country, it was while he was working at the Hydraulics Research Branch at Jawatte Road that he was attracted to the ideology being promoted by Comrade Wijeweera. However, the JVP was not interested in young men who were working, focusing its sights mainly on undergraduates and unemployed youth, he says.

“We sought out the JVP,” says Somawansa who finally got a link through a friend and joined political discussions in the evenings going into the dead of night at the trade union office of the Land Development Department behind Devi Balika Vidyalaya. It was here that he followed the Panthi Paha (Five Classes) which gave the interpretation of Marxism being spread by Wijeweera and his ‘Inner Circle’ who also believed that a small group could bring about a revolution. They were inspired by the revolutionary ideals of Che Guevara from Argentina who supported Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution.

The Five Classes dealt with the ‘economic crisis’ — the problems facing the peasant farmer and the rural worker; ‘Independence’ — giving a historical background to the ill-effects of colonial rule; ‘Indian expansionism’ — how Indian capitalists were attempting to spread their tentacles into smaller countries; the Left movement — drawing lessons from the failure of the Old Left to make any serious impact on local politics; and ‘the path the Revolution should take’.

By this time, personally Somawansa had come up slightly in life, getting a loan to buy a brand new motorcycle. “It was a black Honda 125,” recalls Somawansa, rare on the roads those days. He had paid a princely sum of Rs. 4,000, securing a loan although his salary at that time was Rs. 300 odd.

Without hesitation he gives the no. 5 Sri 6022, for it was the mo-bike which paved entry into the JVP for Somawansa but ultimately also put the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) on his trail.

To test me, whether I was an infiltrator, the JVP wanted me to give my bike to them, says Somawansa, who did just that. His initiation to the JVP came in 1969. But “I was on the periphery not really inside”, he concedes.

The ‘Inner Circle’ of 1971 headed by Wijeweera consisted of 13 members and included Wijesena Vitharana alias Sanath, a teacher from Kalattawa, ‘Karu’ or W. T. Karunaratne from the Inland Revenue Department, Nimalasiri Jayasinghe alias ‘Loku Athula’ and Piyatileke Samararatne alias ‘Machang’. By April 1971, however, much water had flowed under the bridge, for while Wijeweera was on his way to Ampara on March 13, a special police team had arrested him for the second time and taken him to the Jaffna jail.

By March 16, the government had declared a state of Emergency under which wide powers including the authority to dispose of bodies without postmortems being conducted were given to the police and the armed forces, says Somawansa.

A rehabilitation camp for JVP suspects. Pic courtesy the JVP

Explaining that after the Hyde Park meeting the government had sensed the red signals and police repression had begun, Somawansa says that on April 2, 1971, his motorcycle had been taken into custody while being used for the transport of posters. The same day CID sleuths visited his home at Payagala. He, however, was not there. Soon after, a neighbour had rushed from Payagala to his sister’s home in Maradana to warn him that the CID was looking for him. It was then that he made his way to Vidyodaya to meet his cell leader who took him to the Kotahena boarding-house.

Assigned the mission, but not told exactly what it was, that the three young men on April 5 returned from Borella to Kotahena. Arrested at dawn on April 6, Somawansa along with the others was taken to the Maradana Police, to be beaten up mercilessly for a day. Later transferred to the infamous 4th Floor of the CID, numerous torture methods including the “thakkali” treatment had been tried out on him. Do you know what “thakkali” is, he smiles, and goes on to explain that the victim is made to lie down on his front either on the floor or a bench and systematically battered on the buttocks with batons, until they become as squashy as a tomato.

The agony was unbearable, he says, adding that he thought he would die. It was 14 days later that he was taken to the Welikada Prison and kept in isolation, in-communicado, for a long while, like all the other JVP members who were incarcerated and later tried by the Criminal Justice Commission. The Jailed JVP members were released in the late 1970s

Somawansa who became a Politburo Member in 1984, assumed the Leadership of the JVP in 1990, as Wijeweera had been killed in November 1989. He returned to Sri Lanka in 2001 and came back for good in 2004.

The rest sis history.

A REVIEW ESSAY: Dharman Wickramaratne: “The Story of the JVP 2nd insurgency 1986 to 1990″ 

A book on the JVP’s second insurgency during the reign of terror (1986-1990) which claimed 60,000 lives was launched recently. The author is Senior Journalist Dharman Wickremaratne, who closely associated with people who experienced the events and also reported the incidents as a newspaper editorial staffer. The book is the true story of a dark period which ended 27 years ago. The 880-page book written in Sinhala contains 74 chapters and 1,289 photos is priced at Rs.1,500.

The number of persons killed and reported missing during the JVP second insurgency is 41,813.  However according to reports of human rights organisations the number is 67,652. Of this number 6,661 were killed by the JVP insurgents and 1,222 were killed by PRRA (People’s Revolutionary Red Army). The rest were killed by the security forces and 13 vigilante groups directly or indirectly linked to the former. The contents of the book are based on research the author did on the insurgency and on 376 interviews he did with different groups involved in the events during the period. This is the author Wickremaratne’s 52nd book.

It includes facts on JVP leaders and activists, the JVP’s role after its proscription in 1983, the events before and after the Indo-Lanka Accord, paramilitary groups and persons involved with them, trends of the Left movement in the 1980s, the SLFP, JVP attacks on the traditional Left, students’ struggles in schools, activities in the universities, academics and student leaders, military operations and other actions by insurgents and members of the clergy, lawyers, media personnel, artistes and others  killed during the reign of terror.

The book is available at Sarasavi Nugegoda, Godage Maradana and Vijitha Yapa Bookshops. The author can be reached at OR on 011-5234384.


Filed under atrocities, caste issues, economic processes, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, JVP, law of armed conflict, life stories, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, social justice, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real

5 responses to “Bloody Memories: The JVP Insurrection 1971

  1. Admin

    Responding to the first review / commemorative piece by Zahrah Imtiyaz:

    Sadly, journalists of the present – mostly, born in the post-87-90 period – fail to grip the ground conditions of both the political and intellectual anchorage of struggles. Symptomatic of this deficiency is the choice of sources the writer banks blindly on: Purasinghe and Gunaratna. Purasinghe is a well-known Political Science lecturer with a palpable UNP-slant, while Gunaratna (along with Judge Alles and CA Chandraprema) have authored reasonably pro-State analyses of the JVP. These nuances have to be understood when you table facts with the confidence of the “late comer”.

    (Vihanga Perera)

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  5. Vinoshka

    Surely, the JVP politburo decided on the uprising in the absence of the incarcerated Rohana Wijeweera, who warned against it?

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