The JVP and Rajapaksa in Vidyodaya Politics, 1970s: Recollections

Chandre Dharmawardana …. [1] … [2]

Some of what I remember from the period that Mahinda Rajapaksa was at Vidyodaya University as a library assistant is as follows.  S. B. Dissanayake[3] was the leader of the Communist Party in the Campus at Vidyodaya University, now known as Jayawardenapura University. He asserted his power as soon as he became the student leader by launching a strike at the Hostel on a food issue. It was just a show of power because in fact the food was quite up to par.  Mahinda Wijesekera,[4] his brother and a Buddhist Monk were JVP leaders who were trying to flex their muscles. Mahinda Wijesekera was in the science faculty while S. B. Dissanayake was a student in the Business Administration Department.

Mahinda in his Vidyodaya days with friend Anura Dias B  at a pirit ceremony

 Mahinda Wijeyesekera  Mahinda Rajapaksa SB Dissanayake

There was also the SLFP group which was closely involved with Mahinda Rajapaksa, I also remember Anura Bandaranaike coming to meet with Mahinda for student SLFP activities at the campus.  Mahinda R was not a student and he could remain behind the curtain in the campus political scene.  Mahinda worked as a library assistant under Dr. Dorakumbura, the chief librarian and also a party stalwart of the SLFP. There were other influential activists (e.g., an ex- student called “Deiyya”, who was an LSSP acolyte.)  There were also a few UNP students, and individuals working through the student Christian Movement, and the World Student Movement who were drawn more from the English educated “Kaduwa” or “Cultoor” group. There were, always, clashes for supremacy among these groups. A serious clash took place when LSSP students from the Colombo campus arrived at the Gangodawila campus, armed with bicycle chains, with  intent to attack the communist students. Even at that time Mahinda R  acted  as an arbiter; he also knew the village tough guys, through Mr. Munasinghe, a lecturer and head of one of the management studies departments.  Mahinda was living in Mirihana, a part of Nugegoda very close to the campus and had good connections with the village politicians. Mahinda’s links with the village gave him an upper hand over the student leaders who feared the village “thugs”.

Mahinda always came as a “go between” among all these people when there were internecine battles, and tried to “shape things up”. Mahinda did not side with who was right or what was fair, but always looked towards “patching things up”. He basically had “friends” or “his guys” in every camp. What MR did during 2005-2010 to run a minority government while fighting the LTTE was probably a wider application of his talents that he showed at the time.

On the other hand, student leaders like S. B. Dissanayake had a different approach. They too did not ask for what was right and fair, but merely  who was “with them” or “against them”. Those who opposed them were suppressed by threats and beatings. When students close to the student leaders were caught ragging, and even assaulting certain lecturers, as the President of the campus I decided to expel them after a lengthy investigation which conclusively provided us the needed evidence. But S. B. Dissanayake and various student leaders intervened,and even the lecturers as well as the students who had lodged the complaints WITHDREW their  complaints;  Mahinda  played a key role in the “patching up”! Their position was, “let us forget the past and go forward”. Stanley Tillekaratne, MP for Kotte and Speaker of the national parliament also chipped in. The “Senate house”, where Mr. Sumanadasa was the Vice chancellor, always deferred to the students.  The victims of the ragging and those who got assaulted should forget and forgive! The very same individuals who were “forgiven” then, instead of being kicked out of the campus have today become politicians who work hand in hand with the underworld.

When Mahinda became an MP in the 1970 SLFP landslide, he came to visit the Campus as a first-time MP, on the invitation of the SLFP group. The JVP had decided to show their strength, and organized an attack on him, and Mahinda was to be pelted with rotten tomatoes, eggs and humiliated as he approached  the statue of Ven. Sri Soratha.  When we learnt about the expected pelting (at the time I was not Campus president. This was before that moment).  Prof. Epasinghe (who later became a presidential adviser to Mahinda R) and I  sent the Science Faculty Jeep,  and a bunch of people to shield the new MP.  Rajapaksa was  moved  into the Jeep  and  the Jeep was sent away to the science faculty;  meanwhile his car continued towards the arts auditorium which had been daubed “Lenin auditorium” by the students. Halfway up, Mahinda’s car was stopped and the students opened the car to get at Mahinda.  The person in the front seat got out and said, “Mahinda’s car is behind and will come here  in a few minutes”. This person ,wearing a white national dress,  was pelted thoroughly and assaulted, as the students were now angry and felt cheated. The “scapegoat” in national dress who took the beating was none other than Mr. Mervyn de Silva![5]  The campus security moved in and “rescued” Mervyn. Meanwhile, Mahinda  had left the campus by the exit on the side of the Science Faculty, while the melee continued.

It is unfortunate that a member of Parliament cannot address the students in a peaceful manner, irrespective of the fact that he and various members of the student body have different political visions. Of course, this was prior to the impending 1971 JVP insurrection.

It should be remembered that most of the Vidyodya campus was an internment camp for the participants of the 1971 JVP insurrection from mid-1971 to mid-1972. Today, more than four decades later, the political atmosphere of the campuses has not improved. If the rule of law, or respect for human dignity cannot be executed inside a campus where there is supposed to be an “educated” community, how can the rule of law be upheld in the wider society where the masses are allegedly “less educated”? So, it is not education, but the recognition that there has to be some sort of values, a “Hobbesian charter”, that is lacking in our society.

My resignation from the position of President of the University and Professor of Chemistry in 1975 was consequent to the Vice Chancellor, Mr. Sumanadasa’s pusillanimous behavior in facing student (as well as staff) indiscipline. The head of one of the departments refused to allow me as the President to intervene and examine the department teaching structure and possibly extend the course-unit system that we had begun to implement. The older professors regarded the course-unit system as too much work, as they had to create and “mark an exam for every course every term”, instead of having just one B.Sc examination after three years.   Today, perhaps the course-unit system has gone to an unhealthy extreme, but in the 1970s a student’s fate was determined by his performance at just one giant examination at the end of his years as an undergrad in the University.

This was the period when the Presidents of campuses were vested with strong “transitional powers” to make significant changes in the campus and curriculum structure. The showdown with the Head of Department led to my advising the Vice Chancellor to remove the Head of Department.  The VC reviewed the case and agreed with me and removed the errant Head of Department. However, the deposed Head appealed to various student leaders. They wanted the head of department re-instated, claiming that one should “let bygones be bygones. Why take such drastic action for this minor thing”? The VC promptly obliged the students without any explanation. Furthermore, the Students were opposed to my attempt to make an English course unit compulsory even to arts students.  They held that such a requirement was ‘discriminatory” in favour of the “Kaduwa group”.  When I protested and presented the VC all the details of how the students were roped into this agitation, the VC again agreed with me and removed the head of the Department for the second time. At this point the student leaders, led by Mr. S. B. Dissanayake again marched into the VC’s office, and got him to re-appoint the deposed Head of Department! The VC shamelessly complied and totally undermined the line of authority in the University.  The de facto authority was in the hands of student leaders in most matters, and in the hands of Mr. Paskaralingam (the Secretary to the Minister of education) in the remaining matters. At this point I felt that I should have no part of it anymore, and hence, at a meeting with the Hon. Minister   Badiudeen Mohammad, I handed in my resignation. That very next day I left for the University of Paris,  where at that time I held a Research Fellowship concurrently with my affiliations in Sri Lanka. I left without delay as I did not wish to be pressurized into withdrawing my resignation by S. B. Dissanayake, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and others who in fact visited my house hours after I left.

This complete undermining of the need to work within a set of laws, rules and rights, was mainly the work of the Left movements of Sri Lanka.  But the Sri Lankan attitude that every wrong can be “shaped up” in the end with the perpetrators going scot free is perhaps a legacy from the land-owning class of the Rate-Maththaya/Periya-Dorei period where they used a retinue of thugs to assert their sway.  Mahind Rajapaksa, Sirisena, Ranil Wickremasinghe and other politicians  have simply followed those models of social (in)justice at the national level.

Chandre Dharmawardana

Note Aspects of Lanka’s Political culture embodied in Photographs

 CBK and Mahinda Rajapaksa as SLFP colleagues at a public event circa 1994 [before the Tiger assassination strike damaged her eye]

Mahinda  with machan Mahinda Wijesekera aa few days before the latter was rendered non compos mentis in a bomb attack on a demo at Akuressa]

 Chandrika with her foremost enemy on the day he was elected the president.  Mahinda was fully aware that Chandrika worked tirelessly for a Ranil victory in 2005

  ***   ***



I left for USA in September 1970 to take up a Fulbright Fellowship and was not in Sri Lanka when the first JVP insurgency broke out. However I was anticipating trouble and was reminded of this about five years back by Kitsiri Malalgoda (when we met in Auckland) because I had met him at Oxford on my way to Chicago: that is, I had brought him up to speed and warned him of the JVP’s inclinations. In my reading at the time the JVP backed the United front electoral campaign in May 1970 with the full intention of mounting a take-over effort down the track. In retrospect, though, one can say that their scheme was overambitious and had a schoolboy character to it.

That said, my knowledge of the JVP in its first manifestation was clearly limited and nowhere close to that garnered by my friend and colleague in the Arts Faculty and Ceylon Studies Seminar circles, to wit Gerald Peiris (see short reference list below). I have learnt (subsequently) that Gerry attended some secret JVP gatherings where Wijeweera was a speaker.

An intriguing question arises: would Gerald Peiris and other Trotskyist-leaning staff members and students at Peradeniya University have remained alive IF the JVP had successfully established a domain at Peradeniya and Kandy? The point behind this question is simple: in my reading among the first targets for Pol-Pot style elimination wherever the JVP came to power would have been competing Leftist militant elements.

It is not irrelevant to note that this process occurred within SL Tamil militancy. The LTTE eliminated the TELO (more or less) in an assault in April 1986, then squeezed out the PLOTE and other militant forces within the Jaffna Peninsula and finally mounted a commando operation (led by Commander David and Sivarasan) which mowed down the EPRLF leadership when their Executive Committee was meeting in a supposedly safe haven of Chennai. Fascism dictates a monopoly of violence.  Michael Roberts


1999: ‘Insurrection and Youth Unrest in Sri Lanka’’ in Millennium Perspectives – Essays in Honour of Kingsley de Silva, eds. G. H. Peiris & S. W. R. de A. Samarasinghe, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo,

2004: ‘Vicissitudes of the People’s Liberation Front: Insurrections in Sri Lanka’, in Ethnic Studies Report, XIX(2): 179-234.

2006: ‘Youth Unrest and Conflict, Chapter 19 of Sri Lanka: Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy Books, Sri Lanka: 439-449.

2013: ‘Youth in Revolt: Sri Lanka Experiences’. Chapter 11 of Political Conflict in South Asia, University of Peradeniya: 304-324.

ALSO SEE Himal Kotelawala: “The April STruggle,” 6 April 2017,


[1] This set of ethnographic recollections was penned by Professor Dharmawardana in Canada to Professor Peiris in Peradeniya at some point in 2015. I persuaded Chandre to tidy it up for public presentation as an item of historical relevance. Bio-data has been inserted where pertinent.

[2] With a B.Sc University of Ceylon and Ph.D, Camb. Prof. Dharamawardana taught at Vidyodaya University and became its VC in the period 1974-75. He migrated to Canada and is y serves as a Principal Research scientist at the National Research Council of Canada, and is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Université de Montréal. See for bio-data.

[3] Dissanayake entered politics and eventually became a cabinet minister in several former governments including that headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

[4] Mahinda Wijesekera was leader of the JVP group at Vidyodaya at that time, and later a member of parliament and junior minister. He was mortally wounded in an LTTE bomb attack in the ‘Deep South’ – at Akuressa, in the final.phase of the ‘Eelam Wars’. He would certainly have been in Mahinda’s cabinet in 2009,

[5] Mervyn de Silva became a Member of Parliament ina subsequent ‘era, with his support base mainly in the underworld fringe of the two main ruling parties – UNP and SLFP.


Filed under accountability, historical interpretation, human rights, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, press freedom & censorship, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, war reportage, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

4 responses to “The JVP and Rajapaksa in Vidyodaya Politics, 1970s: Recollections

  1. keerthi

    they are try to bring JVP history in a wrong way, they should no others still living , what are the thinks know bladdy Dayan

  2. correction mahida wijesekera was in the ARTS faculty and not a science graduand.

  3. Chandra Maliyadde

    I was an Assistant Lecturer in the late 1960s at Vidyodaya University. Mahinda Wijesekera was more powerful than the then VC. He Used to put a notice requesting students to pay fees before a particular day. Mahinda W followed with another notice requesting student who seeks hostel facilities to pay the fees to him. When I was walking towards the lecture room students were seated along the rroad and used to give me lectures on JVP.
    I cannot remember students being violent before april 5th 1971.

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