The Sunday Leader

The JVP Insurrection And Lessons Learnt


Remembering the JVP insurrection

The unsuccessful attack on the Wellawaya Police Station by the JVP on April 5, 1971 woke a languid nation. It broke the monotony of another uneventful year. It is 41 years since that attack.
In the 1960s, Rohana Wijeweera was studying medicine in Russia which at that time was the leader of the communist regimes in the world. He did not complete his examinations due to financial reasons and returned to Sri Lanka. Together with some like minded associates he formed the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the late 1960s.
Sirima Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister in the early 1970s and the JVP used the depressed economic conditions, land being alienated to a few sovereign companies, and unemployment as their slogans to campaign for political rights. This new political party questioned every aspect of the existing political system and social order.

The winds of revolutionary change taking place in the Latin American countries was grist to the JVP mills. The younger generation from the rural areas were ripe for picking by the JVP. Fidel Castro of Cuba and Che Guevara of Argentina were their role models. The political and economic philosophy of  German Karl Marx, became the foundation of the young JVP.

The JVP’s vision was to create a classless society as envisaged by Marx. In other words to create a socialist – communist state in Sri Lanka. Their dream was to do away with all social barriers and make every citizen have an equal share of the resources of the country. The JVP eulogised Marx, Mao, Fidel and Che. They were icons who dedicated their lives for emancipation of the poor and did fit the bill to be held aloft by the JVP.
The Americans were at the receiving end in Vietnam during the 1960s and the thought that dominant powers could be defeated, was taking root. Marxism was spreading in a revolutionary manner across the globe in the early 1970s. The JVP had a cause and the era was thought to be ripe

The core membership of the JVP came from  Universities, and A/Level and O/Level students from the Madya Maha Vidyalayas. There were also those who had dropped out of school. The leaders of the JVP held classes to indoctrinate these students in secret hideouts. Convinced that Sirima Bandaranaike’s government could be overthrown by an armed revolution these cadres were given weapons training at these secret locations. For the young it was the ultimate romantic escapade.

Failed Revolution
Rohana Wijeyweera and a few close associates were in jail when the decision was taken to attack all the police stations in the island on April 5, 1971. Thousands of youth blinded by the romantic notion of creating an equitable nation took up arms and joined the front lines in the attacks.
The government of Sirima Bandaranaike used the three armed forces and the police to batter the liberation fighters into submission. It was estimated by independent enumerators that around 5 to 10 thousand youth were killed during this insurrection, by government forces. Thousands were arrested. They spent most of their young years in prison before being released.
Though there have been political upheavels time and again, this was the first ocassion an attempt was made through an armed struggle by youth to topple a democratically elected government in Sri Lanka. It was a rude wake-up call for right wing governments in this island state. Educational and Land reforms were pushed into place thereafter to appease the youth. The insurrection was the result of youth unrest and the government of the day was quick to take this into account in making drastic changes in the social and political fabric of the country.
Despite some changes taking place by 1987/88 the youth were again ripe to be exploited with an authoritarian United National Party in power. The JVP was ready and willing to launch their second armed revolution. Thousands of youth laid down their lives one more time. This time the insurrection was put down in a more brutal manner than the earlier foray.

Major Difference
The 1971 insurrection compared with the one of 1988/89 was infantile and childlike in nature. By 1989 it had transformed into demonic proportions. The end result of the two southern insurrections and a thirty year old nothern war was the intellectual capital of this nation. This was not confined to Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslims. It is the intellectual who takes up cudgels and even arms in various parts of the world to fight for equal rights on behalf of society. Others would follow only if they believe in the leadership.
Today the leaders of these revolutions are not around to commemorate these events. They are dead and buried. Those who survived have broken up into diverse groups based on varying policies. A few of those who survived the 1971 insurrection do meet on the 5th of April each year to rekindle their lost romanticism of that episode. They remember their dead bretheren and recall incidents. For some it is yet their dream. They march in front on the 5th of April each year. This is their story.

Lessons Learnt From 1971
“The 1971 uprising was to send a message to all the people of this country. This was the high point of my life. Each brother and sister who joined this struggle had only one object in mind. That was to create a just society. I am against anyone who condemns the 1971 uprising. I respect each man and woman who joined us. I honour them each year. They had great expectations. This social order should be changed. To do so, the  1971 uprising should be made an example.” Osmund, Central Committee Member

“I gave them a political lesson when they came to arrest me. We were to withdraw to Wilpattu after the insurrection failed. During May 1971 we were in the jungles of Kurunegala, Pallekelle and Bambaragala. One day the Army surrounded us and started firing at around 6 a.m. They were hidden behind rocks. There were only three of us. We took different positions and made noises to show that we had surrounded them. The firing was sporadic. We thought till we made contact with the others in our group to stall them. The army too were hidden behind rocks. They were ordering us to surrender. We also shouted back at them. I thought it was useless to shout at them. I wanted to teach them a good lesson in politics. I started to speak in a loud voice. “Brothers in uniform of the rich army.” Thereafter I shouted what our motives were and for whom we were fighting, for whom they were working  and for what purpose. I spoke for almost one hour. There was not a hum nor a shot from the army positions. Suddenly one loud voice was heard – “Surrender”. I asked, “Are you the person who gives orders? Brothers, he gives orders to kill someone from your own social background. Turn your bayonets towards him instead of us. This was followed by silence once again. “We are doing our job,”’ was the reply shortly therafter.
We were rounded up and brought to the army camp. Major Kalupahana recognised me and said, “You scolded me”. That was all he said. As soon as we were rounded up one officer asked , “Who was that who gave a lecture from the top of the rock?’ They wanted me to make that speech one more time. I refused.One senior officer hit me for refusing. A strange thing happened. When the senior officer was assaulting me a soldier assaulted him in return. Thereafter the soldiers safeguarded me. The soldiers dubbed that speech ‘the lecture from the top of the rock’”. Wasantha Dissanayake (Podi Dissa)

“No regrets. They were lost to this land for a higher ideal. Whatever anyone says the 1971 uprising was the pinnacle of the struggle by youth for socialism. It may have been right or even wrong, but I have no regrets as that uprising was with pure intentions.” Udeni Saman Kumara – JVP former Trade Union Leader (till 1987)

“A lesson to be learnt. We have to look back at the insurgency now as adults. I believe that there is a lesson for the young of today. It is like meeting old relatives when I meet them now. It gives me great pleasure to meet with them. I have no regrets.” Ranjith Dissanayake (Kalu Ranjith)

“Our Dream was Shattered. This reunion is a moment of great sorrow for me. We gathered together again this year. I will be short. The dreams that were with the youth in 1971 was shattered by the then government and the leadership of the JVP. That is all.” Hemamalie Dissanayake (Juliet)

“We won because of unity. We had a long drawn out protest in the magazine prison in 1971. It was against a proposal to slash the special food for patients. Some of us were transferred to Jaffna prison by an officer called Leo Silva saying that we were creating trouble. We opposed that too. We were on a fast for 6 to 7 days. We wanted those inmates brought back to magazine prison and also Leo Silva taken to task and brought to justice. After about five days the Secretary of Justice spoke to us and granted us redress. This brought our dignity back especially after the defeat at the insurrection. We were united in our protest.” Patrick Fernando

“I will not forget that mother, ever. On  April 9, 1971 I received gun shot injuries. I will not forget my comrades who took care of me. They did not let me die. I was at Gunatilleke brother’s house. His mother and her father were living in that house. One day the army surrounded the house. She tried her best to hide us. Finally when she knew that she had failed she came to where we were hidden and said, “ there is no more to be done. I knew what you were doing for a number of years. I cooked and gave you food all this while”.
We thought we would not surrender. I took the gun in my hand. The elderly lady came and grabbed the gun. “ If you shoot at them , they will shoot my father”. I did not have an answer to that. The soldiers broke open the doors and rushed in, grabbed me and started assaulting me. There again Gunatilleke’s mother came to my rescue. “ You devils, are you not ashamed. This boy has gunshot injuries. There is my son. He is quite hale and hearty. If you wish to hit someone, hit him or even eat him alive”. They stopped the beating.
When this lady died I went to her funeral. This time as an intellectual and a lawyer at that. I recounted the story at the grave site and all thse who had turned up sobbed. I will never forget her.” Mahinda Jayawardene – Lawyer (Bullet Mahinda)

There must be a programme to organise the people. I think the 1971 insurrection should not have taken place. That was a struggle quite aloof from the people. I see the JVP of that time making a wrong effort to get close to the people. That was a shortcoming. A political party cannot usurp the thought processes of a people. They can only show the people the correct path. That was a mistake we made then.
But now the country is in a dangerous position. It is in a more perilous state than 1988/89. When people take to the streets in agitation to request solutions to their problems the government gets more rigid. It is shown without doubt.  In a traditional capitalist system when a government behaves in this fashion the opposition makes use of it to project themselves. But the UNP is in disarray. The left parties are weak. The JVP is divided. There is no person or party in sight to lead the people or show the way. But when it becomes unbearable the people will take to the streets even without leadership. Voluntarily. Like they did at Katunayake. There is no point in the government labelling them as LTTE.
At this point in history the JVP and the leftist parties should unite. They should have an action plan for the people. Otherwise there would be repercussions like 1971 and 1988/89. Even my fellow JVPers who was there in 1971 should also understand it now since 41 years have lapsed.

1 Comment for “The JVP Insurrection And Lessons Learnt”

  1. For truth and against thuggery

    A most interesting depiction of the 1971 uprising which, as one who observed it closely, is essentially very accurate.
    Whether the people will rise against the killing and repression of the current government is, however, another matter. They could well be ground under the heel of this dictatorship for a very long time.

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