It was April 9, Good Friday, 1971. Dr. Rex de Costa, a retired and decorated lieutenant colonel and a reputed medical practitioner, was at his quarters with his family in Deniyaya, down south. The day had just begun. The family probably hadn’t even sat down for breakfast. Around 9:00 a.m., shouts were heard from outside the door. A group of armed men ‒ all JVP insurgents ‒ had gathered, demanding that Dr. de Costa step out of the house. Not wanting to put his family in harm’s way, the ageing soldier opened the door. He had barely taken a few paces outside, with his wife cautiously peering from behind, when he was met with a hail of bullets. Dr. de Costa died on the spot.
Exactly a week later, in Kataragama, an Army unit had just rounded up a group of young girls believed to be connected to the insurgents. Among the girls was a local beauty queen named Premawathi Manamperi who had been named the Avurudu Kumari at the previous year’s Sinhala New Year celebrations. The lieutenant in charge of the unit ordered his men to get Manamperi to rat out her comrades in the JVP, by any means necessary. They tortured her through the night, but Manamperi just wouldn’t break. The infuriated lieutenant made her strip naked and paraded her across the town in the nude, beating and kicking her along the way with the help of another officer. Finally, outside a local post office, the lieutenant shot her with his automatic rifle. Ordering her burial, the sadistic military man returned to camp, only to be told that Manamperi was still alive. Returning with a group of soldiers, he ordered her to be shot again. The ever resilient rebel that she was, Manamperi simply refused to die. Until they shot her a third time ‒ this time in the head.
These were two of the more horrific incidents that coloured the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s first failed attempt to grab state power in April 1971. Unlike their second, more daring attempt in 1988/’89, the 1971 insurrection was disorganised, ill-conceived, and limited in large-scale violence, but it marked a turning point in the country’s history, and over four-and-a-half decades later, its consequences are felt to this day.
The Fall Of The Old Left
The second half of the 1960s saw Sri Lanka’s traditional leftist parties ‒ the Old Left, as it came to be collectively known ‒ forming an uneasy but politically expedient alliance with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) under the leadership of Former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Parallel to this, a new and far more radical left was forming, under the leadership (though not yet undisputed) of a charismatic former Communist Party (Peking wing) activist and Lumumba University medical dropout named Rohana Wijeweera. Disillusioned with the Old Left for what he deemed their lack of revolutionary purpose, the young Marxist-Leninist formed his own movement in 1967 with a group of like-minded youths comprising mostly students or unemployed youths from rural Ceylon (it would be another year till the country formally changed its name to Sri Lanka). A lot of these young men and women, from both proletariat and petite bourgeoisie families, firmly believed that their economic interests were being under-represented if not outright ignored by the bourgeoisie government in power and that the left ‒ chiefly the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the original Communist Party ‒ had betrayed their interests.
On top of that, according to widely-cited historian K. M. de Silva, unemployment, rising prices, and scarcities of essential items of consumption had resulted in the the newly formed United Front coalition (which the JVP had openly backed in the run-up to the polls, promising violent reprisals if election promises were not kept), much like Dudley Senanayake’s internal crisis-riddled UNP Government before it, fast losing its credibility.“The pace of change and reform in the first ten months of the government’s tenure of office proved altogether inadequate to satisfy the aspirations of the more militant and articulate young people whose political appetites had been whetted by their zeal in working to bring the government to power,” writes de Silva in A History of Sri Lanka, adding that by mid March 1971, it was evident that the government faced a “deadly threat” from the fledgling group of militant socialists now formally calling itself the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or People’s Liberation Front.
The Rise Of The JVP
Leading up to the formation of the party, the ambitious Wijeweera was busy making friends in the right places, mainly among dissidents of the Ceylon Communist Party (the above mentioned Peking wing of the old CP) who had left the new party citing concerns that its leader N. Shanmuganathan, being a Tamil, would not enjoy wide support as a national leader ‒ a sociopolitical reality that the shrewd Wijeweera was only too happy to exploit. According to senior intelligence officer Godahewa Indradasa, Wijeweera, under the alias Dr. Tissa from Russia, also reached out, albeit unsuccessfully, to SLFP-loyalist army personnel arrested on suspicions of having been involved in a coup to overthrow the UNP government in 1966.
After a journey of political missionary work around the island gathering support for the movement from different quarters, Wijeweera, along with founder members who also all happened to hold CP membership (including Nimalasiri Jayasinghe alias Loku Athula, among others), formed the JVP in 1967 with the objective of establishing a socialist government through armed rebellion.
The Five Classes
Wijeweera’s little band of Marxist-Leninists expanded rapidly, gaining control of the student socialist movements in state universities and also enlisting help from within the armed forces (some of whom would later provide crucial sketches of police stations and military targets that would prove invaluable in the insurgency).
The JVP then began a series of lectures famously called the ‘five classes’ ‒ education camps in remote areas along the south and southwestern coast ‒ with the twin objective of driving further recruitment, and preparing existing cadres for the coming revolt.
The classes covered Indian imperialism, the growing economic crisis, the failure of the old left, and the need for a violent seizure of power.
While some of the classes were conducted by Wijeweera himself, other key JVP leaders such as Susil Wickrama, Sanath, and Piyatilake also contributed. Trained full-timers later took over the reins at the education camps as the party grew in reach. According to Indradasa, fresh recruits were provided training in the use of firearms by way of diagrams. This rudimentary training was complemented by physical training provided by a naval rating named M. B. J. Cooray and, over the next few months, by a handful of armed services personnel who had joined the cause.
Writes Indradasa: “Discussing the economic crisis that plagued the country, Wijeweera explained that it was the direct result of the capitalist system and was bound to result in a national calamity. He suggested that this could be overcome only by a class struggle leading to the establishment of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ accompanied by the abolition of private ownership.”
Wijeweera also believed that his was the only truly Marxist-Leninist party in Ceylon and that power could not be captured from the ruling capitalist class through democratic elections. According to Indradasa, he advised his party cadre against “aping the West” and even went to the extent of ordering them to stop going to the movies or parties. Romantic relationships were also prohibited in order to stop what he called ‘cultural degeneration’.
Convinced that armed struggle was the only way forward, the JVP sought to devise a homegrown strategy that borrowed from international examples but was original and unique to Lanka.
Funding And Arming
In the run up to the 1970 election, large crowds would gather at JVP rallies to listen to Wijeweera, who many viewed as a charismatic and passionate speaker able to move and inspire thousands. Sizeable collections were made at these well-attended meetings to fill up the party coffers. Sales of the official party newspaper (titled Janatha Vimukthi) also contributed. But a lot of the funds came through far less legal means. Comprising mostly of downtrodden, unemployed youths, the JVP had to go to extreme measures to raise money, including several armed robberies, the most infamous of which were the Okkampitiya bank robbery (that netted the JVP a sum of Rs. 65,000) and the Badulla mailbag robbery (undisclosed gains). Members were also required to cough up whatever money they could.
In the party’s early days, JVP bigwigs had cooked up a story of how the increasingly unpopular UNP government was planning on launching an American-backed coup in the event it lost the upcoming elections. According to Indradasa, the JVP hastened to put its cadres through military manoeuvres and weapons were collected to meet this imagined threat.
An unprecedented increase in gun thefts was also reported from around the country towards September 1970. Writes Indradasa: “The intelligence services made a study of these gun thefts and analysed the situation. All these thefts seemed to follow a set pattern. In almost every case of such robbery, those involved were found to be youths and it was observed that only the guns and cartridges were removed from the households and nothing else. It was not difficult for the intelligence services to portend what the JVP’s future plans were.”
As 1971 rolled around, the JVP was operating in cells of five members with a leader, with several such cells operating in a police station area with an area leader appointed from among the cell leaders. The area leaders in turn selected a district leader to head the district, while the district leaders made up the Central Committee, which was in turn overseen by the Politburo made up of 12 people including Wijeweera himself.
The cells were required to arm themselves with shotguns, and each member had to carry one with 10 cartridges. Crude, DIY bombs were also distributed ‒ a few of which exploded in the process of manufacture (one famous victim of this was renowned journalist Victor Ivan whose hand was severely injured in an accident, reportedly while making bombs).
On February 27, 1971, the JVP held its last public rally at Hyde Park, Colombo, prior to the uprising. Wijeweera spoke for three hours at the meeting making thinly-veiled references to a revolution of workers, farmers, and soldiers. On March 13, he was arrested (for the second time in two years), and transported to Jaffna prison.
April had arrived and Wijeweera was still in prison. Patience was running thin, and the party hierarchy was eager to set things in motion. It was time, the politburo decided, for action.
Writes Indradasa: “After Wijeweera was arrested and incarcerated, the remaining leaders held a crucial meeting on 2 April 1971 at the Sangaramaya Hostel of the Vidyodaya Campus, where the inner circle of the party decided to launch the revolution with simultaneous attacks on police stations commencing at 11.30 in the night on 5 April. It was a unanimous decision. The meeting was apparently convened in response to a message sent by Wijeweera from Jaffna prison. Wijeweera also wanted a group of 500 cadres sent to Jaffna to secure his release.”
Both plans, as fate would have it, would go spectacularly awry. The mission to rescue Wijeweera is a story for another time.
The plan was to attack all police stations at once in the night of April 5. Due to a horrible miscommunication that would later cost the entire rebellion, the insurgents prematurely attacked the Wellawaya police station in the early hours of that day, killing two police officers.
The Government had already received credible information of an impending attack on police stations, but the Wellawaya incident put the state machinery on high alert. Despite this, however, the JVP, armed with their shotguns, crude grenades, and petrol bombs were able to attack 92 police stations by April 11, successfully damaging at least 57 of them. A total of 37 police officers died in the attacks, along with 26 members of the armed forces.
States Justice A. C. Alles: “It was only when attacks commenced that the authorities realised the strength of the enemy, the large amount of arms and ammunition collected and the enormous odds that had to be faced. The situation in April would have been much more serious if not for the arrest of Wijeweera and his subsequent confinement in Jaffna prison on 13 March and the misunderstanding about the time of attack on Wellawaya police which alerted the government, and the personal differences among the leaders.”
According to Indradasa, the police, the main arm of the government authority in remote areas, had to bear the brunt of the insurgent attacks.
“Wherever the insurgents got the better of the police, the civil administration broke down completely. Police had been continuously without rest or sleep and under heavy strain. Stocks of ammunition was running low and reinforcements could not reach them.”
Some 37 police, nine army, four air force and three navy personnel died in the 1971 insurrection, later investigations revealed.
A Rebellion Crushed
According to historian Michael Roberts, the JVP offensive was based on a fairly simple plan. Its first stage, he writes, was designed to entail swift and simultaneous attacks, mainly with improvised weaponry, on the relatively less well manned police stations located in those parts of the country in which the JVP leaders believed that its fighting cadres had sufficient strength, having isolated the targets with roadblocks and destroyed their power supplies and telephone lines.
“These attacks, along with concurrent raids on a few military outposts, were expected to yield a large haul of firearms and ammunition and, more generally, lead to a collapse of government control over extensive rural areas of the country. The attacks on police and military strongholds located in the city of Colombo and the abduction of several key political leaders, conceived as part and parcel of the initial offensive, were probably intended to serve as diversions, given the fact that no more than a few hundred ill-equipped cadres were mobilised for these daunting tasks. The rapid consolidation of the hold over rural areas was expected to facilitate the second stage of the offensive in which the re-grouped JVP fighting machine, now with increased fire power, would capture the towns and the city. Success in the first stage, it must have been hoped, would also result in the crossover of at least a sizeable proportion of the rank and file of the police and the army (rooted as they also were in the less affluent segments of society), and, of course, a massive wave of popular support on the crest of which the JVP leadership would ride to the apex of state power,” writes Roberts.
There is no denying that the uprising took the Government by surprise ‒ even if it was armed with intelligence that the JVP was indeed up to something. Historian de Silva believes that this arose from a refusal on the part of the UF Government to believe that erstwhile supporters would react so violently against a regime they had helped bring to power and which shared their social aspirations.
Despite initial drawbacks, however, the Government succeeded in bringing things under control for the most part ‒ with some much needed military assistance from India and other nations (India sent a contingent of 153 Gurkha troops). The insurrection had, however, resulted in the absence of law and order in several parts of the island, particularly in the Southern and North Central provinces where the insurgents had captured power and were in control for a limited amount of time.
According to Indradasa, once the uprising had been dealt with, the security forces and police were mainly concerned with restoring law and order in affected areas. This meant mop-up operations to round up cadres that had gone into hiding in the thick jungles of the South and elsewhere.
“The Government intensified its campaign to establish law and order, and by August 1971, the forces were able to round up the majority of the activists. Although the government was prepared to face and deal with any uprising, it did not expect an insurrection of such magnitude, where it had to take somewhat drastic steps to ensure that law and order was resorted, and security of the state was ensured. The April insurrection was ill-planned, amateurish and carried out hastily,” writes Indradasa.
Having successfully crushed the insurrection (officially some 1,200 people paid with their lives for the cause, though other estimates have the total death toll at 4,000 – 5,000), the Government had now embarked on a mission to round up the party rank and file responsible for the violence (many of the detained JVP activists would be later released by the J. R. Jayewardene government in a show of tolerance). A large number of suspects, according to Indradasa, were in custody awaiting trial in prisons and rehabilitation camps.
The Government introduced legislation to establish a Criminal Justice Commissions Act, appointing five judges of the Supreme Court to try those involved. Forty-one suspects were charged.
Wijeweera himself, as the founder and now undisputed supreme leader of the JVP, was sentenced to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment. The rest of the politburo who took the decision on April 2 to launch the insurgency were each sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Thus ended the revolt and, with it, the hopes of one man and his ardent followers to establish a classless utopia. Until, of course, a second attempt was made less than two decades later, in a wholly different context. But more on that next week…
A History of Sri Lanka by K. M. de Silva
Failed Revolts in Sri Lanka – An In-depth Analysis of A Senior Intelligence Officer by Godahewa Indrasena
Historian Michael Roberts’ blog: https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/
Featured image: JVP May Day rally – Image courtesy jvpsrilanka.com