By Basil Fernando –
When the case against the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was taken up before the Criminal Justice Commission (the then Attorney General (AG) of Sri Lanka, Queen’s Counsel Victor Tennakoon, later Chief Justice), opened the prosecution case by stating that whether an insurrection to overthrow the Government of Sri Lanka.
‘Waging a war against the Queen‘ has in fact taken place cannot be taken up as an issue in the case. It had to be assumed that the case would proceed on the basis that such an insurrection, ‘Waging a war against the Queen‘ had in fact taken place.
This position was not challenged by the lawyers who appeared for various suspects who represented the JVP Leaders alleged to have led the attacks.
For the prosecution, this was a great advantage because if the issue of whether an insurrection to overthrow the Government had taken place, was taken up, it would have amounted to opening a can of worms. Whether the attacks on Police stations, allegedly led by the JVP, amounted to an insurrection to overthrow the Government, would have been a difficult position to prove.
Total number of security officers, mainly policemen, killed by the JVP is around 50. While total number of persons killed as alleged JVPers is over 5000. Government needed an explanation to be given to the public and the world. The pretext that such killings were a result of trying to suppress an insurrection or a revolution, was useful to provide an explanation for such killings.
It was one thing to allege that under JVP instructions, some Police stations were attacked and therefore acts of violence had been caused. However, causing an insurrection to overthrow the Government amounted to much more than the mere causing of some violence as it has been done during April 1971.
On the other hand, it was to the political advantage of the JVP Leaders to be seen as the leaders of an insurrection which would romanticize their role as leaders who have attempted a revolution. In fact, one of the suggestions for the defence was for the JVP Leader Rohana Wijeweera to make a speech similar to what Fidel Castro did when he was charged in Cuba for attempting to overthrow the Cuban regime of the time.
For whatever reason, even in the literature, reference to what happened in April 1971 has been referred to as an insurrection or revolution and in such similar terms. However, closer examination of the facts would show that what happened was nothing more than an attack on Police stations and that there was no possibility or preparation at all for the taking over of power by the JVP through such means.
Thus, it is more accurate to state that what actually took place was purely some attacks on Police stations and that the whole action in fact amounted to nothing more. The mere fact of the five lessons that the JVP taught to their followers, however, did not set in motion these acts of attacks on Police stations and did not amount to a revolution. The JVP did talk about a revolution but there was neither preparation nor actions they carried out in order to achieve such a change.
It may be useful to ask whether there was any justification for attempting an armed uprising in the circumstances of 1971. There was a Government elected by an overwhelming majority and they were in power just for about a year at the time the JVP attacks took place. That there was ample democratic opportunity for any movement to democratically challenge the existing Government is quite obvious. Where democratic space is available for taking actions for better governance which would bring about changes that may have been necessary under the circumstances for the betterment of the people, then the duty of any responsible political organization is to attempt to utilize that democratic space to expand their influence and to make their presence felt within the country so as to rally round the people in support of the demands that they were making for the betterment of the people and the nation.
The JVP started with a premise that democratic alternatives are not available and that therefore a revolution was necessary. However, the facts at the time were that there was ample opportunity for a mature political movement to spread their influence if the movement in fact had a vision for a change that was needed in the country.
The complete abandonment of the democratic alternative was at the core of the mistaken perspectives and strategies that the JVP adapted at the time.
In fact, it was those who were trying to limit the democratic space existing within the country that ultimately benefited from the adventure that the JVP took to. Even from the time of the 1953 Hartal, there were right wing elements within the Parliament who were demanding for greater public security measures, limiting the freedoms of the people. However, during the time, there was overwhelming opposition for limiting such democratic space. One of the Leaders who advocated for greater national security measures was JR Jayewardene who later became the President in 1977. Seeing an opportunity for strengthening national security measures, the United National Party (UNP) led by the JR Jayewardene completely supported all the repressive measures that were adapted by the Coalition Government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike. By doing so, they achieved several purposes. One was that they created great propaganda thereafter for blaming the Coalition Government for the use of disproportionate force and the killing of young people as a reason for people to support the UNP in future elections. The UNP also laid the foundation for a national security State by getting the Coalition Government to do things initially which if the UNP did there would be much greater opposition. Thus, the basis for what the UNP would do after they took over power in 1977 was laid by getting the Coalition Government to adopt measures which were as harsh as they could possibly be for the suppression not only of the JVP but also against all the elements of the Opposition which were usually known in Sri Lanka as the Leftists. The foundation for the 1978 Constitution came out of the chaos that was created by the JVP. Also, the 1978 crushing of the general strike and with that dealing a serious blow to the trade union movement in Sri Lanka was also made possible because of the situation created by the JVP.
This does not mean that there were no reasons for severe frustration among the people, mainly young people who supported the JVP. Massive unemployment that was widespread and the lack of a vision for the development of the country by absorbing the new generations of educated, young people who were coming from the rural areas were among the causes leading to certain disillusionment about the political system that was prevailing at the time. Besides, in 1964, the country’s leading Leftist Parties, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party had joined into Coalition with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and thereby there was a weakening of a clear political option for the benefit of the ordinary people in the country.
All these factors could have contributed to a much more stronger democratic political alternative which could have contributed a great deal to create a different kind of circumstance in every area of life including in the economic, social and cultural spheres. Sri Lanka’s overall conception of a welfare State which prevailed at the time could have been expanded and the country could have achieved the dream which many people had felt it was capable of achieving during the early years after the Independence.
However, the JVP’s misadventure is perhaps due to the lack of far sighted democratic political leadership emerging from the country’s more educated classes which could have led the newly emerging educated youth to see their future within a different perspective than what was offered by the JVP.
However, what in fact happened went in favour of those who wanted limited democratic space and even the possibility of a military alternative. In 1962, already, a coup was attempted by the top leaders within the military and the Police, in order to preserve the old privileges that the more affluent groups enjoyed during the colonial times. JR Jayewardene was the clear Leader of these conservative forces. However the coup failed. The events of 1971 favoured these extreme right wing groups to resurface with a different face. They now came with the idea of a national security State with greater limitations on all democratic freedoms which were designed to limit the freedoms of association and assembly which are an essential foundation for a functioning democracy. The 1978 Constitution led the basis for enormous limitations on the democratic space which gradually eroded all the public institutions which were earlier developed on the basis of the rule of law and the respect for the principle of equality before law. Within that framework, there was the recognition of the independence of the Judiciary and a democratically functional Parliament as essential aspects of the social order. Violence which developed beginning from the JVP actions was exploited in order to weaken the power of the Judiciary and the administration of justice and also the independence of the public service. Thus, the JVP’s ill thought out actions of attempting to attack Police stations throughout the country only led to worsening the conditions of the people including the very youth that they claimed to represent. Thus, the whole issue of whether in 1971 there was an insurrection at all needs to be rethought although the AG at the time wanted to prevent such a discussion when he made the opening remarks to the CJC which heard the case against the JVP.
I was present at the CJC hearing, when the AG made the above mentioned submission. I also had the opportunity to read the statements of all the suspects, including that of their Leader Rohana Wijeweera, at the investigation stage. Those statements did not reveal any vision or a strategy of a revolution. Wijeweera’s statements were full of references to the Russian revolution and the debates in Russia at the time. (As an aside, one may mention that the officer recording the statement, seemed have been surprised due to the constant mention of the names of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov alias Lenin and Lev Davidovich Bronstein alias Leon Trotsky being mentioned often, so much so that he thought that Trotsky was Lenin’s wife, and wrote down the name as Trotskiya!).