3 March, 2024


50 Years To April 71 Uprising: Historical Lesson Sri Lanka Never Learnt Since Its Independence

By Lionel Bopage

Dr. Lionel Bopage

In many countries of the world today authoritarianism is advancing and undermining democracy with an imposed façade of nominal democracy. Under the guise of the popular will, human and democratic rights are being eroded. Bribery, corruption and ‘ecocide’ – have mushroomed to astronomical levels. Civil administrations are being militarized. After 1978 Sri Lanka transformed its Parliament to an institution that rubber stamps the decisions of the Executive Presidency. After the recent passage of the 20th Amendment, it seems that even that is not needed now. How did we get to this messy impasse? This short paper will explore this issue using the 1971 insurrection as a leitmotiv.

Throughout our history, the politics of discrimination against the other and identity have been used by the two major parties for electoral gain and to seize and maintain power in Parliament. The social elites that gained privileges under colonial rule, saw communal disharmony as a sure-fire way to preserve their ill-gotten privileges.

Sinhala and Tamil youth from similar lower socio-economic backgrounds have revolted thrice against their deprivation. Every government has either ignored or failed to address the social, economic, political and cultural causes that led to these conflicts. Almost every government ruled the country, often using emergency powers. These conflicts were primarily generated and influenced by the discriminatory policies adopted and the lack of opportunities to take advantage of their skills or the failure to create such opportunities. The crackdown and repression of such protests and ensuing conflicts pushed the Sinhala and Tamil youth more and more into conflict.

Rohana Wijeweera and Lionel Bopage

Instead of fighting for independence during the colonial era, the Jaffna Youth Congress took the lead in transforming agitations for constitutional reforms into anti-imperialist demands for independence. As long as they were an effective force in the North, they were able to push back and delay the emergence of Tamil ethnic nationalism. However, with the mounting wave of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism , they were forced to retreat.

In 1947, the Soulbury Constitution imposed the unitary state framework, a western constitutional construct, upon Sri Lanka which until then was under an administration of devolved power. Later on, the Soulbury Constitution was used to suppress the democratic rights of minorities. Deprivation of the legal rights of the Tamil people commenced with the abolition of civic rights of nearly one million Malaiyaha Tamil workers by adopting the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948. The Parliamentary Elections Act of 1949 deprived them of their citizenship and voting rights.

In the 1930s, Tamil plantation workers were organised in the trade union of the Lanka Samasamaja Party. The Tamil people were apprehensive that a Sinhala majority government would take away the fundamental rights of Tamil workers. Afterwards they were absorbed into trade unions established on a racial basis. That is how their relationship with the Left was broken. It was at that time settling of Sinhalese in the areas where Tamils were predominant began. Communal politics since then has been steadily advancing.

After independence, the prices of agricultural products fell. The population grew. The system of welfare provisions expanded. The government was unable to come up with solutions that would meet the aspirations of the people. This caused a great deal of opposition from civil society against the government. This was creating an advantageous political environment for the left. It was during this time that Mr. S W R D Bandaranaike left the United National Party due to a leadership issue and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He created a force comprising five social segments ‘Sangha Veda, Guru Govi, Kamkaru’ (Theros, native medicos, teachers, farmers and workers) to create traction among the Sinhala majority, and pledged to resolve only the Sinhala grievances.

After the passage of the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, those who did not know Sinhala in the public service were deprived of promotions. Thugs were used to attack a peaceful fasting protest held by the Tamil leaders at the Galle Face Park in Colombo. During the first riot against the Tamils about 150 people were killed. About 300 were lost during the 1958 riots, mostly Tamils. The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact signed in 1958 to resolve the issue was unilaterally torn down under pressure exerted by the Sinhala extremists. This led to the Tamil people’s demand for a federal state framework. The right to appeal to the Privy Council to establish the constitutionality of the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act was abolished in 1962. The Senate, the only legislative mechanism that was supposed to uphold justice was abolished in 1971.

The Constitution of Sri Lanka of 1972 removed the protection afforded to minorities by Article 29 of the Soulbury Constitution. The fundamental rights were mentioned in the new constitution, though the provisions on language and religion violated those rights. Based on rumours and politics, violence against Tamils continued in 1963. Much to the dismay of the Tamil people, the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact signed in 1965 to resolve this issue was again unilaterally torn down due to the pressure exerted by the Sinhala extremists. This gave rise to the separatist campaign. Mr S J V Chelvanayakam, having won the Kankesanthurai (KKS) by-election in 1975, asked for a separate state, which was a turning point in the Tamil struggle. The demand for a separate state in the Vaddukoddai Resolution adopted by the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976 brought about a drastic change in national politics.

Tamils in the South were relentlessly subjected to inhumane torture in 1974, 1978, 1981 and 1983. Special mention should be made of the 1983 Black July. The anti-Tamil attacks that were started in Colombo later on were spread to other areas. The regime was involved in this process. The July massacre resulted in the murder of thousands. More than a hundred thousand lost their homes. Thousands of homes and shops were set on fire. A damage of Rs 300 million due to this carnage, was reported. Many Tamils became refugees in the North and East where they were born. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Tamil people choose the bullet instead of the vote.

Many Tamil professionals went abroad. Thousands joined the LTTE that was miniscule till then. The protracted war between Tamil militants and the government began after Black July. It was only afterwards that the Sri Lankan associations that remained united until then, split into Tamil and Sinhala associations. This was prompted due to certain members of the previous associations not at all being sensitive to the carnage the Black July had caused to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, plus certain diplomatic interventions and political partialities of some.

When legislation to expel members, who did not support a unitary state was enacted, Tamil representation in parliament was obliterated. After the snatching away of this democratic right, the Tamil people became even closer to the Tamil militants. In the late 1980s, the LTTE by resorting mainly to violence, turn into the major Tamil militant group in the north and east. Other groups became appendages of either the LTTE or the government forces. Many Tamils, local and abroad, became loyal to the LTTE. The actions used to weaken the LTTE eventually helped to strengthen the LTTE.

The civil war led to the murder of hundreds of thousands, including civilians. Certain villages were entirely wiped out. Hundreds of thousands became refugees. Thousands of widows, orphans and millions of physically and mentally handicapped in the North and South are still silently undergoing suffering. The death toll during the end of the armed conflict in 2009 is still being debated. This massacre was carried out to suppress the demands and grievances of the Tamil people who fought for equal rights after 1948, for a federal system in the sixties, and then for a separate state in the seventies, but the government still failed to suppress their political demands.

The government against the Tamil people and militants, and the LTTE against the government and its political rivals unleashed savage violence. There is not enough time to explain how the government and the LTTE violated fundamental rights; used violence to suppress strikes and peaceful protests; failed to carry out proper investigations into the brutal murder and disappearance of citizens; and how the laws were subverted to suppress just demands.

Tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the April 1971 uprising. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the People’s Liberation Front of Sri Lanka was made up of university students and school children and unemployed Sinhala Buddhist youth, who were battered by and aware of the deteriorating socio-economic and cultural situation in the decade of the seventies. As much has been written about the 1971 uprising and the 1988-89 uprising, references here are only brief.

It was clear from the very first budget of the SLFP coalition government that the JVP supported to be elected to power in 1970, would not fulfill any of the social changes that the youth had aspired for. So, we intervened to bring about the social change we hoped for. It was this process that escalated into the April 1971 uprising. Shortcomings and mistakes were made, nevertheless the struggle was fundamentally driven by the international situation and the nature of the repression at that time.

The Sri Lankan economy and it societal structure is capitalist with feudal vestiges. After 1948, the age limit for voting was lowered. As a result of the free education the system of Central Colleges Dr C W W Kannangara had introduced, and Sinhala being made the official language, the educational opportunities available to the village youth had expanded. Due to the restricting of English education to the upper echelons of society, young people lower down the socio-economic scale could not acquire the English knowledge needed for employment in the private sector. In the late sixties, not only arts graduates but also medical graduates were confronted with the prospects of unemployment. Lack of matching qualifications or the needed political affiliations made finding jobs difficult. Even with appropriate qualifications, there were no opportunities to go abroad.

The keeping away of this younger generation from the levers of power s and not making them participate in national decision making were characteristics of the time. Parents of some graduates had sent their children to universities by mortgaging their only house. The elder generation suffered from issues such as unemployment, land shortage, water shortage, language discrimination, and the cost of living, but their traditionalism, their biases of race, language, religion, ethnicity and myth had blunted their awareness of the reasons for their plight. However, their children had a strong interest in alleviating their plight and found the courage to find solutions to their problems.

The inevitable result of the program implemented in 1956 was that the vast majority of the rural population had to receive an education limited to Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit and the Arts. Under the international and national circumstances that existed, all the alternative left groups at the time heavily believed on the path of armed struggle. It should be noted that in the 1960s, 51 countries in Africa, North, Central and South America, Asia and Europe had pro-US dictatorships established. The genocidal nature of such intervention was clearly evident in Indonesia.

It was reported that as a result of the April uprising, 63 security personnel and 41 civilians were killed and 305 were wounded, the estimated property damage was 2.1 million rupees, and about 5,400 associated with the party, including civilians about 10,000 to 12,000 had to sacrifice their lives. The vast majority were killed not while engaged in conflict, but after arrest and torture. Almost all of the female comrades had been raped and sexually tortured. Violation of rules of war, and committing crimes against humanity began during this period.

The Black July of 1983 was a part of the conspiracy to destroy the JVP. The UNP government, the perpetrators of the riots made false allegations that the Communist Party (CP), the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) and the JVP conspired to seize power using force through racist riots. 21 people including myself were detained by the CID for some time. The government had to release all the detainees without any charges as a result of the absurd allegations of the government were challenged based on factual information and the habeas corpus application filed by comrade Chitra.

Before the proscription of the party most of the leaders including comrade Rohana Wijeweera went underground and conducted their politics clandestinely. The JVP did not have anything to do with Black July. By the end of November 1989, almost all the leaders, including Comrade Rohana, who had gone underground and later engaged in armed politics, were assassinated. During that conflict alone, the regime had killed about 60,000.

Going by my memory, discrimination against Muslims began in the last decade. Attacks on them, their homes, shops and mosques became widespread in recent times. Some of the media had created strong anti-Muslim sentiments throughout the country. It is clear that some Islamic fundamentalists were involved in the Easter attacks, though who led them is not yet known. Although people like attorney at law Hejaz Hezbollah have been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, many believe it is political revenge.

Without any scientific basis and no consultations with the community, directing to cremate the bodies of patients suspected to be Covid affected caused a great deal of resentment among the Muslim community. Many protested by not signing documents needed for cremations. The Supreme Court rejected all their fundamental rights applications without hearing their objections and medical evidence. Civil society sees this as discrimination against Muslims.

Similarly, 11 years after the armed conflict, there was no necessity to destroy a monument that conveyed the agony felt by the people in the North in the last phase of the conflict. Such actions represent an attempt to exploit racial prejudice and chauvinism to secure absolute power in the long term. Why should not the people in the north and east have the right to mourn their dead?

There have been conflicts, riots, massacres and a civil war in our history from 1948 to Nandikadal. Rejecting people’s rights, unrest in society escalates into conflicts. Suppressing all protests treating them as posing a threat to national security as history has shown will pave the way towards creating future conflicts. It is clear, as history has repeatedly shown that peace can only be maintained by ensuring the social, economic and cultural rights of the people. They can be allowed to perform their duties as citizens, only by addressing their issues in accordance with decisions made in consultation with them.

The responsibility of a democratically elected government is to govern the country for all communities, regardless of their ethnic or political affiliation. This is the most important lesson we can learn from the never-before-learned lessons of history is to identify the specific problems the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, indigenous and other ethnic groups are confronted with, and to act in a manner that protects their human and democratic rights, security and safety.

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Latest comments

  • 15

    Lionel Bopage,

    You have analyzed the problems of Sri Lanka as an honest, intelligent person who has the well being of the nation at heart. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka the politicians who ruled the country since independence sowed the seeds of communalism to come to power and stay in power.

    As a result we are in a mess and the masses remain poor.

    Let’s wait and see where Sri Lanka ends up.

  • 13

    You have truthfully highlighted the facts and motives of the rulers of the Country. Even after the such damage to the country and people, politicians are not prepared to learn the lessons of the past seven decades of communal and racist opportunistic politics. Still they put the blame on geo politics, regional politics but never blame our politics. It is sad that the people are not able to understand what is good and what is bad.

  • 12

    The thoughts of a Rebel with a cause. Lionel Bopage, with his analytical skills has exposed the tragedy of Srilanka where no one ever learns from mistakes of the past.

    It was an exclusive exercise of JRJ and his Govt:

    The Police were rewarded by the UF GOVT: in the post 1971 era by providing them with trousers in lieu of the shorts. Pl. see photo to this essay.!

    Dr. Colvin, R.De. Silva who was by then in the cabinet of the UF Govt. after many decades of shouting himself hoarse on the streets, declared that the JVP was a CIA PLANT.
    He like his school friend JRJ [Dickie to him] were well known to foist blame on others.

    • 7

      Comrade, thanks for being honest and genuine. Jnstead if food the same facts have been distorted hundred different ways to feed masses since independence.

    • 5

      Dear Plato
      How about a little tit for tat?
      Since u have ‘exposed’me to CT readers, please ask CT or Uvindu to let me know who you are.
      Dont u think that’s fair?
      I will keep it to myself.
      Manel Fonseka

      (Now why didnt u ID me with my father as u did Suriya? After all, he has more ti di with the shaping of my ideas & values. So let me name him — JV Fonseka, founder of the original BBC Sandesaya programme & first Deputy Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia.)

      • 1

        Even I have been “pulled up” by Manel Fonseka for carelessly allowing irrelevancies to creep into my comments. Manel is a totally upright person, extremely scrupulous and honest. Take her seriously.
        We need to have Manel commenting. On many things she’s very knowledgeable, and provides us with many valuable insights.
        Manel is a real person although I have never met her. I will email her later today, explaining that you and I address each other on CT, and you’ve given me clues to who you are. However, I haven’t been able yet to unambiguously identify you.

        But honest you are.
        Panini Edirisinhe aka “Sinhala_Man”.

  • 11

    Thank you Dr. Lionel Bopage.
    Quite a good presentation – fair and factual. A long story, understandably, abridged and squeezed into a small space. A small correction. Dudley-Chelva Pact was entered into
    on 24 March 1965 – NOT in 1968.

  • 7

    Thank you for the correction, Mr Navaratnam.

  • 8

    Comrade, thanks for being honest and genuine. Jnstead if food the same facts have been distorted hundred different ways to feed masses since independence.

  • 1

    Why leave out the elephant in the room?

    The lesson everyone must learn from these is that the military has solutions for all these.
    Extremely effective.
    Why re-invent the wheel.

  • 6

    Thanks Lionel ……. this is an eye-opener for me as I don’t have a good grasp of SL’s past history.

    One thing this fails to address (at least for me) ……. is that there is a prevalent opinion among the Sinhalese that the Tamils were favoured by the colonial rulers.

    What is your opinion/take on that?

    Can we have a honest/open discussion about it?

  • 5

    Lionel, when people demand to look into both parties for human rights violations (LTTE/Rajapaksa), I say look into all atrocities caused by all parties since independence.

  • 1

    Plato, I hope u saw my response to yr post giving irrelevant & unwanted (by me) info about me. Why do u think I cling to.my own name? Is it not sufficient? I wonder if, like u, I shd use a pen name now.
    Manel F

  • 1

    Dr. Bopage, the people of SL must rise up and over throw these killers and elect a decent statesman or woman to power. This cannot be done just by the Sinhalese or Tamils alone, but they all must join hands together and exterminate these criminals from one family once and for all.

  • 1

    ” Deprivation of the legal rights of the Tamil people commenced with the abolition of civic rights of nearly one million Malaiyaha Tamil workers by adopting the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948.”

    They were Indian Tamils, why should the government grant them citizenship? Anyway, the government granted all of them citizenship later on. However, the Indian government never granted any Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India citizenship despite 30 years of war. Also worth noting, in East Asian countries (Korea, Japan, China, etc.) citizenship is almost impossible for foreigners. You can live in Japan for 40 years, but if you don’t have a Japanese bloodline, you won’t get citizenship.

  • 1

    There are some serious inaccuracies. I cannot lost them all. An important one concerns
    “the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact signed in 1965 to resolve this issue was again unilaterally torn down due to the pressure exerted by the Sinhala extremists. This gave rise to the separatist campaign.”
    A demonstration (in January 1966 ??) opposing a piece of legislation on language was organized by the SLFP; and the LSSP & CP to their shame joined. Rohana Wijeweera (then an important member of the Left Communist Party led by Sanmugathasan) too participated and even printed pamphlets in support of the protest. (He was suspended from the Party.)
    The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Regulations of 1966 was, however, adopted subject to all regulations conforming to SWRDB’s Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act of 1958.
    The FP continued in government.
    Failure to pass legislation to set up District Councils as agreed in the Dudley-Chelva deal was owing to sabotage by certain UNP leaders.
    The FP quit on another issue in September 1968, but bonds were still strong with the UNP.
    The Tamil Eelam project was an outcome of the weakened electoral performance of the FP at the 1970 polls, facilitated by some blunders by the UF government, especially aspects of the 1972 Constitution.
    Linking it to the failed Dudly-Chelva deal is not quite accurate.

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