14 June, 2024


April 1971 JVP Uprising: Not To Make The Same Mistakes

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr Laksiri Fernando

It was still Ceylon. The JVP cadres were supposed to attack all possible police stations simultaneously on 5 April night in a bid to trigger a ‘revolution’ but the impatient members in Wellawaya made the attack a day before unintentionally alerting the police and the government. Perhaps they received the wrong instructions about the date. Those days unlike today, the armed forces were so small and the police was the main bastion of the State. Capturing power in that fashion by capturing police stations however was impossible by any imagination. More pertinent question was what they would have done in case they had managed to capture power.

I was an Assistant Lecturer in Economics at the Vidyodaya University at that time, a prominent stronghold of the JVP. April 5th was a Monday and when I went for my lectures in the morning not even half of the students were attending. All the prominent JVP activists were absent. The whole Campus appeared deserted. As I belonged to a breakaway group from the LSSP at that time and quite aware of the JVP activities, it was not a secret for us that the JVP might attack the government at any time but exact date was not known. It was on Radio Ceylon for the midday news that the Wellawaya attack was announced. There was a stern warning from the police not to get involved in any subversive activities.


It was less than a year ago in May 1970 that the JVP supported the United Front (UF) government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s SLFP and assisted by the two main left parties, the LSSP and the CP, to come into power. Whether it was merely a tactic to first support and then attack or whether they actually got disillusioned within a year is a question of speculation. It could be both. While unemployment, including graduate unemployment, was exceedingly high without a proper plan or solution after the election, the state repression also was high even curtailing any leftwing or youth activity in the country. The left parties were jubilant of their service to the government, otherwise called a ‘bourgeoisie regime.’

Just a year later, therefore, the JVP attempted to capture state power through extra-parliamentary means but miserably failed without popular support to the purported revolution. Compared to the previous radical or violent political events in the country, the uprising and its suppression were extraordinarily ferocious on both sides and created a chain of violent political cycles of which Sri Lanka has not yet been in a position to recover. Although the major insurrectionary events lasted only for three weeks in April, it took nearly three more months to completely eradicate the rebellion outposts in the jungles and remote villages. The official death toll was 1,200 but unofficial figures reliably estimated it to be around 4-5,000.

The insurrection by its very nature was to capture state power in fairly a democratic country at least at that time. It was not a spontaneous rebellion by the youth facing unemployment or any such hardships. It was a planned insurrection by the JVP, working as an underground insurrectionary party, of course affected by and utilizing various socio-economic issues. If not for those socio-economic grievances large numbers of youth would not have joined the movement. In addition, the JVP considered the unemployed rural youth and university students as its political support base or vanguard. This theory resonated some of the New Left ideas of Herbert Marcuse or Jean Paul Sartre who sought new vanguards for contemporary social revolutions. No serious attempts however were made to appeal to the other sections of the society. There was no serious trade union wing under the JVP unlike today. Trade union struggles were considered kanda koppa satan to mean ‘struggles for the porridge bowl.’ In that sense it was a leftwing adventure.

During the insurrection, altogether over 70 police stations were attacked and 40 of them were either captured or forced to abandon for security reasons. After assessing the security situation, when the army moved in, the revolution however failed. The 1971 insurrection did not produce anything tangibly positive. It left only a legacy. It however created a culture of political violence that has been the bane of the country since then. It is arguable whether it was the outcome of a major malice underneath or the/a cause for the subsequent events.

It is argued that the LTTE not only was influenced but took the excuse or the example from the JVP insurrection. This is one argument of the study by Gamini Samaranayake, titled “Political Violence in Sri Lanka, 1971-1987.” The promulgation of the 1972 Constitution was completely unrelated to the event. The standardization of university admissions in 1972 could be considered a distorted outcome of the insurrection, which on the other hand created grievances on the part of the Tamil youth. The 1971 insurrection was solely by the Sinhala rural youth.

One impact of the insurrection was the de-legitimacy of the incumbent ‘center left UF’ government that slowly created conditions for the more ‘conservative UNP’ to take over the country in 1977. Or are we mixing up all the leftwing terminology to interpret the political history of the country upside down? Judging by the facts that the JVP itself supported the UF to come to power at the 1970 elections, and launched the insurrection within a year, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the objective result of the insurrection was the strengthening of the opposition in the country whether it was rightwing or not.

The JVP, the party that launched the insurrection did not draw its lessons for posterity. They made bigger mistake in 1987-89. Only genuine admissions of ‘error’ came from some leaders who left the movement for various reasons. Although the number of the ‘deserters’ was significant, the impact remained inconsequential. Even there can be doubts whether they have drawn the correct lessons judging by the type of politics or activities that some of them have been involved in later.

There was some temporary admiration of the bravery of those who were involved in the insurrection by local and international commentators. Some of the local admirers came from unexpected quarters like Ian Goonetileke or Yohan Devananda. Undoubtedly, the insurrectionists were brave to mean that they risked their lives or future for a ‘cause that they believed in.’ That was mostly at an individual level and some of the leaders involved apparently proved to be some of the best brains in the country. They could have done a better service to the society or for social change if they were not lured to violence in that instance.


There were a plethora of literature or theories that attempted to understand and explain the event and its causes. HAI Goonetileke’s Bibliography on the subject documents almost all the initial studies conducted on the insurrection. The most popular theories were in the sphere of sociology or political sociology that in fact argued for valid socio-economic and other reasons which supposedly led the leaders to lead the insurrection or the supporters to join the rebellion. There were around 16,000 who were supposed to have followed the movement directly and indirectly.

The population explosion, dysfunctional education, stagnation in the economy, rural poverty and more precisely the unemployment and graduate unemployment were highlighted as the salient socio-economic factors behind the uprising. All these undoubtedly were objectively verifiable factors that remained more or less on the same level or ferocity throughout the years of 1960s or 1970s. Why then the insurrection took place in April 1971 was the question. There were several political scientists who went slightly deeper into investigate the political circumstances of the insurrection and the ideology of the JVP, but soon conveniently fell back into the socio-economic explanations and more or less concluded that there had been something wrong in the society that led to the insurrection.

There had always been something wrong with the existing society no doubt. The left parities in the country were in fact were formed even prior to independence to fight against these injustices or inequalities. But to wage war against a government that was elected with their own support on those grievances or injustices was completely a different matter. It could have come, under the prevailing circumstances, either from ‘leftwing idealism’ or from ‘quest for power’ for some reason. While in the case of the 1971 insurrection, the first possibility was undoubtedly prevalent to a great extent, the second strand of motivation also cannot be ruled out. It was this ‘subjective aspect’ of the insurrection and the movement that many of the initial theories and interpretations of the 1971 insurrection neglected or failed to grasp. This subjectivity of the JVP ideology has been abundantly clear thereafter in their second failed attempt of insurrection in 1987-89.

The frustration-aggression theory and the theories based on the same premises have failed to understand that frustration or underlying socio-economic grievances themselves would not automatically lead to aggression or rebellion without intermediary factors such as leadership, ideology and organization. This is common to both leftwing and rightwing movements. Take the example of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) today. It is the leaderships, organization and ideology that instigate violence. This is what I mean by subjective factors in this article. Violence is not inherent; it is basically constructed, cultivated and taught, either by the society or by political movements.

In the case of the JVP, its mastermind Rohana Wijeweera was instrumental in bringing a particular kind of violent political ideology to this country. It was during his studies at the Lumumba University in Moscow that he acquired, in my view, a distorted version of Marxism and revolution, like what Pol Pot of Cambodia acquired in France. Wijeweera did not acquire his theories from the Russian revolutionary literature but from some contemporary pseudo-revolutionary theories popular among his contemporaries like Kassim Hanga of Zanzibar and Che Ali of Indonesia. Kassim Hanga and the group led a ‘one day revolution’ in Zanzibar in January 1964 which was successful and that was the model initially Wijeweera wanted to follow in Sri Lanka.

The broad spectrum of the theory argued that revolutions are possible in different ways. The workers and peasants are not necessary. What is needed is the cultivation of a committed cadre organization. Armed struggle and simultaneous uprising was the strategy. Undoubtedly, the prevailing economic and social grievances helped the JVP to convince 2,000 to 3,000 cadres to participate in the insurrection and over 10,000 youth and others to help them. The ideology of the JVP at that time was a combination of a type of socialism and an extreme form of nationalism. The ‘Indian expansionism’ was one of their five lessons. The main thrust of the ideology was the justification of violence under different pretexts and reasons.

There were of course excesses on the part of the counter-insurgency operations but they were limited or mild compared to many other situations in the contemporary world or later events in Sri Lanka. There were no mass graves uncovered like in Matale today related to the 1971 insurrection. The suppression of the communist insurrection in Indonesia in 1965 was also a contrast. But it cannot be denied that both the insurrectionary and counter-insurrectionary measures since early 1971 finally led to the April insurrection.

Some of the measures, however, such as the declaration of emergency and arrest of suspects for security reasons left no option but Wijeweera to call for the insurrection somewhat carelessly on the 5th night of April. He was in jail and kept in Jaffna by that time. One objective of the insurrection was to rescue him from Jaffna jail by paralyzing the country. The rape and murder of Kataragama beauty queen, Premawathee Manamperi, was a high point of army excesses. I myself lost two of my friends who were active in the teachers union but did not have any connections with the JVP. It was later revealed that they were killed to avenge a personal grudge by a police officer.


Violence it appears contagious. It is like a horrible epidemic. The insurrection changed the mindset of many people, alas negatively, both in the authority and those who almost naturally opposed it, on both sides of the ethnic divide. The reasons for the distinction are not easy to figure. The insurrection opened the flood gates. Sri Lanka never could become the same.

Recurrent cycles of violence were to follow after small interlude after 1971 in almost all spheres of political life from elections to ethnic relations and political party competition. This has been the unfortunate saga of Sri Lanka for which collective solutions needs to be sought by all political parties, religious organizations and civil society movements. The JVP hopefully could play a major role in this process through their experience. The JVP has played many positive feats lately for example in bringing the 17th Amendment. In the midst of a need for a regime change today, whatever the temptation or provocation, it should stick to nonviolent and peaceful methods as they have exhibited capable in the last decade or so. The power of the mind and ideas might prove to be more successful than the power of the muscle or the arms. It only requires more discipline and more determination. It is the same path that the remaining rebels in the North should follow in Sri Lankan politics.

In curtailing violence, on the other hand, the strong arm operations or the notion of ‘security state’ advocated by the present security establishment is not going to be a solution to the situation. Much worse would be the use of strong arm tactics against one sector of the society i.e. the North while being lenient on the other i.e. the BBS.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Laksiri Fernando

    No one is certain about the number of people who were killed, tortured or maimed.

    Numbers range from 6,000 to 18,000 according whom you chose to speak.

    I am desperate to know the truth.

    • 0

      Laksiri states that they were aware the JVP was to attack the UF govt anytime after their support was sought by Mrs. B at the ’70 hustings, promising free rice to the people even from the moon. The first act she committed after she won was to set the JVPers free, who were locked up by the previous UNP regime (’65 to ’70), saying the scent of milk was still fresh in the mouths of the infants that were locked up, only to kill the bloody lot in ’71 by her UF govt. You claiming that you were a member of the new breakaway group of the Left, at least now do you realize the damage all of you have committed to this society and this country to have ended up in this mess?

      There is a saying in Sinhala, ‘Ikman Kotai’, which literally means short cuts are disastrous. As a Left oriented person your aim was to revolutionize the masses to give the down trodden a place, where as the system prevailing then also afforded the same, may be a little slow. If it was not, which you try to overthrow not by peaceful means but through violence, then how come so many who espoused your cause had come up in society with education to hold Office in the very same system you all denounced?

      • 0

        Had this Kitchen brain without interfering with the Judiciary, which she did in ample measure with Felix Dias B. allowed the Legal process in the country to deal with the arrested JVPers without just setting them free, I presume the ’71 insurrection would not have taken place and the lives of so many thousands would have been saved and spared.

      • 1

        I consider Gamini’s remarks to be quite personal although not abusive to delete by the Editor. He has picked some of my anecdotal references regarding my political affiliations and ask me whether I have realized that the damage that I have committed to the society and this country! What a judgment?

        Just by a first name (real or not) I have no way to verify who this Gamini is.

        If he has strong opinions against Mrs B or the left he is of course free to have them. But judging by some of his remarks he reminds me of my old grandfather who held same kind of views. He used even to call Mrs B ‘Bandi’ with contempt of course. On his part it was class.

        • 0

          What I have stated is nothing personal against you. They are historical facts that took place, some may not know today, while the others may have forgotten. I have only questioned you because you have been part of the group being responsible for the mess created. As for my perception of the Socialists and the Left oriented in this country, are the main cause that helped the mediocre corrupt to infiltrate the UNP to have robbed this country left right and centre. Such UNPers many are today sitting with MR continuing their practice. The Decent, Honest and the capable who came to do politics were driven out by these forces.

    • 0

      IT was believed, about 20000 of people were killed in the faild insurrection,
      most were non rebels, as there were chances to get
      revenges from any body, who had personal grudges.

      • 0


        “IT was believed, about 20000 of people were killed in the faild insurrection,”

        There have been various estimates non based on data collected by researchers.

  • 0

    You forgot the famous “Four Lectures” which all who joined the JVP had to attend.
    The army took pleasure in shooting dead unarmed JVP cadres.
    It was rumoured that orders were “Do not take prisoners” (kill all captured) – ? Matale graves ?
    The rank and file of this same army became officers by sheer seniority and did same,if not worse in 1987/88/89.
    Later they,again by seniority, became Lt.Colonels,Colonels,Brigadiers & Generals in time for the Eelam War IV and did the same – it had become a compulsion.
    Mullivaikal occured.
    Some have even become ‘diplomats’.

  • 0

    Laksiri says
    “…In the midst of a need for a regime change today, whatever the temptation or provocation, it should stick to nonviolent and peaceful methods as they have exhibited capable in the last decade or so….”

    To work towards a Regime change by any means without a proper alternative to the government is a crime. Because it would definitely put the country into anarchical situation which would lead to violence this writer seems strongly against.
    Look at the blood shed occurring at the rival factions in Lybia, Syria, Iraq … The main reason is that there was no strong proper responsible movement to the regime existed … It was all outside interference which forced those countries to do regime changes resulting unbearable violence on the people of those countries .. If the writer genuinely believes a regime change he should work within not from outside. Because outsiders do not do so for love for the country but for their selfish gains at the expense of the country.
    Do these people not understand it? They know it very well … But they hope something will come out according their wishes… These wishes are different to different people who want to change the regime … Some wants eeelllam, some want federalism, some want communism or socialism, some who are corrupt to the last bone want to get rid of corruption … List goes on … But everybody knows that regime change without a responsible proper local opposition would only lead to chaos and then violence … “something will come out” is only a dream… What could come out when there is nobody strong enough to take over?.. What these people who want to change the regime should first do is to form a strong LOCAL opposition and convince the people inside …. Only thing they have done is to convince outsiders who are already convinced of a regime change ….

  • 0

    The JVP failed in the past because of wijeweerism.It will fail in future too as the present leadership continues with wijeweeraism.

  • 0

    I am curious to know what happened to the writer’s LSSP principles. Did he abandon them in preference to capitalist line and personal wealth, or if not did most LSSPers at the time embraced marxism at the time because it was the fad for a young intellectual? Could the writer enlighten us on this question.

    • 0

      better check you have principles, then ask others .
      what a crap?????/.


      • 0

        Seems the rocket hit the sensitive spot of another fake revolutionary. JVP, LSSP, VLSSP, CP fake comrade? All deceivers of the pubic.

  • 0

    Driven to the wall for tenable reasons both the youth in the South and the North were forced to embark on armed insurrection against the State they saw as reactionary. The racism within society cannot be ignored when the Sinhala youth in the South were not merely rehabilitated with State funds but also enabled in many ways to become part of the political leadership. More than one leading JVPer was in the Cabinet both of the PA and UNP Govts, with many others sitting in the front benches of various legislatures. Today, one of them, a humble farmer’s on who was going about in a ramshackle bicycle and Bata slippers (not from Negombo) in now a multi-billionaire businessman from the NCP vying to be the PM of the country.

    What of the Tamil militants whose anti-state activity was not dis-similar. Army camps were turned into “maskade’s” to inflict extreme torture and disfigure them to extricate information out of them. The future of many of these youth were destroyed by the State forcing them to become anarchists. What better example of double-standards than this.

    Of course, wisdom has since dawned post-5/2009 and I welcome that. But the Rehab that benefited the Sinhala youth in the South in 7 years from 1971 took 30 years for the Tamil youth. One cannot blame the podiyal if they say the State was racist and discriminatory and reduced their future and life to zilch driving them to arms.


  • 0

    Justice…….. it was systematic training to face the scoundrels and the ruthless.
    Knowing SL is not ready for a regime change just yet people seek.
    If those who seek belong to the diaspora its understandable.

    Youth in the North should never have embarked on an armed Insurrection against the GOSL. Moreover, these youth were mainly low caste Tamils who were supressed by the high caste Tamils even todate.
    It was possible for these low caste tamils to come up in life through the free education of the Missionaries and thereafter by the GOSL.
    They should have pointed their guns towards the High caste tamils and not at GOSL.
    Thats the ungrateful mistake they made.

  • 0

    Dr Laksiri Fernando

    I just quote the following Para from your article, “The standardization of university admissions in 1972 could be considered a distorted outcome of the insurrection, which on the other hand created grievances on the part of the Tamil youth. The 1971 insurrection was solely by the Sinhala rural youth.”

    The standardization of University admissions commenced in the year 1970 soon after the election of the United Front government.

    It was well before 1971 youth insurrection and the 1972 Republican Constitution.

    I just below give reference from the book, “ Affirmative Action Policies:The Sri Lankan Experience” by K M de Silva “Late in 1970 the government introduced a lower qualifying mark for students who took the examinations in Sinhalese, in order that a politically acceptable ratio of Tamil to Sinhalese students could be admitted to the science, engineering and medical faculties of the University of Ceylon. Admissions to the humanities and social science courses did not present any great difficulty”

    This Para clearly indicates that the year was 1970 and it was not really any kind of standardization but arbitrary racial manipulation of a competitive examination results.

    This was before the birth of any liberation Tamil movement or the birth of violent armed separatist struggle for Tamil Eelam.

    • 0

      It is not only me, whose judgement beholds that not only the SLFP led Socialism and the policies of the Left that ruined this country, but also introduced the cult of violence to a once peaceful Nation. Facts are stubborn.

    • 0

      My Dear Sri,

      Be careful before trying to correct others. What K M De Silva calls “late in 1970” cannot be “well before 1971 youth insurrection” as you say! ‘Soon after the election’ as you say also cannot be ‘late in 1970’! How confused the dates or the expressions can be?

      The following is a quote from a World Bank report compiled in 1999 titled “The Root Causes of the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka.”

      “From 1971 onwards, a new ‘standardization’ policy was adopted, which ensured that the
      number of students qualifying for university entrance from each language was proportionate to the number of students who sat for university entrance examination in that language.”

      ‘Standardization’ came in different stages and 1972 was the decisive in my opinion. You also can go through J. E. Jayasuriya, Education in the Third World (Pune, 1981). I am quoting from a second source which says “In 1972 government added district quota as a parameter within each languages.”

      Some of us at the University of Peradeniya protested against the standardization and I was a signatory to a common petition and that was clearly in 1972 (early or late I cannot say now). You or some other may ask the question then how come that you were at the University of Peradeniya as you claim that you were at the Vidyodaya University in the article. The fact is that from January 1972 I was attached to the University of Peradeniya.

      It is a pity that people like you cannot respond to substantive matters in an article. My article was on the insurrection and not on standardization or the UF government. If you express the opinion that the UF government from the beginning had a discriminatory policy I have no disagreement. I have also immediately said that the insurrection was by the Sinhala youth. Then it is logically more reason for the government to enhance the discriminatory policy. Both are in the same direction in one process. Don’t expect others to say what you want to say. Say it yourself fully and in your full name.

  • 0

    Dr Laksiri Fernando

    Thanks for your prompt response, but regret for some of your personal comments.

    However I will reply in a civilized manner as a decent human being.

    My intention for intervening is because, “Facts are scared and comments are free”. Not only for journalists but for academics as well! And because you are held in high esteem, any of your observations might be accepted without any reservations.

    I am extremely sorry if I had hurt you in any way.

    However I was personally aware of the facts regarding Standardization however unpalatable for some. Further I was an unrepentant Marxist and campaigned for UF in the 1970 elections in Kandy.

    I was in the Department of Physics, University of Ceylon from October 1969 to the end of 1972 and was an examiner of GCE Advance Level physics Paper during those years and therefore had some first hand information.

    I do not disclose my full name but make my comments under the names “Sri” or “Krishna”.

    On an earlier occasion I tried to correct another small mistake in your earlier article on Divineguva Act when I pointed out the relevant provisions in Section 154G of the 13A, you gracefully acknowledged your mistake.
    Now this…….

    I give another Para I goggled.

    “In 1971, a system of standardization of marks was introduced for admissions to the universities, obviously directed against Tamil-medium students.
    K.M. de Silva describes it as follows:
    ‘The qualifying mark for admission to the medical faculties was 250 (out of 400) for Tamil students, whereas it was only 229 for the Sinhalese. Worse still, this same pattern of a lower qualifying mark applied even when Sinhalese and Tamil students sat for the examination in English. In short, students sitting for examinations in the same language, but belonging to two ethnic groups, had different qualifying marks.’
    He observes that by doing this in such an obviously discriminatory way, ‘the United Front Government of the 1970s caused enormous harm to ethnic relations.’
    This was not the end; in 1972 the ‘district quota system’ was introduced, again to the detriment of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. The (Sinhalese) historian C.R. de Silva wrote”:

    Further in December 1970 postures appeared widely in the Peradeniya Campus warning of blood bath in the Mahaveli River if the results are not reversed and new entrants entered the campus.

    These were well before 1971 JVP uprising and by UF supporters and nothing to do with JVP.

    • 0


      ‘Facts’ are also not sacred as one may seem to think. It differs the way you interpret them. Don’t quote or based on one authority on a subject. Both the SLFP (UF) and the UNP contributed to the mess and for discriminatory policies on ethnicity while they were accusing each other. Of course the SLFP is more to be blamed for the subsequent years. I have not accused the JVP for the ‘standardization.’ Please look at the way I have worded the statement: “The standardization of university admissions in 1972 could be considered a distorted outcome of the insurrection…” I was referring to a particular year (1972) that you have admitted even by quoting K M De Silva that there was a specific change and also note my wording ‘could be considered.’ Wasn’t I aware that there was an arbitrary intake in January 1971? The statement ‘late 1970’ is imprecise. Not only I was aware but I can even remember a group of students who came to Vidyodaya from that special intake.

      I have no hesitation whatsoever to admit any error in my writings. But I frankly don’t consider what you have pointed out is an error. It appears that your response to me was prompted by the view that “it was not really any kind of standardization but arbitrary racial manipulation of a competitive examination results” for which I agree noting also your words “not really.” But it was not the point I was raising.

      Many matters in this world including ‘standardization’ (1970 and 1972) are subject to dispute. Those are not mere facts. I think we both have closer views on the subject but we also should consider and also respect others views. That is the way to reconcile these matters in my view.

      Best regards,

  • 0

    Good article, can you please explain OR elaborate the role played by KIM IL SUNG of North Korea , I remember as a Youngster at the time, almost all daily Newspapers carrying FULL PAGE article both in English and Sinhala with the Picture of Kim IL Sung, after April 05 1971 this was banned …and end of Kim IL Sung articles…HOPE YOU REMEMBER this…Please be good enough to let every reader know this connection between North Korea and the JVP..Thanks

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