By Tilvin Silva –
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” ~ Karl Marx
April 2021 marks the completion of 50 years since the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) armed uprising that took place in 1971. Since gaining independence, JVP’s armed uprising was the first of its kind to create a devastating shock on the political system of Sri Lanka. In the history of the Island nation, April 71 armed uprising served as the maiden blow to the capitalist system of governance prevailing at that time. In a way, this uprising could be reckoned as a different form of a portrayal of class struggle peculiar to a situation which existed at that time. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had stated in their communist publications that histories (written) on evolving societies, so far are the result of histories of class struggles encountered by mankind. From time immemorial, the world has witnessed several uprisings by the slaves, peasants, labourers etc, for their liberation against slavery and serfdom. Since then, in many countries people have been agitating and struggling, with and without arms against the class system of the aggressors. Most class struggles ended up in victory, yet a few ended up in failures. Marx said that people relentlessly engaged in class struggles and history teaches us its reality. The uprising of 1971 was just a failed attempt in the struggle to liberate the people from the clutches of the capitalist rulers.
As is often the case, the least advantaged not only suffered disproportionately but had less opportunity to put their story on record for history. Hence although, 50 years have elapsed, surprisingly, thus far the citizens of this country had not been able to clearly figure out the motives and the memories of the April uprising in its correct perspective. Right from the inception, the bygone administration that had suppressed the uprising had been busy disseminating many falsehoods and calculated smear campaigns about the 1971 uprising to the society at large with the connivance of the deserters and the betrayers of JVP. What’s more, the propaganda machinery had been in a dogged pursuit to intricately fabricate lies about JVP and paint a grotesque picture in the eyes of the public. The propaganda machinery started unleashing vicious lies according to the dictates of the capitalist class, in full swing about JVP to create a macabre fear psychosis in the fabric of the society. Of late, it is evident that people have taken to writing in the name of JVP on the uprising to the media, purely to get publicity and undue credit. It is no secret that they have resorted to hide the real facts, motives, and the underlying reasons for the uprising. In this backdrop, it is imperative to understand the nuts and bolts of this struggle and the reasons which prompted the JVP to launch the 1971 uprising.
Not a spontaneous uprising
1971 uprising was not in any way a spontaneous action, or a personal feat to upend the system or a coup to capture or topple the government in power. Put simply, this uprising was the result of the political instability and youth unrest created by the underlying fissures in the social and political fabric which prevailed at that time. The capitalist class at that time chose to brand this uprising as an insurrection of certain misguided youth of the country eyeing to capture the government power etc: But the 1971 uprising in short, was an armed uprising against the capitalist class that suppressed the rights of a revolutionary organisation which legitimately engaged in politics. In other words, the uprising was a reaction by the JVP to counteract and quell the repression of the government machinery.
In today’s context, as usual the armchair critics would always denounce the armed uprising of 1971 and would find fault with JVP, which in their opinion would not be the best option on the table at that time against capitalist repression.Yet it is patently clear that the situation at that time totally remained different and unfathomable. It is worth placing on record about the unfortunate and often unspoken reality of the JVP’s relentless effort for peaceful resolution on many crucial matters, even before 1971. All these moves were brushed aside and thwarted by the then administration in power. So much so, the frozen problem of youth unrest was thawing and finally exploded and transformed by 1971 into an armed uprising. By this time, only 6 years have elapsed since establishing JVP and the party was at its infancy therefore was not in the right footing. Apart from that there were internal rifts, disagreements and backstabbing within the party hierarchy. Taking advantage of these drawbacks, the capitalist forces made use of weakness in JVP to create disharmony among the cadres and the evil forces stood in the way of reorganising and strengthening party. In many countries, this was the period of the ruling elites repressing their people and almost making them their subjects. This resulted in awakening the youth for mass scale demonstrations, agitations which finally culminated in struggles taking shape in many countries. So much so, the struggles were at its peak in full swing and turned violent. The writing on the wall was clear. Eventually this period saw the dawn of armed revolutions taking place as a method of changing the brutal rulers and overthrowing their administration in many parts of the world. At a time when class differences were highly pronounced, people of many countries organized armed struggles against the aggressors and revolted against them for liberation. Countries like Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador and some African countries to mention but a few were revolting against the rulers. By this time Cuban armed revolution had succeeded to overthrow their imperialistic rulers from power. It appears that in this backdrop the Cuban armed revolution had inspired the JVP and had made a tremendous impact on the 1971 uprising.
Emergence of a revolutionary organisation
JVP was organised as a political outfit, by a group of renegades, originally from an old leftist party. JVP was born as a political party in the year 1965 and Comrade Rohana Wijeweera took over the mantle as its leader. The old leftist parties that were in existence, having betrayed the very principles and ideals of a left movement joined hands with capitalists.This scenario created a void and conducive environment within the country for the establishment of a new revolutionary leftist group. Further, the developments in the international arena such as the geopolitics during the 50s and 60s, the 1963 Soviet-China opinion difference and specifically the liberation struggles during that time, immensely contributed towards the formation of JVP as a political party.
Nevertheless, emergence of JVP was seen as a challenge by the traditional capitalist political rulers who were aligned and hand in glove with the imperialist forces. On the other hand, lame duck, old leftist parties also considered JVP as a threat to their survival. As a result, the old leftist parties ingeniously hatched a shrewd plan to discredit JVP by branding its members as “CIA agents” thus stoking the capitalist rulers and aiding and abetting them to start a witch hunt against JVP members.
Due to the situation prevailed at that time coupled with certain developments in the international arena, JVP was compelled to operate as a partial undercover organisation. JVP had started as a political party following a secret meeting held at the residence of a labourer in Akmeemana in Galle district. This meeting was not in any way to organise a coup or a plot. On the contrary, the prevailing circumstances in the country compelled JVP to keep these meetings a closely guarded secret. Although the youth of the country, considered the JVP undercover meetings merely an adventure and cherished them, the capitalist rulers, on the contrary, made it a point to repress the JVP movement. On the other hand, from within JVP, different cliques emerged at the inception who supported the capitalist rulers by leaking vital information. Therefore, five years hence forming JVP, at the infancy itself capitalist rulers started their suppression against JVP sans any illegal activities of the cadres.
Fissures caused by splinter groups in the JVP
Emergence of different groups due to difference in opinions within JVP started in 1969. As JVP was the vanguard of the poor citizens, this trending situation was untenable and did not stand in good stead. Hence the JVP had to find ways and means to curb the emerging trend. Accordingly, the party membership of Dharmasekara faction had to be withdrawn and the group had to be sent out of the party. Thereafter, this group wreaked havoc and caused damage to the party by providing false information about the leadership and other senior members to the capitalist rulers, enabling the rulers to start their witch hunt against senior JVP members. Based on these developments, in the year 1970, CID started a new unit called “Che Guevera Bureau”. Since then, the capitalist rulers chose to call the JVP activists as “Che Gueveras” and started taking them into custody for no reason.This made JVP to walk on a tight rope.
JVP leader Comrade Rohana Wijeweera was taken into custody on 12th May 1970 from a safe house in “Julegamuwa” in Hambanthota district during the UNP regime. This was a poignant and a landmark moment in the history of JVP. He was taken to Colombo and from there he was again taken to a Magistrate in Nuwara eliya to be remanded. He was later released on 9th July 1970. Mass demonstration staged by the people pressurised the government to get his release and finally Comrade Rohana Wijeweera was released. By this time ‘Samagi Peramuna” emerged victorious in the general elections and clinched power in 1970 as the ruling party. Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Lanka Samasamaja Party and Communist Party were the main political parties who jointly contested as ‘Samagi Peramuna”at the elections. Although JVP worked for their victory at village level, trusting them to be a better option than the UNP, the new ruling party continued unabated the same repression against JVP leaving them high and dry, like the previous UNP regime.
JVP enters the main stream politics of Sri Lanka
After his release in 1970, Comrade Rohana Wijeweera started an island wide JVP political campaign. Accordingly on 14th July 1970 he delivered a speech at the Vidyodaya University on the theme “CIA personnel”. On 10th August he delivered his maiden speech at Hyde Park Colombo and he continued to attend islandwide meetings organised by JVP and delivered speeches. In addition, following party newspapers had been published and printed copies had been distributed at meetings: “Rathu Balaya”, “Janatha Vimukthi” and “Deshapremi”.
Having done all the good, progressive and hard work, JVP expected to see a change in stance of the rulers, but to their horror, they realised that repression against JVP had been stepped up. It was clear at that timethat people from all walks of life including youth, farmers and workers were rallying round JVP, and capitalist rulers saw this development as a threat to their survival and hence made every effort to destroy and crush JVP. This was clearly made evident on 12th August 1970, when the Permanent Secretary of State Minister for Defence Mr. Arthur Rajkumar Rathnavale sent a circular indicating that “Che Guevera organisation that is raising its head is the number one enemy of the state. This organisation has to be totally eradicated and that we are already in the process of enacting laws in this regard”. This news item had been published in the English newspapers “Sun” on 13th August. This news was a blow to JVP as the party was in the mainstream politics conducting their political activities without any involvement in any wrong doings. JVP realised that this statement to take action by the Security Forces to annihilate the JVP members was unwarranted and unfathomable. Nevertheless, this turn of events shocked and raised the eyebrows of JVP cadres. There were many incidents of this magnitude taking place in other countries of the world. For e.g.: one cannot forget the fact that in 1965, the Indonesian government came to power by means of military coup and totally annihilated the communist party and its members.
Under the circumstances, JVP thought it’s time to get themselves armed in self defence and took a decision in this regard in January 1971. Taking into consideration the safety of the cadres, JVP took this decision which was purely taken in self defense, and never was in bad faith or any malice or with the intention of harming anybody or toppling the government in power in April 1971. In fact, the instructions were to collect weapons and to keep them in safe custody.
This was the time when power struggle and backstabbing within the JVP were at its peak. Loku Athula (Athula Nimalasiri Jayasinghe) and his henchmen were in the process of making use of this decision to build up his own power base. Hence, right from the start, weapon collection had been disorganized and carried out improperly and there was even indiscipline manifesting among the cadres. Meanwhile, information about this disarray in JVP had reached the government.
Suppression by the government against JVP aggravates
By 1971, capitalist class repression against JVP aggravated very much. Simultaneously, internal rifts among the cadres were all time high, while betrayals, counter evolutionary and reactionary activities of Dharmasekara group members stood in the way of activities of JVP.
After the April uprising of 1971, rulers and the people (who supported the rulers) tried to paint a wrong picture to say that JVP was suppressed because they took up fire arms. In reality, it was the other way about, meaning JVP was prompted to take fire arms as a result of state repression. We have enough testimony to quote examples in this regard. From the time the permanent secretary of the State Ministry of Defense released the circular on 12th August, 1970 the calculated effort to crush JVP were very clear and on the cards. The newspaper headlines at that time had provided ample testimony to this effect. Ceylon Daily Mirror of 11th August, 1970 carries the following headlines “Ceylon Police has decided to bolster its effort towards suppressing the Che Guevara movement“. Ceylon daily news carried the following headlines on 20th August 1970 “Police on JVP- Laws to repress rebels”. In fact, these headlines had appeared in the newspapers, long before, when there was no rebellion activity and even before the collection of weapons. Ceylon daily news of 20th August 1970 carried the following headlines “Ceylon Police to recruit an additional 5000 personnel”. There were many such sensational headlines in newspapers, which were foreshadowing plans to crush the revolutionary movement.
Effort made by cadres to prevent the suppression of JVP
One could pose a question as to whether JVP took any action to prevent the imminent suppression by the government machinery. In fact, there had been moves in this regard to prevent this happening. This matter had been taken up in parliament by Ministers of Parliament Prince Gunasekara and P de S Kularathne. An effort was also made to have an one on one meeting with the Prime Minister late Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike for which she did not accede. Tremendous effort was taken to create awareness among the public about the dicey situation prevailed at that time including the genuine motives of JVP. Few court cases were also filed against the suppression. Despite all this effort, suppression relentlessly continued. As the government suppression intensified, simultaneously, opposition and rifts within the party also increased. This position was advantageous to the government. Meanwhile, on 6th March 1971, the Dharmasekara faction blasted a bomb in front of the American Embassy and slayed a policeman who was standing near the embassy by stabbing him with a sharp instrument. This incident was a blessing in disguise to the government. Based on this incident, government declared emergency and ramped up suppression against JVP.
Rebellion springs into action
Loku Athula faction made a decision to get the agreement of all JVP cadres to launch attacks on all government installations on 5th of April, but in fact, their mindset was only to thwart a possible attack from the government side. Many of the cadres would have thought of a surprise “Blitzkreig” type of attack on government installations before the government machinery launches an attack on our cadres. However, the attack masterminded by Dharmasekara faction on 6th March had a tremendous impact on the overall April uprising as the blast had been triggered on the brink of the uprising. Thereafter, Comrade Rohana Wijeweera and Comrade Kelly Senanayake were taken into custody on 13th at Ampara during their visit to Ampara for some party work. Comrade Rohana Wijeweera was brought to Colombo and was on a detention order and he was imprisoned in Jaffna prison. At the time of his arrest, no illegal arms or items were found in his possession. In the meantime, on 16th March, government promulgated law under public security ordinance to enable disposal of dead bodies for burial without holding an inquest. This draconian law sent a chill down the spine of JVP and was considered a harbinger of an approaching danger. Specifically, this piece of legislation dropped a bomb shell on JVP and exposed the government’s intention and the sinister motive to massacre the revolutionaries.
With the arrest of Comrade Rohana Wijeweera, there had been disarray among the cadres and the party was shaken. Following this crisis on multiple fronts, Comrade Rohana Wijeweera sent an urgent message from the prison to Loku Athula through one Seelawathie (mother of Osmand) who visited him in jail. The message requested Loku Athula to divulge the government suppression plans to the cadres and to be safe. He had further ordered to initiate action to thwart the government suppression. Loku Athula faction hadn’t taken the message seriously and had brushed it aside and made this opportunity to start the attack by misleading the cadres. As decided at the meeting held during the latter part of March, Loku Athula had planned a pre dawn attack on 5th of April. On 2nd of April, a meeting had been held at Sangaramaya of Vidyodaya University to coax comrade Lionel Bopage (a close associate of Comrade Rohana Wijeweera) to agree to the date and timings of Athu la faction. At this meeting, Loku Athula had blatantly lied and deceived the participants. He had said that Comrade Rohana Wijeweera had sent him a message requesting to start launching the attack on the night of 5th April and accordingly, messages on this decision had been sent to all districts. Unfortunately, the message to Moneragala hadn’t reached and therefore based on the earlier plan, Moneragala police station had been attacked on the dawn of 5th April. In any event, the decision to attack was the decision of Loku Athula faction. Yet they made it point to portray it as a party decision. This was how the uprising started. On the other hand, the cadres were also fuming in the face of untold suppression and were longing to vent their fury. In a way, this position made Loku Athula faction to easily pass the blame to the party. Whatever said and done, this uprising was unavoidable, and it so happened in view of the precarious situation in the society prevailed at that time.
1971 April uprising has to be analysed and understood based only on the above given backdrop. It should be borne in mind that in an uneven political playing field, a conducive environment and popular support are the essential ingredients for any revolution to succeed. Without the prerequisites for an uprising, nobody could force a revolution into a society. Therefore, April uprising was not in any way a spontaneous uprising, a feat of an individual or an effort to capture government power. The reason being although by that time, a highly developed Capitalist system prevailed and the people’s will in the fabric of the society wasn’t strong. JVP activists and the youth who supported them understood the problems in the society. They were fine-tuned and a motivated lot who were well versed in the concept of socialism and hence took the path of revolution. They had taken a calculated risk in the armed uprising and paid a high price simply because they had dreams of transforming the society for the good of the people at large.
These cadres didn’t have any vested interests, but their sole desire was to create a better society. They were diehards who wanted to stand on their own feet without bowing down or kneeling down before any masters. More so, they fought for their legitimate political rights against the government suppression. They were bold and firm in their convictions and they laid down their lives not in vain. Therefore, despite many odds, including shortcomings and weaknesses, the 1971 uprising of the youth along with the poor class heralded the dawn of a new era in class struggle against state oppression, capitalist slavery, imperialism etc. Therefore, the 71 uprising is undoubtedly a landmark event in the history of Sri Lankan politics.