26 June, 2022


The Tragedy Of 1971 & The Farce Of 2021

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

There is no political straight line from the 1971 JVP insurrection to the ongoing Rajapaksa presidency. But the sociopolitical compulsions that gave rise to it and the brutal manner of its suppression left a long shadow over everything that came after. Fifty years on, the shadow still looms and spans the remembered tragedy of 1971 and the real time farce of presidential politics in 2021. The farcical status of the presidential system came into full view last week with the idiotic utterance of a State Minister that 6.9 million Sri Lankans directly elected “a Hitler” in 2019. And the German Ambassador had to remind Sri Lankans by tweet that Hitler should be “no role model for any politician.”      

The 1971 insurrection was launched against the United Front government of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP, elected barely an year earlier, in May 1970, on the Front’s socialist Common Platform and with a landslide victory. The leaders of the LSSP and the CP soaked their pens and voices in gall in denouncing the JVP leadership for the uprising, while sympathizing with the followers who perished as cannon fodder in the misadventure.    

“An infantile form of negative nihilism,” perorated Pieter Keuneman over Radio Ceylon two days after the insurrection started.  Colvin R de Silva esoterically invoked Lenin, dissected Rohana Wijeweera’s own words, and condemned the insurrection as “foredoomed Ultra-leftist adventure.” Ten years after the 1971 uprising, Hector Abhayavardhana delivered the ultimate verdict of contempt,  calling it the work of “a private army (of Rohana Wijeweera) based on the marginalized” rural populations. 

But for all their denunciations, the two Left Parties could not prevent the havoc the insurrection would ultimately wreak on their once powerful organizations and the formidable presence they brought to bear in national politics in spite of their electoral frustrations. Every political party in Sri Lanka was shaken by the insurrection. But the Left Parties paid the heaviest price and suffered electoral slaughter six years later, in the 1977 elections.        

Insurrection as backdrop

The insurrection started even as the United Front government was preparing a new constitution to sever the island’s last ties to the British Crown and usher in a new Republic based on popular sovereignty. But because of the insurrection, the country became a Republic in 1972, while under Emergency Rule. The LSSP had invested heavily in the project of the new constitution, with Dr. Colvin R de Silva as the obvious Minister in charge. His imposing legal position was that the Ceylonese parliament did not have the power to amend or remove the “unalterable and entrenched clauses” in the Soulbury Constitution. Hence the recourse to having elected MPs constitute themselves into a constituent assembly, separate from Her Majesty’s parliament, and create a new constitution outside the fetters of the old. To create, indeed, as Dr. Colvin would colourfully describe it, “not merely despite the Queen, but in defiance of the Queen!” 

The JVP insurrection both disrupted and rushed the process of constitution making. The insurrection weakened the Left and strengthened the Right in the government and in parliament. The new constitution reflected the dominance of the Right and reeked of ethno-majoritarian supremacy. It was also the constitution of the government without the broad consensus in parliament involving the opposition. Absent that broad consensus in its adoption, what was obviously the biggest democratic virtue of Colvin’s Constitution, namely its utmost flexibility including total replaceability, became its fatal weakness.

Another fatal flaw, it is fair to say with the hindsight of fifty years, was the constitutional status of the Head of State. The Head of State in the First Republic was a mere appointee of the Head of Government. Dr. Colvin R de Silva was logically and practically correct, in rejecting JR Jayewardene’s idiosyncratic advocacy for an elected president in addition to the elected parliament – because of the inherent absurdity of counterposing two elected institutions at the summit of the state.

But he (Colvin) left the door open by failing to provide in the constitution an appropriately substantial mechanism for instituting the Head of State. Both flaws played straight into the waiting hands of JR, Colvin’s good friend and old classmate. Even though it was a quirk of history and not any mass movement that had brought JR Jayewardene to that point in his long political life when he was suddenly able to do whatever he wanted to do.   

The 1972 Constitution could have provided for much more than feudal appointment of the Head of State by the Prime Minister, and a lot less than the redundancy of direct election by the people that invariably came later with the Second Republic. Insofar as Parliament (the National State Assembly) was the “supreme instrument of state power” in the First Republic, an appropriate provision could have been for parliament to elect the Head of State by a plural majority from among candidates from outside parliament and satisfying whatever criteria that could have been stipulated in the constitution.       

Why have one? – scoffed JR Jayewardene, if the Head of State is to be simply appointed by the Prime Minister. So, six years into the First Republic, Sri Lanka went through a second constitutional overhaul – from a parliamentary system that the JVP had ridiculed and revolted against, to a presidential system that the JVP or anyone else knew nothing about. Regardless, the JVP leaders became the early beneficiaries of the new presidency because Prime Minister-turned-President JR Jayewardene chose to pardon them and free them from jail. In President Jayewardene’s calculations, by letting the JVP out of jail and leaving them at large in the country he would be able to divide and weaken the left and opposition forces. JRJ managed to do that right through his two terms as the first Executive President.       

Although the 1971 insurrection was exclusively limited to the Sinhala youth in its mobilization and operations, the insurrection had a demonstration effect among the Tamil youth. Slighted and alienated by the 1972 Constitution, and discriminated by media-wise standardization in admissions to university science programs, the Tamil youth were beginning to foray directly into politics and to them the 1971 insurrection was a demonstration that political violence in Sri Lanka was a feasible political avenue.

In a wholly different set of circumstances, both internal and external, Tamil political violence proved to be far more durable than that of the JVP, and took on the proportions of a civil war that dragged on for decades. It took a lot longer and more than one government, even more than one country, to finally isolate, defeat and eliminate the LTTE, the principal force of Tamil political violence. In the end, the LTTE too was militarily decimated just as the JVP had been earlier crushed by the Sri Lankan government. It is twelve years since the LTTE’s defeat, but the shadow of that defeat and the manner of its execution also looms over Sri Lanka and its politics.   

International Situation

With the still looming twin shadows of the JVP insurrection and the LTTE war, it is appropriate to ask the counterfactual question as to what other path, or different paths, would the course of Sri Lankan history and politics over the last fifty years have taken if the JVP leadership had not launched the insurrection in 1971. Answers to this question can be explored in two domains – the domestic and the global. The changes in the global domain over the last fifty years have been many and they are also highly significant. Sri Lanka could not have remained insular to the outside changes, and it has not.

In his address to the Criminal Justice Commission that was set up to try the accused JVP leaders, Rohana Wijeweera offered a staggering disclaimer. He both disowned responsibility for the insurrection and blamed others for precipitating it in his absence at the decision making meeting. Writing on the 50th anniversary of the insurrection, Lionel Bopage, another key JVP leader at that time, uses the insurrection as leitmotif to provide an expansive and inclusive background to the 1971 insurrection and to attach a brief peak into Sri Lanka’s descent to corrupt authoritarianism over the last four decades under the executive presidential system.

The inclusive aspect of Dr. Bopage’s recollection is in recounting the acts of discrimination by the state of Sri Lanka against the Tamil minorities in the fields of citizenship and language rights. Such a recounting was not part of the JVP’s five-lecture syllabus that preceded the April (1979) experiment in violence. To their credit, Bopage and a significant number of his former frontline comrades have taken a positive and progressive position on Sri Lanka’s national question, initially involving mostly the Tamils, and now increasingly extending to the Muslims. The official JVP, on the other hand, has blown hot and cold on the national question, and the post-Wijeweera JVP even underwent a significant split in 2008 over this very question. Be that as it may.

Bopage in his anniversary article contends that the JVP’s disenchantment with the first budget of the UF government, whose campaign the JVP had supported in the 1970 parliamentary election, and the desire “to bring about the social change” the JVP was looking for, that “escalated into the April 1971 uprising.” While acknowledging, “shortcomings and mistakes were made,” Bopage argues that “the struggle was fundamentally driven by the international situation and the nature of the repression at that time.” He accounts that “under the international and national circumstances  … 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.” And the world situation was such that “all the alternative left groups at the time heavily believed on the path of armed struggle.” How did any or all of this apply to the JVP and to Sri Lanka in 1971?

The late 1960s, the formative years of the JVP, were indeed years of youth protests in many countries world-wide. Often, these protests targeted military and bureaucratic establishments, or they were protests against wars, such as in Vietnam, or against apartheid in South Africa. But unlike in Pakistan, closer home, where students led the revolt that finally brought down Ayub Khan after more than a decade in power, there was no political cause celebre in Sri Lanka that warranted an armed uprising. There was no dictatorship in Sri Lanka in 1971. The only time Sri Lanka ever came close to a military putsch was in 1962, and that too was aborted without a shot being fired, due in no small measure to the familial and kinship sinews that almost seamlessly crisscross the boundaries between state and social structures.

One unnecessary outcome of the 1962 coup was the ‘religious and ethnic cleansing’ within the armed forces, that would create its own problems later when Tamil militants took to arms. Otherwise, given Sri Lanka’s size and limited social stratifications, the familial and kinship ties provide a powerful social bulwark against the armed forces encroaching on the political terrain. On the other hand, it was the JVP’s insurrections and the LTTE’s war that pulled the army out of the barracks to the streets and jungles almost as a permanent fact of life.           

That all of this had to begin and solidify under a government that included the LSSP and the CP was the worst unintended travesty of the 1971 uprising. Both parties had been persistent opponents of the use of Emergency Rule and the deployment of armed forces against the people. In 1956, the LSSP even called for the disbanding of the army because there were no external enemies. Prime Minister Bandaranaike jokingly responded that he was not going to give the LSSP its revolution on a platter. More to the point, the government that the JVP revolted against in 1971 was a democratically elected government with wide popularity. It was not planning any auto-dictatorship. Its only representational deficit was on account of the minorities. It was a significant deficit but that was not one of JVP’s priorities at that time.

The LSSP as was its wont, saw the emergence of the JVP as “one of the more important by products in Sri Lanka of the breakdown of Stalinism on the international scale.” If the Lumumba university background of Rohana Wijeweera lent credence to this assessment, the assessment made sense insofar as international socialism was still a viable project. It was so at that time and for more than a decade later. That was the external premise to the JVP’s internal adventure in 1971. But the global situation began to change fundamentally by the time the JVP leaders were freed from jail after 1977. Its biggest local manifestation was the incorporation of Sri Lanka into the global open economy. Politics would not be the same thereafter, either nationally or internationally.

(To be continued in three more parts: JVP’s Second Coming and India’s Peace Keeping by Force; JVP partaking in governments; Executive Power and Political Emptiness).

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Rajan Phillip,

    UNP was buried in 1956 and 1970, but within a short period it came out in1960 and 1977 and continue to date may be under different guise whereas LSSP and CP along with all varieties of socialism were dead and buried in 1977 and why you are trying to resurrect in 2021?

    The insurrection of 1971 was not the reason, but the concept they followed since 1964 was the root cause.

  • 2

    This is perhaps the most comprehensive of the 50th Anniversary reviews of the JVP insurrection. 1st of the 3-series endeavour by Mr. Rajan Philips.

    International precedences of the time as foundation for the JVP insurrection, and in turn, the JVP insurrection as precedence for armed Tamil Political struggle are intriguing considerations.

    Seems that the 50th anniversary reviews invariably make note of the aftermath in which evil opportunism and calculated acts of JR Jeywardene gave us the executive presidency and laid the foundation for the augmented political instability to date.

    • 0

      The first time people resorted to arms in this country to fight for social justice was during the campaign to eradicate untouchability (1967 to 1972).
      Early in the campaign, high caste elite unleashed thugs to attack the activists, and the police sided with the offenders. The oppressed castes and their supporters resorted to armed action, which brought an end to police-backed oppressor violence.
      The campaign itself was driven underground on pretext of the JVP insurrection. Muslims in Jaffna were commendably among those who protected the militants wanted by the police.

  • 0

    /b>Dear Rajan Philips,
    A wonderful, logical, analysis of the past fifty years. You have shown how many causes can lead to one unfortunate effect, and how one catastrophe can lead to multiple effects.
    I will do what I can to bring about favourable effects at a time when I have pushed up many daisies from my grave.

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